Also Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (also called Zoar)
The cities of the Dead Sea plain and God's judgment by fire and brimstone.

Sodom was the primary city of a group of five Dead Sea cities: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (also called Zoar). Located to the south and east of the Dead Sea, these cities appear to have been a confederacy of separate city-states. Beyond the Bible, ancient trading records found in northern Syria, of an ancient city-state called Ebla (Tel Mardikh circa 2700-2200 B.C.), also testify to the existence of these Dead Sea cities. Not only are they listed, but they appear in the exact same order (suggesting significance) as they appear in the Biblical account. The last, or smallest city, appears only using the name Bela, showing it to be the oldest name of the city, with Zoar being supplied in the biblical account to identify its location to readers at the time of Moses.

Ebla tablet circa 2600-2300 B.C. (Click for closer view)

Genesis 10:18b-19 Later the Canaanite clans scattered and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. (NIV)

In this early reference to the borders of Canaan, well prior to the time of Israel, an additional clue as to the location of Sodom is given. A single point, Sidon, is the provided as the northern most boundary, located in today's Lebanon, likely where Canaan's territory actual geographically came to a point. Its broadest area was to the south and it's for this reason that the remaining boundary locations provide an west to east line cutting across the bottom of the Dead Sea starting at the Mediterranean. To the southwest were Gaza and then Gerar, while the opposite corner of the southeast was anchored by Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim. The final city listed, Lasha, is unknown to modern archaeology, but it is assumed by textual location to have also been somewhere near Sodom on the southeast side of the Dead Sea. A very recent theory has again tried to place Sodom north of the Dead Sea, an idea that is improbable for other Biblical reasons we will examine later. It would also make for a strange ordering of border locations in this early Genesis list. The order given logically goes north to south, west to east, but trying to place Sodom north would strangely make it north to south, west to northeast, then south again along the eastern side of the Dead Sea - highly unlikely!

Madaba map (click for larger view).
Note that the map orientation is East (top) - West (bottom), North (left) - South (right).
Zoar is on top, right, of Dead Sea (as it appears above)

The location of Zoar (ancient Bela) has been carried to us through time by such things as the Madaba map found in biblical Medeba, Jordan (i.e. Isaiah 15:2). Created circa 527-565 A.D., as a mosaic map on the floor of the then new St. George's church, this Byzantine map correctly portrays the locations and features of hosts of Israeli places. It places Zoar at the southeast of the Dead Sea, matching other early evidences that this is where the cities of the plain were located. Of course, Zoar was the only one having a history following the destruction of the other cities and the plain itself.

Modern Location of Zoar: Identified with es-Safi at the Wadi Hesa

Hundreds of years after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Moses brought the Israelites back to the Promised Land, Zoar was mentioned as a contemporary city. Since Moses, due to his disobedience, was not being allowed to lead the people into the land across the Jordan (west side), God showed Moses the entire land, from Mount Nebo, which He was giving the people.

Deuteronomy 34:1-4 Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land - from Gilead to Dan, 2 all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, 3 the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. 4 Then the Lord said to him, "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, 'I will give it to your descendants.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it." (NIV)

Notice the way the region is delineated. From Mount Nebo he first looks North (to Gilead, then Dan), then moving his gaze west, he scans the northwest (Naphtali). Continuing counterclockwise, he next sees the western area south of Galilee, yet still north of the Dead Sea and Mt. Nebo (Manasseh, Ephraim). This area stretched all the way west to the Mediterranean (western sea). Next, still continuing his counterclockwise sweep of the area, he sees the land south and west of the Dead Sea (The Negev, Valley of Jericho, and the City of Palms). Even as he began by looking almost due North, Moses now ends by giving a destination almost due south, Zoar which was southeast of the Dead Sea. Again, the geographic reference is compatible with earlier ones and even later historical artifacts such as the Madaba map.

Map of Dead Sea area. (Click for larger view)

Some have historically disputed Sodom's location at the south end of the Dead Sea based on Genesis chapter 13. This passage is the account of how Abraham and Lot separated, with Lot ultimately ending up in the vicinity of Sodom...

Genesis 13:2-13 Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold. 3 He went on his journeys from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, 4 to the place of the altar which he had made there formerly; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord. 5 Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. 6 And the land could not sustain them while dwelling together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to remain together. 7 And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram's livestock and the herdsmen of Lot's livestock. Now the Canaanite and the Perizzite were dwelling then in the land. 8 So Abram said to Lot, "Please let there be no strife between you and me, nor between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. 9 "Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me; if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left." 10 Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere - this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah - like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar. 11 So Lot chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they separated from each other. 12 Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom. 13 Now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord. (NASU)

It is true that Abraham and Lot were on the northern side of the Dead Sea when their separation was formalized. Bethel and Ai were located slightly to the north and west of the Sea, near the top of the mountain ridge. Abraham and Lot would have stood at the top of the mountain ridge and looked out toward the east, having a great view of most of the plain of the Jordan River above the Dead Sea as well as the continuation of that (then) lush area down by the Dead Sea. The Bible text makes clear that this plain was well watered, obviously north of the Dead Sea (the area immediately before them) and to the far south (as far as Zoar). The text goes out of its way to emphasize that this was before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the event that transformed much of this area into a wasteland, especially the eastern shore as far south as Zoar, encompassing the area of Sodom. Clearly Lot understood the area Abraham was graciously giving him to include the entire plain region, north of the Dead Sea and to the south as well. In fact, the word translated "valley" or "plain" (depending on translation) in verse 12 literally means circle. While it could be used of only the valley north of the Dead Sea, there is no need to such a limitation. Truly the entire region bounded by mountains surrounding the southern Jordan plain and the Dead Sea was this encircled valley - all of it once a fertile plain. Lot perhaps started on the northern side of the Dead Sea, but this semi-nomadic herdsman ended up farther south in the area of Sodom. This may have been out of necessity. Historically the plain area north of the Dead Sea was much more populated, probably leading to issues of grazing rights similar to the very issues that led to him separating from Abraham. Take note that even Abraham didn't stay that far north afterward either, choosing to move about halfway down the Dead Sea (high on the western side) to the vicinity of Hebron. This now strategically (and providentially) positions Abraham closer to Sodom for events which are soon to follow.

Genesis 13:14-18 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, "Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you." 18 So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the Lord. (NIV)

Before moving on to examine the events and significance of Sodom, we need to dismiss another supposed location for the destroyed cities and identify their probable locations. Because Genesis 13:13 refers to "cities of the plain (or valley, or circle)" some hold the cities would have to be located directly on the plain. Combining this belief with the Biblical indications that the cities were to the south and east of the Dead Sea and what appeared to be a lack of evidence for any cities on the plain there, it was proposed that locations of the cities were lost to the rising waters of the Dead Sea. It is true the level of the Dead Sea has fluctuated greatly throughout history, making such speculation probable but relatively unprovable. Until now that is. The Dead Sea level has been dropping steadily for decades and is now at the lowest level in history. In fact much, if not all, of the south end of the Sea is in danger of completely drying up. These conditions show there is no evidence for the cities being located directly on the plain.

Somewhere under the slowly rising waters of the southern part of the lake in this general locality the "cities of the valley" are probably to be found. (The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright © 1988.)

Popular Myth: Many commentaries and Bible dictionaries (as above) incorrectly claim that the Dead Sea covered the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah. The historically low levels of today prove this incorrect.

Logically, it also follows suit that the cities would not have been located directly on the plain for reasons of defense as well. For reasons of fortification, cities of that ancient area were commonly built on more readily defensible elevated areas. This knowledge led to a search toward the outside of the plain, where the ground rises steeply toward the mountainous plateau surrounding the valley. Not coincidently, near the mouths of the major ravines entering the valley area, the ruins of ancient cities were found. This would make the cities out to be the guardian cities of the plain, locations that most entering the plain area would have to pass by. As cities of the plain they economically and militarily controlled the plain region.

The Biblical account shows the kings of these cities were incapable of independently maintaining control of their area, having become subject to an external foreign alliance. Their subsequent rebellion against that alliance led to a telling battle.

Genesis 14:1-12 At this time Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goiim 2 went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). 3 All these latter kings joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (the Salt Sea). 4 For twelve years they had been subject to Kedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. 5 In the fourteenth year, Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him went out and defeated the Rephaites in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzites in Ham, the Emites in Shaveh Kiriathaim 6 and the Horites in the hill country of Seir, as far as El Paran near the desert. 7 Then they turned back and went to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and they conquered the whole territory of the Amalekites, as well as the Amorites who were living in Hazazon Tamar. 8 Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) marched out and drew up their battle lines in the Valley of Siddim 9 against Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar - four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits, and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of the men fell into them and the rest fled to the hills. 11 The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. 12 They also carried off Abram's nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom. (NIV)

View across the Dead Sea from western side looking toward eastern side
taken at about the halfway point near En Gedi.

A number of important details are provided here, not the least of which is the implication as to why Lot, a nomadic herdsman, ended up living inside the city of Sodom. The primary place for battles to be fought was in large areas of relatively flat terrain. This provided for easy maneuvering of troops and defined battle lines. If Lot and his household were living on the plain area, news of an impending battle would have driven him and any others potentially in the way to seek shelter. The most logical place to look for such refuge would be the nearest and largest fortified city, which in this case would have been Sodom. Next, it needs to be noted where the battle took place, namely the Valley of Siddim or the Valley of the Salt Sea. Located to the south of the Dead Sea, close to the historic location of Zoar, this valley would have been a logically place to stop a northward advance of troops attempting to make a frontal assault on the cities through the plain area. Even if the invading troops had no plans to directly assault the cities, merely occupying the plain area would have effectively placed them under siege, through control of their pasture and agriculture lands.

In the defeat of the five kings by the invading four, the five kings and their troops ended up fleeing for their lives. While some sought refuge in the surrounding hills or mountainside, others fell into the tar pits which the valley was full of (see verse 10).

Tar pits are common in this area that is so rich in bitumen that large amounts bubble to the surface and even float on the Dead Sea. The word translated "pits" is the same word used for wells of water throughout the Old Testament and therefore generally refers to a spot that has been dug out. The Valley of Siddim, then, had many pits that had been dug to extract bitumen, and these provided refuge for the kings (they "lowered themselves into them" rather than "they fell into them"). (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Copyright © 2000 by John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas. Published by InterVarsity Press.)

While a few (as above) have said that these tar pits could have been purposely dug for economic reasons, since tar is a valuable commodity, it is more likely they occurred naturally. Some perhaps were used commercially; Egyptians used asphalt to embalm their dead and this was often imported. Sinkholes are common phenomena surrounding the Dead Sea, especially when the lake is at low levels as it is currently.  Again, the area has been historically known as a source of natural tar. Almost 2000 years ago, Josephus described the Jordan valley south of Galilee as far as the "country of Sodom" and the southernmost part of the Dead Sea.  He refers to the area as "Asphaltiris," the name itself coming from the root word by which we get asphalt.

It is situated in a plain; but a naked and barren mountain, of a very great length, hangs over it, which extends itself to the land about Scythopolis northward, but as far as the country of Sodom, and the utmost limits of the lake Asphaltiris, southward. This mountain is all of it very uneven and uninhabited, by reason of its barrenness: there is an opposite mountain that is situated over against it, on the other side of Jordan; this last begins at Julias, and the northern quarters, and extends itself southward as far as Somorrhon, which is the bounds of Petra, in Arabia. In this ridge of mountains there is one called the Iron Mountain, that runs in length as far as Moab. Now the region that lies in the middle between these ridges of mountains is called the Great Plain; it reaches from the village Ginnabris, as far as the lake Asphaltitis; its length is two hundred and thirty furlongs, and its breadth a hundred and twenty, and it is divided in the midst by Jordan. It hath two lakes in it, that of Asphaltitis, and that of Tiberias, whose natures are opposite to each other; for the former is salt and unfruitful, but that of Tiberias is sweet and fruitful. This plain is much burnt up in summer time, and, by reason of the extraordinary heat, contains a very unwholesome air; it is all destitute of water excepting the river Jordan, which water of Jordan is the occasion why those plantations of palm trees that are near its banks are more flourishing, and much more fruitful, as are those that are remote from it not so flourishing, or fruitful. (Josephus: Wars of the Jews, From Chapter 8 "A Description Of Jericho, And Of The Great Plain; With An Account Besides Of The Lake Asphaltitis")

Not only does Josephus tie Sodom geographically with the southern part of the Dead Sea, he refers to the Dead Sea by the name "Lake of Sodom" in his Antiquities of the Jews (1.22). In covering the time period of Genesis 14, Josephus calls the Valley of Siddim the "vale of Slime Pits," confirming its then current name as the "vale of Lake Asphaltites."

... but on the thirteenth year they rebelled, and then the army of the Assyrians came upon them, under their commanders Amraphel, Arioch, Chodorlaomer, and Tidal. These kings had laid waste all Syria, and overthrown the offspring of the giants. And when they were come over against Sodom , they pitched their camp at the vale called the Slime Pits, for at that time there were pits in that place; but now, upon the destruction of the city of Sodom , that vale became the Lake Asphaltites, as it is called. (Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews 9.1)

Lot, who sought protection in Sodom, ended up having his goods stolen and becoming captive to invading armies.  These raiders then headed rapidly north toward Dan. The possession and household of a wealthy nomad would have been readymade for travel, likely making Lot an easy target. There's even a possibility the ruler of Sodom offered up this foreigner to meet the heavy penalties these invading kings exacted as punishment for rebellion. Fortunately, one witness to all this escaped and sought out Abraham who was still living near Hebron (Genesis 13:18).

Genesis 14:13-16 One who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshcol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.

An interesting note on this narrative comes from the word translated "trained men" in verse 14. This Hebrew word only appears this once in Scriptures, yet it is a technical term for this type of trained men attached to a particular household. Extra-biblical sources from before this period confirm proper use of this term. Our narrative continues with Abraham's triumphant return...

Genesis 14:17-20 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). 18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." (NIV)

Understanding that Salem was the ancient name for Jerusalem, the Valley of Shaveh (or the King's Valley) is thought to be near Jerusalem, but this is not definite. Regardless, this passage does not help identify the location of Sodom as the implication is that the king of Sodom traveled to this site in order to meet the returning Abraham. It is quite likely that word of Abraham's victory and soon return had spread rapidly, long before they actually had returned. It is certain thier return journey would have been more leisurely than the forced march north as captives.

The Scriptural narrative relevant to Sodom continues some time later, with Abraham again living near the great trees of Mamre near Hebron. It is here that Abraham receives extraordinary visitors with an incredible message.

Genesis 18:1-2 The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

Genesis 18:16-22 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him." 20 Then the Lord said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know." 22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. (NIV)

God was about to do something so extraordinary that it would be used as an example by Abraham and his family (nation) after him. In the passage that follows Abraham repeatedly asks God to spare the cities if enough righteous people are found there, each time reducing the number. Knowing how large his own household was, Abraham was most likely certain that God's final concession, to not destroy the cities for the sake of ten, guaranteed their survival. There only needed to be ten in Lot's household serving the Lord! It seems that Abraham was aware that Lot was once again living in the city of Sodom. In fact, as we will see in the next passage, Lot appears to have accepted a form of the honor and accolades Abraham refused from the king of Sodom (Genesis 14:21-24). Lot, a foreigner, has now been elevated to the status of representative of the king who would sit in judgment at the city gate (Genesis 19:1, 9).

View of the always narrow part of the Dead Sea (south of halfway)
taken looking east from the top of Masada

Looking east and slightly north across the Dead Sea from Masada

Notice the desolate plain on the western side of the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is at its lowest level in history. The south is drying up.

Southeastern view across the Dead Sea from Masada

Before considering what comes next, note that Abraham walked with his visitors down toward Sodom. With Abraham's current positioning, half way down the western side of the Dead Sea, yet high on the mountain plateau surrounding, this would have been a walk relatively due east. The departing angels would have then descended into the valley to head toward the eastern side and only slight farther south. Scientists believe the Dead Sea was at one of its low levels during that time of history, so it's possible that the angels did not have to go around the southern shore of the Dead Sea.  They may have been able to cross at the area where a spit of land juts westward almost severing the Dead Sea during low levels (as it is currently). Once having crossed there it would not be far to Sodom.

Genesis 19:1-11 The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2 "My lords," he said, "please turn aside to your servant's house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning." "No," they answered, "we will spend the night in the square." 3 But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. 4 Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom - both young and old - surrounded the house. 5 They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." 6 Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him 7 and said, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof." 9 "Get out of our way," they replied. And they said, "This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them." They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door. 10 But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. 11 Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.

Sodom was a city of wickedness, with homosexuality only one visible symptom of it. God, who knew there were not even ten righteous people left in the city, had determined to destroy the cities as an example or testimony of His justice. Yet, in the midst of this well deserved judgment, God sent the angels to show mercy to Lot and his family.

Genesis 19:12-14 The two men said to Lot, "Do you have anyone else here - sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, 13 because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it." 14 So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, "Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!" But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.

Lot was a joke to his own family. He had known the lifestyle and practices of Sodom to be sin, yet was willing to compromise his stand against it for the sake of security and prestige. There is no question that Lot was a righteous man, a believer in God, as Scriptures tells us this explicitly.

2 Peter 2:7-8 and if he [God] rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men 8 (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)- (NIV)

God displays His grace and mercy to this compromiser.  He has an angel virtually drag Lot, and what little of his family remained, out of the city.

Genesis 19:15-16 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, "Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished." 16 When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. (NIV)

It appears that Sodom's city gate was in the lower part of the city (remember it was built on the rise of the plateau surrounding the valley).  This positioning makes sense as a majority of travel, trade, and agriculture, would come through the valley. Also, a gate on the upper side would have weakened the defensibility of the city. It's a lot harder to attack upward than down.

Genesis 19:17-22 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, "Flee for your lives! Don't look back, and don't stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!" 18 But Lot said to them, "No, my lords, please! 19 Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can't flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I'll die. 20 Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it - it is very small, isn't it? Then my life will be spared." 21 He said to him, "Very well, I will grant this request too; I will not overthrow the town you speak of. 22 But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it." (That is why the town was called Zoar.)

Standing outside the city of Sodom on the plain, the angels told Lot to flee to the mountain - in other words, get out of the plain area itself. Lot, who still hasn't fully understood how gracious God has been in this, worries that he won't have time to make it. To him, the easy path of flight is to stay on the level ground of the plain. Looking southward he spots the last and smallest of the cities of the plain and asks to be able to flee there. This request is granted, which ultimately spares this little city as well.

Genesis 19:23-26 By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. 24 Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah - from the Lord out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities - and also the vegetation in the land. 26 But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

It takes half a day for Lot and his two daughters to reach Zoar (formerly Bela).  On the journey, his wife becomes a pillar of salt in her unbelief. Her disobedient action shows her heart to be back in Sodom. The brimstone God used to destroy the area was likely a product of natural substances found in the region. The sulfurous and salty ground combined with the tar issuing from the ground (remember the "tar pits") make a volatile substance only requiring God to miraculously provide the ignition - fire from heaven.

An earthquake-ridden region throughout its history, geological activity was doubtless an accompanying factor in the destruction of the cities, although the Bible account records only the miraculous elements. The salt and free sulphur of this area, now a burned-out region of oil and asphalt, were apparently mingled by an earthquake, causing a violent explosion. Carried up into the air red-hot, the exploding salt and sulphur literally caused a rain of fire and brimstone over the whole plain (19:24, 28). (The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright © 1988.)

View looking east across the Dead Sea (toward side where Sodom was located)
The south end is drying up now. Rows of sediment have been dredged to harvest minerals.

Same eastward view encompassing further south and more of western shore

The sight awaiting Abraham testifies to a fire fueled by asphalt. Smoke rising from the southern part of the Dead Sea region is easily visible  from the plateau area east of Hebron.

Genesis 19:27-29 Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. 28 He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace. 29 So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived. (NIV)

Notice that Abraham could quickly return from his location in Hebron, to a place overlooking the valley. Here he could look directly down toward Sodom and Gomorrah's location. This is textual evidence the cities were not above the Dead Sea's north end. As for the scene, it must have been an incredible sight with dense asphalt smoke rising from the whole plain.  It certainly is one he would remember and speak about the rest of his life. This was no figurative destruction, but a literal historical event, cited directly by Jesus...

Luke 17:29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. (NIV) [See also Matthew 10:15, Matthew 11:23-24, Luke 10:12]

God intended the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to be a lasting memorial to His justice and a warning against all who would live in rebellion against Him. In fact, the destroyed cities of the plain were used as specific examples of the desolation that would characterize Israel if they did not keep their covenant with God.

2 Peter 2:6 if he [God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; (NIV)

Jude 7 In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (NIV)

Deuteronomy 29:22-24 Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the Lord has afflicted it. 23 The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur - nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in fierce anger. 24 All the nations will ask: "Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?" (NIV)

In following years, God's prophets frequently referenced Sodom, noting that if God did not have a remnant they would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah. Even rulers of the people were likened to rulers of Sodom, willfully ruling over and not trying to restrain wickedness.

Isaiah 1:9-10 Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah. 10 Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! (NIV) [See also Romans 9:29]

Isaiah 3:9 The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves. (NIV)

Jeremiah 23:13-14 "Among the prophets of Samaria I saw this repulsive thing: They prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. 14 And among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen something horrible: They commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah." (NIV)

Ezekiel 16:46-51 Your older sister was Samaria, who lived to the north of you with her daughters; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you with her daughters, was Sodom. 47 You not only walked in their ways and copied their detestable practices, but in all your ways you soon became more depraved than they. 48 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. "'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. 51 Samaria did not commit half the sins you did. You have done more detestable things than they, and have made your sisters seem righteous by all these things you have done. (NIV)

Amos 4:11a "I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. (NIV)

Revelation 11:8 Their bodies will lie in the street of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. (NIV)

These passages clearly imply the destruction of the cities was complete and lasting. Dating of this event was around the 21st to 20th century B.C. and perhaps more specifically 2070-2060.  Dating of Abraham's time is widely disputed by scholars, so this date is based a literal acceptance of the Biblical record and its genealogies. Abraham would have been born circa 2164 B.C.) If the destruction was only partial or temporary it would not stand as a permanent warning, as God clearly intended. For example, the next three passages specifically highlight the permanency of this Divine judgment.

Jeremiah 49:17-18 "Edom will become an object of horror; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. 18 As Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown, along with their neighboring towns," says the Lord, "so no one will live there; no man will dwell in it. (NIV)

Jeremiah 50:40 As God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah along with their neighboring towns," declares the Lord, "so no one will live there; no man will dwell in it [Babylon]. (NIV)

Zephaniah 2:9a Therefore, as surely as I live," declares the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, "surely Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gomorrah - a place of weeds and salt pits, a wasteland forever. (NIV)

The needed permanency of this destruction is another primary reason why the proposed site north of the Dead Sea (Tell el-Hammam) cannot be ancient Sodom. Its excavator even states that subsequent stratum show, that while it was destroyed (by fire), only a few centuries later a city was rebuilt at the same location. The estimated time frame for this later inhabitance is 1200-600 B.C. (iron-age) meaning that for a majority of Israel's pre-exile history they would have known this to be an occupied city - hardly an example of permanent and absolute judgment.

A graphic showing the recent speculation of a northern Sodom, as published by Biblical Archaeology Review. Not only was this proposed site never permanently abandoned, its proximity to Jericho also makes it highly unlikely that it would been referred to apart from that important nearby city or that its destruction would not have affected Jericho too.

The narrative of Genesis, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, doesn't end with Abraham's view of the destruction. It returns to the safely rescued Lot and his two daughters. Perhaps the people of Zoar found it strange that only this man and his daughter survived to escape from Sodom, or maybe they superstitiously feared and persecuted Lot as if he was somehow responsible. Regardless, Lot ended up leaving the city he had impetuously asked for and headed to the place he had first been instructed to go.

Genesis 19:30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. (NIV)

Genesis 19:36-38 So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today. (NIV)

The descendants of Lot are stated to have been the fathers of two nations, Moab and the Ammonites. This not only claims ties to particular peoples, but implies geographic ties as well. These two nations controlled specific regions on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. Notably, the territory of the older son, Moab, directly bounds the southeast side of the Dead Sea, from the Zered to the Arnon River. This includes the immediate vicinity of Zoar northward to Sodom and Gomorrah and the other destroyed cities. The Arnon River (gorge) was the historic boundary between the Ammonites and the Moabites, which is almost exactly halfway down the east side of the Dead Sea. Once again, this information clearly implies that Lot's post destruction ties to the region were well south of the north end of the Dead Sea.

Returning to Josephus, the first century historian, he stated that the ruins of the five cities were still visible to his day (as does Tacitus, History 5.7). Josephus clearly ties the location of the five cities to the southern and eastern side of the Dead Sea, making specific note of Zoar. This excerpt of Josephus is primarily for the last few sentences, but we included those before it as they provide Josephus' description of the Dead Sea; then called Lake Asphaltitis.

The nature of the lake Asphaltitis is also worth describing. It is, as I have said already, bitter and unfruitful. It is so light [or thick] that it bears up the heaviest things that are thrown into it; nor is it easy for any one to make things sink therein to the bottom, if he had a mind so to do. Accordingly, when Vespasian went to see it, he commanded that some who could not swim should have their hands tied behind them, and be thrown into the deep, when it so happened that they all swam as if a wind had forced them upwards. Moreover, the change of the color of this lake is wonderful, for it changes its appearance thrice every day; and as the rays of the sun fall differently upon it, the light is variously reflected. However, it casts up black clods of bitumen in many parts of it; these swim at the top of the water, and resemble both in shape and bigness headless bulls; and when the laborers that belong to the lake come to it, and catch hold of it as it hangs together, they draw it into their ships; but when the ship is full, it is not easy to cut off the rest, for it is so tenacious as to make the ship hang upon its clods till they set it loose with the menstrual blood of women, and with urine, to which alone it yields. This bitumen is not only useful for the caulking of ships, but for the cure of men's bodies; accordingly, it is mixed in a great many medicines. The length of this lake is five hundred and eighty furlongs, where it is extended as far as Zoar in Arabia; and its breadth is a hundred and fifty. The country of Sodom borders upon it. It was of old a most happy land, both for the fruits it bore and the riches of its cities, although it be now all burnt up. It is related how, for the impiety of its inhabitants, it was burnt by lightning; in consequence of which there are still the remainders of that Divine fire, and the traces [or shadows] of the five cities are still to be seen... (Josephus: Wars of the Jews 8.4)

Author, Brent (left) and son, Scott (right) demonstrating
the buoyant properties of the extremely salty and mineral saturated Dead Sea


The best candidates for the ruins of the five cities are as follows:

  • Sodom: Bab edh-Dhra (alt. Bub edh-Dhra), at Wadi Kerak. Remains of a stone fortress and city (including a large cemetery south of the city, 5/8 of a mile long and about half as wide. An estimated 20,000 shaft tombs would hold over half a million dead). Major excavations began in 1965 and 1967.

  • Gomorrah: Numeira. Located at the Wadi south of Bab edh-Dhra, Wadi Numeira. (Found in search related to other cities, 1973). Remains of another fortified city were found on a level top of a plain just south of the spring of Wadi Numeira.

  • Admah: Fiefa, located on the north side of Wadi Feifa. Remains of a walled city and a tower. (1973, noted similarities of pottery found here with Bab edh-Dhra). Discovered a burial ground which perhaps rivals Bab edh-Dhra in size and usage.

  • Zeboiim: Khanazir. Located on the northern side of the Wadi Khanazir. Located last (1973), it holds common characteristics with the other four sites, excluding only the large graveyard.

  • Zoar: es-Safi. Located overlooking Wadi Hesa, between Numeira and Fiefa, also with a large graveyard similar to that of Bab edh-Dhra and Feifa. (1973, noted similarities of pottery found here with Bab edh-Dhra)

While many scholars have placed the destruction of these cities at a time consistent with the Biblical time frame, as usual dating is disputed by up to 200 or 300 hundred years by others (claiming the cities were destroyed earlier than the Biblical time frame of Sodom). This earlier chronology is based on imprecise means including carbon dating, so the results cannot be construed as being concrete.

A burn (ash) layer was found in regards to their destruction, showing final destruction from the top down, especially including the associated massive graveyard at Bab edh-Dhra. This is consistent with a widespread destruction by fire from above. While some scholars have speculated that an unknown conqueror destroyed and burned these cities, it is highly improbable that such a conqueror would take the time to go to a cemetery several hundred meters (feet) away from the city and individually burn each burial house too. These burial houses have been shown to have also been burned from the outside inward, with the roof collapsing first. The severity of the burning of the cities is shown from the excavation at Numeira, where a dug pit cut through seven feet of dark ash. Additionally, all the cities (except Zoar) were destroyed at the same time, also consistent with a regional destruction. All of the cities date to the same era and were built on a piece of ground overlooking a Wadi (ravine) entering the southern Dead Sea plain. Each was enclosed by a stone wall with a fortified tower and nearby water source. Certainly their destruction and location meets the Biblical criteria for being the cities of the plain.

Tel at Bab edh-Dhra

Another view from top of tel at Bab edh-Dhra (and Wadi Kerak)

Closer view of Wadi Kerak at Bab edh-Dhra
Note Dead Sea plain area at upper left in distance. Brimstone (black) litters the ground.

Ruins at Bab edh-Dhra

Right of highway is Bab edh-Dhra. Left towards Dead Sea is the large graveyard.

 Shafts of graves in foreground. Tell of Sodom in background right.

Looking down a grave shaft. Notice horizontal shaft from the main vertical

Another burial shaft with closer view of actual burial chamber entrance below