According to the Bible, the Lord promised Abraham that he would not destroy any righteous people along with the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. Since he could not find even 10 righteous people living among the cities, however, he did not spare the cities. Rather, he allowed Lot to take his family and escape before the impending punishment. “The sun was just rising over the earth as Lot arrived in Zoar; at the same time the LORD rained down sulphurous fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah (from the LORD out of heaven). He overthrew those cities and the whole Plain, together with the inhabitants of the cities and the produce of the soil. But Lot’s wife looked back, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.” (Genesis 19: 23-26)
Different aspects of this account have been long debated by scholars. First of all, where are, or were, Sodom and Gomorrah? Secondly, how were the cities destroyed? Finally, is it true that Lot’s wife turned to salt?
Many people have held that the story is legendary, or symbolic. Lot represents goodness living in the midst of wickedness. His wife symbolizes someone who “looked back at,” or preserved some desire for wickedness in her heart and was, accordingly, punished.
Archaeological discoveries in the past decades, as well as tradition here in the Middle East, however, both point to the truth of the biblical story.
Unlike Lebanon, where the location of Tyre and Sidon has been undoubted through the centuries, given their continued existence, Sodom and Gomorrah seemed to disappear, thus causing some to assume that they never existed, and were simply a figure of speech for wickedness. The description of the region Lot and Abraham had settled in (Genesis 19), signified that if the towns did exist, they had to be in the Dead Sea region, in modern day Israel or Jordan. No such towns matching the biblical description were found… until the level of the Dead Sea receded a few decades ago, revealing a basin that had been above ground in the time of Abraham, had later been covered by the rising sea level, and only recently surfaced again.
Two cities, most recently known as Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira, match the biblical description of Sodom and Gomorrah. In addition to being in the right vicinity, excavations have revealed that these two cities were suddenly ruined around the same time during the Bronze Age, thus further linking their identity with the lost cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The remains of these cities, which include layers of sulfur, ash and salt, give further credence to the biblical account in which the two cities were destroyed by fire.
Based on the description of sulphurous fire destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, many people assumed that the ruin came from a volcano. They then questioned the biblical story, pointing to the fact that there are no volcanoes in the region, and that, while possible, it is unlikely for one that had existed to have disappeared. People in favor of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah pointed out that, given the location of the cities and the changing level of the Dead Sea in that area, the two cities could easily have been simultaneously destroyed by a devastating flood. Both of these descriptions, however, call into question the truth of the story. A third, more likely explanation, however, shows that the biblical description is quite plausible, given geographical and archaeological history, even though the region has no volcanoes.
The Dead Sea lies along a vast fault line called the Great Rift Valley, the known epicenter of numerous intense, destructive earthquakes throughout the centuries, including one around the time of the surmised destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The earthquake would account both for the sudden, simultaneous demise of the two cities, as described in the Bible, and for the fire, sulfur and salt, which would have been caused by the earthquake.
Middle Eastern tradition points to a particular stone figure in Jordan as being the remains of Lot’s wife. While it cannot be proven that this pillar, or a second pillar over the Israeli border in the same region, also at times referred to as Lot’s wife, are the actual remains of this biblical character. However, natural happenings do defend the likelihood of such a structure.
(Pillar of Salt – Jordan) (Pillar of Salt – Israel)
First of all, the Bible never states, as many people presume, that Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt miraculously. It simply says she became a pillar of salt. Given the nature of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, combined with the circumstances of her own death, it is quite possible that Lot’s wife did indeed become a “pillar of salt” due to natural occurrences. The Hebraic phrase translated as “looked back” meant more than simply turning her head around for a glance. The term more likely implied “turning back,” in the sense of starting to return to the city, or “lagging back,” in the sense of being significantly behind her family due to her hesitance to leave the city. Assuming that Lot’s wife did turn back, or lagged behind, it is quite possible that the sulfur and ashes that destroyed the city reached Lot’s wife, causing her death. Lot and his other daughters, further ahead, were safely out of reach, protected by God because they didn’t “look back.” Over time, her remains would have been layered in salt, given both the process of petrifaction that happens to remains of sulfur and the high levels of salt and sediment in the Dead Sea region. There are many such salt structure remains in the area of the destroyed cities. The density and strength of such stones, as well as the low levels of precipitation in the region have preserved these stones, which date back to the Bronze Age, to the present day.
Given the impossibility of proving the location of Sodom and Gomorrah beyond a doubt, after their disappearance, or proving the correlation between the pillars of salt thought to be Lot’s wife and the actual figure, different theories regarding the credibility and literal or figurative quality of the Bible story will continue to circulate. Nevertheless, both scholarly studies and archaeological discoveries in the past century show that natural happenings in the time and location mentioned in the Bible as pertaining to the story testify not only to the spiritual message of good and evil conveyed through the story of Lot, but also to the integrity of the historical details about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the fate of Lot’s wife as presented by the Bible.
“Similarly, as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building; on the day when Lot left Sodom, fire and brimstone rained from the sky to destroy them all. So it will be on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, a person who is on the housetop and whose belongings are in the house must not go down to get them, and likewise a person in the field must not return to what was left behind. Remember the wife of Lot. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it.”