On 20 September 2021, T. E. Bunch et al. published what became a hotly (pun intended) controverted article, which claimed to have found evidence of a “Tunguska sized airburst” over Tall el-Hammam, a Middle Bronze Age city in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea. After a good bit of criticism of some potentially exaggerated claims, this article has been revised. Jerry Patengale, writing for Religion News, in April 2022, detailed the argument. Tunguska refers to an explosion over Tunguska, Russia, in which a meteor exploded in mid-air, detonating “with 1000× more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.” Writing in the Lexham Bible Dictionary (s.v., Sodom and the Cities of the Plain), Steven Collins, who is at the center of the controversy over the article and the interpretation of the archeology there, surveys four possible locations of Sodom and the Cities of the Plain. He concludes, “recent advances in the archeology and history of the southern Jordan Valley, commonly referred to as the Middle Ghor, are providing new data strongly favoring the Northern view.” In particular, the site of Tall el-Hammam has emerged as a probable candidate for biblical Sodom.” Two other possibilities are the Southern Theory, which locates Sodom along the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea and the Underwater Theory, advocated by W. F. Albright, an influential scholar of the Ancient Near East. This theory places Sodom in the south but concludes that it must have been “under the shallow waters of the Dead Sea’s southern basin.”
One reason for the controversy over the Tunguska theory is that a “large number of scholars believe that Sodom and the Cities of the Plain never existed at all, but only comprise a moralistic metaphor.” Indeed, they regard the biblical narratives about the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) as fictional stories, myths. They know a priori that we live in a closed world in which supernatural events are impossible. Ergo, there could have been no such figures as the biblical patriarchs, and there could not have been divine judgment of the Cities of the Plain (e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah). Such things just do not happen. We need not imagine what such a closed view of the world looks like. It was on display during Covid. It did not matter what evidence one presented, influential government officials (and others) knew a priori that Covid could not have emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China and that masks and vaccines were perfectly efficacious and anyone who questioned them was a sociopath.
Within the confines of the closed view of the world, the prospect of divine judgment is not only preposterous, but also terrifying. So, it is not surprising that, among theological liberals, the orthodox view of Sodom and Gomorrah is that their great sin was not sexual immorality—that could not be—but a lack of hospitality. You can easily test the prevalence of this view. Post something about how America is becoming a latter-day Sodom. It will not be long before someone corrects that understanding of Sodom, that the only reason for God’s wrath against Sodom was their refusal to show hospitality to visitors.
The traditional view is represented by D. M. Howard, Jr., in the ISBE (s.v., “Sodom”), who writes,
Sodom’s most notorious sin was its engaging in homosexual acts (Gen. 19:5–8). Jude 7 affirms that Sodom “acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust.” Several passages in Genesis speak of Sodom’s wickedness and unrighteousness in general terms (13:13; 18:20–33), and later Sodom became a point of comparison for wickedness in Israel (Dt. 32:32; Isa. 1:10; 3:9; Jer. 23:14). Rev. 11:8 likewise uses Sodom as an allegorical sign of great evil.”
Howard affirmed that the Sodomites were also guilty of the sin of being inhospitable:
Sodom’s notoriety derives from its wickedness and the attendant destruction that it suffered. Sodom’s sins were manifold. Along with the other cities it displayed arrogant pride and haughtiness, and lived in prosperous luxury while ignoring the poor and needy (Ezk. 16:46–50). The men of Sodom violated the code of hospitality (Gen. 19:1–11), and they did “abominable things” (Ezk. 16:50).
Sodom In Genesis 19
What does Genesis 19 say about Sodom?
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet. Then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the town square.” But he pressed them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house. And he made them a feast and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down. But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the entrance of the house, both small and great, so that they wore themselves out groping for the door. Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.” So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up! Get out of this place, for the LORD is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting. (Gen 19:1–14)
He was not joking, and the Lord did destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with fire. What did the people of Sodom want with the visitors-angels? The ESV says, “that we may know them” (Gen 19:5). The verb to know here is יָדַע (Yadah) which is regularly used in the Hebrew Bible as a “euphemism for sexual relations,” as BDB says.1
Yes, certainly, as Howard says, the people of Sodom were most inhospitable. Should a group of people surround my hotel, demanding that I be sent out so that they can rape me, I think I would feel very unwanted, and I should never ever return there again. That Lot offered his daughters as a substitute raises a host of issues that we cannot explore here, but it might suggest something about the nature of the sexual revolt (against God and his creational order) in the Cities of the Plains. Perhaps it was not much different from what we are seeing in our time? The argument that the mob was merely inhospitable is about as plausible as saying that an arsonist with a can of gas and matches was just trying to warm his hands on a chilly evening.
Biases and Blindnesses
How could reasonable interpreters conclude that Genesis 19 has nothing to do with sexual immorality? Clearly, in my experience, more than a few people making this claim have never actually read the narrative for themselves. They are relying on what trusted authorities have told them that the narrative really means. This is but one example of this phenomenon. We see this same approach to learning in other cases. Many Westerners are convinced that humans, by driving autos, are creating “climate change,” and destroying the planet. Just ask Greta Thunberg, who, according to her Wikipedia entry, made up her mind about “climate change” when she was eight. Remarkably, people who should know better take her as a scientific authority and she is platformed as such. She is twenty and without any meaningful scientific credentials. “Climate change” is a brilliant example of what passes for so-called common knowledge (i.e., truths ostensibly so universal and beyond doubt that there is no need to document claims about their truthfulness). John Clauser has scientific credentials—he is a 2022 Nobel Prize winning physicist—and he has criticized the “climate change” agenda as “pseudoscience.” He is just one of many scientists who have come to doubt “climate change” orthodoxy. Most people (myself included) are not qualified to judge the scientific evidence, but most seem to put implicit faith in the authorities leading the herd, even if one of those authorities is a twenty-year-old with psychiatric issues.
Others who have read the text, however, know a priori that there could be no such thing as an actual divine condemnation of sexual immorality, and especially of LGBTQ sexual immorality. In 2023, queer sexuality is to be favored over heteronormativity. The problem with a priori commitments is that reality has a way of disrupting them. We may be sure that the destruction of the Cities of the Plains must have created genuine “cognitive dissonance” as the scholars say. What is that? It happens when we experience something that we thought (a priori) could not happen. The folks who were treading water around Noah’s ark were experiencing cognitive dissonance. “What a minute! This can’t be happening.” Well, it did. Reality is like that. So, it must have been for Pharaoh’s armies as they chased the Israelites into the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea). Who thinks ahead of time, “I’m sure that the God of the Israelites will part the Red Sea for them”? It is not as though the Egyptians had no forewarning or any foretastes of the judgment to come. Frogs! (Ex 8:1–13)
Read on its own terms, in its context, the narrative of Genesis 19 demonstrably tells a story about angels (supernatural) and a pansexually-crazed mob. When Lot resists their demand to produce the angels to be raped, they become furious (v. 9) at Lot, the newcomer, who will not immediately capitulate to their demands. One wonders if some interpreters of this text have ever seen a crazed mob. Have they never seen an Antifa riot or a Gay Pride parade in a big city? Have they not read the latest offerings in the Juvenile section of the local public library or the local grade school? They nearly broke down the door in their desire to get at the angels (v. 9). The angels had to reach out and rescue Lot from the mob. Even after the angels struck blind those who were nearest the door—do not mess with angels—it is unclear that the mob got the message.
The next day, after the sun rose, the Yahweh, the sovereign, thrice holy God of creation and redemption, rained down “sulfur and fire” from heaven (v. 24). The Cities of the Plains were desolated (v. 28).
Jude 7 and Canonical Hermeneutics
The force of the text in its own context is unavoidable if we just pay attention, but there is another way to confirm the traditional reading (as represented by Howard). Genesis is part of a larger collection of texts, which, according to the Christian understanding, were all given, through human authors, by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity. In the Christian way of reading Scripture, the New Testament teaches us not only the meaning of particular Old Testament texts but also how to interpret the Old Testament. The New Testament is an inspired commentary on the Old Testament, given by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Old Testament. In Jude verse 7, the Holy Spirit, writing through Jude, says,
Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Sodom and Gomorrah were major urban centers in their time. Imagine God announcing that he would destroy New York, Rome, Tokyo, or London. Moderns tend to think that God would not harm places that are of such importance to how the global economy and structures of culture operate since that would be so disruptive to our affairs. We need only think of the last few years during the COVID pandemic when all these places fully shut down, sometimes nearly collapsing major world economies. Although we must be careful about reading the purposes of God’s judgment into these events, clearly God happily lets even our most elite undertakings be disrupted if it suits his purposes, whatever they may be. Cultural prestige cannot shield us from his judgment, especially when those prestigious endeavors facilitate more than protect from the allure of sin.
In other words, prestige, reputation, popularity, notoriety, connections to the cultural elite will not restrain God’s everlasting judgment of fiery punishment. Only hiding ourselves in the Savior by true faith provides our needed shelter from God’s approaching condemnation. Sodom and Gomorrah were not spared despite their status. We cannot hope to be the exception. So, we must flee to Christ for salvation. For the church, we must realize all the more that prestige is not a protection from temptation, which is why Jude used this example to exhort to contend for the faith. We must find safety in the sweet shelter of the cross.
Jude is warning his readers not to mess with Jesus, who,2 Jude wrote, had saved his Old Testament church through the Red Sea (v. 5). It was he who judged Egypt by destroying those who did not believe. Jesus destroyed the queer Cities of the Plains. This is not the Jesus of the faculty lounges in the Ivy Leagues, but it is the Jesus of the Bible. It was he who thundered from Sinai and he who came looking for Adam and Eve after the fall. Who is it who judges? “Christ Jesus, the one who died, who is about to come, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes on our behalf” (Rom 8:34). Jesus saves but he also judges, and he judged the Cities of the Plain. He sent down sulfur and fire and the cities were no more.
Maybe we have found the cities and perhaps there is evidence of the fiery destruction that God sent on them. My old colleague (and my first boss in the teaching business), Jim Hoffmeier, says that we should give the new proposal a fair hearing and see how it turns out. Be that as it may, if the New Testament teaches us how to read the Old, then we have to set aside the polite liberal interpretation, even if it puts us at odds with the powers and “common knowledge” of this age.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), s.v., יָדַע know a person carnally, sq. acc.: man subj. Gn 4:1, 17, 25; 24:16; 38:26 (all J), 1 S 1:19; Ju 19:25; 1 K 1:4; woman subj. Gn 19:8 (J), Nu 31:17, 18, 35 (all P), Ju 11:39; יֹדַעַת מִשְׁכַּב זָכָר Ju 21:11; לֹא יָֽדְעָה אִישׁ לְמִשְׁכַּב זָכָר v 12; man subj. and obj. (of sodomy) Gn 19:5 (J), Ju 19:22 sq. followed by. acc. accusative (direct obj. etc.).
2. Some texts have “the Lord” but the best textual evidence and the principles of textual criticism tell us that the most likely reading is “Jesus”, as in the NA28.
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