In Genesis 19:24, it states:

Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;

Does this passage suggest that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were struck by a natural disaster such as a volcanic eruption?

Some eruptive clouds are quite impressive, such as this recent Chilean eruption, image below:

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What archaeological evidence is there that this type of disaster is similar to what was witnessed in the Genesis passage?

  • @Amaterasu-I DV'd this question, not because I don't think there is a good question in here, but because the answer is ambiguous either way. Are you asking, "Did God cause this event?" That I can answer(or Dan, for that matter) with the textual clues. However, you are seeming to ask "Does God do it this way or that", or, "Is God responsible for every natural disaster?" Those are ambiguous questions, the result of which are pure speculations. – Tau Jan 27 '14 at 16:20
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    @user2479 All I am asking in my this question is if that particular passage text in Genesis implies that the people witnessed a volcanic eruption. I am not asking anything about God whatsoever. The questions you assume are not in any way what I am asking - the answer below is perfect for what I am after. Ihave edited the last sentence to specifically state that I am after archaeological evidence. – user3376 Jan 27 '14 at 19:28
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    Yes, it's a good question with a good answer :) – Jack Douglas Jan 27 '14 at 19:41
  • According to this video, the brimstone (sulfur) that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah was 98% pure sulfur (analysis of the sulfur begins at the 19:27 mark). It goes on to state that naturally occurring, volcanic sulfur contains only 40% sulfur. As such it rules out volcanic activity. The video is pretty convincing (to me anyway), especially with the sulfur balls that can still be found in the area. – user6503 Apr 29 '16 at 15:13

Textual Evidence

The text itself does not give enough information to deduce whether a volcanic eruption occurred or just a miraculous event (the literal interpretation), but commentators have long noted the similarity of this language with that of other volcano legends in early Semitic literature.

The translation of 'brimstone and fire' (גָּפְרִ֣ית וָאֵ֑שׁ) as 'burning sulfur' is also common, and the Greek Septuagint also uses comparable terms (θεῖον καὶ πῦρ, 'sulfur and fire').

Archaeological Evidence

The IVP Old Testament Commentary points out,

The scene is one of divine retribution. Brimstone appears here and elsewhere as an agent of purification and divine wrath upon the wicked (Ps 11:6; Ezek 38:22). The natural deposits of bitumen and the sulfurous smell attached to some areas around the Dead Sea combine to provide a lasting memory of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. One can only speculate about the actual manner of this destruction, but perhaps the combustion of natural tars and sulfur deposits and the release of noxious gases during an earthquake are a part of the story (Deut 29:23).

It is also notable to observe that in Genesis 19:26 where Lot's wife becomes a 'pillar of salt,' the IVP Commentary explains,

The story of the punishment of Lot’s wife is often illustrated by some grotesquely humanlike, salt-encrusted objects that have become landmarks in the Dead Sea area (alluded to in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 10:4). This phenomenon is a result of the salt spray that blows off the Dead Sea. Huge salt nodules still appear in the shallow sections of the lake. The mineral salts of the region include sodium, potash, magnesium, calcium chlorides and bromide. An earthquake in the area could easily have ignited these chemicals, causing them to rain down on the victims of the destruction.

In the article "Where Is Sodom?" in the March/April 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, archaeologist Steven Collins uses clues from Biblical geography and archaeological evidence from the site of Tall el-Hammam in Jordan to suggest that the author of Genesis 13 located Sodom in a fertile area northeast of the Dead Sea (which would be the same Sodom referenced in Genesis 19).

According to another article discussing Collins' article,

Seeking to answer the question “Where is Sodom?” and using the Biblical geography of Genesis 13 as a guide, Collins decided to excavate Tall el-Hammam, an extensive and heavily fortified site located in modern Jordan at the eastern edge of the kikkar. First inhabited during the Chalcolithic period (4600–3600 B.C.E.), the site attained its maximum size during the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1600 B.C.E.) and became one of the largest cities in Canaan. But unlike other Canaanite cities that continued to flourish in the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 B.C.E.), Tall el-Hammam was destroyed by fire at the end of the Middle Bronze Age and remained uninhabited for centuries....

Across Tall el-Hammam, archaeologists found widespread evidence of an intense conflagration that left the Middle Bronze Age city in ruins. They found scorched foundations and floors buried under nearly 3 feet of dark grey ash, as well as dozens of pottery sherds covered with a frothy, “melted” surface; the glassy appearance indicates that they were briefly exposed to temperatures well in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the approximate heat of volcanic magma. Such evidence suggests the city and its environs were catastrophically destroyed in a sudden and extreme conflagration.

If the site of Tall el-Hammam really was the city of Sodom referenced in Genesis 13 and 19 (and that if is a significant caveat), then yes, it is plausible that at least the city of Sodom was wiped out in a volcanic eruption, likely one caused by tectonic activity.

However, there are other proposed sites for these cities, and there is not yet enough evidence to indicate that the Biblical cities have indeed been properly identified by archaeologists.


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