Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – In a new paper in Nature archeologists Ted E. Bunch and Malcolm A. LeCompte et al. present their findings that a cosmic airburst destroyed an ancient city in 1650 BC (about 3600 years ago) at the site of today’s Tell el-Hammam in western Jordan near the mouth of the Jordan river.
A cosmic airburst is caused by a meteor exploding in the air before it strikes the earth. The most famous such event occurred in 1908 over Tunguska in eastern Siberia, burning trees in a five-mile radius and knocking down those beyond it.
The archeologists found that the sediment and the artifacts within it had been burned at temperatures as high as 4,500 degrees F., destroying buildings including a palace, and discovered human skeletons that appear to have been blasted apart.
The airburst occurred in the saline Dead Sea region, where the water is so salty you can’t sink. I’ve been swimming in the Dead Sea, and people cover themselves with mud so that they don’t get horribly sunburned from floating at the surface. The explosion would have evaporated some of the sea and the detonation drew salt from it and from the surrounding salt desert up to itself, then scattered the salt widely. They write, “anomalously high salt content in the debris matrix is consistent with an aerial detonation above high-salinity sediments near the Jordan River or above the hypersaline Dead Sea. This event, in turn, distributed salt across the region, severely limiting regional agricultural development for up to ~ 600 years.”
Thus, not only did the airburst obliterate the town at the site of Tell el-Hammam, it wiped out Jericho and other Canaanite cities in the area, and sowed salt into their soil so thoroughly that they were not inhabited for the subsequent three to seven hundred years. Population in this region fell from some 60,000 to a few hundred hunters and gatherers and stayed that way for centuries. As a lay person I wonder if this long term depopulation accounts for the tiny population in Jerusalem from the 1600s through about 1000 BC, when there were as few as 500 people living there. If David existed and was in Jerusalem (who knows?), he clearly was a village headman in a minor place with some roughhewn stone fortifications rather than a magnificent emperor with a shining palace.
The authors of the paper go on tentatively to suggest that the airburst could have become a folk memory, passed down in tales from generation to generation for a millennium as so was incorporated by the scribes in Achaemenid Babylon into the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Personally, I don’t approve of this sort of “biblical archeology.” Apocalyptic poets and sages were perfectly capable of imagining the wrath of the gods falling on a human city with cosmic ferocity without needing the actual example of a astronomical event like a meteor fall to inspire them. Many biblical materials go back to ancient Levantine religion of a thousand or two thousand years before the Tell el-Hammam airburst, visible in the Ugaritic tablets of ancient greater Syria.
Still, you can’t rule out that such a huge event could have left a long-term mark on the local Canaanite culture from which the Israelis emerged.
Genesis 19:1-5 says,
- The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2 He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” 3 But he urged 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. 4 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; 5 and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”
Lot offered them his daughters to rape instead of allowing the mob to rape his divine male visitors, but they would not be mollified. The angels advised Lot and his family to flee the coming consequent wrath of the Lord. Gen 19:24-26 says,
- 24 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; 25 and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26 But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
These passages became the basis for Jewish and Christian condemnations of gay people as wicked much later, in the medieval period, though the sin of the people of Sodom was not homosocial pleasure but rather the threat of male on male gang rape. That is, it was about sex as illicit power, applied to a guest. In societies marked by practices of reciprocity, disrespecting a guest is the worst thing you can do. Such societies are typically characterized by scarcity, so people are amazing generous when they have enough to share, in hopes that when thing turn down for them, others will reciprocate with their own generosity.
The Qur’an retells Gen 19 in a set of midrashes or interpretive reimaginings. One of these, The Spider 29:26-35, goes this way:
- 26Lot believed in Him, saying, “I am setting out to my Lord. He is the All-Glorious, the All-Wise.”
27We bestowed upon him Isaac and Jacob and established in his lineage a tradition of prophesying and delivering scripture. We gave him his compensation in this world, and he is among the righteous in the next.
28Lot said to his people, “You commit sexual improprieties to a degree that is unprecedented among all the peoples of the world. 29You approach men, and block the way, and commit immorality in your gatherings.”
The story ends as in Genesis:
- 33When Our emissaries came to Lot, he was distressed for them, since he could not protect them.
They said, “Have no fear, and do not be sad. We will deliver you and your family, except for your wife, who lags behind. 34We are raining down desolation on this city from the sky in retribution for their debauchery.”
35We left behind a clear sign from it for a people endued with reason.
Muslim clerics again misinterpreted this passage as a condemnation of homosexuality, when it is clearly slamming instead the predations of the people of Sodom, who sexually preyed upon and raped male strangers who came to their town.
If Bunch and Malcolm et al. are right, then a cosmic event, the airburst of a meteor, became an occasion for millennia of puritan preaching depicting the catastrophe as the result of human moral failings. In turn, they specified the supreme moral failing as sexual predation on guests.
And then subsequent millennia of clerics and religious authorities misinterpreted the scriptural story as a condemnation of homosexuality. So in this telling, a superstitious approach to a scientific even produced a superstitious approach to morality that eventuated in homophobia.
Me, I think the reality is likely a good deal more complicated and less positivistic, and that no meteors were needed for the bigoted to impose heteronormativity on society.
For more of my modern readings of the Qur’an, the scripture of Islam, see my recent book,