Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

The Sodom Series, #14

When Lot and his daughters reach the safety of Zoar, destruction comes. How were the cities of the Plain destroyed?

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.
–Genesis 19:24–26 NRSV

In nearly forty instances of the word rain in the Bible, it “is never to be taken for granted by mankind; it comes from the hand of God… in amounts proportionate to the spiritual condition of the inhabitants of that land” (TWOT, 1187).

In this instance, the Lord rained down not water, but “sulfur and fire… out of heaven.”

Upon the wicked He will rain coals; fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup.
–Psalm 11:6 NKJV

The word sulfur (brimstone in the KJV) is the Hebrew goprît (Strong’s, H1614), which occurs seven times in the Old Testament. (See Deuteronomy 29:23; Job 18:15; Psalm 11:6; Isaiah 30:33; 34:9; Ezekiel 38:22.)

The word goprît is a foreign loan word, most likely derived from Akkadian ki/ubritu, which means sulfurous oil (black sulfur) (Gentry 1999). The word accompanying goprît, wc es, simply means “and fire.” In other words, the material that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah and the Cities of the Plain (except Zoar) was a burning petroleum product. (Wood, Bryant G. “Discovery of the Sin Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, The.” 16 Apr. 2008. Associates for Biblical Research (biblearchaeology.org). Web. 05 July 2015. .).

What was the fire? The word esh is used in Job 1:16, where it may indicate lightning: “While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.’” Lightning alone seems unlikely in the Genesis 19 account.

The sulfur, or brimstone, was a burning petroleum product. Genesis 14:10 mentions pits of bitumen, a petroleum product similar to asphalt that “was commonly found in the shallow southern basin of the Dead Sea in antiquity” (Wood).

Natural gas and sulfur, which normally accompany bitumen and petroleum, are also present. These combustible materials could have been forced from the earth by subterranean pressure brought about by an earthquake resulting from the shifting of the bounding faults (Clapp 1936a: 906; 1936b: 40). Geologists who have studied the area in recent times agree with Clapp’s reconstruction (Harris and Beardow 1995: 360; Neev and Emery 1995: 13–14; 33, 37). If lightning or surface fires ignited these combustibles as they came spewing forth from the ground, it would indeed result in a holocaust such as described in Genesis 19. It is significant to note that both Bab edh-Dhra [Sodom] and Numeira [Gomorrah] lie at the edge of the plain, exactly on the eastern fault line! (Wood, emphasis mine)

Abraham, who interceded before the Lord for the deliverance of the cities of the Plain, witnessed the disappointing destruction.

27 Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord;
28 and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace.
29 So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had settled.
–Genesis 19:27–29 NRSV

Abraham saw smoke rising from the Plain, keqitor hakkibsan, like smoke jetting from a kibsan, a pottery kiln (Wood).

Smoke rising from the Plain below the Dead Sea would have been visible from Hebron. Abraham’s description “fits the theory of a conflagration of petroleum products, for such a conflagration would result in a thick black smoke being forced into the sky by the heat and pressure of the burning materials shooting out of the fissure in the earth” (Wood).

This ends the Genesis 19 account of the destruction of the cities of the Plain.

But we cannot form conclusions about the meaning of this account and the reason God overthrew these cities from this passage alone, for Sodom, Gomorrah, and the other cities are mentioned throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.

Let’s explore those passages and discover more—next time.

More information:

The Sin of Sodom coverTo read the full story, get my book, The Sin of Sodom: What the Bible Really Says About Why God Destroyed the Cities of the Plain, for Kindle and in trade paperback.

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