Archaeology not only bolsters our confidence in the biblical record but it also offers many insights into biblical narratives that we would not otherwise know about. It’s exciting to learn of new archeological discoveries that confirm biblical locations, customs and events. And the more we study these events, customs and locations, the more it illuminates our understanding of God’s Word.
Here are some great insights into biblical events from archaeology.
War of the Kings
In Genesis 14 we have the account of the War of the Kings. Chedorlaomer’s vassal cities—Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboyim and Zoar—had become rebellious against him and it was time to exact vengeance. Yet, when Chedorlaomer rolls into the area, he does not immediately attack Sodom, but goes past it and its surrounding cities, travelling instead all the way down to the desert area near El Paran (v. 6). We are not told why they make this seemingly inconvenient trip all the way south, but from the desert in the south, they turn back, head north, encounter some losses with some men falling into tar pits, and defeated Sodom, Gomorroah, and its surrounding cities, took captives, before returning back home.
It turns out, there is only one thing found in the southern desert in Sinai—copper. Chedorlaomer was after the copper resources. It’s one of the major copper producing areas in the Near East. Solomon himself had massive copper mines in this area. Also, this mining area is not far from the Gulf of Aqaba. Since copper is very heavy, an easier way to transport it, especially if you are going to steal it and make an escape, would be to float it up through the Gulf of Eilat. If he had a flotilla, he would be able to hug the coast right around the Persian Gulf, the Tigris, and the Euphrates rivers until he arrived home. On his way back after the copper raid, he would need food, provisions and water for his men. Since the amount of food and water required for his estimated six to eight thousand men would be significant, he would need to save the largest city on his campaign for last—the city of Sodom.
Dead Sea Tar Pits
The men of Sodom met Chedorlaomer’s troops along the west side of the Dead Sea, in the Valley of Siddim. In this area along the shore of the Dead Sea there are large underground bubbles which form from underground gasses, even to this day. In fact, there is a danger of falling into these pits. It’s so real that the state of Israel posts signs in the area warning people to not take walks around the Dead Sea, as people continue to fall twenty to thirty meters into these pits and die from time to time.
Nonetheless, Sodom’s efforts proved useless, his army was defeated, Chedorlaomer sacked his city, obtained the required provisions for his men, and started off on his journey back home with the spoil, which included Abraham’s nephew Lot. At this point, Abraham chased Chedorlaomer’s troops up the King’s Highway, likely waiting for him to separate from his allies near Damascus (v. 15), and there he defeated him.
Why was Abraham at Mamre?
Now, what was Abraham doing hanging out near the oaks of Mamre near Jerusalem when news arrived that Lot was taken captive (v. 13)? He was in the area because he was likely a nomadic vassal to Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem. Abraham was a nomad, which meant he typically would move around wherever he pleased. He had been doing that his whole life from Ur to Haran, Egypt and back. In fact, he had probably been to Canaan before God called him. There were many different types of nomadic people at that time. Some were the Bedouin, the Shasu, and the Habiru. The Shasu typically stayed to themselves. Abraham was certainly not a Shasu because he had his own standing army of at least three-hundred trained men, ready to fight. Instead he is likely a Habiru, which is etymologically related to the word Hebrew. In fact, in Akkadian it has the exact same sound consonants. This is probably why 14:13 refers to “Abraham the Hebrew”. It would be like saying Abraham, the Habiru nomad living outside Jerusalem.
Now, the Habiru people, with their standing armies, were often under contract to protect city-states. In exchange for the right to farm off the land, they would agree to be the first line of defense in case the city was attacked. They also agreed to give the king ten percent of the spoils from any such battle in addition to providing protection.
Abraham, Vassal to Melchizedek
Suddenly the narrative of Genesis 14 makes much more sense. Abraham was a vassal to King Melchizedek of Jerusalem. This is why we find him living just outside the city with his flocks and troops, why he gives Melchizedek ten percent of the spoils, why Melchizedek blessed Abraham (making Melchizedek the greater party), and why Abraham refused to take anything from the King of Sodom’s hands. Abraham would do nothing to jeopardize his agreement with Melchizedek. He would do nothing that might suggest he was also working for the King of Sodom. So he refused any of the spoil from him. It might have been tempting for Abraham to consider leaving Melchizedek and going to work for the King of Sodom—after all, King Bera was ten times more powerful than Melchizedek king of Jerusalem—but Abraham refused to take it, revealing what kind of integrity he had in honoring his contract with Melchizedek. What wonderful insight into this mysterious passage!
Sodom and Gomorrah
There is archeology that explains how Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed. For many, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah sounds a little too mythical to accept. However, Dr. Steven Collins has positively identified the Tall el-Hammam site with Sodom.
Excavations at the Tall el-Hammam site revealed a most sophisticated wall system with an upper rampart made entirely of mud bricks seven to ten meters thick at the top, and thirty-five to forty meters thick at the bottom. While every other rampart system in the Levant is made of packed dirt, this unusually massive wall was constructed with sixty to ninety million mud bricks. The sheer magnitude of the site is overwhelming, especially when we consider that it is the largest city in the Southern Levant for most of 2,200 years (Askelon and Hazzor also held that title for small periods during this timeframe).
Moreover, there is convincing evidence that the city and the plains were destroyed through an airburst event. This event was similar to the one which occurred in Russia recently in February, 2013. If the meteor over Russia has been just ten percent larger and in a straighter trajectory it would have probably killed a million people or more, producing an airburst more in line with the Siberian Tunguska airburst in 1908 which produced an explosion one thousand times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
What is the evidence that Sodom was destroyed through such an event? This was the best-watered agricultural land in the region and remained without cities and towns for the ensuing five to seven centuries following its Middle Bronze II destruction (as evidenced by the seven hundred year pottery gap). Trinitite was discovered on the back of a pottery shard which also contained a zircon bubble. This can only be caused from extreme temperatures consistent with an airburst event. The entire gate area is covered with half meter thick black, dark ash. Scattered human bones throughout the site suggest people were literally blown apart from the event.
Such an airburst event can also explain how Lot’s wife could be turned into a pillar of salt. His wife, having turned back, would have been walking by the Dead Sea when the airburst hit. The Dead Sea has the highest salt concentration of any other body of water on earth. The airburst, with its searing temperatures, would have covered the entire landscape with an encrustation of salt. It is not inconceivable to think that she would be dead in an instant, but how a little figure or her could remain—in salt.
These discoveries are just a few of the many recent archeological discoveries that have illuminated our understanding of biblical passages. This is what makes the study of archaeology so exciting for the Christian. We have seen that not only are the locations described in the Bible real, but by going out and digging up the land, we open up wonderful new insights which ultimately deepen our walk with God.
Collins, S., and C. Latayne. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. New York: Howard Books, 2013, 100-125.
Kitchen, K. A.. The Bible in Its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004, 92-107