Bab edh-Dhra...is it Sodom?
Bab edh-Dhra is a prepatriarchal site on the Transjordan side of the Dead Sea. Some argue for an identification of the site as the biblical Sodom, but the destruction is much too early for the Abrahamic narrative. I had the opportunity to visit the site in 2009...It was very, very hot.
Location and Chronology
Located on the east side of the Dead Sea, Bab edh-Dhra's settlement history extends from the Paleolithic to Early Bronze Age III, though cemetery use and some open settlement activity continued into the Early Bronze Age IV. The earliest theory concerning the biblical patriarchs is Early Bronze Age IV, though some date Abraham into the Middle Bronze Age. This introduces something of a discrepancy for those who wish to identify Bab edh-Dhra as the biblical Sodom.
Possible Sodom Connection
Some (e.g., Wood, Discovery of the Sin Cities) identify Bab edh-Dhra as the biblical Sodom of Genesis. Many similarities give credence to the possibility, including the vicinity, presence of a walls and a gate, destruction by fire, and nearby buildings also burned with the fire beginning on the roof. Although the city was destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze Age III, and the earliest possibility for Abraham is Early Bronze Age IV based on biblical chronology, there is some uncertainty concerning the exact dates of the Early Bronze Age III, and therefore it is possible to place Abraham's chronology into the Early Bronze Age III, though this is a stretch. Given an understanding of the standard dates, the walled settlement phase of Bab edh-Dhra was destroyed around 2350 BC, and the open settlement was destroyed around 2200 BC, still too early for Abraham (Collins, Chronology for the Cities of the Plain, 6).
Material Culture of Biblical Significance
Instead of understanding Bab edh-Dhra as a biblical site, it is best understood as a mirror of what was occurring all over the Levant throughout the Early Bronze Age, culminating with the arrival of Abraham shortly after its destruction. The Early Bronze Age can be seen as a roller coaster ride—a process of evolution and devolution— beginning in Early Bronze Age I in relative peace with many unwalled villages. Bab edh-Dhra also shows signs of an emerging village in Early Bronze Age IA-B. During Early Bronze Age II, urban life begins to form, and so Bab edh-Dhra, also, shows signs of an emerging urban culture, including enclosing walls and public buildings. By the time of Early Bronze Age III, there are few, but large, walled cities, as the people of the land began to come together for protection from an unknown danger that was most likely each other. Life in Bab edh-Dhra is no different as the town becomes a walled city and reaches its greatest point of development. It is at this point, though, that disaster strikes. As seen throughout the Levant, and at Bab edh-Dhra, urban life quickly comes to an end and the people naturally revert back to that of open settlements in Early Bronze Age IV. It is at this point, the point of collapse in the heartland, that Abraham walks onto the scene—a land ripe for the taking.
We learn much from the cemeteries (shaft tombs and charnel houses) at Bab edh-Dhra, and therefore some essence of understanding religious, mortuary practices in prepatriarchal times. Additionally, a sense of the changing agricultural practices can be evidenced. As noted above, Bab edh-Dhra is one of several key sites to understanding life in the Early Bronze Age.
Chesson, Meredith S., Walter Emanuel Aufrecht, Ian Kuijt, Walter E. Rast, and R. Thomas Schaub. Daily Life, Materiality, and Complexity in Early Urban Communities of the Southern Levant: Papers in Honor of Walter E. Rast and R. Thomas Schaub. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2011.
Collins, S. “A Chronology for the Cities of the Plain,” BRB II.8, 2002.
Schaub, R. Thomas, and Walter E. Rast. Bab Edh-Dhra’: Excavations in the Cemetery Directed by Paul Lapp (1965-67). Vol. 1. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1989.
Wood, B. “The Discovery of the sin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Bible and Spade. 12 (3): 67-80, 1999.