The last we talked about Abraham, we left him bargaining with God about the city of Sodom, like a buyer in the market (Gen. 18:27-32): what if there are fifty righteous? What if 45? How about 20? How about 10? Why was he bargaining like this with God? Because God had revealed his plan to Abraham to destroy Sodom. Abraham was trying to rescue his nephew, Lot, who lived in that city. So what was the problem with Sodom, and why did God want to destroy it?
To understand the story of Sodom, we have to go back a little in the life of Abraham, before the visit of the three men, to the time when Abraham first came to Canaan. Abraham didn’t travel alone to Canaan. Originally, Lot lived with Abraham and travelled with him through all his adventures (Gen. 12:4,5).
They continued together to Egypt and back again (Gen. 13:1) until they came to Bethel a second time, where Abraham had built an altar. As it says in Gen. 13:3: “And he went on his journeys from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai.”
Bethel is high up in the hill country, just as Jerusalem is (or Salem as it was known at the time). From Abraham's campsite, just a little to the east of Bethel, there is a spectacular view down into the Jordan Valley, the deep canyon where the Jordan River runs and where the Dead Sea is located. The bottom of this canyon is so deep, it’s several hundred feet below sea level.
The view from Bethel is especially clear in the wintertime, when the winter rains wash all the desert dust out of the air. Today when you look down into that valley, it's barren and dry—except in the few places that are irrigated with spring water or other irrigation water. But otherwise, it’s mostly barren.
But in Abraham's day, the Bible says it was like the "garden of the Lord," that is, like the garden of Eden, or "like the land of Egypt," that is, the fertile Nile river valley. As it says in Gen. 13:10: "And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere—before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as you go to Zoar."
Zoar is at the southern tip of the Dead Sea far to the south. So "as you go to Zoar" means that the whole length of the valley as far as you could see was green and beautiful. But that’s not how it looks today. What happened to change things so much?
The word translated "well watered" (mashekeh; Gen. 13:10), actually means irrigated. As in the Garden of Eden and the Nile Valley, the land here was made green through artificial irrigation. Rain water flowing down from the hill country or coming up from springs was trapped and used to grow crops, as is still done today in this area, although only in a few areas.
But in the time of Abraham, archeology tells us that there were five large and flourishing cities down in this valley. These are known as the Bab Ed-Dhra excavations, on the east side of the valley. To give you an idea of the size of these cities: the first burial ground discovered (at Bab edh-Dhra) held up to 500,000 burials! That's one of the largest cemeteries yet found in the entire ancient Middle East. Two others were soon discovered with nearly equal numbers of burials (at Feifa and Khanazir): that's a total of more than a million burials! There must have been a lot of people living here to have such large cemeteries! Unless the land was much more fertile and green in the past than it is today, it's hard to imagine how so many people could have lived here.
These five cities are each located at the base of a dry river bed east and southeast of the Dead Sea. They dammed up these dry river beds to catch rain water and then used it to irrigate the valley. These five cities match perfectly the "cities of the plain" mentioned in Gen. 14 and 19: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (also known as Zoar).
The view over this fertile valley must have attracted Lot when he and Abraham stood there at Bethel, deciding what to do about their growing flocks. They had too many animals to continue grazing together (Gen. 13:6), and it had even come to fighting between their herdsmen (Gen. 13:7). So Lot chose to take his herds down into the Jordan Valley instead of staying up in the hill country with Abraham (“Lot chose all the district of the Jordan; and Lot set out eastward and they parted...” Gen. 13:11).
Lot's decision to live in the valley turned out to be a bad one. Soon after he arrived, Sodom and Gomorrah were attacked by a group of kings from the north, from Mesopotamia. This was dangerous for everyone living in the area, including Lot and Abraham. These were the ancestors of the guys chopping off heads in Syria and Iraq today. It also tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah were pretty important cities to entice them to come such a great distance through the desert to attack them. Even Abraham got caught up in the fighting. We don’t often think of Abraham as a man of war. But in this battle, Abraham turned out to be a hero. What happened?
Gen. 14:1-2: "And it came about in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar (SE Iraq), Arioch king of Ellasar (later known as Assyria in central Iraq), Chedorlaomer king of Elam (W. Iran), and Tidal king of Goiim (E. Turkey), that they made war with Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, that is, Zoar." The first king, Amraphel, came all the way from, Shinar (or Sumer), the same area that Abraham originally came from (Gen. 11:28,31).
The kings from the north came down along what's known as the "King's Highway" (Num. 20:17; 21:22) through Syria and Jordan—a second major trail or "highway" through the Land of the Bible, parts of which are still used today. The first or most important “highway” was down along the coast, the Coastal Road, where there were many more people living because it was greener and more comfortable. But the kings from the north came down along the Eastern Highlands, far above the valley below, destroying as they went (Gen. 14:5-7).
The first place they attacked was Ashteroth (“and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth,” Gen. 14:5). This is an area where a lot of strange burials suddenly appear just at this time, with big standing stones. This is the kind of thing you expect to find in Europe: in France or England, like Stonehenge (tumuli burials over menhirs and dolmens). What are they doing here in the Middle East? It might have something to do with the people the Bible says were living here at the time. It calls them Rephaim, which means giants. In other parts of the world where these large standing stones are found, they are also connected with giants. Maybe there’s something to these ancient legends!
Later, in the time of Moses, Ashteroth was the capital city of King Og, the king of Bashan (the ancient name for the Golan Heights). He’s the one for whom the Bible gives the size of his bed as 13 ft long (4.3 m) and 6 ft wide (2 m; Deut. 3:11)! This means he was really big, as much as twelve feet tall (4 m), and weighing about 600 lbs (270 kg). Imagining someone that big is very strange for us today.
But even in recent times there have been quite a few people who grew to eight and nine feet tall. These are really big people in recent history. So of course you know that if they exist today, they existed back then, too. In the past, it was considered quite common to find burials of really huge people. These discoveries were regularly reported in the newspapers and in academic journals. But today you don’t hear much about them anymore.
From Ashteroth, the kings continued to the town of Ham (in Gilead). Here they fought the Zuzim (“and defeated...the Zuzim in Ham,” Gen. 14:5). According to Deut. 2:20,21, these Zuzim (also known as Zamzummin) were also Rephaim or giants (“It is also regarded as the land of the Rephaim, for Rephaim formerly lived in it, but the Ammonites call them Zamzummin, a people as great, numerous, and tall as the Anakim...” Deut. 2:20,21).
And when they arrived at Kiriathaim they fought the Emim (“and defeated...the Emim in the valley of Kiriathaim,” Gen. 14:5). According to Deut. 2:10,11, these Emim were also Rephaim (“The Emim lived there formerly, a people as great, numerous, and tall as the Anakim. Like the Anakim, they are also regarded as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim”). This tells us that there were giants, Rephaim, living along the whole stretch of the Eastern Highlands in what is today Jordan. By the time of Moses, the Bible says that King Og was the only one left (Deut. 3:11).
From Kiriathaim, the kings continued on to fight the Horites (the Hurrians) in Mt. Seir (Edom), and on as far as El-paran (probably in the area of Elat down by the Red Sea). Then they circled around to Kadesh to the west where the Israelites later spent many years during their wilderness wanderings. And from there they continued to Hazazon-tamar (which is En Gedi, 2 Chron. 20:2). In other words, they cut off any assistance the cities of the plain could hope for from their neighbors all around them.
This was standard procedure for kings from the north in their attacks against Israel. They would cut off smaller, easily defeated villages before attacking the larger cities. This way, the supply lines for support were cut off, and the larger cities could be taken more easily. It also served as psychological warfare to frighten the enemy you were about to attack.
Then the kings came to the valley of the Salt Sea, the area around what today we call the Dead Sea. This valley is also called the Valley of Siddim in the Bible. Here the kings from the north faced a coalition of five kings that came out against them: the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (Zoar; "...and they arrayed for battle against them in the valley of Siddim," Gen. 14:8).
At the time, the Bible says this valley was full of tar pits (asphalt pits; "And the valley of Siddim was full of tar pits..." Gen. 14:10). You can’t see the pits there today, but the tar is still there under the water. This is what makes the famous Dead Sea mud that’s used in cosmetics still today.
These tar pits were valuable and important in ancient times. Desert caravans brought Dead Sea tar to Egypt to use in sealing boats and preserving mummies. The Romans called the Dead Sea the "Lake of Asphalt" because of the big clods of tar that floated to the surface every once in a while—and still do today, some of them the size of a classroom.
Some English translations (and the Chinese) say that during the fighting, the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fell into these pits. But this is probably not the meaning of the Hebrew here: it says only that they “fell,” in other words, that they were defeated, there in the valley where the pits were. So a better translation is, "And the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and they were defeated there" (Gen. 14:10).
The victorious kings from the north plundered the cities, taking everything they could find, including people for slaves, animals, and belongings. One of those taken was Lot ("...for he [Lot] was living in Sodom," Gen. 14:12). This tells us that Lot had left his tents behind to live in the city of Sodom. This was another bad decision that Lot had made.
Abram was told what happened by one of the survivors, who found him with his flocks at Mamre, near Hebron (Gen. 14:13). But rather than mourn the loss of his nephew, Abraham decided to do something about it. Abram went to the rescue with 318 men "born in his house" ("And when Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan," Gen. 14:14). Since Abram had no children of his own yet, these were all his slaves or servants. Wow! That gives you an idea how wealthy Abraham had become! This is the size of a small town. If he had that many men working for him, just imagine the number of sheep and goats he had: thousands! He was also joined by his allies from Hebron (Gen. 14:13, 24).
Abraham went north through the hill country and then along the Coastal Road to Dan, avoiding the road the kings were on so they would have no idea they were being pursued. At Dan, you can still see a mudbrick gate from the time of Abraham. He could have passed through this same gate on his way to rescue Lot.
From there, he climbed up into the hill country (the Golan Heights), not far from Damascus. By now the kings from the north were expecting no attack, and were probably enjoying the spoils of war on their way home. But that night, Abraham divided his men and attacked the kings from two directions. He completely surprised and defeated them (“And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them, and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus,” Gen. 14:15). Then he chased the survivors another 100 miles north to Hobah. In the end, he rescued all the captives, including Lot, and all that the kings had taken (“And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people,” Gen. 14:16)! This was a tremendous victory for Abraham!
On his way back home, Abraham was greeted as a hero by the king of Sodom and by Melchizedek, the king of the nearby city of Salem, in other words, Jerusalem. Everyone in the area was grateful for what Abraham had done.
The meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek is filled with symbolism. In the book of Hebrews, you probably remember, Melchizedek is considered a picture or a foreshadowing of Jesus (Heb. 5-7). Why? His name, Melchi-zedek, means “king of righteousness,” and he was not only the king of Jerusalem, but also a priest of God. In the same way, Jesus is both a righteous priest and a king and will rule in Jerusalem.
Gen. 14:18: “And Melchizedek, king of Salem brought out bread and wine; and he was a priest of El Elyon (the most high God).” The bread and wine he brought out to Abraham were for a ritual meal of thanksgiving to El Elyon, the most high God. But this was not a pagan god: Melchizedek was worshipping the true God of the Bible! How do I know that?
Abraham tells us himself when he identifies his God, Yahweh (the personal name of the God of the Bible, often written as LORD in capital letters), with El Elyon (“And Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have lifted up my hand to Yahweh, El Elyon, owner of the heavens and the earth,” Gen.14:22). Abraham clearly considered Yahweh and El Elyon to be the same God. This means that Melchizedek and some other people at the time were still worshipping the God of the Bible! The lifting of Abraham’s hand was the gesture for taking an oath. He was making a promise that he would not take any of the spoils of the battle for himself (Gen. 14:23).
Until this point, the Bible has given no hint of what made Sodom and Gomorrah so wicked. We know only that they were attacked and that Abraham rescued them. But many years later we find out what the problem was after the three men paid a visit to Abraham. This is when Abraham bargained with God to try to save the city. ‘What if there are only 50 righteous? What if only 40?’
While the Lord was standing there talking with Abraham, the two angels left for Sodom on the other side of the valley. When they entered the city, they met Lot, sitting in the gate of the city (“Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground,” Gen. 19:1). The gate was connected to the city walls that were discovered in the excavations. Like his uncle Abraham, Lot shows great respect to these visitors, not only inviting them to his home, but even insisting that they stay the night with him.
Then he prepared a feast for them, just like his uncle Abraham had done (“And he urged them strongly, and they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made a feast for them, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate,” Gen. 19:3). But before they could go to bed for the night, all the men of the city came to Lot’s door (“Before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both young and old, all the people from the whole city,” Gen. 19:4).
Gen. 19:5: “And they called to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them.’” These men were not gathered to show hospitality to Lot’s visitors. They wanted to “get to know" them (from the Hebrew root yadah, "to know")—but not in a polite, social way. They wanted to get to know them in a carnal, wicked way. And this was not just a few troublemakers: it was all the men of the city, from one side of the city to the other, that wanted to have homosexual relations with them! Now we know what is so horribly wrong with this city, and why God came to destroy it!
Notice the attitude of these men at Lot’s door. There is nothing romantic about this homosexuality. It is simply carnal lust. Some homosexuals say that the sin in Sodom was not homosexuality itself, but only that they wanted to rape the men. It was the violence that was the problem, not homosexuality itself. That sounds good. And it’s because of arguments like this that many people are now more accepting of the homosexual lifestyle. ‘How can it be wrong if they love each other?’ many think. But as people are slowly starting to find out, homosexual relationships are not like heterosexual relationships. They are rarely monogamous. Studies have shown that both partners in homosexual marriages continue to have many outside relationships. And when other people find out about this, including those who have supported homosexuals in the past, they feel betrayed. Why? Because they thought they were helping them defend true love. But now they see that homosexual relations are nothing like the true love of a traditional marriage. What the homosexuals have promoted as true love is in fact nothing more than a cleverly disguised lust. And it’s a lust that can get just as violent and angry at those who oppose them today as it did that night in Sodom.
When the situation started to get dangerous, Lot did something which is very hard for us even to read about. He said to the crowd, “Look now, I have two daughters that have not known a man; I will bring them out now to you and you will do to them what is good in your eyes, only to these men do not do a thing, for they have come under the shelter of my roof’” (Gen. 19:8). How could he say something like this? This is another very bad decision on Lot’s part. Why would he defend these visitors more than his own daughters? Part of the reason was the law of the desert. Even today, if a Bedouin accepts someone as a guest in his home, he is duty bound to defend that person, even to the death, as long as he is a guest in his home. But why wouldn’t he defend his own daughters? The best thing we can say is that maybe it’s because he knew that the men weren’t the least bit interested in his daughters. But whatever the reason, it was clearly a very bad situation.
Notice the way the men answer Lot: “But they said, ‘Make way.’ And they said, ‘This one came in as a stranger, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them.’ So they pressed hard against Lot and came near to break the door” (Gen. 19:9). What do they accuse Lot of? They accuse him of judging them. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
When the men were about to break down the door, the angels intervened, striking the men of the city with blindness (“And they struck the men who were at the doorway of the house with blindness, both small and great, so that they wearied themselves trying to find the doorway,” Gen. 19:11). Thank God for his supernatural protection! Then they revealed their mission to destroy the city (“For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry to the LORD against them has become so great that the LORD has sent us to destroy it,” Gen. 19:13).
Early the next morning, when Lot delayed, the angels grabbed him, his wife, and his daughters by their hands and brought them out of the city (“But he delayed. So the men took hold of his hand and the hand of his wife and the hand of his two daughters, for the compassion of the LORD was upon him; and they brought him out, and caused them to alight (yanichuhu) outside the city,” Gen. 19:16). The final verb of this verse is interesting: it means literally "caused them to alight" (yanichuhu), like a bird. In other words, the angels didn't walk them out of the city—they flew them out!
How did they do that? Well, how many angels were there? Two. And how many hands did they take hold of? Four: one hand of each of the four people ("his hand and the hand of his wife and the hand of his two daughters," Gen. 19:16). So that means that each angel grabbed a hand with each of his own hands (each angel took hold of one person's hand on one side and another person's hand on the other side) and then launched with them up into the air.
This is a picture of what will happen when Jesus returns. Jesus said, “In the same way, just as it happened in the days of Lot, they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building” (Luke 17:28). Life was going on as usual.
Luke 17:29: “but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed them all.” Everyone was killed.
Luke 17:30: “It will be just the same way on the day the Son of Man is revealed.” Life will go on as usual right up until the Messiah returns. Then there will be a terrible destruction that will destroy all the wicked from the earth. Lot and his family escaped from Sodom with their hands grasped by angels. So what do you think will happen to us when Jesus returns?
The Bible says that the believers will be removed from this world: “Then we, the living who remain, at the same time together with them will be snatched up in the clouds in order to meet the Lord in the air: and in this way we will always be together with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). What does it mean that we will be “snatched up”? Probably just like Lot: we will grasp the hands of angels—and up we’ll go! As it says in Matt. 24:31: “And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet sound, and they will gather his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” The angels will gather together all the believers to Jesus.
But from there, Lot and his family had to run, after being warned by the angels, 'Don't look back' (“And it was as they brought them out that he said, ‘Escape for your life! Don’t look behind you, and don’t stop anywhere in the district; escape to the mountain, or else you will be swept away,’” Gen. 19:17). The angels were only able to delay the destruction of the city until mid-morning, when Lot reached the little town of Zoar (Gen. 19:22,23).
Then, the Bible says simply, "And the LORD (Yahweh) rained on Sodom and on Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD (Yahweh) out of the heavens" (Gen. 19:24). This is that very important verse that we talked about before: God here, the one Abraham spoke with, and God there, in the heavens. Verses like this are the foundation of the Christian teaching of the Trinity: to explain how God can be in heaven but here with us at the same time.
The result of God’s judgment was the horrible destruction of those cities. The archeology shows a sudden, radical drop in population. Almost no one lived there after that until today. The whole area, once beautiful and prosperous, became a desert. What happened?
The Dead Sea is a geologically active area. Remember all the tar pits in that area? Even today there is often an oily film on the surface of the lake. This is from chemicals that are related to oil and gas. There are also frequent earthquakes in the area. There is underground heat, as can be seen in the hot springs in the area. It’s an unstable area. It would be very easy for a catastrophe to take place here.
What the Bible actually says is that God rained down “sulfur and fire from the LORD out of the heavens” (Gen. 19:24). A few verses later, it mentions a huge column of smoke that Abraham saw rising from the area: "And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw...the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace" (Gen. 19:28). This tells us it was a thick, black smoke.
Although to some people this sounds like a volcanic eruption, there is no volcano close enough. But there is another possibility: A violent earthquake that set off a natural gas explosion. This would have shot burning debris up into the air that fell back down again on the cities. This would explain all the sulfurous material falling from the sky: tar, like the tar in those tar pits, has a high percentage of sulfur in it. This would also explain the thick black smoke, like an oil or gas fire. This would also release poisonous fumes.
The archeologists excavating the cities of the plain saw clear evidence that an earthquake had destroyed them. There was also evidence of extensive burning, including burned mudbrick buildings. There were also burned human bones. This burning was found not only in the city, but also in the cemetery. This tells us that it was not an ordinary fire. A fire caused by war or because of an accident would only affect the city. Why would anyone burn a cemetery? This tells us it was a very unusual fire. Others were found dead without any evidence of burning. Perhaps they died from the fumes.
A great deal of confusion can be seen in the cities at the time of their destruction: many tried to escape when warned of danger, perhaps by a warning earthquake; some even blocked their doorways before leaving; but no one ever returned to open those doors again. That’s the sign of a horrible catastrophe. Many were trapped and died: their skeletons were found everywhere.
There’s one other important detail that we should learn from this story which Jesus applied to the prophetic future. Do you remember that he taught, “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). This is one of the shortest verses in the Bible. What are we supposed to learn from Lot’s wife? Do you remember that the angel told them, “Don’t look back?” But Lot’s wife did it anyway.
Gen. 19:26: “But his wife, from behind him, looked back; and she became a pillar of salt (or a watchman of salt).” Although many translations say she became a "pillar" of salt, the word used here (netziv in Hebrew) refers to a look-out "station" or an officer who is "stationed" over others. The idea is that because she couldn't keep herself from looking back, she was "stationed" in death, as a "watchman of salt," looking over that place of desolation.
Whatever was happening was probably loud: with the earthquake, there may have been landslides of rock crashing down from the mountains, followed by an explosion. Lot was looking straight ahead, running as fast as he could. But his wife remained behind, in the danger zone, watching the disaster coming on the city. Perhaps she was buried under a landslide or trapped under debris from the explosion.
However it happened, the point is that she was destroyed because she stopped to look back. How should we understand Jesus’ warning? When Jesus comes, don’t look back! When the angel comes to get you, don’t go looking around for your cell phone. Just grab his hand and go! Those who turn back to the world will be destroyed, just like Lot’s wife. As Jesus put it, "On that day, let not the one who is on the housetop and whose goods are in the house go down to take them away; and in the same way let not the one who is in the field turn back. Remember Lot's wife" (Luke 17:31,32).
What will you do when that day comes? Are you ready to go if Jesus comes? Are you ready to leave everything behind? Are your eyes fixed on the things of God and not the things of this world? I hope so. Because no one knows the day or the hour of his coming. That means that when it comes, you won’t be expecting it. So we must always be ready. We must always be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Are you ready for Jesus to come?
Let’s pray: Father God, as we look around at our world, we can see that the day of your coming is getting closer and closer. Disturbing things are happening all over. There is more sin and immorality every year. And fewer and fewer Christians are standing up for what’s right. They’re even accepting and permitting homosexuality and other sins. The Bible told us that many would fall away from the truth before your return. And we see it happening all around us. Lord, help us not to fall. Help us not to be among those who turn back and are destroyed. Because you are a holy and a righteous God. And you will not permit any sin in your presence. Lord help us to be holy, too. Help us to be loving even toward those who are our enemies, just like you are, so that maybe some of them can be saved. Lord, we need your help in these difficult times. But we know that you are faithful and that if we call on your name, you will never let us go. And for this we thank you, Lord. Thank you for your love, thank you for your concern for us. Thank you that you are coming to get us, and take us out of this dark world. And it’s in Jesus’ name that we pray. And everyone said?
Painting is public domain courtesy of Wikipedia