Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an asteroid coming to wipe out a city! One of the cottage industries outside biblical studies is the interest in finding historical events to explain Bible stories. A few years ago it was proposed, with some degree of probability, that the flooding of the Black Sea by the Mediterranean, validated by archaeology, led to the story of Noah’s flood. I recently saw a story suggesting that the destruction of Tall el-Hammam by an asteroid about 3,600 years ago might’ve been the basis of the story of the destruction of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah most prominent among them. The piece by Christopher R. Moore in The Conversation describes the moments of horror—mercifully brief—as the space rock exploded above ground and wiped the city from the face of the earth.
Since this happened near the location of Jericho, the destructive shock waves knocked its walls down, leading to another biblical tale. I often wonder about these “theories.” They show just how deeply biblical our society is. The frame of reference is already there. People know about Sodom and Gomorrah. They know about the flood. They know of naked Adam and Eve and a snake wrapped around a tree. When a disaster happens in the right region, and before the biblical story was written, it is suggested as the etiology of the tale. Many have tried to explain the plagues of Egypt using similar methods. Our culture seems to long for some skyhook on which to hang our biblical hat. Some indication of why people put such strange stories in the Good Book.
Biblical scholars look too, but with a different perspective. Etiologies are stories of origins. Traditionally the Genesis account of the cities of the plain is understood as an etiology of the Dead Sea. A unique geological feature of this planet, it is, in a word, weird. The story of Abraham’s nephew Lot seems to explain it. The article makes a compelling case for a heavenly fireball at about the right time that wiped out a settlement of about 8,000 people. Genesis wasn’t written yet at 1600 BCE, the time of the event. Since the impact site wasn’t far from the Dead Sea it seems to fit the bill for a valid etiology. None of these events proves biblical stories true, but they do show possible avenues of transmission. This one definitely has me wondering.