Friday, December 4, 2015

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Cities of the Plain

The motto for the next part of the program might as well be “cultura non facit saltus, but archaeology never stands still.”  In other words, without following the course of archaeological discoveries, people develop and perpetuate urban legends.
I had told you to read the flood story up to the Tower of Babel; that includes chapter 10.
The urban legend about chapter 10 is that it represents a picture of Mesopotamian relationships from the 600s or 500s BCE.
Except for one problem.  It describes “The boundary of the K’naani was from Tsidon as you go toward Grar, to Azah as you go toward Sdom and Amorah, Admah and Tsvoiim to Lasha.” 
The story of Sdom and Amorah, Admah and Tsvoiim is best known from Avraham’s times, and it was supposed to be a fairy tale.  A total fabrication.
Except for two things. 
One is the discovery in Numeira, now part of Jordan, of the sites of four cities that were abandoned in the 2300s BCE and not re-occupied until the 1200s BCE, as well as a fifth which was continuously occupied.
And the discovery of Ebla.
In the 2300s BCE when Naram-Sin destroyed Ebla, a fire baked archival tablets hard and they survived, some of them in fragments.  One lists trade partners, associated geographically.  Among them, associated with the Dead Sea region, are S’dom and Admah.
Not all four “cities of the plain,” but the two apparent major partners in two twin-city pairs.
The cities of the plain appear in only two places: Genesis, and the early prophets.  Amos refers to Sdom and Amorah; Hoshea refers to Admah and Tsevoiim.  Remember, these prophets worked in the 700s BCE.  They set a date when these references had to be well-known among Jews, a comment I will explain from another viewpoint near the end of this blog.
Think about it.  Amos and Hoshea use the cities of the plain as examples of total destruction.  They don’t tell the stories; they just make the reference.  Who is going to listen to that, except somebody who has been hearing the full story constantly from childhood up?
Let me give you a for-instance.  My nieces have been hearing all their lives about scandals called X-gate.  They had no idea why.  Then I told them the story of Watergate, which happened when I was their ages. 
It’s the same thing with Amos and Hoshea.  Nobody would have understood why they were nattering on about Sdom and Amorah, Admah and Tsevoiim, unless these were familiar from childhood up.  Amos and Hoshea would have to stop and explain what they meant, and that would have derailed the image they were trying to produce.  Not to mention the fact that people would have said, “How do you know?  This is the first time we’re hearing about it.”  The cities had been re-occupied by the time Amos and Hoshea referred to them – by the Moabites.  Nobody but a 20th century archaeologist living 2800 years later would realize that the cities had been destroyed in the 2300s BCE.
The probability is vanishingly small that Ebla’s archives and Amos and Hoshea would have the same city names in them, let alone that the geographical association would be the same, because they were separated by 13 centuries of time.
So the issue of the cities of the plain goes back before the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom, Israel, by almost 100 years as a reference, and since cultura non facit saltus, there has to be an associated story even older than Amos and Hoshea.  Given the probabilities, the story comes from centuries before 2000 BCE, the time of Utu-Hengel and the Sumerian Kings List.
But wait, there’s more.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved


  1. IIRC in this week's (Shabbos Chazon) haftarah the prophet Isaiah also refers to Sdom and Amorah.

  2. Thanks! For those who don't know, every week we read a set portion of Torah. We also read set portions of Prophets, and one explanation is that when in the past it was prohibited to read Torah in synagogue, set portions of Prophets were selected for substitutes because in some way they referred to the same issues. The Mechon Mamre site has a table of the readings here.
    The Chabad website has an explanation.