Several weeks ago, Brian Thomas of ICR offered the curious claim that a Dead Sea Sediment Core Confirms Genesis. “According to the Bible, in around 2000 B.C. what is now the Dead Sea used to be a plain that probably served as farmland for people of the nearby debauched city of Sodom,” writes Thomas. After the Dead Sea Deep Drilling Project reported evidence that the Dead Sea once completely dried up in the past, Mr. Thomas drew an immediate connection. He continues, “This research demonstrating that the Dead Sea was indeed once a dry region supports the Bible as a trustworthy historical record.”
No one can blame Mr. Thomas for his enthusiasm, but we should immediately question why the presumed connection was not reported rather in biblical archaeology news. The Science Magazine report gives one important clue: the sediment layer to which Mr. Thomas is referring was buried 235 meters below the surface and is 120,000 years old—not ~4,000. The sediment core has been dated using a combination of the radiocarbon and U-Th radiometric methods, along with correlation of oxygen-isotope trends to ocean sediments and ice cores of known age.
Of course, Mr. Thomas and others would object to the dating methods used to construct an age model for the Dead Sea sediments, but several factors make the objection irrelevant. First, for the Dead Sea basin to have dried up (leaving a layer of pebbled beach deposits), the region must have been extremely arid—more so than today. Since lake levels are controlled by the balance between evaporation and precipitation, higher temperatures and lower annual rainfall are required to dry out the deep, elongated basin. Such climatic conditions would have rendered the region inhospitable to large populations, and farming would have been simply out of the question.
Secondly, more than 200 meters of sediment that have accumulated since the lake dried up defy Mr. Thomas’s fantastic timeline. These sediments are comprised of alternating organic-rich silts and evaporites (mostly calcium carbonate, with some halite), which are very fine-grained and take time to settle out at the bottom of a lake. In other words, these are not the sort of laminae consistently laid down in multiple cycles per year—totaling more than 5 cm thickness per year—in a semi-arid environment. Even catastrophic flooding cannot explain the thickness of the layers, because 1) flooding doesn’t produce marl and silt layers with evaporites, and 2) surely these floods would have been evident in history.
That being said, multiple independent dating methods are both internally consistent and place the drying event during the last interglacial. Numerous paleoclimate records indicate that the Levant was more arid at that time, relative to the modern day. The preponderance of evidence thus supports the conventional interpretations of the climate history on a local and global scale.
But what about Abraham?
Unfortunately, Mr. Thomas’s take on the evidence would seem to cast doubt on the biblical record, if he were correct. I would propose, however, that he has misused the Abrahamic narrative, whose purpose was to identify Israel’s mission among the nations while warning them of immanent judgement, should they fall into temptation as Lot. The fate of Lot’s wife even foreshadows that of the Israelites who desired that they could return to Egypt despite the exodus promises. It also highlights the faithfulness of the covenant God, who heard the cries of the oppressed in Sodom as he did in Egypt and acted in their behalf. The Pentateuchal parallels are numerous and sufficient to conclude that the reference to the “Salt Sea” more likely originated as a tangible referent to explain the gravity of Israel’s wavering in the faith. It embodied the death that faced Adam in the garden.
As an aside, one may argue that the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah is recounted intertextually by Matthew 10 and 18—both in the nature of the apostolic mission and in the parables regarding “lost ones” and “little ones” of Israel. I would go so far as to say that the parable of the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ (Matt. 19) echoes the predicament of Lot, who was blessed by excess wealth and became a rich man for whom it was extremely difficult to escape the coming destruction (“camel through the eye of a needle”), but with God working through his messengers (the angels of Gen. 19; apostles in Matthew’s account) it became possible (Matt. 19:26). I’ll leave it to you to judge the merits of my literary analysis. In the meantime, do not fail to miss the scathing moral and cultural critique that follows from Sodom’s fate, which should resonate eerily with our own generation:
“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Ezekiel 16:49
Update: For a more thorough and eloquent response to Mr. Thomas’s article, along with an in-depth investigation of the geology of the Dead Sea, I highly recommend the following series from Naturalis Historia:
- The Origins of the Dead Sea: A Geo-Biblical Exploration – Part I
- Origins of the Dead Sea Part II: The Lowest Place on Earth Goes Lower
- Origins of the Dead Sea Part III: The Levant – A Land Literally Torn Apart
- Origins of the Dead Sea, Part IV: Lake Lisan – The Jordan Valley Under Water
- Origins of the Dead Sea, Part V: All Dried Up – No Room for a Dry Dead Sea in the Young Earth Timeline
- Sodom, Gomorrah, and the Seismic History of the Dead Sea: Support for Biblical History – Yes! Support for a Young Earth – No! The Origins of the Dead Sea, Part VI