Forget the Meteor. We Should Be Talking About Biblical Rape Culture in the Sodom Story.
John Martin / Public Domain
If the hand of God reached out and hit people, it could look like a meteor. Or at least, if a meteor crashed the earth, people might think it was the hand of God. This is the argument of an article published this week in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. The authors study the effects of a meteor that devastated part of the Jordan Valley some 3,600 years ago, and suggest that it was this cosmic event that led to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The excavations in question took place in Tall el-Hammam, the largest archaeological site in the Jordan Valley. The site was exposed during the gravel extraction and has since been excavated by a joint team from Trinity Southwest University and the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The team discovered that the region had been continuously inhabited for two and a half millennia but was suddenly destroyed 3,600 years ago.
What happened there can be deduced from material evidence. Archaeologist Christopher Moore, one of the authors of the study, writes: “Air temperatures quickly rose to over 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit ... clothes and wood immediately went up in flames. Swords, spears, adobe bricks, and ceramics began to melt. Almost immediately the whole city was on fire ... A few seconds later a tremendous shock wave struck the city ... deadly winds swept through the city, destroying every building ... None of the 8,000 people or animals in the city survived - their bodies were torn apart and their bones in small fragments blown up. "
The giant space rock that wiped out biblical Sodom
The extreme temperatures at which ceramics, adobe and metal melted could not have been caused by war or a volcano. Instead, archaeologists argue that the area was leveled by a small asteroid similar in size to the one that devastated Tunguska, Russia, in 1908. The asteroid would either have hit the area or detonated in the air (an airburst). The smoking weapon for the theory is the presence of microscopic diamonds in the layer of destruction. These could only have been caused by the extreme pressure and heat of an alien fireball. The scientific evidence that the area was destroyed by an asteroid impact or airburst is conclusive.
Archaeologists further suggest that the memory of the asteroid's devastation be kept in the pages of the most famous book in history: the Bible. As most Sunday School goers know, the Book of Genesis describes the destruction of two legendary urban settlements in the Dead Sea region, Sodom and Gomorrah. The cities were known for their wickedness. According to the Bible, “the outcry against them before the Lord was so great” that God sent two angels to destroy them. When they arrived, the angels planned to spend the night in the town square, but Lot, Abraham's nephew, took an interest in them and welcomed them as guests to his home.
The townspeople are curious and crowd around Lot's door, demanding that he hand over the angels in disguise so that they can "know" (i.e. rape) them. God blinds the would-be attackers so they can't storm Lot's house. The next morning and at the direction of the angels, Lot and his extended family make a quick exit and “sulfur and fire” rain down on the two cities. Sodom and Gomorroah will be destroyed. Centuries of interpretation have understood the story as a tale of God's condemnation of homosexuality.
Although it is unclear why the angels had to visit the city in person to perform a surgical sky attack, the fire from heaven sounds like a layperson's description of a meteor. The new study suggests that "an eyewitness account of this 3,600-year-old catastrophic event" was given in oral tradition and eventually inscribed in biblical history.
For those who want their Bible and science to be in tune, this seems like an asset. On reading this, the biblical authors did not make up this story. Instead, Genesis includes an eyewitness account of geological events passed down from generation to generation. To those who hope that the explanation of the asteroid will deal a fatal blow to homophobic readings of history, I will unfortunately have to disappoint. Theologically speaking, it is entirely possible for God to work through nature, even through natural disasters. God may be supernatural, but that doesn't mean (at least for Christians) that God has to act outside of nature.
Believe it or not, Jesus was a good Jew
The real problem with the traditional reading of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is that it misses the point of the whole story and obscures the variety of forms of sexual violence that lead to cameos in the account. The exchange between Lot and the inhabitants is darker than the traditional reading admits. In Genesis, Lot's concern is that the locals will mistreat two strangers; By threatening the angels, they are breaking the cultural norms that governed hospitality and the treatment of outsiders. This was a serious social crime.
Lot's reaction to their behavior is to instead offer up his two virgin daughters to the mob for abuse. He feels empowered to do so because they are his daughters and thus, according to the old view, his property. There is no judgment in history on Lot's suggestion to pimp his kids. Three millennia of interpretation have passed the violence of Lot's solution to focus on homosexuality. That the crowd rejects his offer of the girls and instead threatens Lot with rape doesn't make this a story about homosexuality, it just confirms that it's a story about sexual violence and power. In no reading are the sexual interactions in this story amicably portrayed. Maybe that should have always been our focus.
Overlook the mistreatment of women in the Bible is not an isolated matter: a remarkably similar story plays out in Judges 19. A Levite arrives with his enslaved concubine in a strange city and is given shelter. Locals threaten to rape the man, and his host instead offers the mob his virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine. In the end, only the concubine is pushed out the door to the angry crowd. She is raped by a group all night and finds her way back to her shelter only to die on the threshold. In the morning the Levite, you slave owners, finds them lying outside and callously tells them to get up so they can go. Even without knowing that she is dead, there is no recognition of her trauma.
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The city's residents are eventually punished, but the Levites and Lot are not condemned for their cowardly willingness to sacrifice vulnerable women to protect themselves. Nor is violence against women anchored in the tradition of interpretation as a crime against God. Jennifer Barry, associate professor at the University of Mary Washington and an expert on the history of sexual violence, told me, “In stories like Sodom and Gomorrah and Judges 19, the sexual violence preserved in the text focuses on protecting men while incidentally giving up women (Of which you never hear from some of them again). "
Scientific explanations for the destruction of the city certainly don't solve the ethical problems surrounding sexual violence in the Bible, but we may wonder if they are even necessary. Jon Marks, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, told The Daily Beast, “Archeology [in this study] is great, but trying to connect random, possibly real events to ancient stories is a pretty one stupid edition of spiritual energy. "If the authors of the Bible had thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were ravaged by space debris rather than by divine punishment, the story would not be in the Bible. Precisely because of the ethically problematic reading of divine judgment, it is initially in the Text.
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