The book of Genesis contains two myths of mass environmental devastation: Noah’s flood (Gen 6-9) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). A myth only survives in a culture if members of that community find it meaningful, and because of this generality, the first ecological disaster in Genesis has always struck me as an unusual narrative to find in the Hebrew Bible.
Many ancient civilizations have flood stories (see Theodor H. Gastor, Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament [New York: Harper & Row, 1969], 82-131). After all, every human society on earth must live near a source of fresh water, and every wellspring has the potential to overflow its boundaries and inundate the land.
However, ancient Canaan was not an area prone to flooding. Ancient Mesopotamia, on the other hand? Absolutely flood-prone; the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates were extensive, and living along them would have exposed populations to catastrophic floods on a somewhat regular basis. The Yahwist (J) and later the Priestly (P) authors of the Pentateuch had to draw upon information from the Babylonian flood myth Atra-ḫasīs — which was itself later incorporated into the Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI — to compose their flood myths.
The narrative of the sulfurous explosions at Sodom and Gomorrah, though, presents a type of cataclysmic destruction that must have been more understandable to residents of dry, earthquake-prone Israel and the Dead Sea basin. What did an Israelite know of a flood? Little. What did an Israelite know of dry ruination, seemingly rained from heaven, exploding the desert and shaking the earth? Likely a great deal.
I would like to draw your attention to a new article online at Slate: The Dead Sea Is Dying by Eetta Prince-Gibson. It describes how humans have diverted waters from the Jordan River and misused resources in the Dead Sea itself, causing harm to the native environment where Sodom and Gomorrah were likely located (either historically or mythologically). Giant sinkholes open daily:
Sinkholes in this region, [geographer-geologist Eli Raz] explains, are the result of the interaction between freshwater and a subterranean salt layer, buried beneath the surface. The freshwater dissolves the salt, creating an underground void, which causes the surface to collapse suddenly. Scientists have no way to determine when, or even precisely where, a sinkhole may open. But they are opening around the Dead Sea at an alarming rate of nearly one a day. The first ones appeared in the 1980s, and by 1990, there were about 40. Today, Raz estimates, there are more than 3,000 around the Dead Sea on the Israeli side alone. The reason? The Dead Sea is drying up, and dropping salt water levels mean there is more fresh water to eat away at the salt. “Sinkholes are caused by human irresponsibility,” he says. “For more than 30 years, I’ve been studying them and trying to warn everyone—especially government officials—that if we don’t do something about the situation in the Dead Sea, the sinkholes will swallow us up.”
I encourage you to reread Genesis 19 after perusing this article. Although the essay discusses modern events, it paints a vivid picture of the region that will contextualize the biblical story. The Dead Sea region was a harsh, disaster-prone locale where life would have been difficult. The Sitz im Leben of Genesis 19 — its original “setting in life” and composition context — will become instantly more understandable.
Sinkholes near the Dead Sea in Israel.