Rocks give hints, but still veil secrets
Geology of Biblical Proportions
Documents that became known as the Dead Sea scrolls were found in the spring of 1947, and are without precedent in the history of modern archaeology.
These documents were not discovered by an enterprising archaeologist, but by a Bedouin shepherd boy looking for a lost goat on the west side of the Dead Sea graben near a place called Qumran, near the north end of the west wall of the Dead Sea graben.
There are caves in the formations along this west wall; the Bedouin boy threw a stone into one of the caves to frighten his goat if it had hidden there – but rather than a bleat, he heard a breaking of pottery.
He was alone and frightened, and ran away.
The next day he returned with a companion, and they went into the cave and found several earthenware jars that contained oblong objects coated with a tarry-like substance. Inside were rolled manuscripts written on a peculiar type of paper or skin.
This Bedouin tribe – smuggling goats and other goods out of Transjordan into Palestine – took the material from the cave, unaware of its value. In Bethlehem they traded their goods to their regular Syrian merchant and then offered the material from the cave.
Photos courtesy of Jim Wilson
The Syrian merchant thought the language might be ancient Syriac, so he sent one roll to Archbishop Samuel at the St. Mark’s Monastery. Samuel saw it wasn’t Arabic, and thought it might be ancient Hebrew; he said he would buy the scrolls.
About this time war broke out between the Arabs and the Jews, and it wasn’t until several months later that the archbishop showed them to a visiting Dutch scholar named Father J. van der Ploeg, who identified one of the scrolls as Isaiah – but Archbishop Samuel was discouraged by the scholars of the school from pursuing the matter further. The archbishop next took the scrolls to the Patriarch of Antioch, who thought they could not be more than three centuries old, and suggested consulting a professor of Hebrew at the American University in Beirut. Unfortunately, the professor was away on vacation.
Several further attempts were made to find someone who could identify the importance of the scrolls. In his frustration the archbishop decided to study the problem himself. In February 1949, however, one of the archbishop’s own monks, Brother Butros Sowmy, recommended contacting the School of Oriental Research, a branch of Yale University.
The young, less-experienced acting director there, Dr. John Trever, was not able to determine the manuscripts’ probable age – but he recalled some photographs he had taken in the British Museum, and noted the similarity of the script in the scroll with a papyrus of a very old age in his photograph. This so-called Nash Papyrus had been written in an archaic script, and had been regarded as the oldest Hebrew manuscript in existence.
Trever became exhilarated when he saw that “the similarity of the script in the papyrus and the scrolls was striking.” Trever and the archbishop queried one another and asked, “How could we be right?”
For more information they sent prints of the scroll to Dr. W.F. Albright of Johns Hopkins, who at the time was one of the ablest living biblical archaeologists and an authority on the Nash Papyrus (discovered in 1898 and the oldest Hebrew manuscript known at the time), which he had studied intensively over a period of years.
The west wall of Tel Jericho, made of mud bricks, early Iron Age.
They quickly heard from him, as he had written back the same day: “My heartiest congratulations on the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times! There is no doubt in my mind that the script is more archaic than that of the Nash Papyrus ... I should prefer a date around 100 B.C.E. What an incredible find!”
At last the Dead Sea scrolls were in expert hands.
When the significance of the Qumran scrolls was recognized, a search began of the other caves. All together there turned out to be 11 hiding places, most of them containing scrolls or pieces of scrolls. It became like a jigsaw puzzle piecing the scraps in original order.
The scrolls were distributed to several scholars for translation. The results were slow in forthcoming (apparently there was some jealousy and disagreement among the scholars). It has been determined that these writings were likely by the Essenes, a small fundamentalist Hebrew sect that once lived on the upland above the west wall of the graben. Among the manuscripts were rules of this order and the entire Hebrew Old Testament (with the exception of the Book of Esther).
The recovery of these manuscripts has enabled scholars “to push back the date of a stabilized Hebrew Bible to before 70 A.D., to reconstruct the history of Palestine from the 4th century B.C to 135 A.D. and to clarify the relationship between early Christianity and Jewish religious traditions.”
For the average visitor to the Dead Sea, Qumran is a point of interest. There is a small security office just off the highway that prevents visitors from going up to see the caves visible in the cliff side beyond; however, one may buy a flier with a brief about the discovery story.
The Fall of Jericho
“Jericho, Jericho ... Go blow them ram horns, Joshua cried ... and the walls came tumbling down.”
This line is from a popular spiritual of generations ago. This refrain may have popularized the name Jericho and its walls, but according to the Bible and geology, where was Jericho and what was the occasion for the tumbling?
North side of Mt. Sedom, where many see a feature (center) identified as “Lot’s wife.”
Jericho is a few miles northwest of the north end of the Dead Sea. It was located there because of the fresh water spring that came from the fault zone involving the Cretaceous limestones.
Archaeological evidence indicates it is one of the oldest continuous settlements in the world and can be traced to Paleolithic and Mesolithic times.
The occupants of Jericho at the time of Joshua were Canaanites. Canaan, an ancient name for the modern Israel and the Palestinian territories, was the civilization that made the leap from hunting and gathering to farming. The agriculture can be inferred from the types of wheat and barley that have been found in excavations.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Joshua was the leader of a group of Israelites that had been led by Moses out of bondage in Egypt, and were seeking to occupy what God had told them was the “promised land.” Confronting him were the walls of a Canaanite settlement. The size of this Jericho wall suggests a settlement of 2,000 to 3,000 people. The walls and a tower had been built because of enemies in other biblical tribes.
According to the biblical account in the book of Joshua, the Lord commanded Joshua and his men to circle the city once each day for six days with the priests blowing ram-horn trumpets. On the seventh day the priests made a long blast, the people made a loud shout and the wall fell down.
And so it happened. Joshua’s troops destroyed everything in the city and then they burned it – but took the gold, silver and bronze.
Geologists and archaeologists have interpreted that a strong earthquake occurred about the time of Joshua’s attack, about 7,000 years ago. The tumbling of the wall may have been due to the earthquake and simply been coincidental with the blast by the ram horn trumpeters.
The original site of Joshua’s Jericho was essentially obliterated with earthquakes, fire and time. Old Testament Jericho, along with the accumulation of walls and structures of several towns, has been identified in a mound that rises 70 feet above the surrounding plain. This corner of the rift zone is and has been seismically active since soon after the formation of the rift. The ancient structures were of mud bricks. This material in combination with earthquakes has spelled disaster.
Modern building in this area has continued with expansion on occupancy of the West Bank of the Jordan River. Seismic activity has likewise continued. Toward the end of 2003 and extending into mid-2004 in the Jericho area there was an earthquake “swarm” in the Dead Sea fault system of 4.9, which was felt as far away as Syria, Egypt and the northern part of Saudi Arabia.
The stories and legends of ancient Jericho have lived a very long time; as long as the fresh water spring continues to flow, there will be modern Jerichos, which will be subject to potential earthquake destruction.
Sodom and Gomorrah: What Happened?
It was about 10,000 years ago that the polar ice cap began to melt and recede. There followed a cycle of cold/dry and warm/wet periods of varying duration.
In about 7800 B.C.E., during an extended warm period, many people moved into valleys of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates and the Jordan Valley of the Dead Sea rift, where the land was fertile and agriculture expanded.
Viewing the landscape of the Dead Sea graben today, it is difficult to imagine that the area south of the Dead Sea in the early Bronze Age of 7800 B.C.E. was similar to our greenbelt climate of today.
The nature of the climatic cycles from that period to the present have been interpreted by Drs. David Neev and K.O. Emery from electronic probes and detailed examination of samples from core holes. The duration of these cycles of dry and wet are determined by microscopic and palynological examination of rates of sedimentation.
It was in this green valley of the long ago wet cycle that the five “villages of the plains,” including Sodom and Gomorrah, existed.
They calculate that the valley floor at the time of Sodom and Gomorrah now lies some 35 feet below the present surface. It’s been difficult for some archaeologists to accept that any possible ruins lie this deep below ground, and, therefore, disappointed to have no surface or near surface evidence to explain the disappearance of Sodom and Gomorrah after the destruction as described in the Bible (Genesis, chapter 19).
Among the Hebrews who came out of Egypt was the biblical patriarch named Abraham, and he had a nephew named Lot. They had a dispute about the area for grazing their flocks, and they decided to part company, taking their followers with them.
Lot took an eastern route, which proved an unfortunate choice.
He and his followers arrived in an area near the settlement of Sodom. They had been dwelling there temporarily when, according to the Bible, an angel appeared to Lot telling him that the Lord was going to destroy Sodom as punishment for its wicked ways. He was commanded to escape with his family to the mountains and warned to “look not behind thee” as they fled.
Lot and most of his family arrived safely in the mountains, but according to the Bible, “his wife looked back from behind him and became a pillar of salt.”
The biblical descriptions of billowing smoke and fire seemingly falling from heavens over Sodom have been interpreted as evidence that the city was destroyed by an earthquake, which would have ruptured pockets of gas and light hydrocarbons mixed with considerable sulfur. The explosion sent the material high into the air, which caught fire and fell back, as if it were indeed raining fire from heaven.
I’m offering an explanation that not all of my Israeli friends agree for the fate that befell Lot’s wife. The trail to the hills that he and his family would have taken ran closely along the shoreline of the Dead Sea. In looking back at the city, Lot’s wife may have stumbled and fallen. It is possible that the earthquake generated a small tsunami or a strong surge of the super saline water that covered her form. In the very dry air of this area, salt crust quickly forms over any weighted object. Salt could have rapidly encrusted her nostrils and mouth, asphyxiating her, and in time would have covered her entire body.
The north side of the salt diapir, Mt. Sedom, had been eroded in such a way as to somewhat resemble a human form. This is pointed out as “Lot’s wife.” There have been some interpretations that the Sodom earthquake may have been the same that “tumbled” the walls of Jericho. It is a well known phenomenon of earthquakes that the quaking or sharp movements of unconsolidated material is momentarily “turned to jelly,” thus the foundations of mud brick buildings and even those of stronger material come “tumbling down.”
In the late 1970s, while I was observing the seismic work that was being conducted at the south end of the Dead Sea, there was an axial north/south profile that began a quarter of a mile in the water on a dike that was part of an evaporation pond of the Dead Sea Works. The line extended about the same distance inland.
When I saw the printout of this north/south line, and saw the numerous fault lines that came to the surface toward the southern end of the line, I exclaimed to my associates that this was the evidence that it was indeed an earthquake that had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah!
Even at the time of Sodom and Gomorrah, there had been considerable sedimentation from rivers and unconsolidated outwash during wet periods since the formation of the Dead Sea rift from the early Miocene.
Because of the archaeological level of Sodom and Gomorrah buried under 35 feet of more recent sediment, the saga of what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah will continue.