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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States

 

Vale of Siddim (Canaan)
Incorporating Admah, Bela, Gomorah, Sodom, Zeboiim, & Zoar

In the mid-third millennium BC, city states began to appear in Syria as people benefited from interaction with Sumer and from improvements in irrigation. Within five hundred years, around 2000 BC, the same process was happening farther south and west, in the Levant, along the Mediterranean coast. Semitic-speaking Canaanite tribes occupied much of the area, creating a patchwork of city states of their own. The Phoenicians (more Canaanites) also occupied parts of this region, eventually founding their own mighty seaborne trading empire.

The 'Vale of Siddim' was the name of a plain which contained five early Canaanite cities, as mentioned three times in the Old Testament (Book of Genesis). These 'cities of the plain' were attacked in or about the eighteenth century BC (dating calculations can vary by as much as three hundred years either way) by a coalition of powerful Near East kings who were intent on putting down Canaanite independence. It seems that the rulers of these cities had been paying tribute to these kings for a period and were keen to end that. Instead, they and almost all of their cities were destroyed (although not by human hands, according to the version of the story which survives in the Old Testament).

The precise location of the vale is unknown. Historically some have believed the location to be submerged under the southern part of the Dead Sea. New evidence has made this view unlikely though. A few have argued that the location should be to the north of the Dead Sea, but this seems improbable. The majority place the vale in an area somewhere to the south of the Dead Sea, based on the tar pits which are mentioned in the text and on the movement of the eastern kings to get there.

Curiously, after this destruction, the vale which was home to the cities was afterwards known as Lake Asphaltitis (a Greek name) which either refers to the Dead Sea in its entirely or to part of it. The Old Testament's 'Valley of Salt' may refer to the same location. The destruction has been attributed to natural disaster, whether flood, tectonics, or volcanic activity, but certainly the latter two can find no historical match.

The five cities included Gomorrah and Sodom, the latter not to be confused with the modern Sodom which is home to various mineral-salt extraction works. Both cities were apparently destroyed by sulphur raining down upon them, which strongly suggests some kind of natural disaster.

Lesser known are the cities of Admah (or Adama), Bela, and Zeboiim (or Zeboyim). Admah and Zeboiim were both located close to Sodom and Gomorrah and both seem to have been caught up in the disaster which destroyed them (their fate is not specifically mentioned but is inferred by the destroyed state of the plain). Bela seems later to have been known as Zoar, having survived the destruction, but this naming may be a confusion with the possible name of its ruler at the time of Abraham.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), from Early Israel and the Surrounding Nations, A H Sayce, from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from The Cambridge Ancient History, John Boardman, N G L Hammond, D M Lewis, & M Ostwald (Eds), from A Test of Time, David Rohl (Arrow, 2001), from Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, David Noel Freedman, B E Willoughby, & Heinz-Josef Fabry (G Johannes Botterweck & Helmer Ringgren, Eds, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), from A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars, Walter C Kaiser Jr (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, and from the NOVA/PBS documentary series, The Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 18 November 2008.and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and The Dead Sea (The Free Encyclopaedia), and Got Questions.)

c.1750 BC

King Amraphel of Shinar is allied with 'Chedorlaomer' of Elam (probably King Kudur Lagamar), plus 'Arioch of Ellasar' (originally thought to be Rim-Sin of Larsa, but now thought more likely to be the early Hurrian King Ariukki), and 'Tidal, king of nations' (probably the Hittite king, Tudhaliya I, with the 'nations' probably being the recently-conquered Hatti).

Map of Anatolia and Environs 2000 BC
This was the situation in Anatolia which was inherited by the Hittites as they formed their early empire in the eighteenth century BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Together they attack the early Israelites during a general conflict. After twelve years of paying tribute, several Canaanite 'cities of the plain' have rebelled. These are the five cities of the Vale of Siddim which are mentioned in the Old Testament.

'Chedorlaomer' also attacks the Rephaim and defeats them, while the Horites are said to be members of the coalition which includes Sodom and Gomorrah, and they are similarly defeated. The rebellion occurs in the same period in which the city of Shalem also figures in connection with Abraham of the Israelites.

fl c.1750 BC

Bera / Ballas

In Sodom. No trace ever found. City destroyed.

fl c.1750 BC

Birsha / Barsas

In Gomorrah. Location uncertain. City destroyed.

fl c.1750 BC

Shinab / Senabar

In Admah / Adama. Location uncertain. City destroyed.

fl c.1750 BC

Shemeber / Sumobor

In Zeboiim / Zeboyim. Location uncertain. City destroyed.

fl c.1750 BC

Zoar?

In Bela (possibly known as Zoar, potentially after its ruler).

c.1749 BC

Despite their resistance, the rebellious city states of Admah, Bela (otherwise known as Zoar, although in theory this could be its ruler's name, so that the city is 'Zoar's city'), Gomorrah, Sodom, and Zeboiim are defeated within a year. Sodom and Gomorrah are looted by Chedorlaomer and his allies, with captives being taken.

Mount Sodom near the Dead Sea
Mount Sodom near the Dead Sea may have overlooked the 'Vale of Siddim' and the five cities which are mentioned in this instance of attempted eastern domination of Canaan

During the rebellion, Sodom is aided by Lot, adopted son of Abraham. The latter has to mount a counter-attack with his own followers in order to rescue Lot from captivity. His band seemingly catch the allied forces off-guard, routing them.

Thereafter Lot remains in the city itself, shortly before it is destroyed (as Josephus says) by means of God casting 'a thunderbolt upon the city, and set[ting] it on fire, with its inhabitants; and laid waste the country with the like burning'. Gomorrah is likewise destroyed, whilst it is inferred that Admah and Zeboiim share the same fate.

Curiously, after this destruction, the vale which is home to all of the destroyed cities is afterwards called Lake Asphaltitis (a Greek name). The destruction has been attributed to natural disaster: flood, tectonics, or volcanic activity, but certainly the latter two can find no historical match. Most appropriately for a salt-rich area, the destruction of Sodom is accompanied by Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt, possibly an allegory of some kind.

Mitanni warriors
Mitanni warriors - quite possibly involved in putting down the Canaanite rebellion of the plain - are shown here dressed in a typical northern Mesopotamian costume

c.1740 BC

Moab, first son of Lot (born of an incestuous relationship following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), grandnephew of Abraham, gains as his domain the stretch of land between the River Arnon and the Brook of Zered, on the coast of the Dead Sea. This area forms the kingdom of Moab.

Ben Ammi, Lot's second incestuous offspring, gains the territory which goes into forming Ammon, to the east of the River Jordan and on Moab's northern border. The five relatively minor Canaanite cities of the vale are either largely minimised (in the case of Bela) or are never rebuilt.

 
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