Abram at the Battle of the Kings: When Was the Dead Sea the Valley of Siddim?
“ובשעת מתן תורה כבר נכתב כל ספר בראשית עד ענין מתן תורה”
– ר’ זאב וולף איינהורן
“When the Torah was given, all of Genesis up to the story of the giving of the Torah itself had already been written.”
– Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn (Maharzu; d. 1862)
The Historical Setting of the Battle of the Kings (Gen 14)
Genesis 14 tells an unusual tale of a battle between four kings from outside the Levant and five city-states situated on the south-eastern side of the Dead Sea. The four invading kings defeat the five local city-states in battle, and take their people and kings as captives. Abram then defeats the invading army, and the people from the five city-states are set free.
Historically speaking, the story’s setting is problematic. The five cities named in this story, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela (or Zoar), likely refer to the five ancient sites in the area, known by the modern Arabic names, Bab edh-Dhra, Numeira, Safi, Feifa, and Khanazir. These five city-states were destroyed and/or abandoned towards the end of the Early Bronze Age (3300-2000 BCE) and never reoccupied. But the story is set in the time of Abram, who, following the Bible’s chronology, would have live the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 BCE). How are we to make sense of this?
Final Form vs. Core Tradition
The final form of the story as we have it now in Genesis was composed much later than any of these periods. Based on literary and historical analysis, biblical scholars date its composition at the earliest to the Assyrian Period (8th -7th cent. B.C.E.), and likely to the Neobabylonian (early 6th cent.) or even Persian periods (late 6th– mid-4th cent.). The literary analysis, however, deals only with the final form of the story as we have it, and fails to consider a possible older core.
The geographical data spread throughout the chapter changes the picture entirely and strongly implies the existence of a very ancient kernel. A look at this data may allow us to understand how Early Bronze city states made it into a story with a Middle Bronze protagonist.
A Sea that Was Once a Valley
The battle between the foreign coalition of four kings against the local coalition of five kings takes place at the Valley of Siddim (14:3, 8), which is identified as the Dead Sea (14:3).
בראשית יד:ג כָּל אֵלֶּה חָבְרוּ אֶל עֵמֶק הַשִּׂדִּים הוּא יָם הַמֶּלַח.
Gen 14:3 All the latter joined forces at the Valley of Siddim, that is, the Dead Sea.
The last words are a gloss suggesting that the area once known as the Valley of Siddim, and described as a dry valley where armies may engage in a battle, was later flooded, and by the time of the glossator, was under water and part of the Dead Sea. This describes a historically accurate phenomenon.
The Dead Sea: Geographical Overview
The Dead Sea has two basins. Between the two basins sits the Lisan Peninsula, on the west of which (east of Masada) sits a ford called the Lynch Straight, which sits at 1,319 feet below sea level. The northern basin is very deep, with an average depth of 600 feet below the straight. The southern basin, however, is quite shallow, with an average depth of only 9 feet below the straight.
In a wet period, when the precipitation-evaporation ratio is positive (i.e., the sea gains more water than it loses), the sea level rises above -1,319 feet, flooding the southern basin and making it part of the Dead Sea. During such a period, the Lynch Straight is a ford, connecting the two basins.
In a dry period when the precipitation-evaporation ratio is negative (i.e., the sea loses more water than it gains), the sea level drops below -1,319 feet, the Lynch Straight dries out, and the two basins become entirely separated (as occurred in modern times). As the dry period continues, the southern basin disappears entirely and becomes a dry plain.
Another geographical clue that clinches the identification of the Valley of Siddim with the southern basin of the Dead Sea is the evidence from sinkholes. In 1987, about ten years after the Dead Sea level dropped below -1,319 feet, a series of sinkholes started to develop on the western shore of the Dead Sea in the area that had just dried out.These are mentioned in v. 10:
בראשית יד:יוְעֵמֶק הַשִׂדִּים בֶּאֱרֹת בֶּאֱרֹת חֵמָר וַיָּנֻסוּ מֶלֶךְ סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה וַיִּפְּלוּ שָׁמָּה…
Gen 14:10 Now the Valley of Siddim was dotted with ḥaimarpits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, in their flight, threw themselves into them…
Ḥaimar is usually translated as bitumen, but should be translated as clay or slime. Although bitumen springs can be found not far from this area in Naḥal Ḥaimar (west of the southern basin of the Dead Sea), I do not know of any bitumen pits anywhere into which one can fall. Thus, this verse is almost certainly describing the sinkhole pits with a slimy bottom that form on the Dead Sea’s southern basin when it dries.
Fluctuations in Ancient Times
Our verse, identifying the Valley of Siddim with the Dead Sea, reflects a glossator or storyteller living in a period when the southern basin existed as part of the sea, but telling a story set in a time when the basin was dry. Various geological features help us determine the geology of the Dead Sea, and thus help us understand the story better:
- Ancient seamarks on the western shore of the Dead Sea.
- Geological drilling in the southern basin of the sea.
- Detailed study of changes in the salt caves of Mt. Sodom.
Taken together, the evidence has enabled researches to draw the following chronology of the fluctuation of the Dead Sea level:
3rd millennium – Flooded: During the third millennium B.C.E., the southern basin was flooded and five Canaanite centers flourished on its south-eastern shore.
End of 3rd mill. – Dry: Towards the end of the third millennium, the sea level dropped drastically and the southern basin dried. This was the period in which the Akkadian culture in Mesopotamia collapsed and the Early Bronze urban centers in Israel, including the five city-states near the Dead Sea, were destroyed and/or abandoned.
2nd mill. – Flooded: During the first three quarters of the second millennium B.C.E., the sea level rose again. At this stage, many urban centers were rebuilt, but not the five Dead Sea city states from the 3rd millennium.
End of 2nd mill. to mid 1st mill. – Dry: During the last quarter of the second millennium, the precipitation-evaporation ratio dropped, and this dry period continued through the first half of the first millennium B.C.E. The southern basin remained dry throughout this period.
Latter half of 1st mill. – Flooded: The second half of the first millennium was a moderately wet period, and the sea level slowly rose above the -1,319 line, but only flooding the southern basin towards the end of the second century B.C.E.
Isolating the Relevant Period of the Glossator
Only one of the three wet periods described above can fit the tradition found in the Torah. The first wet period in the third millennia is too early, since the former dry period (end of 4th millennium) had no cities, so that such a story about a battle with five local city-states could not have been told. The third wet period really only begins in the second century B.C.E., when the southern basin was again full. It is thus, too late, since by this time the Torah was more or less finished, and our verse had certainly been written.
The only relevant wet period is the one that occurred during the first three quarters of the second millennium. Only then could a glossator or storyteller living in a wet period, looking back at a dry period in the late third millennium, gloss the term “the Valley of Siddim,” with “that is, the Dead Sea” (14:3). Nevertheless, a problem remains. As we noted above, the five city-states were no longer in existence during this dry period (end of third millennium).So, how do we explain a battle in the Valley of Siddim with five city states that were no longer in existence?
Possible Scenarios for the Creation of the Story
A number of explanations can be offered. It is possible that the story was inspired by the tells. An ancient storyteller, living in a dry period, did not know that when the city-states existed, the valley was actually underwater. As the story was transmitted through the ages and inherited by storytellers in the wet period, a gloss was added, identifying the valley with (the southern basin of) the Dead Sea.
Another possibility is that the story is set during a transition period towards the end of the third millennium B.C.E., in which the southern basin had dried, but the area had not yet been completely abandoned. By this time the economy of the area would have collapsed and one can imagine the locals turning to brigandry, robbing caravans on the international trade route that goes through the eastern Jordanian hills, thus provoking a response from larger powers to establish order.
Reworking a Non-Israelite Saga
If the glossator was living in the second millennium B.C.E., this suggests that the core of the story predates the Israelites, and that the involvement of Abram in the story is a later Israelite adaptation. This helps explain the unusual character of chapter 14.
Biblical scholars have long noted the incongruity of chapter 14 with the rest of the Abram cycle. For example, Abram is never described elsewhere as a warrior with an army, able to do battle against the combined forces of multiple nations. More significantly for our purposes is the fact that the story doesn’t even get to Abram and Lot until v. 12. By that point the story is over, making the Lot-Abram connection an artificial graft.
The narrative arc in vv. 1-11 is of an invasion of four kings and their armies who conquer the Transjordan, including the five city-states, and take their people captive. Since this area was abandoned during the time of the storyteller, the defeat of the five cities and the capture of their population was likely the end of the story, which explained how this once populated area now sits in ruins. It is only the later Israelite storytellers, borrowing this tradition from their non-Israelite neighbors, who recast the story by inserting Abram into it, and making him a local savior, returning the captive population to their homes while demanding nothing in return.
Aeneas and Abraham
This broad reconstruction, where a late-coming nation inserts itself into momentous stories of the past of which it is not a part, is a well-known pattern in antiquity. For example, Virgil’sAeneid makes the character Aeneas, who participated in the Trojan War on the side of Troy in Homer’s Iliad, into the ancestor of Rome, thus allowing the Romans to claim their part in the ancient story of the battle of Troy told in Homer.
Similarly, by incorporating the ancient story of the battle in the Valley of Siddim into the account of Abram’s life, and giving him a leading role as the hero, the Israelite storyteller places his own people on center stage in an important historiographic event in the region.
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Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.
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