(burning), one of the most ancient cities of Syria. It is commonly mentioned in connection with Gomorrah, but also with Admah and Zeboim, and on one occasion (Genesis 14:1) with Bela or Zoar. Sodom was evidently the chief town in the settlement. The four are first named in the ethnological records of Genesis 10:19 as belonging to the Canaanites. The next mention of the name of Sodom, (Genesis 13:10-13) gives more certain indication of the position of the city. Abram and Lot are standing together between Bethel and Ai, taking a survey of the land around and below them. Eastward of them, and absolutely at their feet, lay the “circle of Jordan.” The whole circle was one great oasis—”a garden of Jehovah.” In the midst of the garden the four cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim appear to have been situated. It is necessary to notice how absolutely the cities are identified with the district. In the subsequent account of their destruction (Genesis 19:1) the topographical terms are employed with all the precision which is characteristic of such early times. The mention of the Jordan is conclusive as to the situation of the district, for the Jordan ceases where it enters the Dead Sea and can have no existence south of that point. The catastrophe by which they were destroyed is described in Genesis 19:1 as a shower of brimstone and fire from Jehovah. However we may interpret the words of the earliest narrative, one thing is certain—that the lake was not one of the agents in the catastrophe. From all these passages, though much is obscure, two things seem clear:
The opinion long current that the five cities were submerged in the lake, and that their remains—walls, columns and capitals—might be still discerned below the water, hardly needs refutation after the distinct statement and the constant implication of scripture. But a more serious departure from the terms of the ancient history is exhibited in the prevalent opinion that the cities stood at the south end of the lake. This appears to have been the belief of Josephus and Jerome. It seems to have been universally held by the medieval historians and pilgrims, and it is adopted by modern topographers probably without exception. There are several grounds for this belief, but the main point on which Dr. Robinson rests his argument is the situation of Zoar. (a) “Lot,” says he, “fled to Zoar, which was near to Sodom, and Zoar lay almost at the southern end of the present sea, probably in the month of Wady Kerak.” (b) Another consideration in favor of placing the cities at the southern end of the lake is the existence of similar names in that direction. (c) A third argument, and perhaps the weightiest of the three, is the existence of the salt mountain at the south of the lake, and its tendency to split off in columnar masses presenting a rude resemblance to the human form. But it is by no means certain that salt does not exist at other spots round the lake. ((d) A fourth and yet stronger argument is drawn from the fact that Abraham saw the smoke of the burning cities from Hebron. (e) A fifth argument is found in the numerous lime-pits found at that southern end of the Dead Sea. Robinson, Schaff, Baedeker, Lieutenant Lynch and others favor this view.–ED.) It thus appears that on the situation of Sodom no satisfactory conclusion can at present be readied: On the one hand, the narrative of Genesis seems to state positively that it lay at the northern end of the Dead Sea. On the other hand, long-continued tradition and the names of the existing spots seem to pronounce with almost equal positiveness that it was at its southern end. Of the catastrophe which destroyed the city and the district of Sodom we can hardly hope ever to form a satisfactory conception. Some catastrophe there undoubtedly was, but what secondary agencies, besides fire, were employed in the accomplishment of the punishment cannot be safely determined in the almost total absence of exact scientific description of the natural features of the ground round the lake. We may suppose, however, that the actual agent in the ignition and destruction of the cities had been of the nature of a tremendous thunder-storm accompanied by a discharge of meteoric stones, (and that these set on fire the bitumen with which the soil was saturated, and which was used in building the city. And it may be that this burning out of the soil caused the plain to sink below the level of the Dead Sea, and the waters to flow over it–if indeed Sodom and its sister cities are really under the water.–ED.) The miserable fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is held up as a warning in numerous passages of the Old and New Testaments (Mark 8:11; 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 1:4-7).
Smith's Bible Names Dictionary (1866)