This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Lava and Lightning-bolts*

The sudden and complete destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most startling episodes in the Bible. The utter horror of the catastrophe is magnified by the fact that the devastation is related in only two laconic Hebrew sentences: "Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground."

For most readers in ancient or medieval times, that depiction of a sudden and total cataclysm could hardly be imagined except in supernatural terms. Clearly, no human agent could have caused it, and even nature's formidable arsenal did not furnish many phenomena that could account for an upheaval of such lethal proportions.

This conslusion was perfectly fine for most traditional Jewish thinkers. It served for them as proof that God is vastly superior to nature and can marshal natural forces to punish the wicked.

However, not all of our commentators subscribed to that approach. Some of them found the existence of miracles to be theologically problematic, in that they raised questions about the absoluteness of the natural law, and about the eternal perfection of the Creator of those laws.

Rabbi Nissim ben Moses of Marseilles devoted a study to the investigation of biblical miracles. Rabbi Nissim (whose Hebrew name appropriately translates "miracles") published his work in 1306, and in it he analyzed most of the miracle stories in the Torah from a rationalistic and scientific perspective. Wherever possible, he strove to minimize the miraculous or supernatural elements of the stories. Like Maimonides, he claimed that many of the wondrous episodes in the Bible were actually visions that had no reality outside the minds of the prophets, and that their importance lies in their theological or moral lessons, not in their historical veracity.

Nevertheless, when he came to deal with the story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Rabbi Nissim was not prepared to deny that the event had actually occurred in the physical world. He classified it as a "wonder" (pele in Hebrew), the technical term he coined to designate those miracles that should be understood literally.

The reason he offers for this uncharacteristic credulity is that the event described in the biblical story does actually correspond to known natural phenomena. It resembles several of the features that accompany a volcanic earthquake that is powerful enough to produce fissures in the earth's surface. As he saw it, the presence of fire, brimstone and salt is also consistent with that premise, since the quake might well release such materials when it breaks open faults in the earth's surface.

We must make allowances for the fact that Rabbi Nissim's science is not always up to our current standards. For example, he believed that the ultimate natural cause of an earthquake is to be sought in the stars, which can exert an astrological influence on the winds that will in turn cause the earth to tremble.

In this specific case, Rabbi Nissim was able to cite a concrete example of a Sodom-like cataclysm that would have been fresh in the memories of many of his readers. "Such an event occurred in our own times on the island known as Ischia, which lies at a distance of fifteen miles from Naples. It used to contain some five thousand houses, until the entire earth was devastated, split and scorched by brimstone, salt and streaming fire. To this day much smoke issues from that area."

Rabbi Nissim's account is corroborated by scientific and historical evidence of an eruption of immense proportions on the volcanic island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. The disaster that he refers to took place in January or February of 1302. It was the only eruption of that volcano recorded since 295, and there has not been another one afterwards. Eruptions at Ischia appear to have been much more frequent in ancient times, and there are still ongoing traces of volcanic and seismic activity beneath the island's surface.

Indeed, the geological descriptions of the Ischia eruption dovetail remarkably with the biblical account of Sodom. It involved the creation of a crater, a heavy stream of molten lava and the emission of immense quantities of ash and pumice, sufficient to darken the daytime sky. It is very easy to appreciate why Rabbi Nissim would have equated that event with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

There were some other ancient and medieval writers who invoked natural models in order to explain what had happened to the wicked cities. Josephus Flavius, the first-century Jewish historian, provides us with an eyewitness account of the state of that region in his own time:

"Now this country is so sadly burnt up, that nobody cares to come to it... Owing to the impiety of its inhabitants, it was burnt by lightning; in consequence of which there are still ... ashes growing in their fruits, and those fruits have a colour as if they were fit to be eaten: but if you pluck them with your hands, they will dissolve into smoke and ashes."

I suspect that Josephus' description of the divine retribution by lightning was inserted in order to appeal to his Greek and Roman readers who were accustomed to tales about Zeus or Jove hurling thunderbolts to smite foes and rivals.

Some two centuries later, the Midrash quotes Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (a resident of Lydda) as saying that ever since the biblical upheaval, if a person were to collect rainwater from the air of Sodom and use it to irrigate a field, it would not cause any plant to grow.

Sa'adiah Gaon, writing in the tenth century, found an indirect allusion to that claim in the wording of the Bible. In his Arabic commentary to Genesis, he noted that the Torah's specification that the destruction extended to "that which grew upon the ground" appears initially to be a superfluously trivial detail, given the massive proportions of the desolation. Therefore, Sa'adiah concluded that the expression was inserted in order to inform us that the air itself was polluted in the aftermath of the cities' destruction.

In support of this claim about the air quality in the Sodom region, he notes "this can be demonstrated empirically." He then goes on to describe the same experiment that had been mentioned by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. Although the similarity of the phraseology makes it clear that he is alluding to the passage from the Midrash, it is not inconceivable that Sa'adiah might have had access to the testimony of contemporary travelers who had reported the same phenomenon of sterile rainwater.

When Josephus, Sa'adiah or Nissim were grappling with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, it was clear to them that the instantaneous demolition and contamination of entire regions remained beyond the capability of any human agent. Unfortunately, technological progress has allowed us humans to vie with the catastrophic forces that were once the exclusive domain of God, volcanoes or lightning-bolts.

Hopefully, our growing ability to "play God" will begin to be accompanied by a corresponding improvement of our moral stature. The alternative would be catastrophic.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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