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People of Lot (as)

49The Review of Religions – January 2006 Introduction The story of the people of Lot(as) and their sins (homosexuality) that had not been seen before is covered in some detail in both the Holy Qur’an and the Bible. In the modern age, deviant sexual behaviour is becoming both more prevalent and accepted around the world, although religious communities do not accept homosexuality and other related behaviour as it is contrary to nature and the norms of decent behaviour described in religious texts and traditions. The incidents related to the people of Lot( a s ) are the most graphic reminder of the fate of a people that failed to observe Divine Warnings and continued with their ‘abominations’. The religious texts are unequivocal about the disaster that befell them being a punishment for their sins rather than a natural event. So a closer examination helps to clarify our thinking on this subject. There has been fierce debate over the location of these towns (the Bible talks of five towns) and what actually happened to them. Scholars from the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions are all interested in this story as it is part of their joint heritage, so we have a lot of information to sift through. This article will explore the subject in greater depth. Lot(as) and Abraham(as) Prophet Lot( a s ) was a contem- porary of Abraham (as) and was his n e p h e w. Moreover, they knew The People of LOT(as) By Fazal Ahmad – UK The people of Prophet Lot(as) who lived in Sodom are described notoriously in both the Holy Qur’an and the Bible. They performed acts that were not known before that time, but that have since taken on new vigour in the modern age. This article explores the people, their Prophet and the fate that befell them using information gleaned from both religious texts and recent arcaheological work around the Dead Sea area. The Review of Religions – January 2006 each other well. Abraham(as) had left the idol-worship of his father and tribe and migrated towards Arabia. Lot(as) must have been one of the earliest followers of A b r a h a m( a s ), and migrated with Abraham(as) to Canaan but then settled in the fertile plain next to the Dead Sea at the town of Sodom. The Qur’an specifically mentions Lot(as) as being an early companion of Abraham(as) when it says: And Lot believed in him (Abraham). (Ch.29: V.27) A b r a h a m( a s ) was not connected with Sodom, but must have been in the same region as both the Bible and the Qur’an describe the angels as visiting him on their way to Lot ( a s ). The Bible also describes him looking at the scene of destruction the next morning which again suggests that there was a very close link between the two Prophets, and that they were in regular communication and lived near to each other. A b r a h a m( a s ) is thought to have lived near Hebron at the time, from where he would have been able to see smoke plumes from the destruction rising in the distance. While Abraham’s progeny, Isaac and Ishmael, were the ancestors of the Israelites and Arabs, Lot(as) became the ancestor of the Ammonites and the Moabites. People of the Time At that time, around 4000 years ago, there were many settlements around the Dead Sea (Sea of Lot) which is now between Israel and Jordan. The Bible describes five cities which were linked in the area of Canaan, and these cities were Sodom, Gomorrah (‘Amora in Hebrew), Admah, Zeboiim and Belar/ Zoar as described and mentioned in the Biblical books of Genesis and Deuteronomy. Collectively they are referred to as the Cities of the Plain. The Plain near the Dead Sea also stood on the major trading route between Syria and Arabia. This stands on the modern Kings Highway that runs north to south through Jordan. 50 THE PEOPLE OF LOT(AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 The people of Abraham’s time worshipped idols. They wor- shipped the stars, and created images of their other deities. Many related civilizations such as the Nabateans left behind reminders at places such as Petra in Jordan. But idol-worship alone was not the crime associated with the towns of the Plain. The sinful people of Sodom The people of Sodom are repeatedly described as perform- ing abominations and immoral acts, hence the modern term ‘sodomy’ that takes its name from that town. The Qur’an is categorical about the crimes of the Sodomites as being homo- sexuality as it states in Surah Al- ’Ankabut: And We sent lot; he said to his people, ‘You commit an abomination which none among mankind has ever committed before you. Do you indeed come lustfully to men and cut off the highway for travellers? And you indulge in your meetings in all that is loathsome!’ But the only answer of his people was that they said, ‘Bring upon us the punishment of Allah if thou speakest the truth.’ (Ch.29: Vs.29-30) The retort to the practice of homosexuality is expressed by Lot(as) as: [Lot said] ‘Do you, of all peoples, approach males, and leave your wives whom your L o rd has created for you? Nay, you are a people who transgress. (Ch.26:Vs.166-167) The abomination is even more clear in the following verse: And remember Lot, when he said to his people, ‘Do you commit abomination while you see the evil thereof? What! do you approach men lustfully rather than women? Nay, you are indeed a people unmindful of consequences’. (Ch.27:Vs.55-56) The verse above also mentions two other types of crime; highway 51 THE PEOPLE OF LOT (AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 robbery and committing crimes openly and unashamedly in public meetings and assemblies. However, the focus is the immoral behaviour which Lot(as) describes as ‘an abomination which none among mankind has ever committed before you’. Clearly, highway robbery was not a new crime, so his anger was at the indecency of his people. The Bible is less clear on the crimes of the Sodomites: ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!’ (Genesis 18:21) And later, Jeremiah compares the later people to the sinful Sodomites: ‘But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a more shocking thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hand of the evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.’ (Jeremiah 23:14) Ezekiel also describes the crimes of the Sodomites: This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me. (Ezekiel 16:49-50) So the Old Testament is vague about the ‘abominations’ of the people of Sodom. It talks of lies, a d u l t e r y, wickedness, pride, luxury and not looking after the poor. None of these crimes in themselves would be so out- rageous to be called abom- inations and are described many times for other races and towns. For some reason, the Bible, which is often very graphic about crimes and sin, has diluted the sins of the Sodomites. There is a reference in the New Testament of the Bible that is a little clearer in the Letter of Jude: 52 THE PEOPLE OF LOT(AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the sur- rounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust … (Jude 7) Among Jewish and Christian scholars, the conservative ele- ments stick to their under- standing that the abominations refer to homosexual and perverted behaviour as described by ‘unnatural lust’. Liberal thinkers prefer to consider this as a state that some men are born with rather than developing through choice, and so they prefer to view the abominations as greed, arrogance and being inhospitable. The Jewish tradition dilutes their behaviour as being depraved and greedy, and that their crimes were economic. The Babylonian Talmud describes some of the depraved laws upheld by the four judges of Sodom: Now if a man assaulted his neighbour’s wife and bruised h e r, they would say to the husband, give her to him, that she may become pregnant for thee. (Talmud 109a) They are also described as taking money and clothes off travellers passing through the town. I wonder if this is where we get the name for looting? [Editors note: The verb ‘ to loot’ comes from the Hindi: Lootna (to loot) through the English of British India. It has nothing to do with Hadhrat Lut(as).] There are many cities throughout history that could have been described as greedy and arrogant, but they did not face such an epic punishment. For them to be punished so severely, the Qur’ a n i c account provides the clearest picture i.e. that they committed indecent acts that had not been witnessed in history before. The fact that the acts have taken on the name of that town speaks for itself. Wa r n i n g s God never punishes people without warning. If they had erred just as the people of Noah( a s ) a n d others had done before them, then 53 THE PEOPLE OF LOT (AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 they were sent a Warner or Prophet. In this way, they were first told of their misdeeds, and given a chance to rectify them and follow the Prophet. If they failed to do that and rejected the Prophet, then they would suffer their fate. In the case of Sodom, they were sent L o t( a s ) as their Wa r n e r. But the people were rebellious. Their response to Lot( a s ) w a s : … Drive out the followers of Lot from your township. They a re indeed a people who pretend to be pure’. (Ch.27: V.57) In the Bible, Abraham( a s ) asks God if he would destroy the righteous in the city with the rebellious, and his response was: ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will f o rgive the whole place for their sake.’ (Genesis 18:26) A b r a h a m( a s ) continues to question God and learns that even if there were ten righteous men in the town, God would not destroy it. C l e a r l y, the fact that angels were despatched to warn Lot( a s ) to leave Sodom proved that he was among very few righteous people in the town who were all evacuated. It also indicates the gravity of the sins being committed in the town that such a fate awaited them. L o t( a s ) was distressed at the state of the people of the town and even s a i d : ‘Is there not among you any right-minded man?’ ( C h . 11 : V. 7 9 ) Fate of Sodom The Qur’an mentions the fate of the towns as follows: So when Our command came, We turned that town upside down and We rained upon it stones of clay, layer upon layer, marked for them in the decree of thy Lord. And such punishment is not far from the wrongdoers of the present age. (Ch.11: Vs.83-84) And again we read: Then the punishment seized them at sunrise. We turned 54 THE PEOPLE OF LOT(AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 their town upside down and We rained upon them stones of clay. Surely in this are many Signs for those who can read signs. And it (that town) lies on a road that still exists. (Ch.15: Vs.74-77) The Bible describes the fate of the town in the first book, Genesis: Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur 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 what grew on the ground. (Genesis 19:25-25 ) The Bible goes on to describe the scene of destruction that Abraham(as) saw the next morning: ‘… and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace.’ (Genesis 19:28) Even Josephus, the famous Jewish historian of the 1st century CE wrote about these towns in his Jewish War: Now this country is then so sadly burnt up, that nobody cares to come at it; … It was of old a most happy land, both for the fruits it bore and the riches of its cities, although it be now all burnt up. It is related how for the impiety of its inhabitants, it was burnt by lightning; in consequence of which there are still the remainders of that Divine fire; and the traces of the five cities are still to be seen .. (Jewish Wa r, Book IV, Ch. VIII) On the strength of these verses, Jews, Christians and Muslims were in no doubt as to the punishment of the people of Sodom, and that it was a warning for future generations that reverberated throughout history. If the events are from around 1900 BCE, then even two thousand years later in 205 CE, the early Christian scholar Terullian wrote: 55 THE PEOPLE OF LOT (AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 ‘Its neighbours Sodom and Gomorrah were consumed by fire from heaven. The country still smells of that conflagration. And if there are apples there upon the trees, it is only a mirage. For when you touch them, they turn to ashes’. (Tertullian 4:48) It would be interesting to see if archaeology and geological research uncover the remains of this cataclysmic event. L o t ’s wife In both the Bible and the Qur’an, it mentions that the followers of L o t( a s ) were saved from the destruction except for his wife. In the case of the Bible, it suggests that she looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. So why was his wife specifically chosen to be punished, and how was she p u n i s h e d ? The Qur’an mentions the reason in a wider context as follows: Allah sets forth for those who disbelieve, the example, of the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. They were under two righteous servants of Ours, but they acted unfaithfully toward them. So they availed them naught against Allah, and it was said to them, ‘Enter the F i re, ye twain, along with those who enter it’. ( Ch.66: V s . 11 ) The verse is followed by the more positive examples of the wife of Pharoah and Mary( a s ) who both acted righteously and set positive e x a m p l e s . The idea that she was turned into a pillar of salt is a little far- f e t c h e d and against the reality of nature. H o w e v e r, she would have been punished along with the other people of the town for her treachery against her husband. It is however interesting that on the southern shores of the Dead Sea just south of the settlement of Neve Zohar, there is a Mount Sodom (Jebel Usdum) which is a mount of salt. Perhaps the Bible is referring to that feature to illustrate the fate of the wife of Lot( a s ). 56 THE PEOPLE OF LOT (AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 Evidence The texts are quite unequivocal about the sinful nature of the people and the disaster that befell them. If we could find traces of these places, it would confirm the historical context of the accounts covered in the texts. Most scholars agree that these events unfolded around the Dead Sea. Modern archaeological work has unearthed a lot of evidence related to the catastrophe that aff l i c a t e d Sodom. The Dead Sea area sits on top of a seismic region prone to earthquakes. There are also many bitumen mines in the Lisan Peninsula (a land area splitting the Dead Sea in the South) which would have been prone to fire hazards. Being in a seismic region, there is also a lot of trapped gas under the surface which finds its way to the surface through fissures around the mountain sides. Potentially, this combination of potential earth- quakes, leaking natural gas and bitumen could be lethal. More exciting is the news that at several locations around the banks of the Dead Sea, scientists have discovered balls of sulphur! Amongst the earliest to find these were William Albright and Melvin Kyle in 1924 while they were searching for the cities of 57 THE PEOPLE OF LOT (AS) Map of the Dead Sea Region The Review of Religions – January 2006 Sodom and Gomorrah. Dr. Kyle is quoted about his finds from his book on the expedition: ‘ … we picked up pure sulfur, in peices as big as the end of my thumb. It is mixed with the mark of the mountains of the west side of the sea, and now is to be found scattered along the shore of the sea even on the east side, some four or five miles distant from the ledge that contains the stratum.’ (Explorations at Sodom, p.52- 5 3 ) The interesting point here was that not only are there large sulphurous deposits around the Dead Sea, but that he found them in the form of sulphur balls and at some distance from their source. This would indicate that the sulphur was ignited and rained down as molten balls. Sulphur in such a pure form is not found outside this region. To find so many balls of sulphur scattered on the floor shows that there must have been a massive and explosive geological event that caused so many to rain down on a single place. So if there had been an earthquake causing the earth to open up and release gas from one of the nearby fissures, it would have ignited the gas, and caused the sulphur to form balls of fiery stone which would have rained down on the towns and turned them into ash. This matches the accounts of the final destruction from the Qur’an and the Bible which refer to a rain of brimstones, and also matches the evidence to be found at thes sites. There are other theories such as that of Graham Harris and Anthony Beardow from 1995/1996 that the earthquake would have caused the land to liquefy and collapse into the Dead Sea (see Slayman ref.4). While technically this kind of phenomenon is also possible, it would not account for the rain of stones so clearly reported in these accounts. There are many sites around the Lisan peninsula being associated with these events. Some scholars are looking on the Israeli side at the shoreline near Masada. There 58 THE PEOPLE OF LOT(AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 is a Mount Sodom composed of rock salt just south of Neve Zohar. On the Jordanian side, Bab ed- Dhra is considered an ancient town dating from a similar time to Sodom, while the town of Safi is identified with the ancient town of Zoar that Lot( a s ) is mentioned retreating to according to the Bible when Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed. Bab ed-Dhra is an excavation site for a town which was well established around 2400 BCE, but suddenly was left around 2065 BCE. It would have been contemporary to the towns of Sodom, but actually, the destruction of Sodom occured after Bab ed-Dhra was left abandoned. Other scholars view signs of indicating that Bab ed- Dhra may have been Sodom, and nearby Numeira as Gomorrah. Perhaps people are looking in obvious places for signs of the cities, when in fact the scriptures describe the towns as having been turned upside down. This is a different type of punishment to other civilizations which were covered in sand and are easier to uncover such as the ancient Egyptian temples and tombs. Near to Safi is the recently discovered cave at Deir Ain Abata. Excavations sponsored by the British Museum in 1988 uncovered the Church of St. Lot that Christian pilgrims centuries ago visited believing this to be the Cave of Lot(as). There are several scholars who also believe that the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah are flooded and now lie under the Dead Sea. C e r t a i n l y, people talk of being able to still see preserved trees under the water from a once flourishing land. There is also a Roman road that is partly flooded under the Dead Sea. The exact locations of these towns is still unknown and fiercely debated, but it is generally accepted that the towns would have been near the peninsula at the southern end of the Dead Sea. Conclusion The events of the towns of Lot(as) are a reminder that God can use natural phenomenon to destroy a 59 THE PEOPLE OF LOT (AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 race if they do not heed warnings. Although liberals may try to convince themselves that the crimes of Sodom were to do with greed, in itself, that would not have been sufficient a crime to be called an abomination or to merit such an exemplary punishment. The Qur’an is specific about the nature of the abomination and that it had not been practised before in h i s t o r y. From an Islamic perspective, this dispels the idea that such behaviour might be ‘natural’ and beyond human control. There seems to be clear geological evidence to support the nature of the disaster described in the Qur’an and the Bible as the scientist Dr. Kyle wrote: ‘… geologists tell us that here, at some time which they cannot exactly fix, these gases were ignited by some means, also to them unknown, and there was a great explosion with first an upheavel, and then a subsidence of the strata.’ (Explorations at Sodom , p.129) Finally, the destruction of Sodom and the other towns was meant as a reminder for all time, as the Qur’an declares: Surely in this are many Signs for those who can read signs. And it lies on a road that still exists. (Ch.15: Vs.76-77) The road that still exists is the Kings Highway in Jordan, and the remains of the ashen towns are a reminder to us all of the fate of those retched people who shunned God’s Law. Although the exact locations of the towns have not as yet been pinpointed, I am con- vinced that since they have been preserved as a warning for mankind, at the right time, further evidence will be made available to us. References 1. The Holy Qur’an with English Translation and Commentary, Edited by Malik Ghulam Farid, The Oriental and Religious 60 THE PEOPLE OF LOT(AS) The Review of Religions – January 2006 Publishing Corporation Ltd, Rabwah, Pakistan 1969. 2. New Revised Standard Version B i b l e, Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, USA, 1989. 3 . Perished Nations, Harun Ya h y a , Ta-Ha Publishers, London 1999. 4 . Sodom and Gomorrah Update, Andrew Slayman, Archaeology, Vol.49, No.4, July/ August 1996. 5 . J o rdan, Syria & L e b a n o n H a n d b o o k, Ivan Mannheim & Dave Wi n t e r, Footprint Handbooks, Bath, England 1998. 6 . A Dictionary of Early Christian B e l i e f s, Editor David W. Bercot, Hendrickson Publishers Inc., Massachusetts, USA 1998. 7 . Atlas of the Qur’ a n, Dr. Shauqi Abu Khalil, Maktaba Darussalam, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 2003. 8 . Stories of the Pro p h e t s, Ibn K a t h i r, Maktaba Darussalam, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 9 . Explorations at Sodom, Dr. Melvin Grove Kyle, The Religious Tract Society, London, 1 9 2 8 . 1 0 .Ancient Israel, Edited by Herschel Shanks, SPCK, London 1 9 8 9 . 11.Have Sodom and Gomorr a h been found?, Herschel Shanks, Biblical Archaeological Review, Vol.6, No.5, September/ October 1980. 61 THE PEOPLE OF LOT (AS)