[b-hebrew] What Does "Sodom" Mean?

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Tue Nov 25 10:14:12 EST 2008

What Does “Sodom” Mean?
Rather than being fictional, I see the names of the five “cities of the Plain”
/KKR/valley at Genesis 14: 2 as being puns on the historical names of five 
Late Bronze Age cities in the Jezreel Valley.  Let’s examine here the most 
controversial name:  “Sodom”.
“Sodom” is samekh-dalet-mem/SDM.  Gesenius says that “Sodom” means “burning”
 or “conflagration”, but offers no real support for that view.  Strong’s 
states that “Sodom” comes from “an unused root” meaning “to scorch” or “burnt”
, but once again offers no real support for such view.  Certainly no 
historical city name would mean “scorched”!
“Sodom” is better analyzed as being a pun on three words, two of which 
reference historical Beth Shan, and the third of which means “scorched”, 
foreshadowing Sodom’s fiery fate depicted in chapter 19 of Genesis.
We start our linguistic analysis of “Sodom” by noting that, although “Sodom”
 itself is spelled with a samekh, there is no root or derivative of “Sodom” 
spelled with a samekh.  That’s a key clue to what is actually going on here.  “
Sodom”, spelled with a samekh, reflects a series of puns on words that begin 
with a sin, rather than a samekh.  A sin and a samekh have similar sounds.  
(It is not clear how the samekh was pronounced in the Late Bronze Age.  In Late 
Biblical Hebrew, samekh had become virtually indistinguishable from sin.  Some 
say that a sin is a softer S than a samekh, but it is hard to distinguish 
such sounds.  Even more importantly, we do not know exactly how these S-type 
sounds were pronounced by the early Hebrews.  The point is that the sounds of 
samekh and sin are certainly close enough to make a close pun.)
If we look for words similar to “Sodom” that begin with a sin or shin 
(rather than with a samekh), we immediately find three such words.  
First there is “shakam” or “sokom”/shin/sin-kaf-mem/$KM or &KM.  (In 
unpointed text, we don’t know most of the vowel sounds, and we cannot distinguish 
sin from shin, so this could be “sokom”, which sounds a lot like “Sodom”.)  
This word, which references “rising in the early morning”, is used throughout 
the Bible, including in the Patriarchal narratives at Genesis 19: 2 when the 
angels come to Sodom, and at Genesis 19: 27 when Abraham goes to see Sodom’s 
destruction.  The first large city in Canaan proper over which the sun was “
rising in the early morning” was Beth Shan, located on the eastern edge of Canaan.  
Based on item #110 on the mid-15th century BCE Thutmosis III list, the first 
attested name of Beth Shan in $JR.  This could easily mean $XR, the word for “
dawn, early morning”, so that “Beth Shan” means “house of dawn” or “House 
of the Rising Sun”.  Notably, $XR appears at Genesis 19: 15, immediately before 
Sodom is destroyed.  ($XR also appears at Genesis  32: 24, 26.)  $KM has a 
closely related meaning to $XR, and those two words in the Patriarchal 
narratives also have a somewhat similar sound.  $KM or &KM in turn may have also 
sounded a lot like “Sodom”, with only the middle sound being significantly 
different.  In hearing about Sodom’s destruction in chapter 19 of Genesis, one cannot 
avoid the word $KM at Genesis 19: 2, or $XR at Genesis 19: 15, or $KM again at 
Genesis 19: 27.  The author is practically forcing us to see this key set of 
puns on the name “Sodom”, so that we will know that “Sodom”/SDM is a 
Patriarchal nickname for historical Beth Shan/$JR.  Sodom/Beth Shan is portrayed as 
being destroyed as the sun rises over Canaan (Genesis 19: 23), and “Beth Shan” 
means “House of the Rising Sun”.
Second is “sadap”/sin-dalet-peh/&DP.  (As noted above, in unpointed text we 
don’t know most of the vowel sounds, so this could be “sodop”, and we cannot 
distinguish sin from shin.)  The only place that the word “sadap”/&DP is used 
in the Bible is in the Patriarchal narratives, at Genesis 41: 6, 23, 27.  
Gesenius says it means “to blast, to scorch”.  
The third word redolent of “Sodom” is “sidim”/sin-dalet-yod-mem/&DYM (or “
sodim”), which means “fields”.  The “Valley of Fields”, or the “Valley of 
Siddim”, is where the princeling ruler of Sodom is defeated in chapter 14 of 
Genesis.  The only valley of grain-producing “fields”/sidim in Canaan was the 
Jezreel Valley.  The Valley of “Fields”/Sidim is the Jezreel Valley.  “Sodom”, 
which sounds so much like sidim/“fields”, is the “fields”/sidim city in the 
Jezreel Valley, namely Beth Shan.
The word sidim/&DYM is used three times in the Patriarchal narratives, at 
Genesis 14: 3, 8, 10, in very close proximity to describing Sodom.  The word “
field” in the singular is a common word in the Bible.  The word “fields” in the 
plural is used 59 times in the Bible outside of the Patriarchal narratives.  
But not a single time outside of Genesis is “fields” spelled &DYM.  (At Exodus 
8: 9, for example, we have the word “fields”, but it is spelled 
sin-dalet-tav/&DT, not &DYM.)  It would seem that &DYM in the proper name “Valley of Fields
” is an archaic plural of “field”, indicating the great antiquity of the 
Patriarchal narratives.  (Archaic forms in proper names in the text of the 
Patriarchal narratives could not be changed, whereas the grammar of most common 
words in the entire Bible, including the Patriarchal narratives, was updated from 
time to time over the centuries.  As to grammar, the true antiquity of the 
Patriarchal narratives is generally limited to proper names.)
If we use the English letter O for each implied vowel sound for the three 
above words, we see that “Sodom” and “sokom” and “sodop” and “sodim” all are 
close enough in sound to be deliberate puns.  If we switch to the English 
letter I for the implied vowel sound in the second syllable of each such word, we 
would get “Sodim” vs. “sokim” vs. “sodip” vs. “sodim”.  The first and 
fourth words are then the same, and the second and third words vary by only one 
letter.  The point is simply that these four words are close enough in sound to 
be deliberate, close puns that are being made by the early Hebrew author of 
the Patriarchal narratives.  Note that &DYM is used in describing Sodom in 
chapter 14 of Genesis, and both $KM/&KM and $XR are used when Abraham views the 
destruction of Sodom in chapter 19 of Genesis.  That’s no mere “coincidence”.  
No way.  That’s the author trying to make sure that we see his clever puns, so 
that we will understand what the Patriarchal nickname “Sodom” means.  Though 
Gesenius, Strong’s and other scholars see only “scorched”, the more important 
two puns here on the name “Sodom”/SDM in chapters 14 and 19 of Genesis are 
&DYM/“fields” (chapter 14 of Genesis), and $KM/&KM/ “rising in early morning” 
(chapter 19 of Genesis).  Recognizing those two puns is critical to 
understanding that by use of the Patriarchal nickname “Sodom”, the author is 
specifically referencing historical Beth Shan, either by describing its most obvious 
attribute (“fields”), or by making a close pun on the historical meaning of the 
city name “Beth Shan”/$JR/$XR (“rising in early morning”). 
If “Beth Shan” originally meant “house of $XR”, then the city name “Sodom”
, which is redolent of &KM or $KM, is in turn redolent of $XR, the historical 
Late Bronze Age name of Beth Shan.  But “Sodom” in the Patriarchal narratives 
is also a deliberate pun on “scorched” and “fields” -- SDM vs. &DP vs. 
&DYM.  As such, “Sodom” is an apt Patriarchal nickname, being a three-level pun 
on “rising in early morning” and “scorched” and “fields”.  “Rising in early 
morning” is redolent of the historical Late Bronze Age name of Beth Shan, and 
references Beth Shan’s locale on the eastern edge of Canaan, with the sun 
rising in early morning on Beth Shan before any other major city in Canaan.  “
Fields” reflects the cardinal fact that Beth Shan housed Egypt’s only inland 
Canaan garrison, which was there to guard the fertile fields of the Jezreel 
Valley.  And “scorched” obviously refers to Sodom’s fiery, dire fate depicted in 
chapter 19 of Genesis (where the common words $XR and $KM are used). 
In a subsequent post, we can discuss why Genesis portrays Sodom/Beth Shan as 
being burnt to the ground and never reinhabited, despite the fact that such a 
thing never happened in secular history to Beth Shan.  (It did happen, 
historically, to Qatna just north of Canaan, which is the historical model for Sodom’
s fiery destruction.  The early Hebrew author is warning in chapters 14 and 19 
of Genesis that unless everyone now unites against the new threat posed by 
the dreaded Hittites, Qatna’s fiery demise last year may foreshadow a similar 
disastrous conflagration next year in the heart of Canaan, at what would be any 
serious invader’s most logical target -- the key stronghold of Beth Shan.)
If we can understand the historical etymology of “Beth Shan”, we can 
understand what “Sodom” means.  We then see that “Sodom”, rather than being 
fictional as scholars would have it, is instead an apt Patriarchal nickname that is 
closely based on the historical name of the historical Late Bronze Age city of 
Beth Shan.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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