The Tar Pits of the Bible

Here is an obscure little verse in the Genesis record that the Lord suddenly brought to my attention this week. “Now the valley of Siddim was full of tar pits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and they fell into them. But those who survived fled to the hill country (Gen 14:10 NASB)”. Weird! I would venture that very few, if any, students of the Scriptures have that little verse underlined in their Bibles. I must admit that (until now) neither did I. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon centered around that verse, nor have I ever observed an exposition of that verse in the various notable commentaries. Yet there it is. The Holy Spirit obviously thought it was necessary to tell us that there were tar pits in the valley of Siddim. Therefore, since “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness (2Timothy 3:16 NASB)”; it would probably be very rewarding to find out why we are told that “Siddim was full of tar pits”. There are no superfluous words in the Bible.

So, in order to see if we can make some sense out of that obscure (and often overlooked) Scripture, and figure out how it could possibly have any meaning for you and me, let’s set the stage. Back in the thirteenth chapter of Genesis we read, “Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD (Gen 13:10 NIV). Hmm, what an interesting dichotomy—a land that looked like the garden of Eden, yet full of tar pits! We continue in that same verse, “(This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.)” Then, in verses 12 and 13 we are told, “Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.” As is so often the case, all Lot could see was a land that looked like the garden of Eden, all the while overlooking the fact that it was full of potentially dangerous tar pits, and totally depraved men. Isn’t it strange how many, many times the allurement of sin trumps our good judgment. Sad, but true!

Continuing on; if we wish to get an even more impressive picture of this little verse, let’s think all the way back to the creation story. It is so very interesting to realize that when God was laying the foundations of the earth, He precisely placed all the mountains and valleys, deserts and wetlands, forests and plains in specific locations according to His overall plan. Nothing was random. And while all this vast creation was taking place, He also meticulously placed a little group of tar pits in a precise location in the middle east. We must also know that this could not have been a random anomaly of nature. No Siree! God does not act randomly. As in everything, He had a specific plan and purpose in mind. And He wanted to draw our attention to that phenomenon.

Inquiring minds such as mine are inclined to ask what that purpose could possibly serve. Why do we need to know that? Well, let’s see if we can figure out this little puzzle. Follow me as I try to develop this line of thought. When we place a supply of coal briquettes in our BBQ grill, we have a specific plan and purpose in mind. That’s obvious! This is not a random, insignificant act. We are planning to ignite them at a certain time in the future. And we will not be igniting them merely for the purpose to watch coals burn, we have a planned use for the ensuing fire. Thus, does it only stand to reason that God placed those tar pits in that specific location with the specific purpose of igniting them sometime in the future. And, that being the case, we should rest assured that He would not be igniting them merely to watch those tar sands burn, Just like us, He surely had a planned use for the ensuing fire. We get a hint in verse 13 above. There we have been told that the men of Sodom were wicked and sinned greatly against Him. There must be an obvious connection there.

Now, let’s fast-forward to the eighteenth chapter of Genesis. God had told Abraham that the inhabitants of Sodom had become so depraved and unrepentant that He would ultimately destroy the cities—with fire!“ But Abraham pleaded with God to save the cities for the sake of the righteous. Finally, at the very end of that chapter, Abraham continued, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the ten (Gen 18:32 NASB).” But when all was said and done, not even ten righteous souls could be found in those twin cities. Sure enough, God followed through on His judgment. “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven, and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground (Gen 19:24-25 NASB)”. Wow! When fire and brimstone rained down on those tar pits, one can only imagine the total devastation. We are not told how long that fire burned, but the result was what Lot had originally looked up and seen as ‘the whole plain of the Jordan, well watered, like the garden of the LORD’, was now reduced to a charred valley, totally devoid of every living thing: the cities, the inhabitants and all vegetation. I would suppose it could be described as a brief preview of an everlasting hell.

Ah, but all was not necessarily lost. Looking back at that original verse in this discussion, we should notice that we have only discussed half of the verse. Rather than reading only of the inevitable result of God’s terrible judgment and wrath, we can read of some good news—some really wonderful news! The same God that had put those tar pits in place had also, by His amazing grace, provided a way of escape. Escape! What a wonderful word! Here’s a wonderful fact: According to the various concordances, the word ‘escape’ appears approximately 60 times (depending on the approved versions). We continue reading, “But those who survived fled to the hill country.” I would venture that the hill country could accommodate any and all who left their wickedness and great sin behind and escaped to the refuge of God’s hill country. But, it should be noted that unless we accept the offer of His amazing grace, it is of no avail to us. He doesn’t force it on us. In Hebrews 3:2 we read, ”How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him (NKJV)”.

Thus, in ascertaining how that weird little verse applies to us, allow me to share a couple more pertinent verses. “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did”. And again, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us (1 Cor 10:6,11 NIV)”.

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