Sodom apples

With Sodom burning up my newsfeed right now, I can’t think of a better time to think botanical thoughts. But first, a little background.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1920). Detail from here. 

Genesis 19 describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in apocalyptic terms. This divine blast is accomplished by means of “rain.” But this is no refreshing sprinkle. In the Hebrew Bible it is a storm of gafrit v’esh, traditionally, “brimstone and fire” (perhaps, “combustible fire”?) which “overturns” the earth (19:25). The settlements, the surroundings, the inhabitants, and even that which “sprouts from the ground” are “flipped” like a bowl. Smoke from the catastrophe spirals upward and is visible from a great distance.

Pairing the narrative with the desiccated appearance of the Dead Sea region is a short hop for classical interpreters. Strabo has this idea in mind when he takes his reader for a tour of this “fiery” country. He describes how rocks are scorched, pitch drips from cliffs, and “boiling rivers emit foul odors” (Geography XVI.44). Can anything green and pleasant grow here? And if so, might it preserve the legacy of divine judgement? I ask myself the same question every time I drive through Nevada. 

View to the remains of Bab edh ‘Dhra in Jordan. Tom Schaub and Walt Rast led an American team of excavators working at this site in the 1970s and early 1980s. The waters of the Dead Sea are visible on the distant edge of the plain. The hills of Judea rise beyond.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, links the Genesis 19 firestorm to a local fruit remembered as the apple of Sodom. I stand in the library holding his little green volume:

“Still, too, may one see ashes reproduced in the fruits, which from their outward appearance would be thought edible, but on being plucked with the hand dissolve into smoke and ashes” (War IV.484-485). 

Smoke and ashes? I try to imagine evaporative fruit. Better yet, explosive fruit. I close my eyes to see it. It dangles from the branch, lovely and inviting. Touch it and it goes poof! Throw it and it explodes! The less pious side of me contemplates the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. The more pious side of me contemplates the forbidden Edenic snack. I slip Josephus back in the shelf where he belongs and try to look academic as I leave the library.

Agartaa. “The Mythical Trees.” Detail from here

Four hundred years after the time of Josephus, Augustine of Hippo picks the Sodom apples again. For this Confessor, they are added to a list of unreasonable, yet true things. These fruit, he writes, mature

“but when they are bitten or squeezed the skin bursts in pieces and they vanish in smoke and ashes” (The City of God, XXI.4). 

Smoke and ashes? Where does Augustine get this stuff? Does such a plant exist near his home in North Africa? How do such rumors reach his ears? Is he reading Josephus too? Or is this some figure of speech or some version of preacher-truth?

Apples of Sodom growing beside the road. Note the inflated pods. They look like fat little pillows about the size of a grapefruit.

We are off-course again. I wheel the rental car through a potholed road in Palestinian Jericho. Vicki and I are hunting the remains of a hippodrome from the New Testament period (Tell es-Samarat). Then I spot them. “Look,” I shout. “Sodom apples!” It is not the racetrack, but a clump of small shrubs.

Vicki is unsure, but I remember. Some 20 years ago I was riding with a friend and dissertation advisor, Tom Schaub. He had just concluded a series of excavations in the Dead Sea region and among them (ironically enough!), candidates for biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. He pulled the car over when his wife shouted, “Look, Sodom apples!”

Cork-like branches, large oval leaves, and puffy fruit characterize this species. Note the lovely white and purple flowers opening in the lower right of the image.

Here they are again. Vicki is less than enthusiastic and prefers to wait in the air-conditioned car. I grab my camera and hop a ditch of weeds and garbage. The fruit hangs in clumps before me, large, round, luscious. I reach toward one, then pause. Will it evaporate? Might it explode?

I grab it, tentatively. Nothing happens. I gain confidence and give it a tug. The branch releases its hold. The stem begins to bleed profusely. It is a sticky white sap.

I hold it at arm's length from my face and sink my thumbs into a central crease of the fruit. Poof! Powder puffs like smoke. Drops of sap are everywhere. Inside the broken fruit I see thousands of silky fibers tied to a slender pod of seeds. Left to explode on their own, each fiber serves as a little parachute to deploy the seeds. They ride the wind. The explosion is this plant’s propagation weapon.

I pull it apart. This one is an adolescent, too green to smoke.

The apple of Sodom (in Hebrew, Tapuach Sdom) comes from a plant of many names. Our Arab friends call it Osher; elsewhere, Giant Milkweed. Its scientific designation is Calotropis procera. It is a tough species that grows readily across Africa and southern Asia, including the Dead Sea region. It is believed that the ancients used the fibers as wicks for lamps. One thing is certain: they avoided the sap. It is corrosive and more poisonous than strychnine. It will literally stop your heart.

Is it possible that these are the Jericho gourds that prompted the cry of “death in the pot!" (2 Kings 4)?

I carefully wash my hands of the matter and offer Milton the last word. The forbidden fruit is identified; the smoke still spirals upward.

Greedily they pluck’d

The Frutage fair to sight, like that which grew

Neer that bituminous Lake where Sodom flam'd;

This more delusive, not the touch, but taste

Deceav’d; they fondly thinking to allay

Thir appetite with gust, instead of Fruit

Chewd bitter Ashes, which th’ offended taste.

From Paradise Lost X.561

For the full text see here.

Postscript: I was saddened to learn of the passing of Tom Schaub on October 19, 2015. See here for his obituary. Tom was always quick to smile and encourage. He will be greatly missed.