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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
This was anciently called the Sea of the Plain, Deuteronomy 3:17; Deuteronomy 4:49 , from its situation in the great hollow or plain of the Jordan; the Salt Sea, Deuteronomy 3:17; Joshua 15:5 , from the extreme saltness of its waters; and the East Sea, Ezekiel 47:18; Joel 2:20 , from its situation relative to Judea, and in contradistinction to the West Sea, or Mediterranean. It is likewise called by Josephus, and by the Greek and Latin writers generally, Lacus Asphaltites, from the bitumen found in it and the Dead Sea, its more frequent modern appellation, from a tradition, commonly though erroneously received, that no living creature could exist in its saline and sulphureous waters. It is at present known in Syria by the names of Almotanah and Bahar Loth: and occupies what may be considered as the southern extremity of the vale of Jordan; forming, in that direction, the western boundary to the Holy Land. The Dead Sea is about seventy miles in length, and twenty in breadth at its broadest part; having, like the Caspian, no visible communication with the ocean. Its depth seems to be altogether unknown; nor does it appear that a boat has ever navigated its surface. Toward its southern extremity, however, in a contracted part of the lake, is a ford, about six miles over, made use of by the Arabs: in the middle of which they report the water to be warm; indicating the presence of warm springs beneath. In general, toward the shore, it is shallow; and rises and falls with the seasons, and the quantity of water carried into it by seven streams, which fall into this their common receptacle, the chief of which is the Jordan.
The water now covering these ruins occupies what was formerly the vale of Siddim; a rich and fruitful valley, in which stood the five cities, called the cities of the plain, namely, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, and Bela or Zoar: the four first of which were destroyed, while the latter, being "a little city," was preserved at the intercession of Lot; to which he fled for refuge from the impending catastrophe, and where he remained in safety during its accomplishment.
The specific gravity of the waters of the Dead Sea is supposed to have been much exaggerated by the ancient writers, but their statements are now proved to be by no means very wide of the truth. Pliny says, that no living bodies would sink in it; and Strabo, that persons who went into it were borne up to their middle. Van Egmont and Heyman state, that, on swimming to some distance from the shore, they found themselves, to their great surprise, lifted up by the water. "When I had swam to some distance," says the latter, "I endeavoured to sink to the bottom, but could not; for the water kept me continually up, and would certainly have thrown me upon my face, had I not put forth all the strength I was master of, to keep myself in a perpendicular posture; so that I walked in the sea as if I had trod on firm ground, without having occasion to make any of the motions necessary in treading fresh water; and when I was swimming, I
was obliged to keep my legs the greatest part of the time out of the water. My fellow traveller was agreeably surprised to find that he could swim here, having never learned. But this proceeded from the gravity of the water, as this certainly does from the extraordinary quantity of salt in it."
Mr. Joliffe says, he found it very little more buoyant than other seas, but he did not go out of his depth. "The descent of the beach," he says, "is so gently gradual, that I must have waded above a hundred yards to get completely out of my depth, and the impatience of the Arabians would not allow of time sufficient for this." Captain Mangles says: "The water is as bitter and as buoyant as the people have reported. Those of our party who could not swim, floated on its surface like corks. On dipping the head in, the eyes smarted dreadfully." With regard to the agents employed in this catastrophe, there might seem reason to suppose that volcanic phenomena had some share in producing it; but Chateaubriand's remark is deserving of attention. "I cannot," he says, "coincide in opinion with those who suppose the Dead Sea to be the crater of a volcano. I have seen Vesuvius, Solfatara, Monte Nuovo in the lake of Fusino, the peak of the Azores, the Mamalif opposite to Carthage, the extinguished volcanoes of Auvergne; and remarked in all of them the same characters; that is to say, mountains excavated in the form of a tunnel, lava, and ashes, which exhibited incontestable proofs of the agency of fire." After noticing the very different shape and position of the Dead Sea, he adds: "Bitumen, warm springs, and phosphoric stones are found, it is true, in the mountains of Arabia; but then, the presence of hot springs, sulphur, and asphaltos is not sufficient to attest the anterior existence of a volcano." The learned Frenchman inclines to adopt the idea of Professors Michaelis and Busching, that Sodom and Gomorrah were built upon a mine of bitumen; that lightning kindled the combustible mass, and that the cities sunk in the subterraneous conflagration. M. Malte Brun ingeniously suggests, that the cities might themselves have been built of bituminous stones, and thus have been set in flames by the fire of heaven. We learn from the Mosaic account, that the vale of Siddim, which is now occupied by the Dead Sea, was full of "slime pits," or pits of bitumen. Pococke says: "It is observed, that the bitumen floats on the water, and comes ashore after windy weather; the Arabs gather it up, and it serves as pitch for all uses, goes into the composition of medicines, and is thought to have been a very great ingredient in the bitumen used in embalming the bodies in Egypt: it has been much used for cerecloths, and has an ill smell when burnt. It is probable that there are subterraneous fires, that throw up this bitumen at the bottom of the sea, where it may form itself into a mass, which may be broken by the motion of the water occasioned by high winds; and it is very remarkable, that the stone called the stone of Moses, found about two or three leagues from the sea, which burns like a coal, and turns only to a white stone, and not to ashes, has the same smell, when burnt, as this pitch; so that it is probable, a stratum of the stone under the Dead Sea is one part of the matter that feeds the subterraneous fires, and that this bitumen boils up out of it." To give force to this last conjecture, however, it would be requisite to ascertain, whether bitumen is capable of being detached from this stone, in a liquid state, by the action of fire. The stone in question is the black fetid limestone, used at Jerusalem in the manufacture of rosaries and amulets, and worn as a charm against the plague. The effluvia which it emits on friction, is owing to a strong impregnation of sulphuretted hydrogen. If the buildings were constructed of materials of this description, with quarries of which the neighbouring mountains abound, they would be easily susceptible of ignition by lightning. The Scriptural account, however, is explicit, that "the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from heaven;" which we may safely interpret as implying a shower of inflamed sulphur, or nitre. At the same time it is evident, that the whole plain underwent a simultaneous convulsion, which seems referable to the consequences of a bituminous explosion. In perfect accordance with this view of the catastrophe, we find the very materials, as it were, of this awful visitation still at hand in the neighbouring hills; from which they might have been poured down by the agency of thunder storms, directed by the hand of offended Heaven. Captains Irby and Mangles collected, on the southern coast, lumps of nitre and fine sulphur, from the size of a nutmeg up to that of a small hen's egg, which, it was evident from their situation, had been brought down by the rain: "their great deposit must be sought for," they say, "in the cliff." These cliffs then were probably swept by the lightnings, and their flaming masses poured in a deluge of fire upon the plain.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Dead Sea'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/d/dead-sea.html. 1831-2.