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Dead Sea

The Catholic Encyclopedia

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The name given to the lake that lies on the south-eastern border of Palestine. The Old Testament makes frequent reference to it under a variety of titles; once only, however, by its present one. The Vulgate's rendering of Josue (iii, 16) reads, mare solitudinis (quod nunc vocatur Mortuum) translated in the D.V. "the sea of the wilderness (which now is called the Dead Sea)". In the Septuagint the verse reads ten thalassan Araba, thalassan halos, which the A.V. gives thus: "towards the sea of the plain, even the salt sea" and the R.V., "the sea of the Arabah, even the salt sea". In Joel (ii, 20) the prophet speaks of "the east sea"; and the apocryphal Fourth Book of Esdras (v, 7) speaks of the mare Sodomiticum — the Sodomitish Sea. Josephus, Pliny, and other profane writers, among other names, called it the Lake of Asphalt; Asphaltitis limne and Lacus Asphaltites. The present-day inhabitants of its vicinity call it Bahr Lut — the Sea of Lot.

The Dead Sea is the final link of the chain of rivers and lakes that lies in the valley of the Jordan. Taking its rise on the southern slopes of Mt. Hermon, the Jordan in its southern course first spreads out into Lake Merom, emerging from which it flows into the Lake of Tiberias, whence it descends into the Dead Sea. To convey a proper idea of the size and shape of the Dead Sea travellers often compare it to the Lake of Geneva. The resemblance between the two is striking in almost every particular. The great lake of the Holy Land is forty-seven miles long and about ten miles across at its widest part. Its area is approximately 360 square miles. The surface of the water is 1292 feet below the level of the Mediterranean, which is only a few miles to the west. This extraordinary feature alone singles out the Dead Sea from all other bodies of water. A low-lying peninsula about ten miles wide, called el-Lisan, "the tongue", which runs out from the south-eastern shore to within three miles of the opposite shore, divides the sea into two unequal parts. The northern and larger part is very deep, reaching at one point a depth of 1310 feet. The southern bay is, on the contrary, very shallow, averaging hardly a depth of thirteen feet. In two places it is possible to cross from the peninsula to the opposite shore by means of two fords which are known to the Arabs.

The water in the Dead Sea is salt. Every day the Jordan and other affluents pour into it over six and one half million tons of fresh water. There is, however, no outlet to the ocean, and the sole agent whereby this increase is disposed of is evaporation. The power of the sun's rays in this great pit is, however, so intense that save for a small fluctuation between the wet and dry seasons, the level of the sea does not change, despite the great volume that is added to it. In the water that remains after evaporation solid matters make up 26 per cent of the whole; 7 per cent being chloride of sodium (common salt), the rest being chiefly chlorides of magnesium, calcium, and derivatives of bromium. The chloride of magnesium gives the water a very loathsome taste; the chloride of calcium an oily appearance. The specific gravity of the water is 1.166. The presence of so much salt explains well the weird name of the sea, since save for a few microbes, no organic life can exist in it. Even fish from the ocean perish when put into it. The human body will not sink below the surface. Bathing, however, in the Dead Sea can hardly be styled a pleasure, as the water is very irritating to the skin and eyes. There is, it need hardly be said, no foundation for the statement sometimes made, that birds cannot fly across the water, as occasionally sea-birds can be seen resting on its surface. From time to time large quantities of bitumen rise to the surface from the bottom. Bitumen is also found along the shores and is referred to in Genesis (xiv, 10) where it speaks of the puteos multos bituminis — "many pits of slime". This feature caused the ancients to speak of the sea as the "Lake of Asphalt".

The Dead Sea is mentioned in the Old Testament mostly as a boundary. Its formation comes into discussion in the Book of Genesis (xiv, 3) where, speaking of the kings against whom Chodorlahomor fought, the text says: "All these came together into the woodland vale, which is now the salt sea". According to the geologists who have explored the region, the formation of this depression of the earth's surface does not date from any historical period, but from the later tertiary or early quaternary period. Their theory is that at some remote time the western part of this region, owing to some profound disturbance of the strata, sank far below the eastern part, thus causing the great dissimilarity of the strata of the two sides of the sea. Besides this, the beds of gypsum, marl, flint, and alluvium found at different heights all along the Jordan valley indicate at that one time the entire valley, from the Lake of Tiberias to the Dead Sea, was a lake. Just what were the conditions at the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha is only a matter of conjecture. But the words of the text, taken as they stand, prove that in the great catastrophe there was an inundation from the sea. The mooted question as to the sites of Sodom and Gomorrha does not properly enter into this article.

It is a very strange sight that this region presents to the eye, especially when seen from some height. On the eastern and western sides great mountains rise up in some places sheer from the water. To the north, the silvery line of the Jordan can be traced as far as the eye can reach. To the south, the hills of solid salt, called Jebel Usdum — Mt. Sodom — and, on a clear day, mountains close to the Red Sea may be seen. Now all is deserted and dead. No vegetation or sign of human occupation greets the traveller. In other days the scene was different. Vessels plied the surface of the sea and many people lived near its shores. The prophecies of Esechiel (47) and of Zacharies (14:8) give one subject of thought on the scene here when the life-giving streams pouring forth from the Temple will have transformed it anew.


SMITH, Hist. Geog. of the Holy Land (London, 1895); BULL, Memoir on the Physical Geology and Geography of Arabia Petræa, Palestine, etc. (London, 1886, Mount Seir, 1889); LYNCH, Narrative of the U. S. Expedition to . . . the Dead Sea (Washington, 1849); Official Report of the U. S. Expedition, etc. (Washington, 1852); DE LUYNES, Voyage d' Exploration à la Mer Morte (1875 LARTET, Geologie, in Vol. III of the collection of Duc de Luynes; DE SAULCY, Voyage autour de la Mer Morte (1853); TRISTRAM, The Land of Israel (London, 1882); VIGOUROUX, Manuel Biblique (Paris, 1901), I, 678; Les Livres Saints et la critique rationaliste, 5th ed., IV, 311; GAUTIER in Ency. Biblica, I, col. 1042.

Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Dead Sea'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​d/dead-sea.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.
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