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Bible Encyclopedias
Dead Sea

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Composition of the Water.

Lake in southeast Palestine, and one of the curious natural phenomena of the earth. It occupies the lowest part of the great depression which extends from northern Palestine to the Gulf of Akabah. At its most northerly point 150 meters above the level of the Mediterranean, the depression south of the Dead Sea rises to a height of 240 meters. The surface of the Dead Sea is 394 meters, and its greatest depth not less than 793 meters, below the level of the Mediterranean. Therefore the present formation of the basin prohibits any outflow, and geological investigations have shown that there never was one. The Jordan pours daily 6,000,000 tons of water into the Dead Sea; but since about an equal amount is daily evaporated, the level remains nearly the same, varying only from 4 to 6 meters with the change of seasons. Owing to this evaporation, to the mineral character of its own basin, and to the constant addition of saline elements from the Jordan, the water of the Dead Sea contains a large proportion of mineral matter, chiefly salt, chlorids of magnesium and calcium. It is consequently bitter to the taste and has an oily consistency. It is likewise extremely buoyant. The human body floats well out of the water, and diving is almost impossible. With the exception of some microscopic protophytes—namely, fresh-water diatoms and pathogenic microbes—nothing can live in the waters of the Dead Sea. Even salt-water fish die in it, and the bodies of fresh-water fish carried down by the Jordan float on the surface in great numbers. It is not true, however, that birdsflying over the sea die. Another peculiarity is the amount of asphalt that floats in large quantities on the surface. This is probably due to the great prevalence of sulfur on the shores.

Description of Vicinity.

The Dead Sea is enclosed east and west by mountain ridges, which, forming to the northwest the headland Ras Feshkhah, descend abruptly into the water. Elsewhere on the west the ridges are separated from the sea by a barren strip of land, of which the only cultivable part lies below the spring Engedi. On the east the mountains descend precipitously to the water's edge, except where a fertile little plain marks the months of a wadi. In the southern part, at the mouth of the Wadi beni Hammad, there is an extensive level stretch, forming the large peninsula Al-Lisan. This peninsula—which in its southern extremity is rich in salt—divides the sea into two unequal parts; the smaller and shallower in the south, and the larger in the north, where the sea is deeper. On the southern shore of the sea is an open barren plain, Al-Sabkhah, the brown soil of which is flecked with salt. Toward the west rises a high ridge, Jabal Usdum, which is composed almost entirely of salt.

Names Given to It.

The Dead Sea, known at present as "Baḥr Luṭ" (Lot's Sea), is called in the Old Testament "Sea of Arabah" (R. V. Deuteronomy 3:17; Joshua 12:8), "East" or "Eastern Sea" (Ezekiel 47:18; Joel 2:20; Zechariah 14:8). and "Salt Sea" (Genesis 14:3). The Talmud refers to it as "Salt Sea," or the "Sea of Sodom"; and Josephus and Pliny call it "Lake Asphaltites." The name "Dead Sea" is used by Pausanias, Justin, and the Church Fathers. Josephus ("B. J." 4:8, § 4) mentions the salty taste of its water, the impossibility of diving in it, its change of color, and the great floating blocks of asphalt, which were used for calking ships and for medicinal purposes. Similar descriptions are given by Tacitus ("Hist." 5:6) and Pliny ("Hist. Naturalis," 5:15). The Talmud (Shab. 108b) mentions the density of the water, and says that a bath in the Dead Sea is considered good for certain ills, especially diseases of the eye, although the salt extracted from the sea was considered noxious to the eyes (Ḥul. 105b). Because of the poisonous air about the sea no ship sailed on it (Hirschensohn, "Sefer Sheba' Ḥokmot," 1888, p. 173).

References to It in Old Testament.

The destruction of the five cities of Sodom, which, according to the Old Testament, were near the Dead Sea (Genesis 14:3), is intimately connected with the geological history of the region. After the great depression of the Jordan valley, with its southern continuation, had been formed, it became the basin of a mighty sea during the heavy rains of the diluvian epoch. The surface of this sea—which stretched from the watershed of the Araba valley, south of the Dead Sea, to the Sea of Galilee—was 426 meters above the present level of the Dead Sea, and about 30 meters above that of theMediterranean. Traces of fresh-water vegetation show that the water did not then contain nearly so much salt as at present. It became salty as it sank, leaving that great deposit of salt to the south, of which the Jabal Usdum is a remnant. A second rising of the water produced the high terraces lying south of the sea and extending along both sides of the Jordan; and a third gave rise to the lower terraces lying in front of the others.

History of Its Formation.

Blanckenhorn conjectured that an earthquake depressed the bottom of the valley south of the sea, where the five cities were situated, causing the salt sea to flood it. He sees a connection between the asphalt pits of the valley of Siddim and the large amount of asphalt in the southern part of the sea, and thinks that an earthquake might have freed the gases of petroleum and asphalt confined in the earth. These could easily have become ignited, thus causing the catastrophe. The event would naturally have been preserved by tradition; and it does actually figure in extra-Biblical accounts. Justin attributes to it the separation and emigration of the Canaanitish tribes.

  • Reland, Palästina, pp. 238 et seq.;
  • Robinson, Palestine, 2:448 et seq.;
  • idem, Physical Geography of the Holy Land, pp. 204 et seq.;
  • Ritter, Erdkunde, 2:1,553 et seq.;
  • De Saulcy, Voyage Autour de la Mer Morte, 1853;
  • Fraas, Das Todte Meer, 1867;
  • Tuch, Ueber den Ursprung des Todten Meeres, 1863;
  • Duc de Luynes, Voyage, d'Exploration α la Mer Morte, in Lartet's Geologie,;
  • Blanckenhorn, Entstehung und Gesch. des Todten Meeres, in Zeit. Deutsch. Paläst. Ver. 19:1 et seq.;
  • idem, Noch Einmal Sodom und Gomorra, 21:65 et seq. (against the view here expressed see Die Katastrophe in Sodom und Gomorra, in Mittheilungen der K. K. Geographischen Gesellschaft, , , Vienna, 1897);
  • Krätzschmar, Der Mythus von Sodoms Ende, in Zeitschrift des Deutschen Paläst. Vereins, 17:81 et seq.
E. G. H.
F. Bu.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Dead Sea'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​d/dead-sea.html. 1901.
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