Have you noticed that the internet is abuzz with reports that the Dead Sea is coming alive in fulfillment of biblical prophecy? We speak to this question below. And no tour of the land of the Bible is complete, apparently, unless it includes an opportunity to float in the Dead Sea. Hopefully these fads don’t distract us from the real significance of this place. Our recent GRTS study tour with GTI took us over rugged terrain near the Dead Sea in both Jordan and Israel. Previous posts in this series engage the land in general and Jordan in particular. We focus here on the amazing yet shrinking body of briny water at the lowest spot on the face of the earth.
The Dead Sea and Geography
In terms of what geologists call plate tectonics, the Jordan River valley, along with the Dead Sea and the Arabah to the south, are parts of the great Afro-Asian rift in the earth’s surface. This rift stretches south from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, and continues into Africa. With its surface at roughly 1400 feet below sea level (and currently sinking three feet a year), the Dead Sea is not merely the lowest point of this rift but the lowest spot on the face of the earth. In the image above, notice the southern tip of the v-shaped Sinai Peninsula just to the right of center. If you think of this image as a clock face, you will notice the Red Sea as the body of water occupying 5-6 o’clock. The Gulf of Suez is like a clock hand pointing toward 11 o’clock and the Mediterranean Sea. The Gulf of Aqaba is like a clock hand pointing toward 1 o’clock and the Jordan rift valley, including the Arabah, the Dead Sea, and the Jordan River. Can you spot the snow on Mount Hermon?
Although its size has fluctuated, the Dead Sea is about 40 miles from north to south, and at its widest, about 10 miles from east to west. The prominent Lisan (Hebrew and Arabic for “tongue”) Peninsula juts out from the southeast side of the sea and separates its northern and southern basins. The southern basin is quite shallow; today it is used for evaporation pools by Jordanian and Israeli industries. The northern basin is roughly a thousand feet deep in some places. The main source of the sea is the Jordan River, but other streams bring water into it, especially during the rainy season. The wilderness and Negev on the west side of the Sea is more arid than the abrupt mountains and plateau on the east side. Due to the Sea having not outlet, evaporation in this arid region results in the water being up to 35% salt, roughly eight times saltier than the oceans.
The Dead Sea in Ancient Times
In ancient times the sea was used for travel and commerce, as seen on the Madaba Map. There is evidence that the Sea could be forded at the Lisan during periods of low water (2 Chron 20:2?). The ancient author Pliny the Elder was apparently aware of the Essene colony at Qumran, just south of Jericho (Natural History 5.16, 73). Josephus spoke of Herod the Great’s failed attempt to regain his health by bathing in the warm springs at Calirrhoe, on the Sea across the Jordan southeast of Jericho (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.171). In the Jewish War Josephus spoke at length about the Sea, alluding to its buoyancy, changes of color, and dimensions (4.476-82). Both these authors referred to the Sea as Lake Asphaltites, alluding to the raw asphalt or bitumen that was found in the sea and on its shores. This was used to caulk ships, for medicinal purposes, and to embalm corpses.
The Dead Sea and Industry
The Dead Sea’s briny waters are rich in several minerals that are extracted by large industrial complexes in Jordan (Arab Potash Company, 1956) and Israel (Dead Sea Works, 1930). Both companies use the shallow southern end of the Sea for evaporation pools that produce potash, bromine, table salt, magnesium chloride, industrial salts, de-icers, and minerals for bath salts and cosmetics.
Industrialization has led to two problems. The first involves the rights to the mineral resources. There are allegations that Israeli industry unlawfully uses raw materials from the West Bank area along the Sea, and deprives Arabs from using these materials. At issue are technicalities of the Oslo Accords (1993, 1995) and international law. The second problem is environmental—the Dead Sea is dying. Industrialization and the ongoing diversion of Jordan River water for human consumption and agriculture inevitably shrinks the Sea, as is clear from satellite images over the past few decades. Sink holes are an increasing problem, as is clear from the abandonment of the Highway 90 bridge over Wadi Arugot near En Gedi.
Building a 125 mile pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea could help solve these problems, but no doubt it could create new ones. Current plans call for a desalination plant to be built in Aqaba Jordan. Fresh water from the plant would be shared by Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians. Leftover brine would go to the Dead Sea to replenish its waters. This mammoth multi-billion dollar joint project of Jordan and Israel could begin soon.
The Dead Sea in the Bible
Although readers of the New International Version and New Living Translation will find the Dead Sea about sixteen times in the Old Testament, this expression is actually never found in the Bible. The Bible refers to what we call the Dead Sea in several different ways:
- the Salt Sea (Gen 14:3; Num 34:3, 12; Josh 15:2, 5; 18:19)
- the Sea of the Arabah (Deut 4:49; 2 Kgs 14:25)
- the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea (a conflation of the previous two expressions; Deut 3:17; Josh 3:16; 12:3)
- the Eastern Sea (Ezek 47:18; Joel 2:20; Zech 14:8; in this scheme the Mediterranean is the Western Sea, as in Deut 11:24; 34:2; Joel 2:20 and Zech 14:8)
- the Sea (contextually understood as the Dead Sea; 2 Chron 20:2; Ezek 47:8)
A perusal of these biblical references shows that the Dead Sea is most often mentioned as a southeastern border or boundary of the land of Canaan. Many who are familiar with the Bible will connect the Sea with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt (Gen 13:10; 14:3; 19:23-26). Josephus atributed the existence of the Dead Sea to that destruction, and claimed to have seen that very pillar of salt (Josephus, Antiquities 1.174–75, 203). For a insightful meditation by Jen Wilkin on Lot’s wife, look here.
Is the Dead Sea Coming Alive and Fulfilling Biblical Prophecy?
Reports of fish and algae being found in the sink holes that are appearing along the shores of the Dead Sea as its waters recede are being viewed by many internet sources as fulfillments of prophetic texts like Ezekiel 47:1-12. These sink holes occur when underground Dead Sea water that supports the earth’s surface recedes, or when the receding Dead Sea water permits fresh water from underground aquifers to seep into the salt deposits along the Sea’s shoreline and dissolve them, leading to the collapse of the strata above. These unsubstantiated sink hole reports are not to be confused with scientific research that shows there are microorganisms existing in the depths of the Sea (see Ben Gurion University dive video here).
What of Ezekiel 47:1-12? Ezekiel sees water trickling out from under the threshold of the Jerusalem Temple’s entrance. He is then guided eastward and sees the trickle become a torrent. The water that is first at his ankles and then at his knees rapidly becomes a river too deep to cross. Ezekiel’s guide explains that the water flows down to the Arabah and enters the Dead Sea, transforming the salt water to fresh water, resulting in swarms of fish and people fishing all along the shore from En Gedi to the south. Additionally, fruit trees grow on both sides of the river. Since they receive water from the Temple, they bear fruit every month for food, and their leaves are used medicinally. This text in Ezekiel is part of a biblical continuum of “living water texts” that stretches from Genesis 2:5-14 to Revelation 22:1-5 and includes other passages like Psalm 1:3, Isa 35; 66:12; Joel 3:18; Amos 5:24; Zechariah 14:8; John 4:10-14; 7:37-39. Such texts use flowing water to picture God’s blessings on his people.
Whether we are to expect the topographical changes envisioned in Ezekiel 47 to take place literally or not, the theme of all these passages is that God’s abundant provision will flow from God’s presence in Jerusalem. My friend John Hilber pointed out to me that the motif of water flowing from a temple on a holy mountain is common in literature and architecture from the ancient near east. The motif teaches us that the blessings of Ezekiel 47 flow from God’s presence, which is mediated by a godly king. Ezekiel 40-48 envisions the blessings that will come to Israel and the nations when the promises of Ezekiel 34:11-16, 25-31; 36:24-27, and 39:21-29 are fulfilled. These promised blessings will encompass the entire earth, including even the Dead Sea, one of the most inhospitable regions of the earth. The renewed flourishing of this once-fertile region that is associated now only with divine judgment is a picture of God’s future blessings for his people. Ezekiel concludes on a note that provides the basis for all that precedes—Jerusalem will even receive a new name: Yahweh Shamma, “The LORD is there” (Ezek 48:35). The God whose presence abandoned the city and its Temple (Ezek 10:1-22) has returned in all his glory (Ezek 43:1-12).
Has this blessing already begun? Although I wish it were otherwise, I find the claims of fulfilled prophecy in the sink holes around the Dead Sea to be bizarre and ironic. It is sad when a symptom of the extreme duress of the Dead Sea ecosystem is mistaken for a sign of the blessing of God. This misunderstanding diverts our minds from the heart of biblical prophecy as surely as the waters of the Jordan are being diverted from the Dead Sea. One need only take note of the constant Arab-Israeli strife in the land of the Bible, not to mention the injustices and atrocities that are common all over our planet, to know that the promises of Ezekiel are not yet fulfilled. Apart from the envisioned river flowing from Jerusalem, the reports of fish in sinkholes is a mere curiosity, not a divine revelation.
Our prayerful longing for the arrival of God’s ultimate shalom should not lead us to make unfounded claims that it is already here. This can only discredit real biblical prophecy and lead skeptics to sneer all the more at the promise of the coming Messiah (2 Pet 3:9). When Jesus returns we will not be gazing myopically at sink holes (Matt 24:23-25). Until then we should be gazing at the fields that are ripe for harvest.
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
You give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light. (Ps 36:7-9, NIV)
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream. Amos 5:24, NIV)
The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
He will lead them to the springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev 7:17, NIV)
Noteworthy Dead Sea Places
In our next post in this series we plan to speak of noteworthy ancient places near the Dead Sea, such as Masada, En Gedi, and Qumran.