BAR 36:04, Jul/Aug 2010
How many names does the Bible give for the Dead Sea?
Given the Dead Sea’s pivotal role in defining the human and physical geography of the Holy Land over the millennia, one might think that the Biblical writers and their audiences would have known this large mineral lake by a single name. In fact, the Bible gives at least three different names for the lake, each reflecting various ways the ancients understood and used this enduring feature of the landscape.
The lake was perhaps best known for its high salt and mineral content and is identified several times in the Hebrew Bible, either directly or indirectly, as Yam ha-Melach, or “Sea of Salt” (Genesis 14:3; Numbers 34:12; Deuteronomy 3:17). As today, the salts and minerals of the Dead Sea were highly prized commodities that were regularly exploited by local peoples. Indeed, outside of the Bible, both Josephus and Pliny the Elder refer to the Dead Sea as Lacus Asphaltitis, or Asphalt Lake, after the valuable blocks of black tar, or bitumen, that would occasionally seep out of the lake’s faulted floor and float to the surface.a