[b-hebrew] What Does "salt sea" Mean at Genesis 14: 3?

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Dec 1 10:05:12 EST 2008


What Does “salt sea” Mean at Genesis 14: 3?
 
In a later post, I will address the good issues Karl Randolph has raised 
regarding historical Beth Shan.  But on this thread I would like to address a more 
pressing concern, being an issue where the expertise of everyone on the 
b-hebrew list will be of great help.
 
1.  Does the reference to “salt sea” (yod-mem he-mem-lamed-heth/YM HMLX, 
literally “salt the sea”) at Genesis 14: 3 refer to the Dead Sea, or to the 
Mediterranean Sea?
 
Both the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea are salt seas that form part of 
Canaan’s borders.  Thus it would seem that “salt sea”, out of context, is 
inherently ambiguous.  It could refer to the salt sea on the west coast of Canaan, 
the Mediterranean Sea, which is part of the Salt Sea -- all the oceans of the 
world, which surround the land.  Or “salt sea” could refer to the Dead Sea 
on the southeast of Canaan.
 
2.  The most common phrase used to refer to the Mediterranean Sea in the 
Bible, including at Genesis 49: 13 in the Patriarchal narratives, is simply:  “the 
sea”/he-yod-mem/HYM.
 
However, Gesenius observes that such phrase (“the sea”) is used on occasion 
to refer to many different bodies of water.  At Isaiah 8: 23 it refers to the 
Sea of Galilee;  at Isaiah 10: 26 it refers to the Red Sea;  and most 
importantly for us, at Isaiah 16: 8 it refers to the Dead Sea.
 
In a minority of cases, the Mediterranean Sea is referred to elsewhere in the 
Bible as “the great sea” (literally “the sea the great”).  Yet that is only 
in a minority of cases, and such phrase is never used in the Patriarchal 
narratives.
 
The phrase “the sea” usually refers to the Mediterranean Sea, but at least 
on one occasion, that phrase is used to refer to the Dead Sea.  Is that also 
possible regarding the phrase “salt sea”?  Is it possible that “salt sea” 
usually refers to the Dead Sea, but on one occasion, that phrase refers to the 
Mediterranean Sea?  After all, both such bodies of water are salt seas.  And at 
least with the phrase “the sea”, it is obvious that the actual meaning of such 
phrase becomes clear only in the context in which such phrase is used.  Is 
the same true with the phrase “salt sea”?
 
3.  Outside of Genesis 14: 3, there are 8 other references to “salt sea” in 
the Hebrew Bible.  Of critical importance to us here, not once does any other 
author in the Bible assume that “salt sea”, out of context, would necessarily 
refer to the Dead Sea, as opposed to the Mediterranean Sea.  On the contrary, 
all 8 other references to “salt sea” in the Bible contain one or more of the 
following four words, which are used to clarify that the Dead Sea is the “
salt sea” to which reference is being made in that particular case:  “Jordan 
[River]”, “Arabah”, “east” or “south border”.    Numbers 34: 3, 12;  
Deuteronomy 3: 17;  Joshua 3: 16;  12: 3;  15: 2, 5;  18: 19  None of these four words 
would fit the Mediterranean Sea, which is precisely why these particular words 
are used to distinguish the Dead Sea, as one salt sea, from the Mediterranean 
Sea, which is the other (more important) salt sea in Canaan.  Typical is 
Joshua 15: 5:  “And the east border was the Salt Sea, even unto the end of the 
Jordan….”  (Note that the words “east” and “Jordan” accompany “salt sea”.)  
Indeed, in all but one of such 8 cases, the Dead Sea is referred to exclusively 
in terms of explaining where the southeast border of Canaan is, being a 
context where it is very obvious that “salt sea” in that case must refer to the 
Dead Sea, not the Mediterranean Sea.  (The only exception is Joshua 3: 16;  that 
verse specifically refers to “Sea of the Arabah” and to activities at 
Jericho on the north end of the Dead Sea.  Deuteronomy 3: 17 likewise refers to the 
Dead Sea as “Sea of the Arabah”.)
 
With the possible exception of Genesis 14: 3, never in the Bible is a 
reference to “salt sea”, without more, taken to preclude a meaning of the 
Mediterranean Sea.  Rather, in every other case the matter is clarified by an explicit 
reference in the same verse to one or more of the following words:  “Jordan 
[River]”, “Arabah”, “east” or “south border”.  If the intention is to 
reference the Dead Sea, then in addition to saying “salt sea”, the Biblical authors 
invariably add a clarifying reference, using one or more (usually several) of 
the four above words.  
 
4.  Based on the foregoing, it seems clear that the meaning of “salt sea” at 
Genesis 14: 3 can only be determined by examining the context of Genesis 14: 
3.  Since Biblical nomenclature regarding the names of bodies of water is not 
rigorously consistent, and since both the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea 
are salt seas, we must examine the context to see which one of these two salt 
seas is being referenced by the phrase “salt sea” at Genesis 14: 3.
 
The exact wording of Genesis 14: 3, per JPS1917, is:  “All these came as 
allies unto the vale of Siddim--the same is the Salt Sea.”  The immediate context 
of “salt sea” at Genesis 14: 3 is the phrase that is explicitly paired with “
salt sea” there:  “Valley of Fields”.  Presumably everyone may agree that “
Siddim”/&DYM is an archaic plural of “field”, and means “fields”.  Where does 
one find a “valley of fields” in Canaan?  And is that “valley of fields” 
near the Mediterranean Sea, or near the Dead Sea?  The most famous “valley of 
fields” in all of Canaan is obviously the Jezreel Valley, which is super-famous 
for being a “valley” that has by far the best grain-growing “fields” in all 
of Canaan.  In fact, the Jezreel Valley is the only place in Canaan that 
perfectly fits the phrase “valley of fields”.  The western end of the Jezreel 
Valley is very close to a “salt sea” -- the Mediterranean Sea.  Meanwhile, there 
is no “valley of fields” on the southeast edge of the Dead Sea.
 
So in the context of Genesis 14: 3, it would seem that “salt sea” must mean 
the Mediterranean Sea, not the Dead Sea.  We now see that nothing in chapter 
14 of Genesis happens anywhere near the Dead Sea, a place where there was no 
lootable wealth.  The most obvious place in Canaan for a mighty force of four 
invading rulers to attack is the wealthy, vulnerable Jezreel Valley -- the most 
valuable land in all Canaan.  Now we also see that the five “cities of the 
Plain”/KKR/valley are not fictional, but rather are five famous, wealthy, 
historical cities in the Jezreel Valley.  The name SDM/“Sodom” is an obvious pun on 
&DYM/“fields”.  Sodom is the “fields” city, meaning that it is located in 
(namely on the eastern end of) the Jezreel Valley, the Valley of “Fields”.  The 
site of the big battle for Canaan is portrayed as occurring at its natural 
spot, on the west end of the Jezreel Valley -- at Megiddo, near the 
Mediterranean Sea. 
 
5.  In evaluating Genesis 14: 3, we must note that the key word 
he-vav-aleph/HW) there actually means “it is” (not “the same is”, much less “now”).  A 
critical point of Hebrew grammar here is that in Hebrew, no express preposition 
ever follows HW).  The English language, by contrast, may require use of an 
English preposition.  What Genesis 14: 3 most naturally means is “the Valley of 
Fields, it is (near) the salt sea”.  If the word asher had been used instead o
f HW), then if “near” was meant, the Hebrew phrase would have been asher 
bet/B, with the preposition bet/B being explicit in Hebrew, and meaning “near” 
(with its literal meaning being “in”).  But after HW) no express preposition 
will occur in Biblical Hebrew, even if such a preposition is needed in the 
English translation.  The phrase “the Valley of Fields, it is (near) the salt sea”
 is emphasizing that the battle for Canaan occurred at the part of the Valley 
of Fields that is near the salt sea.  That is, the battle for Canaan occurred 
at the west end of the Jezreel Valley, at Megiddo, near the Mediterranean 
Sea.  The Hebrew phrase does not insist that the Valley of Fields and the salt 
sea are one and the same place, a proposition that, absent a truly catastrophic 
geological event during the Patriarchal Age, inherently makes no sense at all. 
 (We know from the Patriarchal narratives that the whole area near Sodom was 
not permanently destroyed, much less flooded by the Dead Sea as sometimes 
imagined, as Genesis 19: 21-22, 30 expressly states that Zoar, a town in the same 
valley as Sodom that was located close to Sodom, is spared by the angels.)  
Rather, Genesis 14: 3 could be loosely (but accurately) paraphrased as follows:  
“All these came together unto the Jezreel Valley, that is (to the west end 
thereof near) the Mediterranean Sea.”
 
6. Out of context, a reference to “salt sea” could mean either the 
Mediterranean Sea or the Dead Sea, since both such bodies of water are salt seas.  The 
all-important context here is the “Valley of Fields”, which is paired with “
salt sea”.  There never was a Valley of Fields on the southeast coast of the 
Dead Sea, at least not in historical times.  There are some nice oases there, 
but no “valley of fields”.  No, the historical Valley of Fields is the Jezreel 
Valley, whose western end is very close to the Mediterranean Sea, being the “
salt sea” that borders Canaan on the west, as opposed to the Dead Sea, which is 
the “salt sea” that borders Canaan on the southeast.
 
It is not sensible to think that the  l-o-c-a-l  geography of the Patriarchal 
narratives would be fictional or nonsensical.  Why make such a strange 
assumption as that?  That is not a legitimate approach to analyzing the text of the 
Patriarchal narratives.  Rather, the author of the Patriarchal narratives 
would naturally use an authentic local geography of Canaan.  The historical “
Valley of Fields” is near the Mediterranean Sea, not the Dead Sea.  We must realize 
that both the author of the Patriarchal narratives, and his entire audience, 
knew that.  So if the author had been trying to reference a long lost “valley 
of fields” that had been flooded by the Dead Sea centuries ago, then in order 
to clarify the geographical locale of that unusual place, certainly the author 
would have referenced “Jordan [River]”, or “Arabah” or “east” or “south 
border”, which is how all the other authors in the Bible clarify that their 
references to “salt sea” mean the Dead Sea.  But No, at Genesis 14: 3 the  
o-n-l-y  immediate context is “Valley of Fields”.  The only classic “valley of 
fields” in Canaan known to the Hebrew author and audience is the Jezreel Valley, 
which is nowhere near the Dead Sea, but rather is near the Mediterranean Sea.  
 
In context, the “salt sea” at Genesis 14: 3 must be the Mediterranean Sea, 
not the Dead Sea.  The final battle in chapter 14 of Genesis is then portrayed 
as occurring at Megiddo, the most logical place in all of Canaan for a big 
battle.  (Megiddo was where Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III famously defeated the 
ruler of Qadesh on the Orontes [located just north of Canaan] in the mid-15th 
century BCE, thereby establishing Egypt’s sphere of influence over Canaan.  
Thus in a Late Bronze Age context, Megiddo was  t-h-e  place for a battle for 
Canaan to be conceptualized as occurring.  No historical battle was ever fought 
southeast of the Dead Sea.)  Megiddo was also famous/infamous for having a lot 
of swamps nearby, especially to the south.  So it would make sense for the 
fleeing rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah, after being defeated by the four invading 
rulers from the north, to panic and flee south, getting stuck in the swamps 
south of Megiddo.  The better escape route for defeated rulers was east, to the 
hill country just east by southeast of Megiddo, which is where the other 
defeated leaders flee.  Genesis 14: 10  Thus the overall context indicates that the 
“salt sea” at Genesis 14: 3 must be the Mediterranean Sea.
 
Everything about chapter 14 of Genesis makes perfect geographical sense, once 
one realizes that, in context, the “salt sea” at Genesis 14: 3 is the 
Mediterranean Sea, not the Dead Sea.  If the Patriarchal narratives are based on a 
non-fictional local geography of Canaan, which is the only sensible assumption 
to make in evaluating the historicity of the text, then the “Valley of Fields”
 is the Jezreel Valley, and in that context, the “salt sea” that is nearby 
is the Mediterranean Sea.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

**************Life should be easier. So should your homepage. Try the NEW 
AOL.com. 
(http://www.aol.com/?optin=new-dp&icid=aolcom40vanity&ncid=emlcntaolcom00000002)



More information about the b-hebrew mailing list