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

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Dec 1 16:20:33 EST 2008

Dave Washburn: 
You wrote:  “The Bible consistently refers to the Mediterranean as the "Great 
Sea," e.g. Num 34:6 HYM HGDWL.  See also Josh 1:4 and others.  Pardon my 
bluntness, but this seems like a no-brainer to me...”
That simply is not true.
1.  The Patriarchal narratives refer to the Mediterranean Sea on at least two 
occasions, and never use the phrase “great sea”.
(a)  At Genesis 49: 3 the Patriarchal narratives refer to the Mediterranean 
Sea as “the sea”.
(b)  In blessing Joseph at Genesis 49: 25, Jacob refers to “the deep”
/tehom/tav-he-vav-mem/THWM.  The Akkadian name “Tiamat”, being the female primordial 
“Salt Sea”, may well be the linguistic basis for THWM in Hebrew.  A. Yahuda, 
“The Language of the Pentateuch in its Relation to Egyptian” (Oxford, 1933)  
We know that in Hebrew tradition, all the oceans of the earth, both on the 
ground and below the earth, were viewed as being part of one vast, primordial 
Salt Sea:  Deuteronomy 5: 7 refers to “the water under the earth”, Psalms 136: 
6 refers to “To Him that spread forth the earth above the waters”, and Psalms 
24: 2 says:  “He hath founded it [the earth] upon the seas…..”  To the 
Hebrews, the most obvious manifestation of this vast Salt Sea near them was 
naturally the Mediterranean Sea.  The Hebrews were well aware of the facts that the 
Mediterranean Sea is salt water and is directly connected to the oceans of the 
world.  The “real” Salt Sea to the Hebrews was not the Dead Sea, which was an 
isolated, harmless lake, but rather was the world’s seething oceans (tehom/“
the deep” at Genesis 49: 25), both above and below ground, of which the 
Mediterranean Sea on the west coast of Canaan constituted the most visible part.
2.  You mention Numbers, but in Numbers the Mediterranean Sea is also 
referred to simply as “the sea”:  Numbers 13: 29.
3.  You also mention Joshua, but Joshua in a majority of cases refers to the 
Mediterranean Sea as simply “the sea”:  Joshua 15: 46;  16: 3, 6, 8;  17: 9, 
10;  19: 29.
4.  In general, the most common way to refer to the Mediterranean Sea in the 
Bible is “the sea”.  Only in a minority of cases (though there are a fairly 
large number of these cases) is the specific phrase “great sea” used.
With the most common reference to the Mediterranean Sea being “the sea”, we 
note Gesenius’ comment that “the sea” is also used in Isaiah to refer to 
three other bodies of water as well:  at Isaiah 8: 23 it refers to the Sea of 
Galilee;  at Isaiah 10: 26 it refers to the Red Sea;  and at Isaiah 16: 8 it 
refers to the Dead Sea.
5.  Most importantly, the Patriarchal narratives refer to the Mediterranean 
Sea at least twice, and never use the phrase “great sea”.  Accordingly, the 
fact that Genesis 14: 3 does not use the phrase “great sea” does not mean that 
the Mediterranean Sea is not the intended reference.
Rather, the only legitimate way to approach this question is to examine the 
context in which “salt sea” is used at Genesis 14: 3.  The immediate context 
is “Valley of Fields”, which indicates the Jezreel Valley, the western end of 
which is near the Mediterranean Sea.  There is no “valley of fields” near the 
Dead Sea.  &DYM is an archaic plural of “field”, and means “fields”.  &DYM 
is not an unknown variant of &YD, meaning “lime”.  Why would four mighty 
invading rulers attack a “valley of lime”?  That makes no sense.  Rather, the 
attacking rulers naturally target Canaan’s most valuable land, the “valley of 
fields”/Valley of Siddim/Jezreel Valley.   
The overall context is a big battle for Canaan.  The most likely spot for a 
big battle for Canaan is obviously Megiddo, on the western end of the Jezreel 
Valley near the Mediterranean Sea.  That is where Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis 
III defeated the ruler of Qadesh on the Orontes in the mid-15th century BCE.  By 
contrast, no invaders of Canaan would go to the southeast coast of the Dead 
Sea.  Why bypass the most valuable part of Canaan, the wondrous grain-growing 
fields of the Jezreel Valley and the five wealthy cities there, and go to a few 
oases in no-man’s land southeast of the Dead Sea?  Such a scenario makes no 
historical sense.
If we look at the context of Genesis 14: 3, we will see that the 
Mediterranean Sea, which was the most important salt sea to the Hebrews, is intended by 
the reference there to “salt sea”.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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