One of the Biblical designations for the large lake or sea now generally known as the Dead Sea. The Salt Sea (Yam ha-Melah) forms the southern termination of the Jordan River.
Name. The first and most frequent designation of this sea in the Bible, “Salt Sea,” is quite appropriate, since it is one of the saltiest bodies of water on the earth. (Ge 14:3; Nu 34:3, 12; Jos 15:2, 5) It is also called the sea of the Arabah (De 4:49; 2Ki 14:25), being in the huge rift of which the Arabah is a part. Sometimes, though, the name “Salt Sea” is added after “sea of the Arabah” as if to explain exactly which body of water is meant by the later name. (De 3:17; Jos 3:16; 12:3) The Salt Sea was on the E boundary of the Promised Land and was termed “the eastern sea,” thus distinguishing it from “the western [Mediterranean] sea.” (Eze 47:18; Joe 2:20; Zec 14:8) Josephus, who was aware that large pieces of bitumen, or asphalt, occasionally surface in this sea, called it Lake Asphaltitis. (The Jewish War, I, 657 [xxxiii, 5]; IV, 479 [viii, 4]) Evidently it was not until the second century C.E. that it came to be called the Dead Sea. The Arabic name is Bahr Lut, “Sea of Lot.”
Physical Description. The Salt Sea is oblong, about 15 km (9 mi) wide and about 75 km (47 mi) long, the length varying somewhat according to the season. Its outline is interrupted by a large peninsula called the Lisan (the tongue) reaching out from the SE side. This peninsula now divides the sea into two sections, although a channel is maintained between the two parts. The portion embayed S of the Lisan is quite shallow, while the main part of the sea in the N reaches a depth of about 400 m (1,300 ft). The surface of the water is about 400 m (1,300 ft) below the level of the Mediterranean Sea, making it the lowest spot on earth.
The E shore (N of the Lisan) consists mainly of sandstone cliffs that rise steeply to the plateau of Moab. Several gorges, the most prominent being the Arnon, cut through these barren hills and empty water into the sea. To the E and S of the peninsula lies a plain that is well watered with streams. The S end of the sea is a flat salt marsh. On the W side of the sea the limestone cliffs are not as precipitous as those on the E. These Judean hills are more terraced and receding, but very desolate, since no permanent streams cut through to the sea. The beach and slopes near the shore allow travel along the W side. On a high mesa opposite the Lisan is Masada, the fortress that Herod strengthened and where, in 73 C.E., the Romans defeated the last of the Jews who were holding out against the Roman army. Farther N is the oasis En-gedi. At the N end, the Jordan empties into the sea, mixing its fresh water with the extremely salty water of the sea.
Water. The water of the sea is unique in that it is about nine times as salty as the oceans. The Salt Sea has no outlet, so most of the water coming into it evaporates in the intense heat, leaving behind more mineral salts. The salt concentration is such that no fish, even saltwater varieties, are able to live; the few fish in the brackish water where fresh water mixes with the salt water are killed if they are swept into the sea proper. This adds meaning to Ezekiel’s description of a torrent flowing from Jehovah’s temple into “the eastern sea” and healing the upper portion so that it abounded in fish like the Mediterranean Sea and could support a flourishing fishing industry. (Eze 47:8-10, 18) The high density of the water causes objects to float easily, and it contributes to a smooth surface because the water is not ruffled by light breezes.
Sodom and Gomorrah. It is generally believed that Sodom and Gomorrah were located near the southern end of the Salt Sea. The kings of these cities were among those who battled in “the Low Plain of Siddim, that is, the Salt Sea,” and the way this is phrased suggests that the Low Plain of Siddim came to be covered by the Salt Sea. (Ge 14:3) The region of Sodom and Gomorrah where Lot settled was ‘well watered, like the garden of Jehovah.’ (Ge 13:10-12) Even today, in the plain along the SE shore, vegetation is abundant, and wheat, barley, dates, and vines can be grown there. The large amounts of bitumen and salt, especially in this southern section, also match the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah.—Ge 14:10; 19:24-26.