It is now some years ago that the late Commander Steedman contributed a series of papers to our predecessor, The Differentiator, on the geological formation of the Dead Sea; its history, its significance and its place in prophecy. Those valuable contributions considerably increased the knowledge of most of us concerning an area which figures largely throughout all Scripture, both as regards the past and the future; and with a good deal of the world's interest currently centered on the Middle East, and for the benefit of newer readers, it seems appropriate that attention should be drawn to this subject once more, especially to the generally overlooked spiritual significance of the river Jordan, the source of all the water which fills this area, a sea which has been an enigma to mankind throughout the ages. Indeed, it was not until the year 1848 that it was ever scientifically explored by an expedition which started its work from Lake Gennesaret.
It is now generally known that this large sea lies 1280 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean, and its shores are the deepest known exposed surface of the earth. In its waters it is impossible for the human body to sink since it has 25% of salts in solution, compared with the normal sea content of 5%, and it has no outlet, so that the supply of fresh water from the Jordan and its tributaries, which totals about 300 million cubic feet each day, is evaporated from its surface, maintaining its constant level. This constant rate of evaporation has continued unchanged for many centuries. An impression of its total depth is gained when we realise that the bottom of the Dead Sea is nearly 2600 feet below the Mediterranean Sea level, which is 5,000 feet below Golgotha, the highest point of Mount Moriah, which is less than 25 miles away. The area covered by the Dead Sea amounts to approximately 46 miles by seven miles, and on the Western side of the South end stretches a five mile long escarpment, averaging 150 feet high of solid rock salt, called by the Arabs Jebel 'Usdum, a name handed down through the centuries and preserving the ancient name of Sodom, which we know once existed here before thousands of tons of salt destroyed it with its equally evil neighbour, in the time of Abraham and Lot.
On the Eastern side lie the mountains of Moab and Edom, reaching heights of three to four thousand feet, as compared with the heights of Hebron and Jerusalem and the ridge of the Judean mountains, which lie some thirteen to eighteen miles from the shores of the sea from which the ground rises towards them at a gradient of about 360 feet per mile. At the North end lie the plains of Jericho, and at the Southern end the Valley of Salt. Those interested in geography will know that the whole area is part of what is known as The Great Rift, a deep depression in the earth's surface which commences at the foot of the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor and continues down the length of the Red Sea and South through the Indian ocean and through Kenya and Tanganyika to near the mouth of the Zambesi.
Of particular importance to this study is the fact that the path of The Great Rift takes in Mount Hebron, the Sea of Galilee, and the Jordan, the focal point of the northern section being the Dead Sea. The volcanoes and upheavals of the earth in ages gone by, which caused this rift, can lead us to imagine what may happen at some future date when Biblical prophecy concerning this area will be fulfilled.
As a matter of interest, the Dead Sea is never so named in the Bible, and Commander Steedman states that it is most frequently called the Salt Sea, while in the book of Joshua it is referred to by this name and also as "The Sea of the Plain." Joel and Ezekiel call it the "East Sea" while Zechariah names it the "former" sea. It is known as the Dead Sea because nothing lives, nor can live, in its waters because of the salt; while its shoreline is entirely clear of vegetation or animal life; it is barren except for the dead branches which litter its shores, having been washed down by the Jordan. This is all very different from what this area looked like when it is first mentioned in Scripture (Genesis 14:3) when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and their allies joined in battle against the Elamites. In the previous chapter we are told that when Abram offered Lot a choice of direction:—
"Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord..."
It seems highly probable, especially in view of the reference to its being "like the land of Egypt, as thou comest to Zoar," that these cities of the plain possessed an intricate system of irrigation canals and reservoirs, at that time.
In his geological study, Commander Steedman conjectures, very reasonably, that the destruction that came upon the cities was brought about by a repetition, on a small scale, of the process of formation. The Great Rift, at that place, opened out a few feet, and the 'plug' dropped, producing a tremendous pressure on the gases enclosed below it which had accumulated there over thousands of years. These gases forced their way up through the cracks at the side of the valley, bringing with them rocks and lumps of minerals and throwing them high in the air. Amongst these was rock sulphur (brimstone) which together with the gases became ignited and rained down in burning masses on the doomed cities, completely destroying them, as the record states:—
"And Abram..... looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and behold, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace."
And as the cities were destroyed the ground continued to settle so that presently the waters of the Salt Sea overflowed the ruins, extinguishing the flames and obliterating every remembrance of Sodom and Gomorrah. And from the awe with which the Arabs have looked upon the Dead Sea, and from all the tales of superstition that have been woven about the place, it would appear that the memory of that inferno which must have raged in that pit of iniquity on the earth's surface, struck the beholders with such terror that generation after generation gave the district a wide berth.
These are most probably the basic facts, but the main purpose of this paper is to consider what is, today, the only constant supply of fresh water to the Dead Sea, which is the River Jordan, which seems to be (as is said of the Thames) 'liquid history,' and one which is invested in Christian mythology with all kinds of connotations, the most frequent being found in religious songs, a desire to identify the river with the state of dying — "When I cross over Jordan" etc. Presumably the idea is that Earth is on one side and Heaven or Paradise on the other; else whatever substitute for truth may be found convenient to prevailing sentiment. Readers are doubtless familiar with all the odd places in which the idea of crossing Jordan crops up.
Strangely, out there, the Jordan is never called the 'River,' and it never has been, being spoken of rather as 'The Jordan' which means 'The Descender,' a name which it most certainly lives up to. Reference to a map will disclose that it rises on the slopes of Mount Hermon at an altitude of about 1700 feet above (Mediterranean) sea level, and its descent, as the crow flies, covers 118 miles and a drop of almost three thousand feet. On its way it passes through the waters of Merom, once a swamp, and continues on to the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Chinneroth, the Lake of Tiberias or the Lake of Gennesaret, flowing south a further 66 miles to the Dead Sea, dropping a further 600 feet on the way. But in making its descent the Jordan winds so sinuously that it takes nearly two hundred miles to complete the distance. In fact, the legendary river Meander in Asia Minor, which has given the word "meander" to all the world, is completely eclipsed by the intricate wanderings of the Jordan, which not only wanders but sometimes doubles back on itself, as if trying to return to the lovely lake through which it had come and to avoid that inevitable drop into the Dead Sea.
About six miles from the Dead Sea to the North lies the ancient city of Jericho, probably the oldest city yet discovered, destroyed by Joshua but rebuilt by Hiel during Ahab's reign, thus fulfilling the curse of Joshua (Josh. 6:26), while on the Western side of the Sea and high above it was the city of Engedi which means "spring of goats," the waters of the spring cascading over the cliffs into the sea. It was a place of caves and strongholds, and it was here that David fled when Saul sought his life. It is referred to in the Song of Solomon (1:14) as a place of vineyards. Knowing the present sterile condition of the Dead Sea, it may seem strange that Ezekiel should call it a "fishing village," yet there the prophet anticipates a future day when a river of healing flows forth from the Temple, eastward and westward, healing the waters of the Dead Sea into which the river will flow and restoring fertility to the land on either side:—
"And it shall come to pass that fishers shall stand upon it (the sea shore) from Engedi even unto Eneglaim; there shall be a place to spread forth nets; their fish shall be according to their kinds, as the fish of the Great Sea, exceeding many."
When the Israelites neared the end of their forty years of desert wanderings, they came up from the South, from the Gulf of Akaba, and after encompassing Edom they passed through Moab on the way to the plains near Jericho, thus following the length of the Dead Sea but about twelve miles from its shores. They would have looked down into the gloomy depths from heights of four or five thousand feet, and would have seen the promised land rising from the opposite shore about twenty-five miles away. Before Moses died "in the land of Moab according to the Word of the Lord," he would have been able to see from Mount Hebo the whole of the promised land from Mount Hermon in the North, the Mediterranean in the West, right to the Negev, from whence they had come. The last appearance of Elijah, before he vanished from the sight of Elisha, had been in the wilderness, and from this place also, at the time appointed, came another great prophet "in the spirit and power of Elijah," clothed "in raiment of camel's hair." Even more significant, it was to this same wilderness, probably on the Eastern side of Jordan, that the Lord Jesus, so we are told, was "led up" by the Spirit — up into the mountains of the desert where Moses had died and was buried, where Elijah was taken up to heaven; to this place the Son of Man was "led up" by the Spirit into Galilee. Dean Stanley wrote, about one hundred years ago, that there is no authority for the traditional Mount of Temptation, and that he had little doubt that the trials took place in the area we have here described. If he was right (as the writer is persuaded that he was) then there is something of importance here for us to learn. To this area, thus far, had the Spirit of God taken Moses; thus far it had taken Elijah; here they had both stopped—yet from this very place the Lord Jesus STARTS His ministry. We have the type in Joshua who led the Israelites into the land to possess it:—
"And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands on him.... Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Joshua the Son of Nun, Moses' servant, saying, Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou and all this people, unto the land which I do give them" (See Deut. 34:7,9 and Josh. 1:1,2).
The name Jesus is of course the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning "Jehovah will save." Now He as Christ, the Anointed One, having fulfilled every demand of the law and all that the prophets had foretold of Him, was therefore to begin His mission from the very point where Moses stopped; and from there He goes forward into the land to accomplish that for which God had commissioned Him.
Commander Steedman, in pointing out this fact writes: "It is very significant that this almost unique but certainly singular formation (geologically) should be situated at the door of the locality chosen by God for the carrying out of His great plan for the redemption of mankind: the birth, life, death and resurrection of His Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. If, in type, rivers and rocks, trees and shrubs, mountains and seas can, by figure of speech, illustrate or point out Scripture truths, why not, then, this peculiar topographical formation?"
As we study the picture presented by this landscape, surely it is very significant to see before us this stream, originating in the pure crystalline snows of Mount Hermon, winding its way to the depths of the Salt Sea; the Dead Sea, as we say, for in its waters all is death, particularly since the Jordan means "The Descender." Could we find anywhere a more graphic description of the human race?
Think for a moment of Mount Hermon; this mountain was most probably the scene of the Transfiguration of our Lord, and the snows which clothe it in the winter fall from the skies above it as, indeed, the race of mankind originated from a heavenly source. The snows melt and run downward through fissures in the mountain and ultimately well up in springs some seven thousand feet lower down; three main sources:— a deep ravine where the water bubbles up from immense depths, a pool at the foot of a high cliff, and at Dan where we are told "it is at the foot of a high cliff overgrown with shrubs," while from the Northwest corner a magnificent spring bursts into a wide crystal river through the valley."
The second source which we have noted is near Caesarea Phillipi, the northernmost limit of our Lord's journeys, and near where Peter confessed "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." The water from this place unites with the other two and flows slowly through what was once Lake Merom, and soon after this point the river begins a tremendous descent of nearly six hundred feet in six miles, "a continued repetition of roaring rapids and leaping cataracts over basaltic rocks" as Dr. Thomson wrote many years ago. And at the foot of this headlong fall the Jordan enters the Sea of Galilee and seems to take something like a long and quiet rest, except when the sea is whipped into a raging inferno by the wild storms from the surrounding mountains. Every child knows the story of these storms which form such a significant part of the Gospel narrative.
It was around the area of the Sea of Galilee that many towns and villages were built in security and every degree of self-satisfaction, for a plentiful supply of fish were caught by line and net to supply food. On its shores men grew their crops and fruit, and on the hills they herded sheep. Here all was serene except for some occasional minor disturbance; otherwise religion, pleasure and complacency reigned. Life today is much remindful of that. Men remain blissfully unaware that they, like the Jordan, are rushing to an outlet. They expect to remain in tranquility and ease; but, much like the river, they are drawn inexorably to some nether end and into the channel, gliding gently at first past the banks; but soon the current quickens and the fall begins as it does with the river Jordan on its last steep descent of some six hundred feet, drawing swiftly then to the great Dead Sea. During the last sixty-six miles the Jordan appears to become aware and afraid of its destiny then so near. It begins to twist and turn, it doubles back and slows down, so the sixty-six miles are stretched out to two hundred. But in the end it must rush down into the Sea, having descended some three thousand feet in its tortuous course.
Well may the Jordan be called the Descender, and it provides us with parables all the way, but there is still more to learn from this geographical example. Do we bear in mind that Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Son of God, is situated only fifteen miles from the Salt Sea, and that when our Lord commenced His earthly ministry, as all four Gospels show, he did so AT THE LOWEST PLACE ON THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH, where man is closest to the symbol of death? It is by the Jordan where John calls on the people to repent; and from there, as it were at man's extremity, John looked up one day and saw the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit he recognised Him. At that spot, as our Lord submitted to John's baptism, He identified Himself with degenerate mankind at its lowest level; and as He was immersed in Jordan (below the level of the Dead Sea yet in fresh water) He symbolised the experience of passing through death and rising again in newness of life. Here He was announced by the voice from heaven saying "This is My Beloved Son," which by contrast is notably remindful of another event which occurred near the close of His ministry high on the summit of Mount Hermon, where again the voice from heaven confirmed "This is My Beloved Son." Thus one event took place at the lowest, and the other at the highest point of Jordan, and they occurred in reverse; for in contrast to Jordan, our Lord became the Ascender. This is no accident of geography; nor are any of the other localities in which His mighty works were done. Consider one or two: He was led into the wilderness to be tempted of the Devil, and this area is at almost the same altitude above sea level as Bethlehem and Golgotha. From the point of temptation He travelled North to Nazareth, which is at an altitude of about 1800 feet, level with the source of the Jordan. He later proceeds to Capernaum and does most of His ministerial work around the Sea of Galilee, occasionally going up to Jerusalem; but before His final journey to Jerusalem He is found "away again beyond Jordan, where John at first baptised; and there He abode." From this low place He crossed Jordan again and made the long ascent to Bethany, Jerusalem, and finally to Golgotha. There by His death and subsequent resurrection, He deals finally and completely with sin, the flesh and the Devil, bringing life and liberty to all who in faith receive and believe His finished work. Then, forty days later, from the Mount of Olives, He made His triumphant ascent into the heavens. On that occasion, one can well imagine that the messengers who had sung "Glory to God" above the heights of Bethlehem were singing again in the words of a most familiar Psalm: "Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, for the King of Glory shall come in!"
As is to be expected, the Apostle Paul did not miss the significance of all this. From his epistle generally known as Ephesians, we quote:
"Ascending on high He captures captivity and gives gifts to mankind. Now the 'He ascended' what is it except that He first descended also INTO THE LOWER PARTS OF THE EARTH (Our emphasis). He Who descends is the Same also Who ascends, also, above all the heavens, that He should complete the universe" (Eph. 4:8-11).
And before that glorious consummation is realised, the One Who has dealt with death as shown symbolically by the Jordan and the Dead Sea will, in turn, eventually abolish even the symbol of death, according to the Scriptures. Then in that time of "the restitution of all things spoken by the mouth of the prophets" the Salt Sea will disappear, the valley of the Jordan and the surrounding land will become fertile, and "the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose."
Cecil J. Blay (Treasures of Truth, Instalment Fourteen, August-September 1974)