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The Dead Sea is a deep basin in the midst of barren lime-stone hills. Its level is more than 1300 feet below that of the Mediterranean Sea. Into this deep basin the river Jordan falls, in a rapidly descending channel from the north ; and the valley El Arabah in like manner descends towards it from the south, absolutely precluding the theory which prevailed for some time, in the absence of exact knowledge of these levels, that the Jordan may, in the time of Abraham, before the destruction of the cities of the plain, have run along this valley, El Arabah, and emptied itself into the eastern arm of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Akabah.
The whole district around the Dead Sea, but more especially around its southern part, is dreary and desolate, bearing plain traces of violent volcanic agency having been formerly at work, and being subject still to frequent earthquakes. A mountain of solid salt rises at the south, and its fragments cover the shore. The water itself is so intensely salt as to make its specific gravity more than as twelve to ten compared with ordinary water. Bitumen, or mineral pitch, floats frequently upon its surface, especially after an earthquake, and seems to be cast up from the bottom of the lake, reminding us of the record in Gen. xiv.-" The vale of Siddim, which is now the Salt Sea, was full of slime pits” (ver. 3, 10). The deadliness of this region has, however, been exaggerated; and the long current statements that birds attempting to fly over it fall stifled with its vapour, is disproved by modern travellers who have bathed in its waters, and been unconscious of any such poisonous exhalation, and have seen birds not a few. River fish, when washed down from the fresh water of the Jordan in times of flood, die, of course, in the intensely salt water of this Sea.
The Dead Sea has no outlet into the ocean. The
waters of the Jordan, and of the mountain torrents which also run into it in the rainy seasons from east, west and south, must be all evaporated from its surface, unless (which there seems no reason to believe) they be in some degree carried off subterraneously. The evaporation is, no doubt, enormous, when the summer heat falls upon that open basin among naked hills of lime-stone. The cakes of salt left on the shallow shore, and gathered by the Arabs for domestic use, prove this. For anything that appears to the contrary, this process of evaporation is sufficient to dispose of all the water, while there is abundant room for its accumulation during the wet seasons, when the evaporation cannot keep pace with the supply. The height of the water varies very much between the wet and the dry season, and the extent of the Sea southwards, on its slowly shelving shore, varies many miles accordingly.
This great question, then, of Natural Philosophy occurs to the student of the Scripture history. If we so interpret the Scripture narrative as to suppose (with the majority perhaps of interpreters) that the Vale of Siddim, called also the King's Vale and the Vale of Jordan,where the five cities Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim and Bela (or Zoar) stood, -occupied the whole site of the now existing Dead Sea, the Jordan only running through it as a river, and not expanding into a sea of sufficient surface for the evaporation of its waters; what could become of the waters poured down from the Jordan and its tributaries? They could not run ир
the valley of the Arabah into the Red Sea. Are we to suppose they had, in former times, a subterraneous vent? A mere supposition, and needless in the presence of the following alternative, which existing facts favour.
The Dead Sea, as it now exists, is distinguished into two parts by a sort of peninsula running more than half way across from the eastern side, about two-thirds distant from the north, towards the south, extremity of the Sea. On this peninsula tradition places the little city of Zoar (before called Bela), in which Lot took refuge. (Gen. xix. 20—22.) The larger part of the Sea, north of this peninsula, is far deeper than the south part, which is said to be fordable opposite this peninsula, and again further south. Any good recent map of Palestine shews all these geographical facts to the eye. And the now approved theory, in short, is, that in the time of Abraham the northern or larger part was already a lake; and that the smaller part, now covered by the south division of the lake, was in those times the plain of Siddim or the valley of Jordan; and that, by the great convulsion (in part, probably, volcanic) which overwhelmed the cities of that plain, the level of the older lake sank, dragging down with it the nearer part of the valleys to the north and south, and overwhelming the plain south of the lake with water, then first perhaps rendered salt by the accession of the salt district. These are important contributions, undoubtedly, towards the illustration of the history of the cities of the plain.
If the more limited space-scarcely a third of the Dead Sea, instead of its whole extent, that whole extent being about forty-five English miles, by an average width of about eight—if the more limited space thus assigned to these scenes be felt as a difficulty, we must be cautioned against attaching our modern ideas of city and king to those mentioned in the patriarchal history. Every hamlet was a city in those days; and every head of a tribe or city was a king. When we have sufficiently realized the ancient point of view, to place five kingdoms (or at least their respective cities) in the space of the whole Dead Sea, it will require proportionately but a small effort to place them in its southern bay. It is the difference of a little more or a little less. The chief difference to realize is between the patriarchal and the modern. (See on this subject Dr. Kitto's Bible Illustrations, Vol. I., Dead Sea Difficulties; also the People's Dictionary of . the Bible, art. Sea.)
ISAAC, ESAU AND JACOB.
The character of Isaac does not seem marked by any strong personal traits. Rebekah, his wife, appears the stronger spirit of the two. Each parent was guilty of the folly of favouritism towards one of their twin sons, and her united resolution and cunning prevailed on behalf of Jacob. It is she that manages the fraud by which he gains his father's blessing as if the first-born. It is she that arranges his journey into Padan-aram to seek a wife from among the kindred of the family, being "weary of her life because of the daughters of Heth." Isaac had married his cousin Bethuel's daughter. Jacob marries the two daughters of Laban, his mother's brother.
The espousals of both these patriarchs are fully described, and are remarkable illustrations of Eastern life, extremely interesting, in that point of view, to the intelligent reader.
The birthright, which Esau randomly renounced when hungry, for the sake of food, and which the stratagem of Rebekah and Jacob afterwards caused the dim-sighted old father to transfer solemnly to the younger son, comprised, no doubt, the headship of the family or tribe, with all the authority belonging to it in pastoral society. Not improbably it included a larger, perhaps a double, portion of property; as afterwards in the Mosaic Law (which, in many such cases, merely defined already existing usages) it was expressly provided (Deut. xxi. 17) that the first-born should have “ a double portion of all
that a man hath.” It seems to have rested with the father, however, to confirm this privilege, or to annul it in case of misconduct, as in the last words of Jacob to his sons (Gen. xlix.), where it is pretty plain that Reuben, the first-born, is degraded for his crime against his father, and Simeon and Levi, the next in order, are passed by in disapproval of their cruelty, so that on Judah the honour virtually, though not in so many express words, devolves in an emphatic blessing fulfilled in that tribe's pre-eminence. But we anticipate.
The characters of Esau and Jacob are a strong and instructive contrast, if read naturally. Theologically, they have been sadly misread. Because it is said in the book of Malachi, “ Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the LORD: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste,” it has been very irrationally concluded that Esau's character must be made out to be in the main censurable, and Jacob's in the leading points good. The verse in Malachi means no such thing, but simply that Jacob was chosen to be the channel of the covenanted national blessings, to the rejection of Esau ;—that the posterity of the younger were made the heritors of the land of promise, and that of the elder the inhabitants of the wastes of Edom. It is one of many scriptural instances, to which Providence in all ages has added many parallels, of the first being last and the last first. Primogeniture was a great boast before men, but not before God. The qualities which fit men for special services and special honour in their day and generation, do not run in the order of birth. Jacob was younger than Esau, yet the promises were realized through him. Moses was younger than Aaron, but the Law was given by Moses. The Scriptures lay a wholesome emphasis upon such facts, as illustrative of the ways of Providence.