the usual and perhaps the most ancient name for the remarkable lake which to the western world is now generally known as the Dead Sea.
Names — (1) The Salt Sea (Genesis 14:3); (2) Sea of the Arabah (Authorized Version “sea of the plain,” which is found in (Deuteronomy 4:49)); (3) The East Sea (Joel 2:20); (4) The sea (Ezekiel 47:8); (5) Sodomitish Sea (2 Esdras); (6) Sea of Salt and Sea of Sodom, in the Talmud; (7) The Asphaltic Lake, in Josephus; (8) The name “Dead Sea” appears to have been first used in Greek by Pausanias and Galen, and in Latin (mare mortuum) by Justin xxxvi. 3,6, or rather by the older historian Trogus Pompeius (cir. B.C. 10), whose work he epitomized; (9) The Arabic name is Bahr Lut, the “Sea of Lot.”
Description — The so-called Dead Sea is the final receptacle of the river Jordan, the lowest and largest of the three lakes which interrupt the rush of its downward course. It is the deepest portion of that very deep natural fissure which runs like a furrow from the Gulf of Akabah to the range of Lebanon, and from the range of Lebanon to the extreme north of Syria. Viewed on the map, the lake is of an oblong form, of tolerably regular contour, interrupted only by a large and long peninsula which projects from the eastern shore near its southern end, and virtually divides the expanse of the water into two portions, connected by a long, narrow and somewhat devious passage. Its surface is from north to south as nearly as possible 40 geographical or 46 English miles long. Its greatest width is about 9 geographical or 10 1/2 English miles. Its area is about 250 geographical square miles. At its northern end the lake receives the stream of the Jordan; on its eastern side the Zurka Ma’in (the ancient Callirrhoe, and possibly the more ancient en-Eglaim), the Mojib (the Arnon of the Bible), and the Beni-Hemad; on the south the Kurahy or el-Ahsy; and on the west that of Ain Jidy. The depression of its surface, and the depth which it attains below that surface, combined with the absence of any outlet, render it one of the most remarkable spots on the globe. The surface of the lake in Ma 1848, was 1,316.7 feet below the level of the Mediterranean at Jaffa. Its depth, at about one third of its length from the north end, is 1,308 feet. The water of the lake is not less remarkable than its other features. Its most obvious peculiarity is its great weight. Its specific gravity has been found to be as much as 12.28; that is to say, a gallon of it would weigh over 12 1/4 lbs., instead of 10 lbs., the weight of distilled water. Water so heavy must not only be extremely buoyant, but must possess great inertia. Its buoyancy is a common theme of remark by the travellers who have been upon it or in it. Dr. Robinson “could never swim before, either in fresh or salt water,” yet here he “could sit, stand, lie, or swim without difficulty” (B.R.i.506.). The remarkable weight of the water is due to the very large quantity of mineral salts which it holds in solution. Each gallon of the water, weighing 12 1/4 lbs., contains nearly 3 1/3 lbs. of matter in solution—an immense quantity when we recollect that seawater, weighing 10 1/4 lbs. per gallon, contains less than 1/2 a lb. Of this 3 1/2 lbs. nearly 1 lb. is common salt (chloride of sodium), about 2 lbs. chloride of magnesium, and less than 1/2 lb. chloride of calcium (or muriate of lime). The most usual ingredient is bromide of magnesium, which exists in truly extraordinary quantity. It has been long supposed that no life whatever existed in the lake, but recent facts show that some inferior organizations do find a home even in these salt and acrid waters. The statements of ancient travellers and geographers to the effect that no living creature could exist on the shores of the lake, or bird fly across its surface, are amply disproved by later travellers. The springs on the margin of the lake harbor snipe, partridges, ducks, nightingales and other birds as well as frogs; and hawks, doves and hares are found along the shore. The appearance of the lake does not fulfill the idea conveyed by its popular name. “The Dead Sea,” says a recent traveller, “did not strike me with that sense of desolation and dreariness which I suppose it ought. I thought it a pretty, smiling lake—a nice ripple on its surface.” The truth lies, as usual, somewhere between these two extremes. On the one hand, the lake certainly is not a gloomy, deadly, smoking gulf. In this respect it does not at all fulfill the promise of its name. At sunrise and sunset the scene must be astonishingly beautiful. But on the other hand, there is something in the prevalent sterility and the dry, burnt look of the shores, the overpowering heat, the occasional smell of sulphur, the dreary salt marsh at the southern end, and the fringe of dead driftwood round the margin, which must go far to excuse the title which so many ages have attached to the lake, and which we may be sure it will never lose. The connection between this singular lake and the biblical history is very slight. In the topographical records of the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua it forms one among the landmarks of the boundaries of the whole country, as well as of the inferior divisions of Judah and Benjamin. As a landmark it is once named in what to be a quotation from a lost work of the prophet Jonah (2 Kings 14:25), itself apparently a reminiscence of the old Mosaic statement (Numbers 34:8, 12). Besides this the name occurs twice. In the imagery of the prophets the New Testament there is not even an allusion to it. There is however, one passage in which the “Salt Sea” is mentioned in a manner different from any of those already quoted viz. as having been in the time of Abraham the vale of Siddim (Genesis 14:3). In consequence of this passage it has been believed that the present lake covered a district which in historic times had been permanently habitable dry land. But it must not be overlooked that the passage in question is the only one in the whole Bible to countenance the notion that the cities of the plain were submerged; a notion which does not date earlier than the Christian era. The belief which prompted the idea of some modern writers that the Dead Sea was formed by the catastrophe which overthrew the “cities of the plain” is a mere assumption. It is not only unsupported by Scripture but is directly in the teeth of the evidence of the ground itself. Of the situation of those cities we only know that, being in the plain of the Jordan, they must have been to the north of the lake. Of the catastrophe which destroyed them we only know that it is described as a shower of ignited sulphur descending from the skies. Its date is uncertain. (It is supposed that only the southern bay of the Dead Sea was formed by the submergence of the cities of the plain, and is still probable. If Hugh Miller’s theory of the flood is correct—and it is the most reasonable theory yet propounded—then the Dead Sea was formed by the depression of that part of the valley through which the Jordan once flowed to the Red Sea. But this great depression caused all the waters of the Jordan to remain without outlet, and the size of the Dead Sea must be such that the evaporation from its surface just balances the amount of water which flows in through the river. This accounts in part for the amount of matter held in solution by the Dead Sea waters; for the evaporation is of pure water only, while the inflow contains more or less of salts and other matter in solution. This theory also renders it probable that the lake was at first considerably larger than at present, for in earlier times the Jordan had probably a larger flow of water.–ED.) The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may have been by volcanic action, but it may be safely asserted that no traces of it have yet been discovered, and that, whatever it was, it can have had no connection with that far vaster and far more ancient event which opened the great valley of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, and at some subsequent time cut it off from communication with the Red Sea by forcing up between them the tract of the Wady Arabah.
Smith's Bible Names Dictionary (1866)