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Tar Pits and the Bible (2004)

One of the most strikingly beautiful geographical regions in Israel is the Dead Sea, a long and narrow lake (80 km by 15 km), situated between the Judean desert and the mountains of Moab. The still, salty water and the cliffs around it create unique and dramatic scenery. The Dead Sea is fed mostly by the waters of the Jordan River, and although there is no outlet for the water, the Dead Sea maintains a stable shore level because of the excessive heat, which evaporates the water at a very high rate.

Shore of Dead Sea

But this hydrological balance has been upset in modern times. The Dead Sea is now losing its water and is gradually drying up. The major reason is the damming of the Jordan River by the state of Israel, and the Yarmuk River by the Jordanians. Both need these precious fresh waters for human use and agriculture.

In addition, a multi-million dollar factory in the southern part of the Dead Sea is deliberately channeling the water from the Dead Sea into a series of shallow evaporation pools, in order to extract the various minerals that are sold for a high profit. The result is that the shores of the Dead Sea are retreating, now in an alarming paste – The water level is dropping 90 to 120 cm every year(!) In the last 30 years the water level has decreased 30 meters, and currently the surface is 415 metres  below sea level. (The whole lake is below sea level because it is separated by land from the Mediterranean and Red Seas).

The dwindling waters of the Dead Sea have generated an unexpected and unpredictable geological phenomenon along the drying shores—sink holes. Sink holes appear when the earth opens into a pit, usually round, up to 25 meters wide and 11 meters deep. The sink holes can occur suddenly and without any warning.

Dead Sea sink hole

Eli Raz, a geologist who has observed and studied this phenomenon for the last 30 years, knows best how unexpectedly these sink holes are formed. He fell into such a sink hole while monitoring it. It took 12 hours before a rescue team pulled him out of the pit to safety.

It appears that the sink holes occur in groups, usually close to fresh water sources, and they spread at a varying rate. In time, the pits are usually filled with water containing various minerals, giving them a unique color. Eli Raz offered an explanation to this phenomenon that seems to be accepted by most geologists. As the sea level decreases, the lighter, fresh water level reaches the underground levels under the beaches. The lower levels contain a high percentage of salt and minerals. The fresh water dissolves the salt and in doing so creates large hollow areas under the beaches. When the caves reach a certain size, the upper muddy crust of the beach simply sinks into the underground cavity.

But why am I reporting all of this in a periodical devoted to archaeology and the Bible? Well, it appears that this phenomenon was observed in ancient times and is reported already in the Bible. In the time of Abraham, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were down in the Jordan Valley, somewhere near the present Dead Sea. In Genesis 14 a whole chapter is devoted to a fierce battle between four kings “of the north” and five kings “of the south” that took place near these two cities. The Bible reports that All these kings joined forces together in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea).” When the battle took place, the kings of the north won. Why?“Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits. When the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of the men fell into them.” (Gen 14:10). So it seems that sink holes of the same type occurring nowadays around the Dead Sea were also a phenomenon in Biblical times when they trapped the armies of the kings of Sodomand Gomorrah.

Dead Sea sink hole


Still in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, another strange happening also seems to echo Biblical times. About ten years ago a private business man invested in a new tourist attraction for visitors to the Dead Sea— a boat ride on a wooden vessel. He named the vessel Lot’s Wife.

But operating a vessel on the Dead Sea is an especially difficult challenge. While sea water contains 2%-3.5% salt, the salt level in the Dead Sea can reach up to 35%. With the accelerated evaporation rate of the Dead Sea water, the salt dries up and adheres to any still surface, creating a thick white hard crust. Although throughout most of the year the Dead Sea waters are still and pleasant, sometimes storms occur. In one of the storms in the winter of 2001, “Lot’s wife” hit a rocky beach and was severely damaged. Due to lack of tourism since the new tension between Israel and the Palestine, the boat was left deserted. Visiting the boat nowadays presents an unusual scene. The salt has left thick snowy layers over lower parts of the vessel, as if trying to turn it into a pillar of salt. Was it the name of the boat that determined itsfate?..I only hope the next boat built at the Dead Sea will not be called “Cleoparta”..

sunken shipLot's wife last journey