How can something already dead be dying? Easily enough, if you’re the Dead Sea. The plight of the Dead Sea has been known for years, but was recently highlghted by an article in Time Magazine.
The Bible speaks of what we call the Dead Sea as the Salt Sea (KJV, NIV, NET, NAS), though some modern translations use the modern term (NRSV, HCSB). Both names are appropriate. The Dead Sea is more than eight times saltier than the oceans, so bouyant that swimmers float so high they imagine they could walk on the water.
It got that way by virtue of being located at the lowest point of the Jordan Rift Valley, which happens to be the lowest point on earth — nearly a quarter mile below sea level. Through many millenia, water has flowed into the Dead Sea, but there’s no way for it to flow out. Through eons of evaporation, minerals brought to the sea have become so concentrated that virtually nothing can live there: hence the name.
On an early pilgrim map found on the mosaic floor of a church in Madeba, Jordan, fish are shown swimming toward the Dead Sea — but turning around in fear when they reached it.
For the past several decades, upstream countries like Israel, Jordan, and Syria have been tapping the Sea of Galilee (which feeds the Jordan River) as well as upper tributaries of the Jordan for irrigation, reducing its once proud flow to a muddy trickle fed in some places by little more than raw sewage. Overall the Dead Sea is now fed by less than two percent of the the volume that once flowed into it.
As a result, water evaporates from the Dead Sea much more quickly than it comes in through the Jordan, and mineral industries at the southern end of the sea speed up the process of evaporation even more. As a result, government monitors note that the Dead Sea’s surface has been sinking at a rate of about three feet every year.
Sure enough, when study tour members from Campbell University Divinity School visited the Dead Sea this past May, a swimming dock we used two years before was standing six feet out of the water.
The end result is that a sea already dead is dying … drying up … literally vanishing into the air. Not that we’ll see it disappear completely in our lifetimes: the Dead Sea is still a very large body of water, 42 miles long and 11 miles wide at the widest point, and more than 1,200 feet deep.
Preachers have often used the Dead Sea as a sermon illustration on the need for living a productive life of Christian service, pointing out that the sea was dead because water flowed in, but not out.
Nowadays, hardly anything flows into the Dead Sea, and what comes out is mostly potash from the vast evaporation operations at its southern extremity. In time, the sea will be not only dead, but non-existent.
I suppose there’s a lesson in that, as well.