🔼The name Yam-hamelah: Summary
- Salt Sea
- From (1) the noun ים (yam), sea, west or future, and (2) the noun מלח (melah), salt.
🔼The name Yam-hamelah in the Bible
The name Yam-hamelah (with or with a maqqep: ים־המלח) is Hebrew for Salt Sea (today better known as the Dead Sea), which is a large body of water in south-east Israel, which is also the lowest point on earth. Because it's the lowest point, it has water flowing in (predominantly from the Jordan) but no water flowing out (Ecclesiastes 1:7). But because it's situated in the rain-shadow caused by the Judean mountains, its area is bone-dry and the water evaporates faster than is replenished by the Jordan. This is why the level of the Salt Sea drops (faster in modern times because farmers use Jordan water to irrigate their lands). It has a long way to go, though; the Salt Sea is also the deepest salt water lake in the world. Its shores are about 400 meter below sea level and its bottom another 400 meters deeper.
Tradition often links the Salt Sea to the destruction of the four out of five cities of the plain (Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar), but nowhere in the Bible are we told that the Salt Sea formed on that occasion, or that it had anything to do with it. In fact, despite its size and all its unique features, the Salt Sea hardly gets mentioned at all in the Bible, which is as peculiar as telling.
We hear first of the Salt Sea during the famous War of Four Against Five Kings, which was waged in the Valley of Siddim, "that is the Salt Sea" (Genesis 14:3, 14:10). The destruction of the four cities is described in Genesis 19, but the Salt Sea isn't mentioned until YHWH stipulates the borders of Israel; a circular trajectory which started at the south border flanked by the Salt Sea (Numbers 34:3) and terminated there (Numbers 34:12). It's mentioned again in relation to the western border of the three eastern tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, who insisted on settling outside the borders stipulated by YHWH (Deuteronomy 3:17). When Israel crossed the Jordan, the waters towards the Salt Sea were cut off (Joshua 3:16). The Salt Sea is mentioned again as a border marker of the land that was conquered (Joshua 12:3), twice in relation to the border of Judah (Joshua 15:2 and 15:5) and once to the border of Benjamin (Joshua 18:19). And that's it. The Salt Sea is mentioned no more by name after that.
From extra-biblical accounts we know that the Salt Sea was used extensively for maritime transport, which appears to be hinted at in 2 Chronicles 8:18. In 2005, two well-preserved wooden anchors from the Persian and Roman periods were found near En-gedi, on the shore of the Salt Sea.
While in exile, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision in which he is taken to a very high mountain, where he saw a city and a new temple (Ezekiel 40:2). From the temple flowed water towards the east, where it would heal "the sea" and make its waters fresh (47:8), but not the marshes and swamps, which would remain salt (47:11). Likewise, Zechariah mentioned living water flowing out of Jerusalem, half towards the eastern sea and half towards the western sea (14:8). And Joel speaks of a northern army, of which the Lord will drive its vanguard into the eastern sea and its rear end into the western sea (2:20). Note that the word for east also means past, and the word for west also means future.
🔼Etymology of the name Yam-hamelah
The name Yam-hamelah consists of two parts. The first part is the noun ים (yam) meaning sea:
The noun ים (yam) means sea, and was also used as synonym for west (sea-ward) or the future (as "east" corresponds to "past"). Its plural form, ימים (yamim), is identical to the plural of the word יום (yom), meaning day.
The second part is the highly significant word מלח (melah), meaning salt:
The verb מלח (malah) probably means to make dry or to absorb. The noun מלח (melah) would literally mean "dry maker" and was the regular word for salt. Salt, of course, dried food and by doing so preserved it for long periods of time. That means that "salting" something didn't simply mean to give it a salty taste but rather to dry and thus disinfect something (whether with or without actual salt). Noun מלחה (meleha) might mean saltiness but generally means dry or dryness.
So yes, the name Yam-hamelah literally means Salt Sea, but due to the special nature of the word for salt, and the fact that water flows in but not out this lake, this natural phenomenon must have seemed to the Hebrews like a kind of national bilge well, in which all the impurities of their land collected:
He will tread our iniquities under foot. Yes, he will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).