1051 B. C. to 931 B. C. Part 2
The Wilderness of Judah and the Dead Sea
The above two places provide the geographical setting for many of the events in the lives of Saul and David. As he grew up in Bethlehem, David would have tended his father’s sheep in the wilderness area to the east. Later, as a fugitive from Saul’s court, David took refuge in the caves and strongholds of the Wilderness of Judah. He also fought military engagements in this area. The Wilderness of Judah and the Dead Sea have very unique geographical features that make them quite interesting to study.
Geography of Judah’s Wilderness
This was a distinct geographical region of the tribal territory of Judah. This area lies just east of the Judean watershed and extends about twelve miles eastward to the shores of the Dead Sea. It lies parallel to the Dead Sea, and stretches about 50 miles from north to south. The wilderness southeast of Hebron in the vicinity of Ziph is sometimes referred to by the name Jeshimon, meaning “waste” or “desert”.
The desolate and broken Wilderness of Judah makes a very steep descent from the Judean mountains to the shores of the Dead Sea. The elevation drops 4,300 feet in roughly 12 miles – from 3,000 feet above sea level to 1,300 feet below sea level. Most of the slope is covered by an outcrop of soft and porous Senonian limestone. This is a chalky substance and has a low resistance to erosion. It is this characteristic that has contributed to the formation of the deep wadis and ravines that slice through the region. The limestone rock underlying this region serves as a natural reservoir, absorbing and storing water until it eventually breaks forth as springs along the shores of the Dead Sea.
Climate of the Wilderness of Judah
The Judean wilderness was primarily useful as a place to graze sheep and goats, since the ground is much too steep, rocky, and infertile for planting. There is insufficient water for agriculture anyway, except only near an oasis. Along the shores of the Dead Sea, the water that has flowed underground from the hill country breaks out in a number of springs. Ein Feshkha and En-gedi are two of the more prominent and productive of these oases. In antiquity, the salt of the Dead Sea was important to the economy of the region, as salt was extracted and sold as a preservative. One city along the western shores of the Dead Sea was known as “the City of Salt” in Joshua 15: 62.
The lack of water, the steep terrain, and the general barrenness of this wilderness rendered the hill country almost inaccessible from the east. There are only two known routes through the Wilderness of Judah to the hill country. Both began at Engedi. One went north along the shores of the Dead Sea to the Kidron Valley and then west to Bethlehem. The other went directly west through the wilderness to Hebron.
The Dead Sea
This sea occupies the deepest part of the Rift Valley. It is about 50 miles long and 10 miles wide. It is referred to as “the Salt Sea”, “the Sea of the Arabah”, and “the Eastern Sea”. It lies 1,274 feet below sea level and is about 1,300 feet deep at its northern end. The southern part of it is a tongue-shaped peninsula and is quite shallow. It narrows to about 2 and 1/2 miles between Lisan and the western shore and was known to have been a passable ford in antiquity. The water level of the Sea has decreased in recent times, and the ford is once again passable.
The Jordan River and numerous wadis flow into the Dead Sea, but the sea itself has no outlet. The inflow is balanced by evaporation from its 380 square mile surface. Over the years, the evaporation has caused the minerals that have been brought to the sea by the rivers, to become increasingly concentrated. This mineral content now amounts to about 28 to 33 percent, depending upon the depth of the water. This has made the Sea a vast resource of mineral wealth. Two of the minerals that are presently being extracted from it are bromine (used in pesticides and fumigants) and potash (used as a fertilizer). It is also known to have contained vast amounts of magnesium and lithium.
Scientists are now experimenting with the development of solar ponds, using saltwater from the Dead Sea. These ponds are capable of generating electricity from the sun as the water heats and releases vapor that turns a turbine connected to a generator. Engineering planners anticipate that within a few years, solar ponds will provide all the electricity necessary for the entire Dead Sea Basin.
Sites of the Wilderness of Judah
David’s wanderings in the wilderness as a fugitive took him to a number of sites, including Ziph, Maon, En-gedi, Carmel, and Masada. Several of these are worthy of special consideration.
This is an oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It is located directly across from where the Wadi Arnon enters the sea. It is named for the bountiful spring that waters the area. This place was alotted to the territory of Judah. During David’s flight from Saul, he hid out in the “strongholds of Engedi”. It was here that Saul went into a cave in which David was hiding. David could have killed Saul, but he refused to lift up his hand against the Lord’s anointed. The cave at En-gedi may also provide the background of David’s experience as recorded in Psalm 142.
This area was known in ancient times for its beauty, spices, and vineyards. Josephus states that the finest palm trees and balsam grew there. En-gedi was also at the head of a travel route through the wilderness to the hill country. During the reign of Jehoshaphat, the Ammonites and the Moabites began their ascent to the hill country from En-gedi to attack the southern kingdom of Judah.
Masada is a natural rock fortress on the western shore of the Dead Sea just across from the Lisan. The fortress was formed by erosion in the surrounding wadis, which eventually isolated it from the other mountains in this area. The cliffs surrounding it rise up almost vertically 1,320 feet to a plateau of approximately 20 acres. Its name is a literal translation of the Hebrew word for “mountain fortress” or “stronghold”. In I Samuel David frequented a mountain fortress in the wilderness while fleeing from Saul. This is a term used of Jerusalem, also, but the earlier references almost certainly refer to Masada.
Although the site might have been used by David and others as a fortress in the biblical period, it was first fortified by the high priest Jonathan (103 – 76 B. C.), who was a Hasmonean ruler of Judea. The fortress was later acquired by Herod and used as a place of refuge for his family while he was struggling for power.
When he secured his rule over Judea in 37 B. C., Herod completely rebuilt the fortress to give him a place of refuge in case of Jewish revolt or foreign attack. He built a double wall around it, built a fine palace, cisterns for water, and storerooms. Following his death, a small Roman garrison appears to have been maintained at Masada until they were expelled by the Zealots at the beginning of the Jewish Revolt.
The site soon became a symbol of Jewish resistance, and the Romans went to great lengths to overthrow its defenders. They finally built a ramp to the top of the plateau so that siege equipment could be used against the walls. The Jews held on until May 2, 73 A. D. when the Tenth Roman Legion finally succeeded in breaking through the gate, only to discover that the 960 defenders had taken their own lives rather than be enslaved. Josephus reported the events of Masada’s final hours, having received the account from one of the seven survivors. Today, Israel’s soldiers take the oath of allegiance to their country on Masada, vowing that the mountain fortress will never fall again.
About 8 miles south of Jericho, along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, is Qumran. This site has been identified by some as “The City of Salt”. It is located just north of the oasis Ein Feshkha and the Wadi Qumran. It became famous with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were found there in 1947. These scrolls have been acknowledged as the most important discovery for biblical scholars in the past century.
They provide scholars with Old Testament manuscripts a thousand years older than any manuscripts previously available. The scrolls date from around 200 to 100 B. C. and confirm the accuracy of the Masoretic text that is used in the translation of most of our modern versions.
There has been much discussion about the nature of the community of Qumran. Josephus describes a sect of Jews known as “Essenes”, and the residents of Qumran seemed to fit the description well – except for the fact that although the Essenes were celibate, there were some women found buried at the site.
Whether they were Essenes or not, these people separated from established Judaism and devoted themselves to copying and preserving the biblical scrolls. In the excavation, a hall was discovered where the scrolls were apparently copied, since tables with inkwells were found.
The dwellings there were abandoned in 68 A. D. during the First Jewish Revolt, when the Romans destroyed the site. Anticipating this attack, the scrolls were carefully placed in clay jars and hidden in caves. They probably expected to recover the scrolls after the Romans departed. Although they never returned to the site, the clay jars and arid conditions preserved the scrolls for discovery and use by modern scholars. Most of them were written on parchment (leather) and a few on papyrus. Except for the Book of Esther, every book of the Old Testament is represented in part or in its entirety among the scrolls found at Qumran.
Below is a map of the Judean Wilderness and some pictures of Masada and Qumran.