The bounds of Judea, on both sides, are the sea; the western bound is the Mediterranean,--the eastern, the Dead sea, or the sea of Sodom. This the Jewish writers every where call, which you may not so properly interpret here, "the salt sea," as "the bituminous sea." In which sense word for word, "Sodom's salt," but properly "Sodom's bitumen," doth very frequently occur among them. The use of it was in the holy incense. They mingled 'bitumen,' 'the amber of Jordan,' and [an herb known to few], with the spices that made that incense.
"The lake Asphaltitis is distant from Jerusalem three hundred furlongs":--about eight-and-thirty miles.
"It is extended in length five hundred and eighty furlongs"; seventy-two miles.--"In breadth a hundred and fifty furlongs"; eighteen miles.
Pliny speaks thus of it: "In length it is more than a hundred miles: in its greatest breadth, it makes five-and-twenty,--in its least, six." What agreement is there between these two? I suppose Josephus does not comprehend within his measure the tongue of the sea, of which mention is made, Joshua 15:2--and defines the breadth, as it was generally every where diffused. Concerning its distance from Jerusalem, Solinus also speaks: "In a long retreat from Jerusalem (saith he) a sad bay openeth itself; which that it was struck from heaven, the ground, black and dissolved into ashes, testifies. There were two towns there, one named Sodom, the other Gomorrha." But that distance was not directly southward, but by a very long declination eastward.
The Talmudists devote "to the sea of Sodom," any thing, that is destined to rejection and cursing, and that by no means is to be used.
"Let him devote the use of such a thing to the bituminous sea." "Let the price of an oblation for sin, the owner whereof is dead, depart into the salt sea."
"The proselyte Aquila divided the inheritance with his brother a Gentile, and devoted the use and benefit of it to the salt sea. Of three doctors one saith, That he devoted the moneys of idolatry into the salt sea." Hence is that allusion, Revelation 20:14, "And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire."
It doth not please me, that Sodom, in the maps, is placed in the northern bounds of the Asphaltites; when it seems rather to be placed in the southern extremity of it. For,
I. The bounds of the land are thus defined by Moses, Genesis 10:19: "The borders of the Canaanites were from Sidon" (on the north) "unto Gaza" (on the south), "as thou goest forward, or until thou comest to Sodom." Are not the bounds here bent from Gaza to the farthest term opposite to it on the east?
II. Josephus, in the description of the Asphaltites, which we quoted a little above, hath these words: "The length of it is five hundred and eighty furlongs: and it is stretched out as far as Zoar of Arabia." Note, that the farthest coast of the extension of it southward, is to Zoar. But now Zoar was not far distant from Sodom, when Lot, with his company, got thither before the rising of the sun, Genesis 19:23. "It is written (say the Gemarists), 'The sun was risen upon the earth, when Lot entered into Sodom.'--Now Sodom was four miles from Zoar."
The maps show you Zoar and Lot's Cave in Judea, at the northern coast almost of the Asphaltites:--by what authority, I do not apprehend. The Talmudists, indeed, do mention a certain Zoar, which they also call, "The City of Palms."--"There is a story (say they) of some Levites, who travelled to Zoar, the city of palms: and one of them fell sick, whom they brought to an inn, and there he died." But I should sooner believe, that there were two Zoars, than I should believe, that the father of the Moabites were not conceived and born near Zoar of the land of Moab. See Isaiah 15:5.
Concerning the age of Sodom, when it perished, see the places in the margin, and weigh them well.