Last Chance to Sea

I wasn’t brave enough to don swimming trunks in front of academic colleagues and climb into the Dead Sea. Instead, I dipped a finger in an touched it to my tongue. I’m not sure if it was the bromides or some other toxic minerals, but I immediately wretched and knew that I wouldn’t be putting any Dead Sea salt on my chips. Years later, for comparison, I tried a bit of the Great Salt Lake. Disappointing, to say the least. Already by the time I’d visited the Dead Sea it was dying further. In a recent article on NBC entitled “Thousands of Sinkholes Threaten Dead Sea’s Tourism Industry,” the fate of a sea already dead grows even worse. Water is always an issue in dry climates, and the only real source for renewing Dead Sea water is the Jordan River, which is being dammed and used for human purposes, robbing the Dead Sea of its renewal. The sinkholes are a result of underground salt deposits being dissolved by fresh water as the salty matrix gets siphoned away for industrial chemical farming. Dead Sea levels have dropped 100 feet since 1980.

The Dead Sea is one of the most striking regions on the planet. It is as far as you can go below sea level and still be on dry ground (at least on the shore, that is). The air smells like sulphur and the thickness of the atmosphere at that depth protects you from the sun’s rays, despite the heat. The water is so saline that only bacteria can live there. (The article, ironically, states, “it is very difficult for animals and plants to thrive there.”) By comparison the Great Salt Lake is practically drinking water. Famously, people are unable to sink in the Dead Sea, as its salt enhances buoyancy, so that you can read a newspaper while floating on your back. Like most natural wonders, humans are destroying it. The sinkholes are prophetic, I fear.


Great evaporating beds line parts of the Dead Sea shore where minerals can be obtained without having to dig into the earth. You can buy some as cosmetics at the local mall. These mineral salts are what make the Dead Sea what it is. And it is shrinking. Satellite imagery of the Sea can bring salty tears to my eye. We’ve slowed the flow of Niagara Falls, and we’ve begun melting our polar caps. Even so, we can’t get enough water to sustain our lifestyle. It has been said that the next major war will not be over oil, but water. Even a glance at California can make me thirsty. In a rare show of cooperation, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority are building a pipeline to bring Red Sea water into the shrinking Dead Sea. I hope that this might bode well for the future in the region. Although there is no love lost between these neighbors, they all realize that something unique lies on their border, and when it’s gone it will be a loss to the entire world. That is the real Sodom and Gomorrah.


“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye”—so begins a hymn I learned as a child and which has followed me to Bloomington, Indiana. Campus visits are an expectation of some academic editors, and as I stand and look at Jordan River on the Indiana University campus, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I have no idea if this little stream was named after the Jordan River of Israel fame, or if it just happens that someone named Jordan was a benefactor of the university. Given that there is a Jordan Hall, and a Jordan Street, the latter seems likely. Nevertheless, whether liquid or liquidity, any Jordan in contemporary society probably traces its origins back to the river that now separates Israel from Jordan (named after the river). Many hymns celebrate the mighty Jordan without the benefit of geographical experience. The mythic river is not mighty or majestic, but a slow-moving artery that sluggishly empties into the Dead Sea. With all the history of Christian imagination, however, we like to think of it on a par with the Euphrates, or at least the Mississippi.

Jordan’s stormy banks

Biblical images have a way of catching the imagination. Although many younger people have no training in the Bible or Christianity, our culture is steeped very thoroughly in it. For some who are just rising to voting age, it must appear incredible the amount of effort politicians still put into keeping the old faith alive. It is clearly so here in Indiana. Driving down from Indianapolis I passed many signs that the Biblio-Christic pulse still throbs in the heartland. As I stopped to check my directions, I realized I’d just parked across from Pray Street. In a land where an imperative verb for a religious function stands a chance of becoming a street name, anything is possible.

After I returned from my trip to Israel many years ago, I realized that I’d neglected to take any pictures of the Jordan River. It runs like a leitmotif through our national imagination that it almost seems worth going back just to snap a shot or two. The Jordan is redolent of Eden, a land that is, according to Genesis, defined by four rivers. Water is a precious commodity in the arid Middle East. Its fluid nature seems not to have achieved the level of metaphor for those who insist on warring over religion. For gardens to bloom, there must be water and its short supply raises tensions. Water connects, however, just as readily as it separates. One of the first steps towards the great civilizations was the technology of travel by water. Why can we no longer use it for connecting rather than gerrymandering? I don’t know why this little stream is called Jordan River, but I do stand by its banks and cast a wishful eye.