Words are important.
When I am examining an issue, one of the first lines of clarification is, “What do the terms mean?” I don’t know if this comes from my science background, my desire to break a problem into parts, but very often defining terms is a good first step in an effort to think clearly. What does this have to do with water?
I often have tourists ask questions something along the line of:
How can the Sea of Galilee be a “sea” if it is fresh water? It is too small to be a “sea” – more like a lake.
Is that the Jordan River? Really? I imagined it would be like the Mighty Mississippi River.
Why do some streams have water all year (like David Stream) and some streams almost never have water (Og Stream)? How can they have the same classification?
Good questions, but they ignore the main problem with these terms – they are in English. The bodies of water in Israel were first described in Hebrew in the Bible, with their English “translations” only coming later. Remember, that the Hebrew of the Bible was used to describe a very specific terrain, the terrain of the Levant, and not to describe other places. No matter what you believe about the origins of the Biblical text, one thing is for sure. The author of the Bible was very familiar with the geography of the Land of Israel. Thus, we can expect that this author uses geographical terms very specifically, without considering how they may be translated into English.
There are a few different Hebrew words used for bodies of water:
Nahar (and Yaor)
I have done a fair amount of research on these terms and their meanings. This post dives into the meaning of the first two: agam and yam.
These terms are used in the Bible for bodies of water that do not have a clear vector component. In other words, they are not “going anywhere”. In English, you may translate them as lake, sea, or even man-made reservoir!
The difference between an agam and a yam, has to do with a related word agamon which is a reed. An agam is a body of water, without a vector, which has the possibility for growing reeds, ie. shallow enough that much of its surface could be covered by reeds.
“And the parched land will become an agam, and the thirsty land springs of water: The home of jackals shall become a pasture for cattle, an enclosure of reeds and rushes.” Isaiah 35:7
Agam is not used as part of a proper noun in the Bible but rather as a descriptive concept. The current Agam HaHula in the northern part of Israel is aptly named.
The topography of Israel dictates that agamim are not prevalent. Most of the water in Israel’s interior is “on the move” as Israel is a hilly/mountainous (leave those definitions for another time…) land.
A yam, by comparison, is a much larger body of water (still with no vector component), and much deeper. There are many examples of yamim in the Bible: HaYam
HaAcharon (Mediterranean Sea), Yam Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Yam HaMelach (Dead Sea), Yam Suf (Reed/Red? Sea), and many others. There is no differentiation between salt and fresh water bodies of water, as long as the size dictates a large percentage of clear water. Yamim can have islands, depths, shores, and are generally much more prevalent (and important) in the Bible than agamim.
“Then sang Moshe and the children of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke saying: I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, the hourse and his rider has he thrown into the yam.” Exodus 15:1
I love this!!! I hope you sent it to Naomi for the Jewish Press!!
You are a wonderful writer.
My only question- the Sea of Reeds then should be Agam Suf!! If it has reeds!!
See you in a month, b’ezrat Hashem,