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  • JOSEPHUS' WRITINGS - BOOK 24, CH. 8
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    HOW VESPASIAN .UPON HEARING OF SOME COMMOTIONS IN GALL, (12) MADE HASTE TO FINISH THE JEWISH WAR. A DESCRIPTION OF. JERICHO, AND OF THE GREAT PLAIN; WITH AN ACCOUNT BESIDES OF THE LAKE ASPHALTITIS.

    1. IN the mean time, an account came that there were commotions in Gall, and that Vindex, together with the men of power in that country, had revolted from Nero; which affair is more accurately described elsewhere. This report, thus related to Vespasian, excited him to go on briskly with the war; for he foresaw already the civil wars which were coming upon them, nay, that the very government was in danger; and he thought, if he could first reduce the eastern parts of the empire to peace, he should make the fears for Italy the lighter; while therefore the winter was his hinderance [from going into the field], he put garrisons into the villages and smaller cities for their security; he put decurions also into the villages, and centurions into the cities: he besides this rebuilt many of the cities that had been laid waste; but at the beginning of the spring he took the greatest part of his army, and led it from Cesarea to Antipatris, where he spent two days in settling the affairs of that city, and then, on the third day, he marched on, laying waste and burning all the neighboring villages. And when he had laid waste all the places about the toparchy of Thamnas, he passed on to Lydda and Jamnia; and when both these cities had come over to him, he placed a great many of those that had come over to him [from other places] as inhabitants therein, and then came to Emmaus, where he seized upon the passage which led thence to their metropolis, and fortified his camp, and leaving the fifth legion therein, he came to the toparchy of Bethletephon. He then destroyed that place, and the neighboring places, by fire, and fortified, at proper places, the strong holds all about Idumea; and when he had seized upon two villages, which were in the very midst of Idumea, Betaris and Caphartobas, he slew above ten thousand of the people, and carried into captivity above a thousand, and drove away the rest of the multitude, and placed no small part of his own forces in them, who overran and laid waste the whole mountainous country; while he, with the rest of his forces, returned to Emmaus, whence he came down through the country of Samaria, and hard by the city, by others called Neapoils, (or Sichem,) but by the people of that country Mabortha, to Corea, where he pitched his camp, on the second day of the month Desius [Sivan]; and on the day following he came to Jericho; on which day Trajan, one of his commanders, joined him with the forces he brought out of Perea, all the places beyond Jordan being subdued already.

    2. Hereupon a great multitude prevented their approach, and came out of Jericho, and fled to those mountainous parts that lay over against Jerusalem, while that part which was left behind was in a great measure destroyed; they also found the city desolate. It is situated in a plain; but a naked and barren mountain, of a very great length, hangs over it, which extends itself to the land about Scythopolis northward, but as far as the country of Sodom, and the utmost limits of the lake Asphaltiris, southward. This mountain is all of it very uneven and uninhabited, by reason of its barrenness: there is an opposite mountain that is situated over against it, on the other side of Jordan; this last begins at Julias, and the northern quarters, and extends itself southward as far as Somorrhon, (13) which is the bounds of Petra, in Arabia. In this ridge of mountains there is one called the Iron Mountain, that runs in length as far as Moab. Now the region that lies in the middle between these ridges of mountains is called the Great Plain; it reaches from the village Ginnabris, as far as the lake Asphaltitis; its length is two hundred and thirty furlongs, and its breadth a hundred and twenty, and it is divided in the midst by Jordan. It hath two lakes in it, that of Asphaltitis, and that of Tiberias, whose natures are opposite to each other; for the former is salt and unfruitful, but that of Tiberias is sweet and fruitful. This plain is much burnt up in summer time, and, by reason of the extraordinary heat, contains a very unwholesome air; it is all destitute of water excepting the river Jordan, which water of Jordan is the occasion why those plantations of palm trees that are near its banks are more flourishing, and much more fruitful, as are those that are remote from it not so flourishing, or fruitful.

    3. Nevertheless which, there is a fountain by Jericho, that runs plentifully, and is very fit for watering the ground; it arises near the old city, which Joshua, the son of Naue, the general of the Hebrews, took the first of all the cities of the land of Canaan, by right of war. The report is, that this fountain, at the beginning, caused not only the blasting of the earth and the trees, but of the children born of women, and that it was entirely of a sickly and corruptive nature to all things whatever; but that it was made gentle, and very wholesome and fruitful, by the prophet Elisha. This prophet was familiar with Elijah, and was his successor, who, when he once was the guest of the people at Jericho, and the men of the place had treated him very kindly, he both made them amends as well as the country, by a lasting favor; for he went out of the city to this fountain, and threw into the current an earthen vessel full of salt; after which he stretched out his righteous hand unto heaven, and, pouring out a mild drink-offering, he made this supplication, - That the current might be mollified, and that the veins of fresh water might be opened; that God also would bring into the place a more temperate and fertile air for the current, and would bestow upon the people of that country plenty of the fruits of the earth, and a succession of children; and that this prolific water might never fail them, while they continued to he righteous. To these prayers Elisha (14) joined proper operations of his hands, after a skillful manner, and changed the fountain; and that water, which had been the occasion of barrenness and famine before, from that time did supply a numerous posterity, and afforded great abundance to the country. Accordingly, the power of it is so great in watering the ground, that if it do but once touch a country, it affords a sweeter nourishment than other waters do, when they lie so long upon them, till they are satiated with them. For which reason, the advantage gained from other waters, when they flow in great plenty, is but small, while that of this water is great when it flows even in little quantities. Accordingly, it waters a larger space of ground than any other waters do, and passes along a plain of seventy furlongs long, and twenty broad; wherein it affords nourishment to those most excellent gardens that are thick set with trees. There are in it many sorts of palm trees that are watered by it, different from each other in taste and name; the better sort of them, when they are pressed, yield an excellent kind of honey, not much inferior in sweetness to other honey. This country with produces honey from bees; it also bears that balsam which is the most precious of all the fruits in that place, cypress trees also, and those that bear myrobalanum; so that he who should pronounce this place to be divine would not be mistaken, wherein is such plenty of trees produced as are very rare, and of the must excellent sort. And indeed, if we speak of those other fruits, it will not be easy to light on any climate in the habitable earth that can well be compared to it, - what is here sown comes up in such clusters; the cause of which seems to me to be the warmth of the air, and the fertility of the waters; the warmth calling forth the sprouts, and making them spread, and the moisture making every one of them take root firmly, and supplying that virtue which it stands in need of in summer time. Now this country is then so sadly burnt up, that nobody cares to come at it; and if the water be drawn up before sun-rising, and after that exposed to the air, it becomes exceeding cold, and becomes of a nature quite contrary to the ambient air; as in winter again it becomes warm; and if you go into it, it appears very gentle. The ambient air is here also of so good a temperature, that the people of the country are clothed in linen-only, even when snow covers the rest of Judea. This place is one hundred and fifty furlongs from Jerusalem, and sixty from Jordan. The country, as far as Jerusalem, is desert and stony; but that as far as Jordan and the lake Asphaltitis lies lower indeed, though it be equally desert and barren. But so much shall suffice to have said about Jericho, and of the great happiness of its situation.

    4. The nature of the lake Asphaltitis is also worth describing. It is, as I have said already, bitter and unfruitful. It is so light [or thick] that it bears up the heaviest things that are thrown into it; nor is it easy for any one to make things sink therein to the bottom, if he had a mind so to do. Accordingly, when Vespasian went to see it, he commanded that some who could not swim should have their hands tied behind them, and be thrown into the deep, when it so happened that they all swam as if a wind had forced them upwards. Moreover, the change of the color of this lake is wonderful, for it changes its appearance thrice every day; and as the rays of the sun fall differently upon it, the light is variously reflected. However, it casts up black clods of bitumen in many parts of it; these swim at the top of the water, and resemble both in shape and bigness headless bulls; and when the laborers that belong to the lake come to it, and catch hold of it as it hangs together, they draw it into their ships; but when the ship is full, it is not easy to cut off the rest, for it is so tenacious as to make the ship hang upon its clods till they set it loose with the menstrual blood of women, and with urine, to which alone it yields. This bitumen is not only useful for the caulking of ships, but for the cure of men's bodies; accordingly, it is mixed in a great many medicines. The length of this lake is five hundred and eighty furlongs, where it is extended as far as Zoar in Arabia; and its breadth is a hundred and fifty. The country of Sodom borders upon it. It was of old a most happy land, both for the fruits it bore and the riches of its cities, although it be now all burnt up. It is related how, for the impiety of its inhabitants, it was burnt by lightning; in consequence of which there are still the remainders of that Divine fire, and the traces [or shadows] of the five cities are still to be seen, as well as the ashes growing in their fruits; which fruits have a color as if they were fit to be eaten, but if you pluck them with your hands, they dissolve into smoke and ashes. And thus what is related of this land of Sodom hath these marks of credibility which our very sight affords us.

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