Azal: A Longtime Mystery Rediscovered
Azal (אצל), or Azel (e.g., NIV bible), is the location mentioned in Zechariah 14:5 in bibles that use the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) as the source for this verse.
In bibles that follow the Greek Septuagint (LXX) rendering, depending upon the source manuscript used, Azal is transcribed Jasol (ιασολ, pronounced Yasol), Jasod (a corruption of Jasol), or Asael (ασαηλ):
These very different translations from two authoritative sources obscure a clear understanding of Zechariah 14:5. Another obscurant factor is an almost universal ignorance, existent for many centuries until now, of what and where Azal is, or was. This is largely due to the fact that no known writing authored prior to the late 19th century clarifies this mystery.
During the period 1873-74, Charles Clermont-Ganneau, a renowned linguist and archaeologist in Palestine, explored many tombs in a valley immediately south of Jerusalem that the local Arab peasants called Wadi Yâsûl (wadi is the Arabic word for river or valley). Based on linguistic evidence and its proximity to Jerusalem, Clermont-Ganneau proposed that Wadi Yâsûl is Azal:
“But, as with so many other Arabic topographical words, we may very likely have here an ancient geographical name … most [bible] commentators agree in regarding [Azal] as a place situated not far from Jerusalem, but otherwise unknown. May we not find it at Yâsûl, whose name agrees with it letter for letter?”
In apparent agreement with Clermont-Ganneau’s discovery, Israeli authorities named the valley in Hebrew, נחל אצל (Nahal Azal); nahal (נחל) means river, or valley, and the Hebrew spelling of Azal (אצל) is the same as Azal (אצל) in Zechariah 14:5. Nahal Azal (Azal River/Valley) is the official Hebrew name given to Wadi Yasul by the Israel Government Names Committee in 1955 in accordance with its policy of naming biblical geographical locations according to their biblical spelling (e.g., Azal) rather than their Hebrew pronunciation (e.g., Atzal, the Hebrew pronunciation of Azal).
Consequently, it is now common knowledge among Jerusalem’s locals that Wadi Yasul/Nahal Azal is biblical Azal. Online examples of this include:
- An American Girl in Jerusalem (3rd paragraph): “This is the Azel Valley mentioned in Zechariah 14:5 in reference to the earthquake that occurred during King Uzziah’s reign around 760 B.C. … I’m using the New International Version [(NIV) bible which has Azel instead of Azal]…”
- City of David Jerusalem Segway Tour Company (2nd paragraph): “At the foot of the ridge is the deep channel of Atzal River (Zechariah 14:5), which advances toward the Kidron Valley. Its Biblical name was preserved by the Arabs as Wadi Yasul”
A panoramic view of Azal Valley from its headwater in the Jerusalem Peace Forest to its juncture with the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives is viewable from 0:21 – 0:28 in this City of David YouTube video.
- Wikipedia: Jerusalem Peace Forest: “[The Jerusalem Peace Forest] was a location of the biblical Azal river mentioned in the book of Zechariah (Zechariah 14:5) (currently only a riverbed is left in place)”
- Wikipedia (Hebrew version): נחל אצל: “Nahal Azal (Arabic: Wadi Yasul) is one of the tributaries of the Kidron Valley southeast of Jerusalem, between the Armon Ha'Natziv ridge and the neighborhood of Abu Tor, near the Peace Forest. … This name originates in the prophet Zechariah’s end-time prophecy, ‘[content of the LXX version of Zechariah 14:4-5]‘. The biblical name of the river was preserved by the Arabs as Wadi Yasul.”
Nahal Azal is in fact so mainstream it’s viewable in Google Maps. In the screenshot below its name in Hebrew (נחל אצל) appears directly below the red marker (A); and the adjacent blue line represents the river channel itself that drains into the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
Online examples of Nahal Azal’s archaeological significance include:
- Israel Antiquities Authority, Excavations and Surveys in Israel, Jerusalem, Nahal Azal
- Tombs in Nahal Azal
- Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land (DAAHL), Site 353104968: Nahal Azal
Click Map in the top right corner of the satellite image on the DAAHL website to see that Google wrongly labels Nahal Azal, Nahal Etsel (directly above red dot in center that marks archaeological site), due to a mistaken association of אצל (Azal) with the similarly spelled אצ”ל (IZL; pronounced etsel); which is the acronym for the Irgun military organization (also called Etzel) that violently opposed the British Mandate government (1920-47) headquartered at Government House atop the southern ridge of Nahal Azal. This ridge was named Mount Azal (הר אצל) in 1990 by the Israel Government Names Committee; however, since a number of streets near Government House are named in honor of אצ”ל (Etzel) members (and likely also to some degree because of the similar Hebrew spellings of Azal and Etzel), some locals call the ridge, Mount Etzel (הר אצ”ל), and (by association) the watershed it overlooks to the north, Nahal Etsel. So whoever compiled Google’s map data for this area used, for Wadi Yasul, a local nickname derived from mistaken association (Nahal Etsel), rather than its official Hebrew name (Nahal Azal).
Which Version of Zechariah 14:5 is Correct?
There is considerable evidence that both the LXX rendering of Zechariah 14:5 and Clermont-Ganneau’s theory are correct.
The very similar pronunciations of Jasol (pronounced Yasŏl) and Yasul suggest that Jasol is a Greek transcription of the Arabic word for Azal (i.e., Yasul), which has been preserved since Jerusalem’s destruction in 70AD by Arab culture local to the area. Clermont-Ganneau claimed the Arabic Yasul “corresponds exactly, satisfying all the rules of etymology, with the Hebrew” Azal.
A scientific paper published in 1984 by Israeli geologists identifies the location of a large landslide on the southernmost summit of the Mount of Olives directly adjacent to both Azal Valley and the area of the ancient kings’ gardens. Their discovery validates Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’ account of an earthquake-caused landslide on the western slope of the Mount of Olives during King Uzziah’s reign blocking up the kings’ gardens in the Kidron Valley. It also accords with George Adam Smith’s field research in the early part of the 20th century that revealed the Kidron Valley near the area of the ancient kings’ gardens is covered with up to fifty (50) feet of earthen debris. A topographic map of Jerusalem in one of Smith’s books also shows evidence of the effects of landsliding in this area. All of the above evidence is corroborated by photographic evidence.
The photo below, taken in the mid-1800s from the wall of Jerusalem looking southeast, shows this landslide location on the Mount of Olives. Slumping landslide rubble is visible on the western slope directly adjacent to the location of the ancient kings’ gardens at the juncture of the Hinnom and Kidron Valleys. The terraced look of this area is due to a geologic process called slumping, that occurs when landslide colluvium slowly creeps down a slope due to erosion and gravity over a long period of time. Though not clearly visible in this photograph, landslide rubble lies at the base of the southwestern slope all the way to Azal Valley.
The photo below, taken sometime in the early part of the twentieth century by a member of the American Colony in Jerusalem, shows this same landslide location at the top of the Mount of Olives (right side of photo) from the opposite direction, and clearly does show landslide colluvium lying at the base of the entire southwestern slope (click picture for images with better detail). The view is towards Jerusalem to the north overlooking Azal Valley in the foreground. Slumping landslide colluvium can be seen covering the lower half of the southwestern slope extending from the kings’ gardens to the mouth of Azal Valley (almost 0.3 mile, or 0.5 km). The massive volume of colluvial material at the base of the Mount of Olives makes it obvious that at some prior time landslide rubble filled in and blocked this entire section of valley. This evidence validates the LXX rendering of Zechariah 14:5, which states a valley will be filled in and blocked as far as Azal, just as a valley was filled in and blocked by an earthquake in the days of King Uzziah (as evidenced by the first photo).
Why Two Very Different Versions of Zechariah 14:5 Exist
The reason that there are two very different renderings of Zechariah 14:5 is because a Hebrew verb that occurs three times in this verse can be pronounced two different ways, which results in two very different meanings. The LXX, which is a Greek translation of the ancient Hebrew scrolls made nearly 1000 years before the MT was fully redacted, has one meaning (it shall be closed up), and the MT has the other (you shall flee).
The LXX version of Zechariah 14:5 is found in bibles used by the entire Eastern Orthodox Church (225-300 million members) and some of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The two most popular bibles of the Roman Catholic Church (1.2 billion members), the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible, both contain the LXX reading. The Jewish Publication Society, whose stated editorial policy is to favor the MT, has used the LXX version of this verse in a number of publications since about 1985 (e.g., Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures). At least two Protestant bibles have the LXX reading (New English Bible, Concordant Literal Version), and two have the LXX reading as a footnote (New International Version, Holcombe Christian Standard Bible).
For a detailed analysis of this and other evidence with cited references, see The Truth Hidden Right in Front of Our Eyes.