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):
The reason that there are two different versions 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 Hebrew scriptures made nearly 1000 years before the MT was fully redacted, has one meaning (it shall be closed/blocked up), and the MT has the other (you shall flee). These very different translations 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.
Discovery of Azal
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); נחל (nahal) means river, or valley, and אצל (Azal) is the same Hebrew spelling 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 in Jerusalem that Wadi Yasul/Nahal Azal is biblical Azal. Online examples of this include (links open in new window or tab):
- 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 Foundation Segway Tours (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.”
- 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, by 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.
The screenshot below shows the same area, but with English labels (Click map to view it in Google Maps.).
The lower half of the photo below shows what Azal Valley looks like today. The view is north towards old Jerusalem and was most likely taken from Haas Promenade on Mount Azal (named so by the Israel Government Names Committee in 1990; also called Armon Hanatziv Ridge; Arabic name is Jabal al-Mukaber). Jerusalem’s wall lies in the center; Mount of Olives is center right. The steeply sloped area just below the dense cluster of buildings (Abu Tor) at center left is the headwater of Azal River (currently just a dry river channel). Photo is from An American Girl in Jerusalem. Erin’s Adventures in Israel has numerous photos of Azal Valley taken from Haas Promenade.
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 – 0:30 in this video taken from Haas Promenade on Mount Azal.
Online Examples of Nahal Azal’s Archaeological Significance
- Israel Antiquities Authority, Excavations and Surveys in Israel, Jerusalem, Nahal Azal
- Tombs in Nahal Azal
- Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land (DAAHL), Site 353105003: 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 (see relief map to right). 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/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 from the kings’ gardens to Azal River (red ‘A’ marker designates approximate intersection of Azal and Kidron rivers). 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).
The MT version of Zechariah 14:5 Contradicts Reality
The fact that Azal is directly south of both old Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives makes the MT version of Zechariah 14:5 physically impossible, i.e., that Azal is situated east of Jerusalem and a split Mount of Olives.
The ‘Splitting’ of the Mount of Olives
The narrative of a split Mount of Olives is based on a particular translation of the Hebrew verb בקע (baqa, H1234; σχιζω, G4977, in LXX) in Zechariah 14:4 that conveys the idea of the Mount of Olives splitting in half. This word is translated similarly in Micah 1:4, which describes landsliding in metaphoric language:
This translation of בקע (baqa, H1234) in Micah 1:4 is a bit awkward, though, because the idea of valleys splitting apart doesn’t make much sense (i.e., the valleys will split apart … like water gushing down a steep incline) and doesn’t fit the context of landsliding described in the verse. A better translation of this word in this case would be tear, rip, or break apart, which are meanings applied to בקע (baqa, H1234) elsewhere in scripture. For instance, “The mountains will melt under him and the valleys will tear apart, like wax in the presence of fire and like water gushing down a steep incline” better portrays the upper slopes of valleys tearing apart from their place and landsliding (like water gushing down a steep incline). Josephus used similar language to describe the earthquake-caused landslide in King Uzziah’s day:
So considering the evidence, it is much more likely that Zechariah 14:4 describes the western half of the Mount of Olives tearing apart from its eastern half (which is exactly what happened), rather than the splitting of that mountain into two halves. And the fact that this specific part of Zechariah 14:4 –
ונבקע הר הזיתים מחצין טזרחה – literally translates to “and mountain of the olives is torn from his eastward half” makes this likelihood all the more certain.
Bible Translations of Zechariah 14:5
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 English 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). Most Protestant bibles contain the MT rendering of Zechariah 14:5; yet at least two have the LXX reading (New English Bible, Concordant Literal Version), and three reference the LXX reading as a footnote (New International Version, Holcombe Christian Standard Bible, NET bible).
No Stone Left Unturned
For a detailed analysis of this and other evidence with cited references see The Truth Hidden Right in Front of Our Eyes.