Deciphering Zechariah 14:5

An indepth analysis of Zechariah 14:5

Posts Tagged ‘King’s Gardens

Azal: A Longtime Mystery Rediscovered

with 25 comments

This is a condensed, updated version of the detailed study, The Truth Hidden Right in Front of Our Eyes.

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.

And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.
Zechariah 14:5, King James Version

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 valley of my mountains shall be blocked up; and the valley of mountains shall be closed up even to Jasod [Jasol/Azal]. It shall be blocked up as it was in the days of the earthquake in the days of Ozias [Uzziah] king of Juda. …
Zechariah 14:5, LXX, first English translation by Charles Thomson, Secretary to the first United States Congresss, published 1808

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.

Screenshot from sheet 17 of the Survey of Western Palestine (1871-78) showing Wadi Yasul (W. Yasul in center). Jerusalem lays top center/left, and the Mount of Olives is top right).

Screenshot from sheet 17 of the Survey of Western Palestine (Palestine Exploration Fund, 1871-78) showing Wadi Yasul (W. Yasul in center) just south of old Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. Geographic features going south from pink area at top left are Mount Zion, Hinnom Valley, Hill of Evil Counsel (Abu Tor), Wadi Yasul (Nahal Azal). The southern peak of the Mount of Olives is at top right.

Discovery of Azal

During the period 1873-74, Charles Clermont-Ganneau, a renowned linguist and archaeologist in Palestine, explored a number of ancient 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 agreement with Clermont-Ganneau’s discovery, the Israel Government Names Committee (IGNC) in 1955 named Wadi Yasul, Nahal Azal (נחל אצל); nahal (נחל) means river or valley, and Azal (אצל) is the same spelling (English and Hebrew) as Azal (אצל) in Zechariah 14:5. This naming followed the IGNC’s policy of seeking the Hebrew origins of place names that survived in the Arabic, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman languages, and naming bible locations according to their English biblical spellings (e.g., Azal) rather than phonetically (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:

  • 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]…”
  • Tours and Attractions at Armon Hanatsiv- City of David [Click ‘Show More’ in the description panel below the video for the text.] (2nd paragraph): “At the foot of the ridge is the deep channel of Atzal [sic] 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.”

The decision to name Wadi Yasul, Nahal Azal, was based on contemporary archaeologists’ determination that Clermont-Ganneau was right (essentially, their rediscovery of Azal). So as might be expected this valley is called Azal in the field of archaeology, also. For instance:

Another example occurred during a Hebrew University field trip to Haas Promenade on Mount Azal (named so by the Israel Government Names Committee in 1990; also called Armon Hanatziv Ridge; Arabic name is Jabel Mukaber) in which the archaeology professor informed his class that Azal mentioned in Zechariah 14:5 was the valley their observation point overlooked (see An American Girl in Jerusalem above).

In effect, Azal has become so mainstream it’s viewable in Google Maps. The screenshot below shows Nahal Azal directly below the red marker (A). Click map image to view Nahal Azal in Google Maps itself.

Until April 2014, Google mistakenly labeled Nahal Azal in English, Nahal Etsel. This error was due to the erroneous 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, some locals call the ridge Mount Etsel (הר אצ”ל;, and (by association from its geographic proximity and similar Hebrew spelling) the watershed it overlooks to the north, Nahal Etsel. So whoever compiled Google's original 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). This error has been corrected, and is mentioned here solely to clear up any confusion it may have caused.

©2014 Google – Map data ©2014 Mapa GISrael


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.

Linguistic/Geographic Evidence

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. Etymological analysis of Arabic geographic names in Israel has proven to be an effective tool in the discovery of forgotten biblical locations, a method pioneered in 1838 by Edward Robinson, “Father of Biblical Geography” and “founder of modern Palestinology”.

While some of the main locales of Biblical history, such as Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa, Beth-shean, and Gaza, had never been forgotten, hundreds of additional places mentioned in the Bible were unknown. By using the geographical information contained in the Bible and carefully studying the modern Arabic place-names of the country, Robinson found it was possible to identify dozens of ancient mounds and ruins with previously forgotten biblical sites. … This process was particularly effective in regions that had been inhabited continuously throughout the centuries and where the site’s name had been preserved.
The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, pg. 15, 2002

(©2011 Google – Map data ©2011 Mapa GISrael)

Ellipse marks landslide location. Immediately to the left of it at the base of the mountain is where the kings’ gardens used to be at the juncture of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys. The red ‘A’ marker designates the juncture of the Azal and Kidron valleys.
©2009 Google – Map data ©2009 Mapa GISrael

Geological/Historical/Archaeological/Cartographic Evidence

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.

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.

Azal Valley from Jerusalem

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 valley between the hills will be filled in, yes, it will be blocked as far as Jasol [Azal], it will be filled in as it was by the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.
Zechariah 14:5, New Jerusalem Bible

[Photo taken by a member of the American Colony in Jerusalem in the early part of the the twentieth century, showing Jerusalem, the southwestern part of the landslide on the Mount of Corruption, and landslide rubble touching the Azal Valley.]

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. Additionally, there is no evidence supporting the MT version.

These Google Map directions (opens in new window) show how unrealistic fleeing east from Jerusalem to Azal would be. It would involve fleeing east from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives; then fleeing south down Wadi Qadum to the Kidron Valley; and then fleeing west up the Kidron Valley to Azal.

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:

The mountains will melt under him and the valleys will split apart [בקע (baqa, H1234)], like wax in the presence of fire and like water gushing down a steep incline.
Micah 1:4, New International Version

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:

But I think I have found the key to this passage [Zechariah 14:4-5], and will quote for this end the following passage from Josephus, Antiq., book 9., chap. 10., being a part of the history of Uzziah: “… This prodigy was followed by another: near a certain place before the city, named Eroge, the one half of a mountain that looked westward was torn from the other half, and rolled for the space of four furlongs, till it stopped to the eastward of it, by which means the road was blocked up, and the king’s gardens covered with rubbish.
Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine, Joseph Schwarz, pp. 263-264, (1850)

So considering the evidence, it is much more likely that Zechariah 14:4 describes the western half (part) of the Mount of Olives tearing apart from its eastern half (which is exactly what happened), rather than that mountain splitting apart 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.

… ונבקע (and is torn) הר (mountain) הזיתים (the olives) מחצין (from his half) טזרחה (eastward) …
Zechariah 14:4, Hebrew interlinear version with reversed word order (right-to-left)

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 French La Bible de Jérusalem contains this reading as well (Kudos to the translators of Zechariah 14:5 in La Bible de Jérusalem and (especially) the New Jerusalem Bible for such exceptional and faithful translations. They are, evidentially, the most accurate translations of this verse in existence. The New Jerusalem Bible translation was derived from La Bible de Jérusalem and is actually the more accurate of the two. Bravo!). 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.

Azal Today

The lower half of the photo below shows what Azal Valley looks like today. The view is north towards old Jerusalem and was taken from Haas Promenade on Mount Azal. Jerusalem’s wall lies in the center; Mount of Olives is center right. The steeply sloped area just below the dense cluster of buildings at center left (Abu Tor) is the headwater of Azal River (currently just a dry river channel). Photo is from An American Girl in Jerusalem.

Wadi Yasul/Nahal Azal

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.

Copyright © 2011, Zechariah Fourteen Five. All rights reserved.

%d bloggers like this: