The River Sambation

A few days ago, I was reading a book that made a reference to the river Sambation. Since I had never heard about this river, I decided to find out more about this mysterious river.

The river Sambation is mentioned in Exodus 34:10 as it appears in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. This is how Exodus 34:10 appears in the New Revised Standard Version:

He [Yahweh] said [to Moses]: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. (Exodus 34:10).

This is how Exodus 34:10 reads in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan:

And He said, Behold, I make covenant that I will not change this people to become an alien people; nevertheless from thee shall proceed a multitude of the righteous; and with all thy people will I do wondrous things in the time when they go into captivity by the rivers of Bavel: for I will bring them up from thence, and make them dwell from within the river Sambation; and like wonders shall not be created among all the inhabitants of the earth, nor among any nation. And all the people among whom thou wilt dwell shall see in that day the work of the Lord; for terrible is the thing that I will do with thee.

Thus, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan says that the people will go into exile into Babylon and they will live in the land where the river Sambation was located. However, an article on the Wikipedia says, “According to rabbinic literature, the Sambation is the river beyond which the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were exiled by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V.”

The same article says that “later literature claims it rages with rapids and throws up stones six days a week, or even consists entirely of stone, sand and flame. For those six days the Sambation is impossible to cross, but it stops flowing every Shabbat, the day Jews are not allowed to travel; some writers say this is the origin of the name.”

Pliny the Elder, in his book Natural History said that there is a river in Judea that dries up every Shabbath (1856: 480). He does not mention the river Sambation by name, but his statement seems to refer to this mysterious river.

Josephus, in his book The Jewish War (7:96-99) said that Titus saw the Sambation river:

Now, Titus Caesar tarried some time at Berytus, as we told you before. He then left there, and exhibited magnificent shows in all those cities of Syria through which he went, and made use of the captive Jews as public instances of the destruction of that nation. He then saw a river as he went along, of such a nature as deserves to be recorded in history;

it runs in the middle between Arcea, belonging to Agrippa’s kingdom, and Raphanea. It has something very peculiar about it;

for when it runs, its current is strong, and has plenty of water;

after which its springs fail for six days together, and leave its channel dry, as anyone may see; after those days it runs on the seventh day as it did before, and as though it had undergone no change at all: it has also been observed to keep this order perpetually and exactly; hence it is that they call it the Sabbatic River, that name being taken from the sacred seventh day among the Jews.

An article in the Jewish Encyclopedia mentions the river in connection with Alexander the Great:

Among the different versions of the Alexander legend is one which states that Alexander, when he was journeying toward the south of Egypt, arrived at a river which flowed with water for three days and with sand for three days, and that this was the Sambation of the Jews.

The article then concludes:

David Kaufmann, without discussing the existence of the river, explains the origin of the name “Sambation” as follows: “The legend originated with a river of sand and stones which, owing to a volcanic cause, might have been agitated. Its Hebrew name was Nehar Hol (= ‘river of sand’), equivalent to the Arabic Wadi al-Raml. This name was later misunderstood to signify ‘the river of the week-days,’ and thus gave rise to the legend of a periodic river which alternated between Saturday and the week-days, whence its name ‘Sabbation’ or ‘Sambation’ (= ‘Sabbatic river’). As the name does not indicate whether it flows or rests on Saturday, Josephus and Pliny interpreted the matter in contrary senses.”

Now, what does the river Sambation have to do with the Old Testament?

Absolutely nothing, but I just thought the subject was interesting. Since I had never heard of the river Sambation, I could not remain in ignorance about this issue; I had to so some investigation on this topic because of its connection to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Now, I am familiar with the legend of the river Sambation. And, if you came to the end of this post, so you too now know about the river Sambation.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Bibliography:

Pliny, Natural History. London:Henry G. Bohn, 1856. P. 480.

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