In reading the Bible, one often comes across the expression, “torrent valley”. The Arabic word, “Wadi” is sometimes used in its place and it is a proper name for a geographical feature that does not have a single English word to describe it. Unfortunately the word is not used much and remains understood by few English speakers. Most Bible translations simply use the word, “valley”, which is also unfortunate because it does not give the reader the complete picture of what is being described.
Simply, a “torrent valley” is a valley or stream bed that is usually dry except during the rainy season. Growing up in Canada, a country with endless lakes and rivers, the concept of a “torrent valley” was alien to me. In 2013, we were able to visit Israel and Jordan, both dry countries with vast stretches of desert. There we saw, etched on the desert floor, the wandering lines of what were clearly rivers that had long run dry. In the rainy season, heavy downpours on the mountains cascade down into the dry stream-beds becoming short-lived raging rivers that head toward the sea. Sometimes this occurs only a few or even one time per year.
In the torrent valley, hardy plants well adapted to long dry periods grow and occasionally point to the existence of hidden underground stores of water. This may be why the servants of Isaac dug a well in the “wadi” of Gerar (Genesis 26:19). When the three and a half-year drought announced by Elijah the prophet comes upon Judea, wicked King Ahab sends his servant Obadiah on a mission to, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys (wadis). Perhaps we can find enough grass to keep the horses and mules alive and not have all our animals die.” (1 Kings 18:5) Ahab knew that vegetation would survive in the wadis long after the drought had killed plant life elsewhere.
The promised land is described in Deuteronomy as, “..a good land, a land of streams of water, (wadis of water) springs and fountains flowing in the valley plain and in the mountainous region“. (Deuteronomy 8:7) Of course, unlike a perennial river like the Jordan which flows all year-long, the “streams of water” in the wadis cease to flow when the rain in the mountain stops. This might take days or weeks. When Elijah the prophet was hiding from King Ahab, he choose as a hiding spot, “Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan“. For a time he received food miraculously from local ravens and water from the stream, “But after some days, the stream ran dry, because there was no rain in the land.” (1 Kings 17: 5-7) Elijah had to move. The long-suffering and much tormented patriarch Job, described his fickle brothers as, “..treacherous as a winter stream, Like the water of winter streams that dry up.” (Job 6: 15)
When the rains do come heavy upon the mountains, a gentle stream can turn into a wild river in moments. The soil on desert mountains, mostly devoid of plant life and hard-baked by the sun tends to absorb little of the rainfall which is instead channeled directly into the wadis. Flash floods pose a real danger to unwary travelers. When the Canaanite King Jabin’s military general Sisera brought his army along with 900 chariots against the Israelites in the torrent valley of Kishon (Wadi Kishon), God caused a flash flood which so swelled the normally tranquil stream that the battlefield immediately turned into a quagmire. The chariots were immobilized by the mud and flood waters and had to be abandoned. The Israelites won the day and before long, Sisera was dead. The prophetess Deborah sang, “The stream of Kiʹshon washed them away“. (Judges 5:21)
When the short-lived rains do come, a colorful explosion of wildflowers and new growth takes place in the wadis. The desert seems to come to life! Isaiah wrote prophetically of a time when, “waters will burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert plain.” (Isaiah 35:6) For a short time every year, that happens in the wadis of Israel and Jordan.
Recently I came across a YouTube video that shows the annual return of water to a wadi in the wilderness of Zin . It was in the wilderness of Zin (pictured above) that the Israelites complained bitterly to Moses about the lack of water to drink (Numbers 20: 1-5). In the video, the camera captures the exciting moment when distant rain in the mountains returns the river to the wadi after a year-long absence, much to the delight of some people fortunate enough to bear witness.
Wilderness of Zin, photo by Megan Sumners, 2013
Zin river video by Cometlson. 2014. Youtube.