Historic Jordan River
THOUGH counted small among mighty rivers of the earth, the Jordan is no insignificant stream. Along its banks stirring events have been enacted, and by its waters vital pages of history have been written. Some two hundred references to it make it the most outstanding river mentioned in the Bible. How fascinating to follow its unique course to its strange end!
Contrary to an old tradition, the river does not get its name from two sources called respectively the “Jor” and the “Dan.” Drawn from the Hebrew word Yarden, the name means the “River That Goes Down” or the “Descender.” True to its name, the river drops 3,000 feet in its course from the foot of Mount Hermon to the Dead Sea. The cause of such a steep descent over a course of only 104 miles is a mighty geological fault that formed a depression, a “colossal ditch” continuing on through the Arabah and along the Gulf of Aqaba into the Red Sea.
Because the general direction of the river was from north to south, the country on the east was described as “the region of the Jordan toward the rising of the sun” and that on the west as “the side of the Jordan toward the direction of the sunset.” (Deut. 4:47; Josh. 1:15; Deut. 11:30) From early times the Jordan was thought of as a dividing line because of its steep and lofty mountain ranges on both sides, its unbroken length, and the dense jungle along its banks. Realizing that the river could divide Israel’s forces, Moses made the sons of Reuben and Gad promise to cross the Jordan to assist in the conquest of the Promised Land.—Num. 32:20-23, 31, 32.
THE UPPER JORDAN
Dominating the entire course of the Jordan, majestic Mount Hermon, the “Mountain Chieftain,” raises its lofty peak 9,101 feet into the sky. The Palestinian Targum comments on Deuteronomy 3:9: “The Amoraee call it the Snowy Mountain, because the snow never ceases from it summer or winter.” Its own waters flowing down to the Sea of Galilee mirror the whiteness of its glistening snow awaiting the time to melt and swell the gushing springs.
The sources of the river can be traced along four streams. The Banias, to the east, near Caesarea Philippi joins with the Leddan, which was associated with Laish or Dan. Near their junction a third stream, the Hasbani, adds its waters after receiving the fourth and smallest stream, the Bareighit, a mile earlier.
Soon the river enters the Huleh region, at one time very swampy through neglect of ancient drainage systems and notorious for its malaria. Lost in a vast forest of papyrus, even the course of the Jordan could not be traced until, in 1869, “Rob Roy” MacGregor explored the lake’s few open stretches of water and discovered it. Then the fifteen-foot-high papyrus plants were so densely packed that even the birds could not fly between them. Today the lake has been drained and the riverbed deepened and straightened.
About two miles below the former Lake Huleh the “way by the sea” crossed the Jordan, taking the traveler from the coastal regions to Damascus, an important route in Bible times. (Isa. 9:1) The Arabs called the crossing “the Bridge of the Daughters of Jacob.” The nearby mighty city of Hazor, which once dominated this route, was so great in size that one authority calculated that about eight hundred years would be needed to complete the excavation of the site. Truly, as it is termed at Joshua 11:10, it was “the head of all these kingdoms”!*
After racing through a deep gorge the river drops ever downward until it enters the Sea of Galilee 685 feet below sea level.
THE SEA OF GALILEE
“One may call this place the ambition of nature,” said Josephus of the Sea of Galilee. (Wars, Book 3, chap. 10. 8) He praises the air, the soil and the water. Grapes and figs were available ten months in the year, and walnuts, olives and palm trees grew in abundance. At the hot springs south of Tiberias you can still take the waters for your rheumatism just as the people did 2,000 years ago. No wonder nine towns flourished along its shores in Jesus’ time and busy fishing fleets operated hundreds of boats. Even a naval battle took place on the lake A.D. 67 when the Romans defeated the Jewish insurrectionists. By contrast, travelers to the area between 1738 and 1837 generally reported seeing only one boat. Today more life is returning to the lake; a fishing fleet is again building up and finding plenty of fish to catch.
Storms can arise with startling suddenness on this harp-shaped lake. (Matt. 8:25-27) The winds rush down from the surrounding mountains, channeled through the wadis and ravines and, caught in this below-sea-level pocket of water, hit the lake with tempestuous violence, lashing it into a fury.
When the waters are calm it is possible to sit in a boat three hundred yards from land and hold an ordinary conversation with someone on the shore. So the great crowds would be able to hear Jesus easily when he spoke to them from a boat out on the water.—Luke 5:3.
In modern days the waters of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee are now being exploited to irrigate the distant Negeb. Pumped up into the Beit Netofa reservoir, they are then carried by a gigantic pipeline nine feet in diameter—large enough to drive a jeep through—to the arid south. And at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee an area that was swampy and desolate has been reclaimed. Bananas, citrus fruits, olives, grapes, vegetables, dairy produce and eggs, as well as eight crops of clover a year, show the productiveness of this fertile valley.
THE LOWER VALLEY
Four miles south the river Yarmuk joins the Jordan. Here in 1932 was inaugurated a hydroelectric scheme with a large storage reservoir. The color of the river now ranges from tawny to coffee-colored, as it writhes from one side of the plain to the other, cutting deeply into its banks, carrying much earth and clay along its course. Naaman, used to clear waters, at first objected to such a muddy river. (2 Ki. 5:10-14) But Jesus, the Son of God, willingly went out to John the Baptist to be immersed in this same Jordan River. (Matt. 3:13-16) Really, the clay along its banks can be most useful. Many metal articles for Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem were made from Jordan clay molds. At ancient Succoth slag has been found to prove these foundry activities.—1 Ki. 7:45, 46.
Throughout this sixty-five miles of lower valley, from the air the river looks like a chain of brass loops as it corkscrews about, so that its real length is two hundred miles. Now gliding, now cascading swiftly over rapids, the waters frequently run between steep banks and are hemmed in elsewhere by an impenetrable jungle of trees and bushes that often trail their branches in the stream. (Jer. 12:5; 2 Ki. 6:4) Still the habitat of many wild animals, including the jackal, wolf and wild boar, the Zor, as it is called, once echoed to the roar of lions, but the last one was reported in the fourteenth century. (Jer. 49:19) Above, grayish marl hills lead up to the Ghor, or valley proper, often 150 feet higher than the Zor. A further steep ascent is necessary to reach the plateau on each side of the valley, running up into hills 3,000 feet in height.
Contrasted with the cool air of the hill country, this unique rift valley can burn like a furnace, bringing subtropical conditions. A temperature of 95° to 105° F. is average in summer, but in 1941, for instance, 129° F. was recorded. The contrast is very noticeable if the clouds scudding in over Jerusalem from the Mediterranean are observed. As they pass over the Jordan valley the rising hot air causes them to vanish completely, only to form again over the mountains of Moab in the east.
At times the valley has a parched, desolate appearance because most of its possibilities remain untapped, but at one time it was thickly populated, 130 ancient sites being discovered in the Beth-shean area alone. Its fertility is especially apparent in springtime.—Cant. 2:11, 12.
Birdlife is plentiful in the valley. As you listen to the music of the white-spectacled bulbul or nightingale you may see the brilliant blue-and red-plumed kingfisher flash across the river, or watch a great gray shrike planning its next meal as it impales a beetle on a thornbush spike. A cormorant will flick a fish in the air, and a pelican nimbly intercept it before it comes down again. The valley forms a wonderful migration corridor between eastern Europe and Africa, offering plenty of fresh water and food; it is used by more than four hundred different species of birds. Talking of food, what a sight H. B. Tristram records! He saw swarms of locusts (in the wingless stage) marching up the trees, stripping off even the bark, and then, pushed on by others from behind, falling by thousands into the river, where, “in serried ranks, with noses up and mouths open, rested just on the surface shoals of the common Jordan fish in quiet anticipation of the feast, which was literally for hours dropping into their mouths.”*
CROSSING THE RIVER
The usual way to cross the Jordan in Bible times was by one of the fifty or more fords. Shallow ones three feet deep could be crossed by wading, but for others a horse would be required. The best fords are usually marked by a break in the steep banks and tangled undergrowth and could therefore easily be guarded, as occurred when the spies were hidden by Rahab, and when the men of Gilead under Jephthah stopped all travelers and tested them with the word “Shibboleth.” (Josh. 2:7, 16, 22, 23; Judg. 12:1-6) The control of the fords was partly responsible for Ehud’s victory over the Moabites after the death of King Eglon and the successful mopping-up operation against the Midianites fleeing from Gideon’s little band of three hundred men.—Judg. 3:28, 29; 7:24, 25.
Elijah and Elisha needed no fords when Jehovah divided the waters so that they crossed dry-shod. (2 Ki. 2:7, 8, 13, 14) Zedekiah, fleeing from Nebuchadnezzar, did not need one either, but only because he was captured before he reached the Jericho ford!—2 Ki. 25:4, 5.
There is no record of any bridges across the river until Roman times and, though primitive ferries worked by two ropes plied the Jordan at Jericho and Damieh (Biblical Adam) at one time, there is no reason to think David used one, as suggested by some versions of 2 Samuel 19:18.
The most outstanding crossing of the Jordan River took place when Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Already by early April the barley harvest is over in the valley, some six weeks ahead of the hill country. The melting snows of Hermon have found their way through the higher lakes and now fill the Zor to the brim, making the stream swift and deep and, where the banks are low, hundreds of yards wide. (Josh. 3:15) It was a feat worthy of mention when the strong men of Gad swam the river under similar conditions later on.—1 Chron. 12:15.
Imagine the multitude of Israelites crossing, with women and children! It needed a miracle indeed. Through Jehovah’s power the miracle did occur and the waters were cut off completely so that the nation could cross “on dry ground.” (Josh. 3:16, 17) It may be that a blockage higher up was timed to assist the crossing, just as when, in December, A.D. 1267, a lofty mound collapsed into the river and stopped the waters for sixteen hours. This was recorded by the Arab historian Nowairi when relating how Sultan Beybars had a bridge built to get his army across the Jordan during the Crusades. He refers to the rising waters a “lance length” in depth washing away some of the bridge piers, so this too was a time of flood, though caused at this date by the winter rains. But we must beware of minimizing the miraculous element, as does Josephus, who argues that the nation waded across at a time when the current only ran gently.—Antiquities, Book 5, chap. 1. 3.
JERICHO AND THE DEAD SEA
When Lot chose the area of the Jordan he no doubt realized its potential value, fully justified since, as men have terraced, irrigated and cared for it. (Gen. 13:10, 11) Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon said: “The view to the east from Jericho in the late afternoon, with the palm trees and banana groves of the oasis in the foreground, is one of the most beautiful I know.” Similar groves brought the Romans rich revenues. Forty-nine varieties of dates grew in the valley, and Jericho, with its own vital spring, and aided by a system of aqueducts, was a flourishing winter resort. “The city of the palm trees” was a fitting name, and still is.—Deut. 34:3; 2 Chron. 28:15.
Between 1939 and 1948 the settlement of Bet Haarava not far from the Dead Sea used the sweet waters of Jordan to leach the salt from the soil, and became renowned throughout Israel for the best tomatoes, grown all the year round. What a fertile valley!
Have you ever seen clouds five hundred feet below sea level? You can see this unusual sight over the wild and beautiful Dead Sea, that end of the historic Jordan. For years nearly seven million tons of water has flowed in each day, and an equal amount evaporates, so that the level of 1,287 feet below sea level stays much the same. But the water is about five times as saline as water in the ocean is.
Yes, historic Jordan River! Scene of wonderful events in human history. The nation of Israel and the prophets Elijah and Elisha crossed it dry-shod, but one of the greatest events ever to occur in the Jordan was the baptism of Jesus Christ.
See The Watchtower, 1961, pages 318 and 319.
The Natural History of the Bible, H. B. Tristram, 2nd Ed., p. 314.
[Diagram on page 312]
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Diagram showing drop in altitude as Jordan River descends to Dead Sea.
To Mt. Hermon (9,101 ft.)
Sea of Galilee (−685 ft.)
Dead Sea (−1,287 ft.)