Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Jordan River

Nehar haYarden (Hebrew)
Nahr al-Urdun (Arabic)
 Alice C. Linsley

The Jordan's source is near the northern most point of Palestine and issues from the cave of Paneas, about one hour's distance south of the town of Banias. The Hebrew and Arabic names are Yarden and Urdun, meaning "descender" because the river flows down from a higher altitude.

The Jordan River is mentioned only three times in Genesis. The first is Genesis 13:10 where the Jordan Plain is described as well watered, "Like the garden of the Lord or the land of Egypt." Today the Jordan cuts so deep into the earth that it is difficult to imagine much of a plain. Most places along the Jordan are not suitable for cultivation. This suggests that Abraham and Lot dwelt where the land had a gentler slope down to the river. This would be closer to Jericho, probably the longest continually inhabited city in the world.

The second mention of the Jordan is in Genesis 32:11.  Here Jacob speaks of crossing the Jordan to go to his mother's people in Padan Aram. Genesis doesn't tell us how Jacob crossed the river, but he likely paid a boatman to take him across at the place where the Jordan meets the Jabbock River, an eastern tributary. He would have continued by boat as far east as the ancient Jabbock allowed.  In Jacob's time the region was wetter and more of the water systems connected.

The Jordan River is mentioned again in Genesis 50:10 which speaks of Joseph and the Egyptians mourning for Jacob who was buried, not at Machpelah, but somewhere on the east side of Jordan. He was probably buried among the Horites living around Jabal Harun in Jordan.

The Jordan in Abraham's Time

Abraham and Lot are said to have gone separate ways, with Lot electing to live in the watered plain near Sodom and Abraham keeping to the higher ground along the ridges between Hebron and Beersheba. Genesis therefore tells us nothing of Abraham's experience of the Jordan. However, in Abraham's time the water level would have been higher due to greater run off in a less arid climate.  For example, 1 Kings 17:3 mentions a eastern tributary that flowed into the Jordan which no longer exists. It was called the Cherith.

We don't know what the Jordan was called in Abraham's time.  His people may have used the Egyptian word for river ar (similar to the Arabic nahr). In ancient times rivers and lakes were often called "seas" either because the people had no conception of a real sea or because many of the major water systems were connected. The peasants of ancient Egypt spoke of the Nile as a sea. The Sea of Galilee, which is a lake, is another example.

The Jordan River is ony 156 miles long (251 kilometers). It becomes wider and deeper as it flows southward to the Dead Sea (1,300 feet below sea level). Modern Jericho is only about six miles north of the Dead Sea and five miles west of the Jordan, but the earliest neolithic peoples settled there because it was a natural oasis, with a powerful natural spring and was near the Dead Sea. This earliest settlement at Tell es-Sultan was excavated by Kathleen Kenyon between 1952-58. She gave it the name of Ariha al-Ula, the first Jericho. In biblical times, this part of the Jordan was referred to as the "Jordan of Jericho" and there would have been a sizeable fertile plain in Abraham's time. It had palm trees and fields under cultivation most of the year.  It would indeed have been like Egypt.

Today the dry climate, diversion of tributaries, and massive salt evaporation projects in the southern part of the Dead Sea have caused dramatic drops in the sea’s level. However, photos taken from space (such as image on left) show that the ancient shorelines of the Jordan and the Dead Sea expanded beyond where they are today.

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