JORDAN jôr’ dən (יַּרְדֵּ֔ן, ̓Ιορδάνης, G2674, the descender or water judges). The major river of Pal., which begins at Mt. Hermon in the N, flows through the and ends at the Dead Sea in the S.
The river: where it comes from and where it goes
The most popular etymology for the word “Jordan” is from the related Heb. verb יָרַד, H3718, which means go down. Thus the tr. “The Descender” is well known. The Jordan does descend, as do all rivers, but it loses altitude rapidly. From the confluence of its major tributaries to Lake Huleh is a distance of seven m. and a drop of 140 ft.; from Huleh to Galilee is ten and a half m. and a drop of 689 ft. From Galilee to the Dead Sea, sixty m. to the S, it drops another 610 ft. to nearly 1,300 ft. below sea level.
A new etymology is from the Hurrian word for water, iar, which is like the first part of the word Jordan. The latter part of Jordan is the common Sem. word for judge; hence the suggested etymology, “the river is the judge.” This could reflect an ancient practice of throwing a suspected criminal into the river. If he survived, the “judge” acquitted him.
Some connect the latter element of the word Jordan with the city of Dan near one of the river’s sources, but chronological considerations militate against this. In Arab. it is called esh-Sheri’a, “the watering place.”
There are four sources for the Jordan, all of which are near Mt. Hermon. The easternmost of these is Nahr Banias. Banias is named after the pagan god Pan who was worshiped near where the water issues forth to form the river c. 1,200 ft. above sea level. It is the
The third source is the Nahr Hasbani. It begins 1,700 ft. above sea level from a spring in the western slopes of Mt. Hermon and flows twenty-four m. before joining the others c. a half m. below their confluence.
The fourth and westernmost source is the Nahr Bareighit, which joins the Hasbani just before it merges with the others. The Bareighit contains a spectacular waterfall, although it is not as large a river as the others.
The upper Jordan.
The Jordan exits the Huleh basin from the S and flows rather quietly for two m. At this point the Bridge of Jacob’s Daughters, on the old highway to Damascus, crosses the Jordan. Then the river enters a gorge that is steep and rugged and has many rapids. About one m. above the Sea of Galilee the river levels into the plain. Finally it empties into Galilee, which is 690 ft. below sea level and a mere ten m. or so from Huleh. The Jordan carries with it a certain amount of silt, but it is a very fresh stream compared with what it becomes by the time it empties into the Sea of Salt, another 600 ft. below the Mediterranean datum.
Chinneroth, to use its OT name, is an amazing and beautiful lake. The Jordan enters it as a small stream and leaves it a considerably more formidable river. There are no other major streams entering the lake; the additional water comes from underground springs. Swimmers in the lake learn this quickly as they discover hot and cold currents warming and then chilling them.
The lake is beautiful, first because it is so blue—a fact which can be explained by its great depth that in one place is 150 ft. It is also beautiful because of its setting—a framework of brown hills dotted with green, esp. on the W. It is amazing because of its altitude, 690 ft. below sea level; because of the storms that can quickly enrage it; and because of the variety and uniqueness of the fish that swim and are caught in it. The Sea of Galilee is c. twelve and a half m. long and c. eight m. wide at its widest point.
Tributaries of the Jordan.
After leaving Galilee the Jordan encounters no more lakes until its absorption into the Dead Sea, sixty-five m. to the S as the crow flies. There are, however, several notable tributaries, or wadis (or nahals as they are called in Arab. and Heb.). The northernmost of these and the largest is the Yarmuk. This mighty river nearly doubles the volume of the Jordan when it joins it just five m. S of Galilee. It is called by the Greeks Ἱερούμαξ, and it drains much of Gilead and Bashan, modern Syria and N Trans-Jordan. The Jordanians have diverted much of the water into a hydro-electric plant and thence into an irrigation canal that parallels the Jordan. High above the S bank of the Yarmuk is the village of Umm Qeis, which contains the remains of the Biblical Gadara, one of the Decapolis cities.
About four m. below the Yarmuk, the Wadi Bira (Nahal Tavor) contributes its water to the Jordan. Waters running off Mt. Tabor to the W and from the Nazareth region make up this stream.
At nearly the same latitude the Wadi Arab joins the Jordan from the E. It is the second of eleven perennial streams which flow into the Jordan from Trans-Jordan.
The Wadi Tayibeh is the next one down from the E and the Nahal Harod (Jalud) next from the W. The latter was made famous by Gideon who had his men drink from the stream to determine which men to dismiss from the army (
In c. five more m. the Wadi Yabis empties its waters into the Jordan. Although the river is not mentioned in the Bible, it bears the same name as Jabesh-gilead, which one might expect to find near this stream. It drains the northern “dome” of Gilead. Five m. farther on the Jordan welcomes the rather insignificant water of the Wadi Malih, flowing from the W. Two more smaller streams flow from the E, the Wadi Kufrinji and the Wadi Rajib. Their mouths are c. five m. apart.
About forty m. from the Sea of Galilee is the Biblical Jabbok, called in Arab., Wadi Zerqa. It actually has its beginning near Amman, makes a huge bend N and then W to the Jordan, and thus it provided the E border for the ancient Ammonites. It flows through the valley that separates N and S Gilead. Near its mouth is the Biblical Adam, modern Damiya (
Near the Biblical Tirzah (
The Dead Sea.
The Jordan River ends its 250 m. journey in the depths of the Dead Sea (120 m. in a straight line). By then it has reached the lowest level of any river on earth—c. 1,290 ft. below the “face of the sea,” as the expression is in Heb. This makes the Salt Sea the lowest body of water in the world. It is c. 1,300 ft. deep in places, thus making those points c. 2,600 ft. below sea level (by no means the deepest hole in the earth). In addition to the Jordan, two other rivers enter from the E—the Arnon (Wadi Mojib) c. halfway down its sixty m. length, and the Zered at the southern end. From the W are the little streams coming from ’En-Gedi and ’Ain Feshkah, the latter being the water supply for the Qumran community.
The Dead Sea has no outlet except by evaporation. Over the millennia, the mineral and organic content have risen to more than twenty percent. Nothing lives in the “Sea of Lot,” as the Arabs call it. In Josephus’ day the salts, tars, and other solids dissolved in the water gave it the name of Lake Asphalt.
The river valley and what it contains
In several respects the Jordan River has no peers. It is the lowest river on this planet. It had some of civilization’s earliest settlers on its banks. It is the central river in a land hallowed by three major world religions. For its size, it is one of the most overplayed, famous, and sentimental rivers in the world.
The Great Rift Valley and the structure of the Jordan Valley.
Beginning in Lebanon to the N, a natural N to S cleft in the earth first separates the Lebanon from the Anti-Lebanon mountains. Farther S, that cleft is filled by the Jordan River and the Dead Sea for c. 150 m. It continues southward through the Wadi Arabah, the Gulf of Aqaba of the Red Sea, and even into Africa as far S as Tanganyika. The Jordan Valley is the most spectacular section of the Great Rift Valley.
The mountain range in Pal. reaches a height of 3,000 ft. at Hebron. On the Trans-Jordanian side the plateau exceeds 4,000 ft. in several places. Separating these heights are the Jordan Valley, and the Dead Sea sinking to 1,290 ft. below sea level. The distance from the spine of Pal. to the heights of Gilead or Moab averages twenty-five m. Within this greater rift is the Jordan Valley, called the Ghor by the Arabs. The Jordan Valley varies in width from nearly fifteen m. at its mouth to c. five m. near Galilee. The upper Jordan flows through some even narrower canyon-like passages. Within the Ghor is the Zor, or flood plain. This half-mile wide inner valley is flooded at harvest time (
The soil of the valley is generally inhospitable to growth. It seldom rains in the valley, which is dotted with shallow, chalky-gray marl hills. Remains of ancient aqueducts and other irrigation systems are visible up and down the valley. Today there is no extensive agriculture except in the N just below the Sea of Galilee.
The temperature of the southern Jordan Valley is torrid in the summer. It may not go below 100o F. many nights. This same weather makes Jericho a resort town in the winter. Students of botany and biology find much of the plant and animal life of the valley related to African species.
Cities in the Jordan Valley.
The names of most of the abandoned cities in the Jordan Valley are not known. There are native names for some of the tells, but these usually are based on some obvious feature of the site or some relatively modern happening or personage. The events of the Bible, ordinarily a major source of such information, took place when habitation of the valley was thin and inconsequential.
The oldest and best known valley cities are Jericho in the S and Beth-shan in the N. Both of these sites date to the Chalcolithic Period and older, and both played important roles in the OT. Jericho also was inhabited in NT times and is still a prominent city today. It is almost due E of Jerusalem and due W of Amman, and its location near the southernmost ford of the Jordan has contributed to its importance over the years. Beth-shan (Herodian Scythopolis and modern Beisan) is more removed from the river but lies in the basin of the Nahal Jalud toward the SE end of the valley of Jezreel.
A major excavation at Beth-yerah, near where the Jordan leaves the Sea of Galilee, produced Bronze Age artifacts. This town is not mentioned in the Bible.
Two Biblical towns of the Jordan Valley appear in Egyp. execration texts. They are Rehob just S of Beth-shan (
Succoth receives early mention in the Bible.
The city of Gilgal, which served Joshua and the Israelites as a base of operations during the conquest of Canaan, is certainly to be considered as being in the Jordan Valley, since it is a suburb of Jericho (
Two or three cities in the Jordan Valley are mentioned in the NT. Two of these relate to John’s baptizing activity.
Fords and bridges.
Until Rom. times there were no bridges across the Jordan; but it can be forded in dozens of places where it is only waist deep. For this reason the river itself did not create a definitive border. Abraham, e.g., surely crossed the river above or below the Sea of Galilee, but there is no mention of it. Fords are mentioned several times in the Bible. The Jericho police searched for the Israelite spies all the way to the fords of the Jordan (
The Jordan River is not ordinarily navigable and there are no records of anyone shipping or sailing on it. It is very shallow in places and there are many rapids, even in the lower part.
The Romans built several bridges, remains of which still can be seen at Damiya, at the mouth of the Yarmuk, and where the Jordan leaves the Sea of Galilee. Today there are half a dozen bridges, but not all of them are usable because of the hostilities. The major ones are the Allenby Bridge, E of Jericho; the Damiya Bridge, below the Jabbok’s mouth; the Sheik Hussein Bridge, E of Beth-shan; and the Bridge of Jacob’s Daughters, N of the Sea of Galilee. There are two usable bridges S of the Sea of Galilee where Israel holds land E of the Jordan.
The Jordan serves as a natural N to S boundary dividing Pal., or Cis-Jordan on the W from Trans-Jordan on the E. Not only the water itself, which is not too formidable, but the whole valley provides a difficult-to-cross barrier between the two halves of the Holy Land. As it was in ancient times; so it is today.
Anthropologists and archeologists believe that the Jordan Valley was occupied in prehistoric times. As early as the Middle Stone Age civilizations existed on the plains and in the valley of the river. The number of sites varies through the Early and Middle Bronze Periods, but the sites were generally on the decline when the Israelites appeared on the scene.
That this valley should have hosted some of mankind’s earliest settlements is understandable. The valley itself is nearly tropical; the water is abundant, and with some coaxing the land will produce food. Furthermore, the thick growth paralleling the river shelters many wild animals. In fact, skeletal remains of elephants and rhinoceroses were found near the Jordan S of Lake Huleh. At the S end, the excavations of Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho have shown that city to be one of the oldest in the world. A prepottery Neolithic city appeared at the bottom of the dig into Tel es-Sultan, which is the OT Jericho. Teleilat Ghassul, across the river from Jericho, has given its name to the Ghassulian Period within the Chalcolithic Age. In the N, at Shaar Ha-Golan in the Yarmuk valley, somewhat older artifacts have been discovered.
In the OT.
The first mention of the Jordan in the Bible is in connection with Lot choosing “all the plain of Jordan” because it was well watered (
The parallel passages (
Jacob in his prayer for deliverance from Esau mentioned that he passed over the Jordan with only his staff (
After the Israelites’ forty years of wandering and before the conquest of the Promised Land, the Jordan River was a focus of attention. The Israelites camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan (
The most momentous event involving the Jordan River was when the Israelite nation crossed it dry shod.
Because Trans-Jordan was part of the nation, the Jordan was crossed and recrossed many times in the business and exploits of the centuries that followed. Crossing to the E side of the river provided something of a refuge from the mainstream of activity. Hence, the Gileadites guarded the fords of Jordan against the pursuing enemy (
It was a baptism in the muddy waters of the Jordan that Elisha prescribed for the leprosy of Naaman, the Syrian general (
There are a few literary allusions to the Jordan and the jungle that parallels it. Describing the strength of Behemoth, Job says, “He is confident though Jordan rushed against his mouth” (
In the NT.
If residents of Nazareth and Galilee regularly avoided passing through Samaria, then it is most likely that Jesus crossed the Jordan many times on His way from Nazareth to the festivals in Jerusalem. He may have crossed into Perea near Beth-shan and then back onto the W bank near Jericho. This would account for His being in Jericho to heal the blind man (
Jesus and His disciples were near the source of the Jordan when, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter confessed Christ’s deity (
In modern times.
The Jordan receives little mention in the pages of history books. Perhaps the reason for this is that it did not again serve as a political boundary until modern times. From the Romans to the Ottomans both sides of the Jordan were one political entity. Pilgrims of thehad almost nothing to report of this fabled river.
At the conclusion of World War I, however, the Jordan once more served as a political frontier. The Hashemite kingdom of Trans-Jordan was then on the E and the British Mandate of Pal. on the W. As a result of Great Britain’s and the United Nation’s decisions in 1947 and 1948, the Israeli War of Independence made at least part of the Jordan the international frontier between Israel and the present Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. With the six-day war of June, 1967, the Jordan almost in its entirety from Galilee to the Dead Sea came to be the cease-fire line between these two hostile states.
Thus the Jordan River, insignificant in size though it be, with more than its share of the headlines both ancient and modern, continues to play a major role in international intrigue.
On the other hand, in a different fashion, it has served and will continue to serve to illustrate several things. First, it is a picture of a man’s life. Beginning small, young, and fresh, the Jordan’s sources frolic down Mt. Hermon. It reaches maturity and might at the Sea of Galilee and finally makes its grave in the Dead Sea. Also, the Jordan, being the border of the ancient promised land, illustrates the barrier between this life and the next. Songs such as “I Won’t Have to Cross Jordan Alone,” or “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” illustrate the death of the saint.
G. A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 4th ed. (1896), 437-496; N. Glueck, The River Jordan (1946); D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible (1957); Geographical Companion to the Bible (1963).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(yarden, "flowing downward"; ’Iordanes):
The Jordan river proper begins at the junction of four streams (the Bareighit, the Hasbany, the Leddan, and the Banias), in the upper part of the plain of Lake Huleh. The Bareighit receives its supply of water from the hills on the West, which separate the valley from the river Litany, and is the least important of the four. The Hasbany is the longest of the four (40 miles), issuing from a great fountain at the western foot of Mt. Hermon near Hasbeiya, 1,700 ft. above the sea, and descends 1,500 ft. in its course to the plain. The Leddan is the largest of the four streams, issuing in several fountains at the foot of the mound Tell el-kady (Dan, or Laish) at an elevation of 505 ft. above the sea. The Banias issues from a celebrated fountain near the town of Banias, which is identified as the
2. Lake Huleh:
The valley of Lake Huleh, through which the Jordan wends its way, is about 20 miles long and 5 miles wide, bordered on either side by hills and mountains attaining elevations of 3,000 ft. After flowing 4 or 5 miles through a fertile plain, the Jordan enters a morass of marshy land which nearly fills the valley, with the exception of 1 or 2 miles between it and the base of the mountains upon the western side. This morass is almost impenetrable by reason of bushes and papyrus reeds, which in places also render navigation of the channel difficult even with a canoe. Lake Huleh, into which the river here expands, is but 7 ft. above tide, and is slowly contracting its size by reason of the accumulation of the decaying vegetation of the surrounding morass, and of the sediment brought in by the river and three tributary mountain torrents. Its continued existence is evidence of the limited period through which present conditions have been maintained. It will not be many thousand years before it will be entirely filled and the morass be changed into a fertile plain. When the spies visited the region, the lake must have been much larger than it is now.
At the southern end of Lake Huleh, the valley narrows up to a width of a few hundred yards, and the river begins its descent into levels below the Mediterranean. The river is here only about 60 ft. broad, and in less than 9 miles descends 689 ft. through a narrow rocky gorge, where it meets the delta which it has deposited at the head of the, and slowly winds its way to meet its waters. Throughout this delta the river is easily fordable during a great part of the year.
3. Sea of Galilee:
The Sea of Galilee occupies an expansion of the Jordan valley 12 miles long and from 3 to 6 miles wide. The hills, reaching, in general, 1,200 or 1,500 ft. above the lake, come down close to its margin on every side. On the East and South they are mainly of volcanic origin, and to some extent of the same character on the Northwest side above Tiberias. In the time of Christ the mouth of the river may have been a half-mile or more farther up the delta than now.
4. The Yarmuk:
As all the sediment of the upper Jordan settles in the vicinity of the delta near Capernaum, a stream of pellucid water issues from the southern end of the lake, at the modern town of Kerak. Before it reaches the Dead Sea, however, it becomes overloaded with sediment. From Kerak the opening of the valley is grand in the extreme. A great plain on the East stretches to the hills of Decapolis, and to the South, as far as the eye can reach, through the Ghor which descends to the Dead Sea, bordered by mountain walls on either side. Four or five miles below, it is joined on the East by the Yarmuk, the ancient Hieromax the largest of all its tributaries. The debris brought down by this stream has formed a fertile delta terrace 3 or 4 miles in diameter, which now, as in ancient times, is an attractive place for herdsmen and agriculturists. The valley of the Yarmuk now furnishes a natural grade for the Acre and Damascus Railroad, as it did for the caravan routes of early times. The town of Gadara lies upon an elevation just South of the Yarmuk and 4 or 5 miles East of the Jordan.
Ten miles below the lake, the river is joined on the West by Wddy el-Bireh, which descends from the vicinity of Nazareth, between Mt. Tabor and Endor, and furnishes a natural entrance from the Jordan to Central Galilee. An aqueduct here still furnishes water for the upper terrace of the Ghor. Wddy el-Arab, with a small perennial stream, comes in here also from the East.
Twenty miles below Lake Galilee the river is joined by the important Wady el-Jalud, which descends through the valley of Jezreel between Mt. Gilboa and the range of the Little Hermon (the hill Moreh of
A few miles below, the Wady Farah, whose head is at Sychar between Mts. Ebal and Gerizim, descends from the West, furnishing the natural route for Jacob’s entrance to the promised land.
At Damieh (probably the Adam of
The section of the Ghor between Damieh and the Dead Sea is of a pretty uniform width of 10 to 12 miles and is of a much more uniform level than the upper portions, but its fertility is interfered with by the lack of water and the difficulty of irrigation. From the vicinity of Jericho, an old Roman road follows up the Wady Nawaimeh, which furnished Joshua a natural line of approach to Ai, while through the Wady el-Kelt is opened the natural road to Jerusalem. Both Ai and theare visible from this point of the Ghor.
6. The Zor:
In a direct line it is only 70 miles from Lake Galilee to the Dead Sea, and this is the total length of the lower plain (the Zor); but so numerous are the windings of the river across the flood plain from one bluff to the other that the length of the river is fully 200 miles. Col. Lynch reported the occurrence of 27 rapids, which wholly interrupted navigation, and many others which rendered it difficult. The major part of the descent below Lake Galilee takes place before reaching Damieh, 1,140 ft. below the Mediterranean. While the bluffs of the Ghor upon either side of the Zor, are nearly continuous and uniform below Damieh, above this point they are much dissected by the erosion of tributary streams. Still, nearly everywhere, an extended view brings to light the original uniform level of the sedimentary deposits formed when the valley was filled with water to a height of 650 ft. (see Arabah; Dead Sea).
The river itself averages about 100 ft. in width when confined strictly within its channel, but in the early spring months the flood plain of the Zor is completely overflowed, bringing into its thickets a great amount of driftwood which increases the difficulty of penetrating it, and temporarily drives out ferocious animals to infest the neighboring country.
7. The Fords of Jordan:
According to Conder, there are no less than 60 fording-places between Lake Galilee and the Dead Sea. For the most part it will be seen that these occur at rapids, or over bars deposited by the streams which descend from one side or the other, as, for example, below the mouths of the Yarmuk, Jabbok, Jalud and Kelt. These fords are, however, impassable during the high water of the winter and spring months. Until the occupation by the Romans, no bridges were built; but they and their successors erected them at various places, notably below the mouth of the Yarmuk, and the Jabbok, and nearly opposite Jericho.
Notwithstanding the great number of fords where it is possible to cross at low water, those which were so related to the lines of travel as to be of much avail were few. Beginning near the mouth of the Jordan and proceeding northward, there was a ford at el-Henu leading directly from Jericho to the highlands Northeast of the Dead Sea. Two or three miles farther to the North is the ford of the pilgrims, best known of all, at the mouth of Wady Kelt. A few miles farther up the river on the road leading from Jericho to es-Salt, near the mouth of the Wady Nimrin, there is now a bridge where the dependence was formerly upon the ford. Just below the mouth of the Wady Zerka (Jabbok) is the ford of Damieh, where the road from Shechem comes down to the river. A bridge was at one time built over the river at this point; but owing to a change in the course of the stream this is now over a dry water-course. The next important crossing-place is at the opening of the valley of Jezreel coming in from the West, where probably the Bethabara of theshould be located. Upon this ford a number of caravan routes from East to West converge. The next important crossing-place is at el-Mujamia, 2 or 3 miles below the mouth of the Yarmuk. Here, also, there was a Roman bridge. There are also some traces of an ancient bridge remaining just below the exit of the river from Lake Galilee, where there was a ford of special importance to the people residing on the shores of this lake who could not afford to cross in boats. Between Lake Galilee and Lake Huleh, an easy ford leads across the delta of the stream a little above its junction with the lake; while 2 or 3 miles below Lake Huleh is found "the bridge of Jacob’s daughters" on the line of one of the principal routes between Damascus and Galilee. Above Lake Huleh the various tributaries are easily crossed at several places, though a bridge is required to cross the Bareighit near its mouth, and another on the Hasbany on the main road from Caesarea Philippi to Sidon, at el-Ghagar.