Jordan River

JORDAN RIVER. The only large flowing body of water in Palestine and, as such, it played a significant part in the history of Israel, as well as in the earlier days of our Lord’s ministry. The word Jordan derives from a Hebrew word, hayyardēn, meaning “flowing downward,” or “the descender,” and one with any knowledge of its course can easily see the appropriateness of the name. Four rivers in Syria are recognized as the source of what later becomes the Jordan River proper. They are the Bareighit; the Hasbany, at the western foot of Mount Hermon, twenty-four miles (forty km.) long; the Leddan; and, the most famous of all, though the shortest, the Banias, five and one-half miles (nine km.) long. On this last-named river once stood the city of Paneas, where the well-known grotto of the Greek god Pan was located. Later this was called Caesarea Philippi, and here the great confession of Simon Peter occurred (Matt.16.13). These rivers join and pour into Lake Huleh, twenty miles (thirty-three km.) long and five miles (eight km.) wide, the surface of which is seven feet (two m.) above sea level. In recent years this lake has been drained by Israeli settlers for farm land. The Jordan then descends for ten miles (seventeen km.) to the Sea of Galilee, a beautiful body of water. From the place where the Jordan makes its exit from the Sea of Galilee to the place where it enters the Dead Sea is, in a straight line, a length of 70 miles (117 km.). But the river itself, because of its serpentine curves, is 200 miles (333 km.) long. The surface of the Dead Sea is 1,292 feet (404 m.) below sea level. The Jordan River proper varies from ninety to one hundred feet (twenty-eight to thirty-one m.) in width, and from three to ten feet (one to three m.) in depth, but the gorge that it has cut out varies in width from four miles (seven km.) at the north to fourteen miles (twenty-three km.) near Jericho.

Though the largest river of Palestine, the Jordan differs from other great national rivers in that, because it has twenty-seven rapids between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, it carries no traffic; and because of the swampy condition of part of this valley, the terrific heat in many places, and the presence of many wild animals, especially during Israel’s history, no large city was ever built directly on the banks of the Jordan.

Although the Jordan is never called by any other name in the Bible, it is once referred to as “the river of the wilderness” (Amos.6.14 kjv) and “the pride of the Jordan” (Jer.12.5; Jer.49.19; Jer.50.44; Zech.11.3, kjv).

The natural life found in the Jordan Valley has been carefully studied, some of it proving to be unique. Of the thirty species of fish found in this river, sixteen are said to be found nowhere else; of the forty-five species of birds observed in this tortuous valley, twenty-three are peculiar to this area. About 162 species of plants and trees have been identified, of which 135 are African. They include the castor oil plant, the tamarisk, willows, poplars, and, near Jericho, the oleander. Though no large city was actually ever built on the banks of the Jordan, there are some geographical terms that belong to this area. In the north at the time of our Lord’s advent, there was an area called the Decapolis, a federation of ten Greek cities, nine on the eastern side of the Jordan, and mentioned once at the beginning of our Lord’s ministry (Matt.4.25). Another city in this group was Pella, not mentioned in the Bible, but according to tradition the city to which the Christians fled at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70.


Near the Dead Sea on the western side of the river, one mile (one and one-half km.) east of Jericho, stood the city of Gilgal, where Israel set up twelve stones at the command of God (Josh.4.19-Josh.4.20), a place that later became an important religious center (1Sam.7.16; 1Sam.10.8).

By far the most significant single event relating to the Jordan River in the entire history of Israel is the crossing on the part of the Israelites after the death of Moses, a crossing anticipated by Moses in Deut.3.20, Deut.3.25, Deut.3.27. While the Jordan is now and then referred to as a boundary, it was not a boundary for Israel or even for the specific tribes, for Manasseh occupied a huge territory on both sides of the river. Nevertheless, Israel was told that until this river was crossed and the territory on the western side possessed, they would not be occupying the land flowing with milk and honey (Num.35.10; Deut.3.20; Deut.11.31; Deut.31.13; Josh.1.2). The Promised Land more generally refers to the territory on the western side of the Jordan than to all of the land occupied by Israel. The account of the crossing of the Jordan is given in detail in the third and fourth chapters of Joshua.


The theme of the Jordan River is frequently found in the ritual of the church and in its hymnology and poetry. Comparing death for the Christian with the crossing of the Jordan by the Israelites cannot be regarded as a very accurate interpretation of Israel’s history at this point. Israel did not enter into a time of peace when she crossed the Jordan but into a series of wars, many oppressions and defeats, followed by victories for a time, and ultimately ending in disaster and expulsion from the land.——WMS