RIVER. Of the dozen or so words translated “river” in the Bible, only three need be mentioned. 1. Nāhār (Gr. potamos) is used of the largest rivers known to the Israelites—the Tigris and Euphrates (Gen.2.14), the Abana and Pharpar (2Kgs.5.12), the Jordan (Mark.1.5), and the rivers of Ethiopia (Zeph.3.10). The river or the great river usually refers to the Euphrates (Gen.15.18; Gen.31.21).

2. Nahal usually means a winter torrent, the bed of which is dry in summer, but may refer to a perennial stream like the Jabbok (Deut.2.37).

3. Ye’ôr, “a stream,” usually refers to the Nile and its mouths (Gen.41.1; 2Kgs.19.24). Once it denotes the Tigris (Dan.12.5-Dan.12.7).

Palestine never possessed a riverine civilization comparable to those of the great valleys to the N and S of it. The Jordan is too small in volume, and too entrenched in its deep valley, to provide the kind of irrigation agriculture that supported Egypt or Mesopotamia. Indeed, in Biblical times the valley of the Jordan was sparsely inhabited, filled with dense vegetation and the home of wild animals. Only in Ezekiel’s vision (cf. Ezek 47) does there appear a river large enough to flow down into the Jordan rift and support widespread cultivation; a river of life entering the Dead Sea at the precise point where the Jordan—so often the Bible’s symbolic river of death—enters it in reality, at a point due E of the Temple in Jerusalem. The same image reappears in visionary form (Rev 22).

In the life of Israel, once they left Egypt and its stable civilization by the Nile, rivers appear more often as boundaries or as milestones in their career, than as a source of satisfaction or supply. In an age when there were no bridges (the word does not appear in the OT), the crossing of even so relatively minor a river as the Jordan was a major hazard, requiring divine intervention (Josh 3). Once the people were across the river, they were in every sense cut off from their past: even to return briefly to the E bank of Jordan, they would most prob. have had to wait for the low water season. In the same way, Joshua reminded them of the step their ancestor Abraham had taken when he crossed “the flood” (Josh 24:15 KJV); i.e. Euphrates, on his way to the land of promise; it was a symbolic step, cutting him off from a past to which he would never return.

The Jordan, with its E-bank tributaries, forms the only major river system of Pal., although the mountains of Lebanon to the N feed numerous streams from their snowfields. Many of the smaller rivers of the land flow only seasonally.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


(2) ye’or, according to BDB from Egyptian iotr, ’io’r, "watercourse," often of the Nile (Ex 1:22, etc.). In Isa 19:6, for ye’ore matsor, the King James Version "brooks of defense," the Revised Version (British and American) has "streams of Egypt." In Isa 19:7,8, for ye’or, the King James Version "brooks," and Zec 10:11, the King James Version "river," the Revised Version (British and American) has "Nile." In Job 28:10, the King James Version "He cutteth out rivers among the rocks," the Revised Version (British and American) has "channels," the Revised Version margin "passages."

(4) pelegh, with feminine pelaggah, the King James Version "river," is in the Revised Version (British and American) translated "stream," except English Versions of the Bible "river of God" (Ps 65:9); "streams of water" (Ps 1:3; Pr 5:16; Isa 32:2; La 3:48); "streams of honey" (Job 20:17); "streams of oil" (Job 29:6).

(6) yubhal, English Versions of the Bible "river" (Jer 17:8). ’ubhal, and ’ubhal, English Versions of the Bible "river" (Da 8:2,3,6).

(7) potamos: of the Jordan (Mr 1:5); Euphrates (Re 9:14); "rivers of living water" (Joh 7:38); "river of water of life" (Re 22:1). So always in Greek for "river" in the Revised Version (British and American) Apocrypha (1 Esdras 4:23, etc.).

See Brook; Stream; VALLEY.