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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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JORDAN. The longest and most important river in Palestine.

1. Name . The name ‘Jordan’ is best derived from Heb. yârad ‘to descend,’ the noun Yardçn formed from it signifying ‘the descender’; it is used almost invariably with the article. In Arabic the name is esh-Sheri‘ah , or ‘the watering-place,’ though Arabic writers before the Crusades called it el-Urdun . Quite fanciful is Jerome’s derivation of the name from Jor and Dan , the two main sources of the river, as no source by the name of Jor is known.

2. Geology . The geology of the Jordan is unique. Rising high up among the foothills of Mt. Hermon, it flows almost due south by a most tortuous course, through the two lakes of Huleh and Galilee, following the bottom of a rapidly descending and most remarkable geological fissure, and finally emptying itself into the Dead Sea, which is 1292 feet below the level of the Mediterranean. In its short course of a little more than 100 miles it falls about 3000 feet, and for the greater portion of the journey runs below the level of the ocean. No other part of the earth’s surface, uncovered by water, sinks to a depth of even 300 feet below sea-level, except the great Sahara. Professor Hull, the eminent Irish geologist, accounts for this great natural cleft by supposing that towards the end of the Eocene period a great ‘fault’ or fracture was caused by the contraction from east to west of the limestone crust of the earth. Later, during the Pliocene period, the whole Jordan valley probably formed an inland lake more than 200 miles long, but at the close of the Glacial period the waters decreased until they reached their present state. Traces of water, at heights 1180 feet above the Dead Sea’s present level, are found on the lateral slopes of the Jordan valley.

3. Sources . The principal sources of the Jordan are three: (1) the river Hasbani , which rises in a large fountain on the western slopes of Mt. Hermon, near Hasbeiya , at an altitude of 1700 feet; (2) the Leddan , which gushes forth from the celebrated fountain under Tell el-Qadl, or Dan, at an altitude of 1500 feet the most copious source of the Jordan; and (3) the river Banias , which issues from an immense cavern below Banias or Cæsarea Philippi, having an altitude of 1200 feet. These last two meet about five miles below their fountain-heads at an altitude of 148 feet, and are joined about a half-mile farther on by the Hasbani. Their commingled waters flow on across a dismal marsh of papyrus, and, after seven miles, empty into Lake Huleh, which is identified by some with ‘the waters of Merom’ ( Joshua 11:5; Joshua 11:7 ). The lake is four miles long, its surface being but 7 feet above sea-level.

4. The Upper Jordan is a convenient designation for that portion of the river between Lake Huleh and the Sea of Galilee. Emerging from Lake Huleh, the river flows placidly for a space of two miles, and then dashes down over a rocky and tortuous bed until it enters the Sea of Galilee, whose altitude is 682 feet below the level of the Mediterranean. It falls, in this short stretch of 10 1 / 2 miles, 689 feet. At certain seasons its turbid waters can be traced for quite a considerable distance into the sea, which is 12 1 /2 miles long.

5. The Lower Jordan is an appropriate designation for that portion of the river between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The distance in a straight line between these two seas is but 65 miles, yet it is estimated that the river’s actual course covers not less than 200, due to its sinuosity. In this stretch it falls 610 feet, the rate at first being 40 feet per mile. Its width varies from 90 to 200 feet. Along its banks grow thickets of tamarisks, poplars, oleanders, and bushes of different varieties, which are described by the prophets of the OT as ‘the pride of Jordan’ ( Jeremiah 12:5; Jeremiah 49:19; Jeremiah 50:44 , Zechariah 11:3 ). Numerous rapids, whirlpools, and islets characterize this portion of the Jordan. The river’s entire length from Banias to the Dead Sea is 104 miles, measured in a straight line.

6. Tributaries . Its most important tributaries flow into the Lower Jordan and from the East. The largest is the Yarmuk of the Rabbis, the Hieromax of the Greeks, and the Sheri‘at el-Manadireh of the Arabs, which drains Gilead and Bashan in part. It enters the Jordan 5 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. The Bible never mentions it. The only other tributary of considerable importance is the Jabbok of the OT, called by the natives Nahr ez-Zerka or Wady el-‘Arab . It rises near ‘Amman (Philadelphia), describes a semicircle, and flows into the Jordan at a point about equidistant from the two seas. On the west are the Nahr el-Jatûd , which rises in the spring of Harod at the base of Mt. Gilboa and drains the valley of Jezreel; Wady Fârah , which rises near Mt. Ebal and drains the district east of Shechem; and the Wady el-Kelt , by Jericho, which is sometimes identified with the brook Cherith.

7. Fords . The fords of the Jordan are numerous. The most celebrated is that opposite Jericho known as Makhadet el-Hajlah , where modern pilgrims are accustomed to bathe. There is another called el-Ghôranïyeh near the mouth of Wady Nimrin . North of the Jabbok there are at least a score. In ancient times the Jordan seems to have been crossed almost exclusively by fords ( 1 Samuel 13:7 , 2 Samuel 10:17 ); but David and his household were possibly conveyed across in a ‘ferry-boat’ ( 2 Samuel 19:18; the rendering is doubtful).

8. Bridges are not mentioned in the Bible. Those which once spanned the Jordan were built by the Romans, or by their successors. The ruins of one, with a single arch, may be seen at Jisr ed-Damieh near the mouth of the Jabbok. Since its construction the river bed has changed so that it no longer spans the real channel. This bridge is on the direct route from Shechem to Ramoth-gilead. There is another called Jisr el-Mujamîyeh , close by that of the new railroad from Haifa to Damascus, or about 7 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. A third, built of black basalt and having three arches, is known as the Jisr ‘Benat-Yâ‘gub , or ‘bridge of the daughters of Jacob,’ situated about two miles south of Lake Huleh on the direct caravan route from Acre to Damascus. A temporary wooden bridge, erected by the Arabs, stands opposite Jericho.

9. The Jordan valley . The broad and ever-descending valley through which the Jordan flows is called by the Arabs the Ghôr or ‘bottom’; to the Hebrews it was known as the ‘ Arabah. It is a long plain, sloping uniformly at the rate of 9 feet to the mile, being at the northern end 3, and at the southern end 12 miles broad. For the most part the valley is fertile, especially in the vicinity of Beisan, where the grass and grain grow freely. Near the Dead Sea, however, the soil is saline and barren. The ruins of ancient aqueducts here and there all over the plain give evidence of its having been at one time highly cultivated. By irrigation the entire region could easily be brought under cultivation once more and converted into a veritable garden. In the vicinity of Jericho, once the ‘city of palms,’ a large variety of fruits, vegetables, and other products is grown. The most fertile portion under cultivation at the present time is the comparatively narrow floor-bed of the river known as the Zôr , varying from a quarter to two miles in width, and from 20 to 200 feet in depth below the Ghôr proper. This is the area which was overflowed every year ‘all the time of harvest’ ( Joshua 3:15 ). It has been formed, doubtless, by the changing of the river bed from one side of the valley to the other.

10. The climate of the Jordan valley is hot. The Lower Jordan in particular, being shut in by two great walls of mountain, the one on the east, and the other on the west, is decidedly tropical. Even in winter the days are uncomfortably warm, though the nights are cool; in summer both days and nights are torrid, especially at Jericho, where the thermometer has been known to register 130 Fahr. by day, and 110 after sunset. This accounts largely for the unpeopled condition of the Lower Jordan valley both to-day and in former times.

11. Flora and fauna . The trees and shrubs of the Jordan valley are both numerous and varied. The retem or broom plant, thorns, oleanders, flowering bamboos, castor-oil plants, tamarisks, poplars, acacias, Dead Sea ‘apples of Sodom,’ and many other species of bush, all grow in the valley. The papyrus is especially luxuriant about Lake Huleh.

Animals such as the leopard, jackal, boar, hyæna, ibex, porcupine, and fox live in the thickets which border the banks. The lion has completely disappeared. The river abounds in fish of numerous species, many of them resembling those found in the Nile and the lakes of tropical Africa. Of the 35 species, however, known to exist, 16 are peculiar to the Jordan.

12. The Jordan as a boundary . In view of what has been said, it is obvious that the Jordan forms a natural boundary to Palestine proper. In the earlier books of the OT we frequently meet with the expressions ‘on this side Jordan,’ and ‘on the other side of the Jordan,’ which suggest that the Jordan was a dividing line and a natural boundary. In Numbers 34:12 , indeed, it is treated as the original eastern boundary of the Promised Land (cf. Joshua 22:25 ). Yet, as Lucien Gautier suggests (art. ‘Jordan’ in Hastings’ DCG [Note: CG Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels.] ), it was not so much the Jordan that constituted the boundary as the depressed Ghôr valley as a whole.

13. Scripture references . The Jordan is frequently mentioned in both the OT and the NT. Lot, for example, is said to have chosen ‘all the circle of the Jordan’ because ‘it was well watered everywhere’ ( Genesis 13:10 ); Joshua and all Israel crossed over the Jordan on dry ground ( Joshua 3:17 ); Ehud seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites, cutting off their retreat ( Judges 3:28 ); Gideon, Jephthah, David, Elijah, and Elisha were all well acquainted with the Jordan; Naaman the Syrian was directed to go wash in the Jordan seven times, that his leprosy might depart from him ( 2 Kings 5:10 ). And it was at the Jordan that John the Baptist preached and baptized, our Lord being among those who were here sacramentally consecrated ( Matthew 3:1-17 and parallels). To-day thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the civilized world visit the Jordan; so that, as G. A. Smith ( HGHL [Note: GHL Historical Geography of Holy Land.] , p. 496) reminds us, ‘what was never a great Jewish river has become a very great Christian one.’

George L. Robinson.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Jordan'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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