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The Jordan River, commonly referred to as the River Jordan (after the original Hebrew: nehar hayarden) is often just referred to as "the Jordan." With headwaters at Mount Hermon, the river flows to the Sea of Galilee and down to the Dead Sea (Salt Sea), a distance of 156 miles (an average six days' journey). This river constituted the eastern border of the land promised to Abraham for the future Israel by God Himself.

Mentioned first in relationship with its valley -- likened to the "garden of God"[1] (that is, Eden) -- the River was the lifeblood of the people of Israel and Judah. Not as impressive as the Nile in Egypt or the Euphrates, it provided well enough for most of those who lived along its banks.

The scene of three miraculous crossings near Jericho[2], the Jordan River provided not only water for farms along its banks, but for food in the waters of the freshwater Sea of Galilee (about a third of the way along its route to the Salt Sea). It was there that Jesus began his ministry with four fishermen that followed the rabbi.


Having seen very little change in pronunciation, the Semitic term "Yarden" comes from "yared" - meaning to "go down." It simple terms, it describes every river in existence. Since water seeks its own level, rivers take the path of least resistance downhill. In the process they carve a wider path in the lowlands on the way to sea level, or below. Quite literally the water flows down, bringing life in its trail. Like with the other great rivers, the Jordan periodically floods, spreading both minerals from the mountains and rich soil from upstream. The lower valley, near the Salt Sea, was especially fertile.


The East Bank[]

The Jordan is first mentioned in the record of Abram and his nephew Lot. Having left the Euphrates for a land they did not know, they found that the limited pastureland in the hill country could not sustain their flocks[3]. Seeing the lush green along the Jordan valley, Lot chose to go to the east. He would end up living in the large city of Sodom on the other side of the river[4]. Abram's contemporary Job knew of the river, for God Himself spoke of it in questioning him concerning the "behemoth."[5]

When Jacob was returning from his journey back to Padan Aram, he sent his concubines and their children, along with livestock, across the Jordan. If his suspicions were true, his brother Esau would attack the "lower tier" of his clan first.[6]

Moses refers to the land where Joseph buried Jacob to be "beyond the Jordan" from his perspective[7]. This indicates that he was writing from a vantage point east of the river rather than from Joseph's probable route back to the family burial plot.

During the exodus, many battles were waged in the region east of the Jordan. Moses recounts these in the Book of Numbers. In the end, two and a half tribes would settle that region rather than risk harm to their families[8]. In spite of all the benefits, including equal coverage in the case of refuge cities, these tribes would be the first to fall to pagan influence.

From the peak of Mount Nebo, Moses would be able to see a panoramic view of much of the land across the river, but he would die without going across to the promised land.[9]

The West Bank[]

Crossing the Jordan[]

Having refused to come into the land of Canaan from the south, the next generation of soldiers would need to cross over the Jordan to get there. It was early spring and the river was in flood stage, but the LORD gave instructions to advance towards the swelling waters anyway. The priests were to go first, carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They did not waver and advanced with a respectable distance between them and the crowds.

As their feet reached the bank, a distant rumble[10] was followed by the waters receding down stream. The timing of an earthquake in "just the right place" was less dramatic than the crossing of the Red Sea forty years earlier, but nevertheless, the miracle was incredible. With perhaps a warm Spirit-assisted breeze the land was passable as the priests stood in the middle of the river and let the people walk past. They stood there as representatives from the twelve tribes gathered stones from west bank with which they built an memorial at the place where the priests were standing[11]. "On cue" the waters began to flow again as the supernatural dam was breached by the still swelling waters above it.

Allocation of the Land[]

All the soldiers, however, agreed to assist in taking the land under Joshua's leadership. The campaign was essentially a success over the course of twenty years or so. The land was allotted to the nine and a half tribes all the way up to the Euphrates in the north to the "River" of Egypt (not the Nile) with the Jordan serving as the border to the east.

Old Testament Experiences[]

The Jordan River was usually quite easy to cross. This meant that to defend against enemies, popular passages had to be controlled. It was these passage points that present some of the most effective maneuvers in the long struggle to take the land of Canaan.

Under the Judges[]

The people in the east, though protected by God as descendants of Lot, had not given them safe passage on the way to the promised land. Ehud, an early judge that had assassinated the Moabite king, rallied his troops at one of these places. There they were able to kill about 10,000 well qualified fighting men at strategic crossings.[12]

Things turned ugly, however, when the Ammonites were attacking the two and a half tribes east of the Jordan. When Jephthah, a man with a bad reputation, was called on to help, and did so with the promise that he would become the tribal chief. He succeeded, but when the Ephraimites from the west bank came complaining that he didn't ask their for their help, a civil war broke out. Jephthah's forces controlled the crossings of the Jordan, resulting in a slow elimination of 42,000 fellow Israelites.[13]

The Kingdom Period[]

In the days of Saul, Israel's first king, the battles against the Philistines were often very heated. However, these coastal armies did not like the hill country into which the Israelites fled. When the armies retreated, though, they often lost some deserters to their shame and to the detriment of the efforts of Israel. Often, these deserters were from the tribes on the east bank. Whenever a significant number headed back across the Jordan, the Philistines would reclaim the cities they had lost.[14]

When Absalom rebelled against his father, David sought and got support from among his distant cousins in Moab. When he had to abandon Jerusalem, he bundled up the royal family, including his own parents from nearby Bethlehem, and shipped them across the Jordan into relative safety among historical enemies of Israel.[15]

Elisha and the school of prophets frequented the banks of the Jordan as well. At one point, one of the students lost the head of an borrowed ax into the river. When he complained, Elisha tossed a twig into the water near the place where the iron axehead had fallen. As if he had marked the spot for God, the iron "swam" to the top. Later, when Naaman, an enemy army officer, was sidelined with leprosy, Elisha told him to take a bath in the muddy waters of the Jordan, dipping himself seven times[16].

New Testament Era[]

As the old age was passing away, making room for the new, two men made the Jordan into a "River of New Life." First there was a man, sent by God, who was named John[17]. This John had a miraculous birth, somewhat like Samuel, first "prophet" of the Kingdom. He was very much like Elijah in appearance and temperament. As the forerunner of the Messiah, he would meet thousands at the Jordan River to anoint them much as the Syrian Naaman had dipped. The "leprosy" that he treated was not a skin disease, but a much deeper problem: sin.[18] He called his followers to repent, for a New Kingdom was coming.

However, when the Messiah showed up, he refused to baptize the long promised Man of God. It was not until Jesus insisted did John "the Baptist" anoint Him.[19] The place that this happened was near the place where the Jordan emptied into the Sea of Galilee, over on the east bank. Jesus would sometimes seek refuge there in his ministry.[20]


  1. Gen 16:12 (Link)
  2. Josh. 3:15–17; 2 Kings 2:8, 2:14 (Link)
  3. Gen 13:10 (Link)
  4. Gen 13:11 (Link)
  5. Job 40:23 (Link)
  6. Gen 32:10 (Link)
  7. Gen 50:10 (Link)
  8. Num 32:19 (Link)
  9. Deu 31:2 (Link)
  10. Jos 3:16 (Link)
  11. Jos 4:6 (Link)
  12. Judges 3:28 (Link)
  13. Judges 12:6 (Link)
  14. 1 Sam 31:7 (Link)
  15. 2 am 19:18 (Link)
  16. 2Ki 5:14 (Link)
  17. John 1:6 (Link)
  18. Matt 3:6 (Link)
  19. Matt 3:13-16 (Link)
  20. John 1:28 (Link)