The Jordan River in the Bible
What is the Jordan in the Old and New Testament
The Source of the Jordan River
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 Caesarea Philippi associated with the transfiguration.
The ancient name was Paneas, originating from a grotto consecrated to the god Pan. At this place Herod erected a temple of white marble dedicated to Augustus Caesar. This is probably the Baal-gad of Josh 11:17 and 12:7. Its altitude is 1,100 ft. above tide, and the stream falls about 600 ft. in the 5 miles of its course to the head of the Jordan.
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 Sea of Galilee, and slowly winds its way to meet its waters. Throughout this delta the river is easily fordable during a great part of the year.
The 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.
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 Jdg 7:1). This valley leads up from the Jordan to the valley of Esdrelon and thence to Nazareth, and furnished the usual route for Jews going from Jerusalem to Nazareth when they wished to avoid the Samaritans.
This route naturally takes one past Beisan (Bethshean), where the bodies of Saul and Jonathan were exposed by the Philistines, and past Shunem and Nain. There is a marked expansion of the Ghor opposite Beisan, constituting an important agricultural district. The town of Pella, to which the Christians fled at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, lies upon the East side of the Ghor; while Jabesh-gilead, where the bodies of Saul and Jonathan were finally taken by their friends and cremated, is a little farther up the slope of Gilead.
Twenty miles farther down, the Ghor, on the East, is joined by Wady Zerka (the brook Jabbok), the second largest tributary, separating Ammon from Gilead, its upper tributaries flowing past Ammon, Mizpeh, and Ramoth-gilead. It was down this valley that Jacob descended to Succoth. 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 Josh 3:16), the Ghor is narrowed up by the projection, from the West, of the mountain ridge terminating in Kurn Surtubeh, which rises abruptly to a height of 2,000 ft. above the river.
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 the Mount of Olives are visible from this point of the Ghor.
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.
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.
The Fords of the Jordan River
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 the New Testament should 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.
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