Jordan River by Daniel Schowalter

The course of the Jordan River begins in the northeast corner of the Hulah Valley of Israel, running south to the Sea of Galilee (also called the Kinneret) and then on to the Dead Sea near Jericho. The river is approximately 250 kilometers long. Throughout history, the Jordan has been an essential natural feature in a land marked by political and religious conflict. In modern times, the river serves as both a geopolitical boundary and a source of religious fascination, especially for Christians.

Was the Jordan River an important geopolitical border in biblical times?

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Jordan River serves primarily as a regional indicator and a boundary, both real and symbolic. Early in the biblical narrative, Lot discovers that the “plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord” (Gen 13:10) and decides to settle there. The book of Numbers discusses the distribution of populations, including Canaanites who “live by the sea and along the Jordan” (Num 13:29). Later, after Moses leads them out of the wilderness, the Israelites are so successful in conquering land east of the Jordan that the Reubenites, Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh prefer to stay on the east side of the Jordan and establish their tribal territories there (Num 32). Moses is allowed to gaze across the Jordan River at the promised land, but he is not allowed to cross the river (Deut 3). This idea of crossing over the Jordan later becomes a metaphor for liberation, mentioned explicitly in African American spirituals such as “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.”

Crossing the Jordan becomes a pivotal motif in Israelite self-understanding (Deut 31:13). After the death of Moses, the majority of the tribes cross over the Jordan under Joshua, with the priests holding the ark of the covenant midstream to stop the flow of the river (Josh 3). This miraculous crossing is remembered symbolically (Josh 4) and is said to strike fear in the hearts of the kings west of the Jordan, to the point that “their hearts melted, and there was no longer any spirit in them, because of the Israelites” (Josh 5:1).

In the rest of the book of Joshua and in Judges, the Jordan frequently serves as a geographical marker—in stories of conquest (Josh 12), distribution of the territories (Josh 13-20), and conflict between the Israelite tribes (Josh 22). According to the text of Judges, the fords of the Jordan become famous as the place where 42,000 Ephraimites (probably an exaggerated number) are slain by the Gileadites when they are unable to pronounce the famous password “Shibboleth” (Judg 12:6).

Under the monarchy, the Jordan continues to be a significant border and a place where God demonstrates his power. In 2Sam 19, David crosses the Jordan and returns to his kingdom after the death of his son Absalom. In 2Kgs 2, Elijah strikes the Jordan with his cloak and causes the water to back up so that he and Elisha can cross over on dry land. After Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2Kgs 2:11), Elisha assumes the authority of Elijah and uses his cloak to again stop the river and cross on dry land.

Is the modern Christian fascination with baptism in the Jordan River justified?

In the New Testament, the Jordan River continues to serve as a territorial marker (Matt 4:25, Matt 19:1, Mark 10:1). However it is featured mainly as the site where baptisms take place, conducted first by John (Matt 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, John 1) and then by Jesus and his disciples (John 3:26). This last reference suggests that some kind of competition developed between the ministry of baptism by Jesus and that of John (John 4:1-2). Interestingly, the account of Jesus' own baptism in Luke's gospel does not mention John, who is put into prison right before it occurs (Luke 3:20-21). Although John's gospel mentions John, and uses language reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism in the synoptic Gospels, it never explicitly says that Jesus was baptized (John 1:29-34).

After the initial flurry of baptismal activity at the Jordan, action in the Gospels shifts to other regions (the Galilee and Jerusalem) and activities (preaching, miracles, suffering). Baptism returns as a significant theme in the book of Acts and the Letters. Although baptism continues to be a significant rite of passage into the community of Jesus’ followers, it is also connected to controversy—over believers’ allegiance to the person who baptized them and to “baptism by the Holy Spirit” (1Cor 1:13-17, Acts 19:1-7). This later discussion of baptism is entirely removed from the Jordan River.

The modern Christian fascination with the Jordan River as a place of baptism is apparent, especially at certain baptismal sites near the Sea of Galilee and, more recently, east of Jericho. Though this practice captures the spirit of one important period of activity within the earliest Palestinian Jesus movement, the biblical traditions associated with the Jordan go far beyond this particular ritual.

Daniel Schowalter, "Jordan River", n.p. [cited 30 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/jordan-river

Contributors

Daniel Schowalter

Daniel Schowalter
Professor, Carthage College

Dan Schowalter is professor of classics and religion at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He codirects excavations of a Roman temple site at Omrit in northern Israel. He is coauthor of Horvat Omrit: An Interim Report (Archeopress, 2010).

In biblical tradition, the Jordan River serves as an important geophysical and symbolic boundary as well as a place for demonstrations of the Lord's power and for ritual immersion, or baptism.

Did you know…?

  • The Canaanites are said to occupy "land by the sea, and along the Jordan."
  • Moses leads the Israelites to the land east of the Jordan but is not allowed to cross over.
  • The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh help with the conquest of the promised land west of the Jordan but settle on the east side of the river.
  • At the fords of the Jordan, the Gileadites are said to slay 42,000 Ephraimites.
  • Like Matthew and Mark, Luke's gospel refers to Jesus being baptized in the Jordan, but unlike the first two Gospels, John the Baptist is not mentioned.
  • John's gospel suggests that there was a competition between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus over who was baptizing the most people.
  • Although John's gospel mentions John the Baptist and uses some language reminiscent of Jesus' baptism in the synoptic Gospels, it never says that Jesus was baptized.

A region of northern Israel notable for ample water and wildlife; its marshlands were drained in the 20th century. (also: Huleh Valley)

Completely surrounding a person in something. Within Christianity, it refers to baptisms where the baptized person is dunked entirely underwater, as opposed to having water poured over them.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Members of the Israelite tribe of Gad.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

(tribe, not king) One of the "Joseph tribes" of the northern kingdom of Israel, the other being Ephraim. All the other tribes are named after the sons of Jacob, but Ephraim and Manasseh, geographically the largest of the tribes, are named after his grandsons, the two sons of Joseph.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

Gen 13:10

10Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction o ... View more

Num 13:29

29The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and ... View more

Num 32

Conquest and Division of Transjordan
1Now the Reubenites and the Gadites owned a very great number of cattle. When they saw that the land of Jazer and the land ... View more

Deut 3

Defeat of King Og
1When we headed up the road to Bashan, King Og of Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, for battle at Edrei.2The Lord said to me, ... View more

Deut 31:13

13and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over th ... View more

Josh 3

Israel Crosses the Jordan
1Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan. They camped there bef ... View more

Josh 4

Twelve Stones Set Up at Gilgal
1When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua:2“Select twelve men from the people, one f ... View more

Josh 5:1

The New Generation Circumcised
1When all the kings of the Amorites beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites by the sea, heard that the ... View more

Josh 12

The Kings Conquered by Moses
1Now these are the kings of the land, whom the Israelites defeated, whose land they occupied beyond the Jordan toward the east, fro ... View more

Josh 13-20

The Parts of Canaan Still Unconquered
1Now Joshua was old and advanced in years; and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of ... View more

Josh 22

The Eastern Tribes Return to Their Territory
1Then Joshua summoned the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh,2and said to them, “You have obse ... View more

Judg 12:6

6they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the ... View more

2Sam 19

1It was told Joab, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.”2So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard tha ... View more

2Kgs 2

Elijah Ascends to Heaven
1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.2Elijah said t ... View more

2Kgs 2:11

11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Belonging to the ancient region of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin name for the Roman province of Palaestina.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Matt 4:25

25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Matt 19:1

Teaching about Divorce
1When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.

Mark 10:1

Teaching about Divorce
1He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, ... View more

Matt 3

The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has co ... View more

Mark 1

The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending ... View more

Luke 3

The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of ... View more

John 1

The Word Became Flesh
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2He was in the beginning with God.3All things came into be ... View more

John 3:26

26They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John 4:1-2

Jesus and the Woman of Samaria
1Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”2—although it was n ... View more

Luke 3:20-21

20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.The Baptism of Jesus
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was pr ... View more

John 1:29-34

The Lamb of God
29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!30This is he of whom I ... View more

1Cor 1:13-17

13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gai ... View more

Acts 19:1-7

Paul in Ephesus
1While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.2He said to them, “Di ... View more

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