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The Jordan River in Israelite History

The Jordan River’s geology and climate have contributed to its role in history as a political boundary and in biblical history writing as a site of community formation.

North Jordon River

The Jordan River runs through a broad, arid valley between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Jordan River Valley has been occupied for millennia, with agriculture focused on palm and date farming. Archaeological excavations have also confirmed the report in 1Kgs 7:46 (repeated in 2Chr 4:17) suggesting that inhabitants of the region east of the river exploited deposits of iron ore there.

Moreover, like many rivers, the Jordan often served as a political boundary between Israel and its neighboring nations; before the Assyrians annexed the Israelite territory east of the Jordan in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. (see 2Kgs 10:32-33, 2Kgs 15:29), the river also served as a border between the Israelite tribes themselves (see, for example, Num 32:19, Num 34:15). This is true not only of the biblical period but of the modern period as well; the river currently forms the border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories on the west and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the east. In antiquity, the river probably formed a significant barrier to travel and could be forded only at certain spots. This imposed some restrictions on cross-river trade and movement.

Since the Jordan River plays a larger role in the biblical narratives than it may have played historically, it is difficult to describe the river’s place in history; it is perhaps more appropriate to talk about the river’s place in Israelite (that is, biblical) history writing.

Most famously, the book of Joshua claims that after the exodus from Egypt, Joshua led the Israelite fugitives across the Jordan River into Canaan (Josh 3-4). This conquest narrative became a key idea in the formation of the people Israel and served as a recurrent motif in Israelite literature. Another example of the same theme of crossing the Jordan appears in Jacob’s journey to Paddan-Aram to live with his uncle Laban; see especially his reflection on his life in Gen 32:10: “with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.” Although Jacob utters these words while crossing the Jabbok River (a small tributary of the Jordan) on his return from Paddan-Aram, this is probably intended to foreshadow Joshua’s similar statement during the conquest of Canaan (Josh 4:22).

The importance of crossing the Jordan River no doubt occasioned the stories surrounding Elijah and Elisha (see 2Kgs 2:1-14) and, ultimately, the ministry of John the Baptist on its banks (see Matt 3:1, Matt 3:13). But the fords of the Jordan were not always sites of peaceful unification for the people Israel. Frequently, we read of battles occurring at these fords (see Judg 3:28, Judg 7:24-25) or on the river’s eastern banks (Judg 8:4, 1Sam 11, 2Sam 10:17, 1Chr 19:17, 1Macc 5:24, 1Macc 9:42-49). Sometimes we even read of squabbling between the various Israelite tribes occurring at the fords (see Judg 12:5-6, 2Sam 20:1-2).

The topography and the climate of the valley through which the Jordan River flows have played a decisive role in the region’s settlement and political importance. This political importance has left its mark in the biblical text’s historical writing, in turn influencing the theological and symbolic importance of the area.

  • Jeremy M. Hutton

    Jeremy M. Hutton is an assistant professor of Classical Hebrew and biblical literature in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He is the author of The Transjordanian Palimpsest (de Gruyter, 2009).