The Jordan River flows from the Lebanese mountains south through Lake Kinneret and empties into the Dead Sea. In the Greek translation of the Bible (Septuagint) the Hebrew form Yarden is transliterated Yordanes or Yordanos. Many scholars theorize that the name Jordan is connected with the Semitic root yarod ("to descend") or the Arabic warad ("to come to the water to drink"). The alternative Arabic name of the Jordan — Nahr al-Shari'a ("the water trough") — sometimes used with the addition al-kabir ("the great") — has the same connotation.

The Talmud interprets the name Jordan as a combination of ye'or ("river"; actually an Egyptian word) and Dan, i.e., the "river that descends from Dan."[1]

The Jordan River exists in 3 sections, beginning in the north:
From its multiple river sources to Lake Huleh (the Bareighit, Senir (al-Hasbani in Arabic) from Mount Hermon, the Dan (al-Liddhan in Arabic) , and Hermon (al-Banias in Arabic).
Lake Huleh to the Sea Of Galilee in Galilee, about 10 miles / 16 kilometers.
From the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, in a straight line about 65 miles / 105 kilometers.

From its beginning in the north to its terminus at the Dead Sea, the elevation of the river drops tremendously — from the heights of Mount Hermon to the depths of the Dead Sea — a drop of about 2,380 feet. Due to its winding course, the river itself actually measures nearly 200 miles / 325 kilometers, over twice its direct distance.


In the Bible the Jordan is associated in particular with Jericho and is frequently mentioned with that city in whose vicinity the Israelites crossed the Jordan.[2] There are several biblical terms connected specifically with the Jordan:
Kikkar ha-yarden: the cultivable middle section of the three terraces composing the Jordan Valley (plain of the Jordan).[3] It was this part of the valley whose fertility attracted Lot recalling "the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt."
Gelilot ha-yarden: The upper lands of the Jordan Valley (region about the Jordan)[4]
Ge'on ha-yarden: The lowest terrace, bordering on the river itself and densely (thickets of the Jordan)[5]; there the "sons of the prophets" went to cut wood[6]; it was the haunt of dangerous beasts, even lions[7] and is cited as the opposite of lands where man is safe.


The Jordan River played a significant role in biblical history. The first mention of the Jordan is when Abraham and Lot parted company: "And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord…."[8] Jacob was renamed Israel at the ford of the Jabbok River, a tributary of the Jordan.[9]

Perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible is that in Joshua 3 which describes the crossing of the Israelites that, like the Red Sea, miraculously divides for them.[10] In biblical times the Jordan was crossed by means of its fords — shallow places where one can cross by walking or riding on an animal or in a vehicle.[11] As it was very difficult to ford the river at that place and in that season the sudden cessation of the Jordan's flow was regarded as miraculous. The crossing of the Jordan is recorded as one of the great miracles of God.[12] The river acquired a sacred character and the miraculous crossing was often recounted in later times. For example, its waters were expected to heal Naaman,[13] and the prophets Elijah and Elisha accomplish similar miraculous crossings.[14]

As a serious obstacle to movement the Jordan played an important part in Israel's military history; Kings Ehud and Gideon, for example, both occupied the fords as strategic military maneuvers — to deny passage to a retreating army and to prevent attack.[15] When the Israelite kingdoms were established east of the Jordan (the territories of the Amorites and of Basham were allotted to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, half of the tribe of Manasseh), the river was transformed from an interstate boundary to a tribal one. Throughout its history, the Israelite people held lands on both sides of the river, although its main territory was west of it. In later times it was usually the weaker party which retired east of the Jordan: Abner retreated there with Ish-Boshet son of Saul after the defeat at Mount Gilboa[16] and David after the initial success of Absalom's rebellion.[17]

footnotes [1] BT Ber. 55a [back]
[2] Num. 22:1 [back]
[3] Gen. 13:10 [back]
[4] Josh. 22:10 [back]
[5] Jer. 49:19 [back]
[6] (II Kings 6:4 [back]
[7] Jer. 49:19 [back]
[8] Genesis 13:10-11 [back]
[9] Genesis 32:22-28 [back]
[10] Joshua 3:15-17 [back]

[11] Gen. 32:10-11 -- Jacob passed over it with a staff on his way from Beit-El to Haran and in returning recrossed it into Canaan near Succot. [back]
[12] Ps. 114:3 [back]
[13] II Kings 5:10-14 [back]
[14] I and II Kings [back]; Although such occasion are rare, they have actually been recorded in history; in 1267 the Jordan ceased flowing for eight hours; in 1546, for two whole days; and in 1927 for 21 1/2 hours. In all three cases the cessation was the result of earthquakes which caused the high banks to collapse blocking the river bed and stopping its flow.
[15] Judges 3:28; 7:24; 12:5-6 [back]
[16] II Sam. 2:8 [back]
[17] II Sam. 17:22 [back]
footnotes The waters of the Jordan became sacred in Christian eyes because on its banks John the Baptist performed baptisms and there, too, Jesus was baptized (although the exact location of Jesus' baptism is debated).  



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