The Jordan River: A Significant Border and Demonstration of God’s Power

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

The Jordan River extends from Mount Hermon (on the border separating Syria and Lebanon) southward through northern Israel to the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberius). From the sea, the Jordan flows southward and finally empties into the Dead Sea. 

While the Jordan River is more than 223 miles in length, the actual distance between its principal source at the base of Mount Hermon (whose melting snow feeds it) and the Dead Sea is less than 124 miles. The stormy banks and swelling floods can result in the Jordan increasing a mile or two in width in certain areas.

The name Jordan comes from the Hebrew word yardên, from the root yārad, meaning “to descend,” which the river certainly does. The Greeks originally called the Jordan “Aulon,” though the Arabic name “Nahr Al Sharieat” (“Watering Place”) became more popular after the Crusades. The Jordan River is the longest perennial course in Israel. Because of its tremendous length and primary location, the Jordan River is mentioned almost 200 times in the Bible, and has more biblical allusions and significance than any other river.

In Scripture, the Jordan is first mentioned in Genesis 13:10, “Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere—this was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar.” Abram had offered Lot land to “the left” or “the right” (v. 9), which would seem to suggest that he wanted to partition “the whole land” of the promise, wherein he would take one part and Lot the other. The Hebrew word for east is qedem, meaning “forward,” and indicates preference for that direction, whereas the word for west is ’āchôwr, meaning “backward.” The Hebrew words indicate that the Israelites were eastern-oriented: That direction had a positive connotation, whereas the west was viewed negatively. One can note this eastern orientation and avoidance of the west in Ezekiel’s description of the millennial temple, which will be directed toward the east. Ezekiel’s temple is square in overall shape with three outer gates: one each on the north, east, and south side. The northern part of the court will have gates, as will the southern. There is also an eastern gate but no western gate. Ezekiel’s prophecy demonstrates the Israelite preference for the east and avoidance of the west. While the Israelites were eastern-oriented indeed, God would lead Abram to the land He would show him (12:1; cf. v. 8; 13:14; 15:18).

In all likelihood, Abram made his offer to Lot as they were looking toward the east, since “Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan” (13:10), which would be to the east of where they were standing. What he apparently offered on “the left” would have been northern Canaan, the territory surrounding Shechem (cf. Gen 12:6; 13:3; 33:18-20; 37:12-17). The choice on “the right” would be southern Canaan, which would include both Hebron and the Negev (cf. 13:6, 9; 13:1, 18; 20:1; 24:62). Lot, however, did not chose either “the left” (north) or “the right” (south), but what was “like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt” (13:10). Both are positive descriptions within the context of Genesis, though the latter may be a subtle warning considering Israel’s bondage there. This seems confirmed in that the land chosen by Lot was “as you go to Zoar,” the city he fled to when God determined to rain brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah (19:19-24). To some extent, Lot’s decision seemed to have been made based upon the desire to align himself with the native inhabitants (cf. 13:7, 12; 19:1-26), in addition to the natural abundance of the Jordan valley (13:10). Lot’s choosing “for himself all the valley of the Jordan” and journey “eastward” resulted in separation from Abram (v. 11), and the reference to Zoar (v. 10) anticipates the result of that decision.

Worthy of note is that Adam and Eve were driven “east of the Garden of Eden” (3:24), and “Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (4:16). Additionally, the people of Babel “journeyed east” in their determination to rebel against God (11:2). Lot’s decision, therefore, should be unsettling. The Jordan River was the eastern border of Canaan in the time of Lot, and the contrast between “the land of Canaan” and “the cities of the valley” (13:12) confirms Lot’s intent to separate from Abram. In the same manner as the rebellious people who “journeyed east . . . in the land of Shinar,” where they sought to build the city of Babylon (11:1-2), so did Lot journey “eastward” from the Promised Land into “the cities of the valley” when he “separated” from Abram (v. 14).

Years later, as opposed to seeking the Lord’s best, the tribes of Reuben and Gad were herdsman and thus requested permission not to cross the Jordan River but to settle east of it, since the land was more suitable for their “exceedingly large number of livestock” (Numb 32:1-5). “The land of Jazer and the land of Gilead . . . was indeed a place suitable for livestock” (v. 1), yet the decision of the tribes to settle (half of the tribe of Manasseh would join them later, v. 33) seemed to be more of a concession from God rather than His first intent. While it is true that God had given all that land to His people (Numb 21), and all His people needed to do was fortify and occupy it, the Gadites and Reubenites would be settling in the fringes of the land as opposed to the more essential territory. Moreover, the Jordan would separate them from the nation, thus precluding them from the nucleus of life in the Promised Land and making them prone to foreign influence.

The request of the tribes concerned Moses, and he referred to them as “a brood of sinful men” (Numb 32:14). He feared their attitude would discourage the other tribes “from crossing over into the land which the LORD has given them” (v. 7). Certainly, there was a basis for Moses’ concern: Their satisfaction with less than God’s best, as opposed to inheriting the fullness of His blessing, could negatively influence the other tribes. Moses feared they were mimicking the unbelief of their fathers at Kadesh-barnea (vv. 8-15), and made certain the Gadites and Rebeunites understood there was a battle to fight. They must be prepared and willing to fight alongside the other tribes until the Promised Land was conquered, to which they promised to assist “the sons of Israel” until every tribe possessed their divinely given “inheritance” (vv. 16-19). Their sin would be failure to fulfill their vow (v. 23), which the tribes did keep, yet their location across the Jordan was problematic (cf. Josh 22).

According to Hebrews 4, claiming the inheritance in the Promised Land is an illustration of how the church relates to the will of God and His promises in Christ Jesus. Some can be compared to the generation that perished in the wilderness, never entering the land. Others are similar to the ten spies, who saw the blessing of the land yet failed to enter. The tribes of Gad and Reuben (and half of Manasseh) entered the Promised Land yet did not remain, preferring the land on the border where they could raise their livestock. Moses was precluded from entering the Promised Land and was only allowed to view it—prior to his death—from the “mountain of Abarim” across the Jordan (Numb 27:12; Deut 31:2; 32:48-52). Yet God promised Joshua that He would give possession of the land which He swore to Abraham and his descendants (Josh 1:6; cf. Gen 12:6-7; 13:14-15; 15:18-21).

As the new generation of Israelites was finally prepared to enter the Promised Land, the Jordan River was the only obstacle. God instructed Joshua to have the priests carry the ark of the covenant into the Jordan, and when they obeyed, “the waters which were flowing down from above stood and rose up in one heap . . . and the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground, until all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan” (Josh 3:16-17).

Two heaps of stones were erected as “a memorial to the sons of Israel forever” (4:7). Twelve stones were “set up . . . in the middle of the Jordan at the place where the feet of the priests who carried the ark of the covenant were standing” (v. 9), and another twelve stones were “taken from the Jordan” and placed “at Gilgal” (vv. 1-8, 10-24). The memorials would serve as perpetual witnesses to how God rewards faith and works on behalf of those who trust in Him. However, even Joshua failed to attain complete rest for Israel for the same reason as Moses; namely, the people’s unbelief (Heb 4:1-14). The generation that crossed the Jordan only partially experienced God’s rest, because they failed to obey and trust the Lord entirely. Believers today must be careful not to “come short” of God’s rest and “be diligent to enter that rest” (vv. 1, 11).

The Jordan River is mentioned many more times in the Old Testament, usually in reference to battles and disputes involving God’s people. The Jordan was strategic in Gideon’s great victory over the Midianites (Judg 7:23-25; 8:4-5). Saul and several of his sons later perished in a battle near the Jordan River (1 Sam 31). Other passages mention how the Jordan was crossed to engage an enemy (2 Sam 2:29; 17:22-24; 19:15-40). Elijah “lived [for a time] by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan” (1 Kgs 17:5). Elisha told Naaman the Syrian to “Go and wash in the Jordan” to be cured of his leprosy (2 Kgs 5:10), and an axe head was miraculously recovered there (2 Kgs 6:1-7). The prophets Elijah and Elisha crossed the Jordan prior to the former’s translation (2 Kgs 2:7-8, 13-14).

The New Testament refers to the importance of the Jordan River at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Matt 3:13-17). John baptized in the same area of the Jordan where Elijah was translated (2 Kgs 2:11). Jesus came to John at the Jordan “to be baptized by him” (Matt 3:13). Jesus did not need purification or to repent. He was baptized as an identifying representation of obedience at the beginning of His ministry. Jesus understood that God’s will was for John to baptize Him as an indication of His submission (v. 15). Furthermore, the Lord’s baptism not only authenticated John’s ministry but also identified Jesus with the godly remnant of Israel. At the Jordan, the Father sent the Holy Spirit to empower Jesus to accomplish His messianic ministry (v. 16), which was soon to begin (4:17).

Midnight Call - 11/2023

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