Matot Masei: The Jordan River
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On Israel's longest river, the site of the miraculous crossing of the Jewish People into the Land of Israel. A spiritual and physical border. What are the Jordan crossings, Ma'abarot HaYarden, and what were their strategic importance in ancient times?
"They brought to Moshe to Elazar the Kohen and to the assembly of the Children of Israel … at the plains of Moav, which was by the Jordan near Jericho" (Bamidbar 31:12).
Matot gives us the opportunity to explore various places in the Land of Israel, and among them the Jordan River. The Jordan River, Israel's eastern border is the main river that courses down the country from north to south. Biblical sources are unclear as to whether this river is considered part of the Land of Israel. A Tannaitic dispute on the matter is brought in the Gemara (Bechorot 55a):
"When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan”(Bamidbar 3:51). "Into the land” indicates that the Land of Canaan is considered part of the Land of Israel, but the Jordan River itself is not considered part of the Land of Canaan; this is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: the verse states (with regard to the portions of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe): "beyond the Jordan at Jericho eastward, toward the sunrise" (Bamidbar 34:15). Just as Jericho is part of the Land of Canaan, so too, the Jordan River is part of the Land of Canaan.
Moshe Rabbeinu, in his speech on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, refers to the river as a border that he will not be able to cross (Devarim 4:22): “For I will die in this land; I am not crossing the Jordan – but you are crossing and you shall possess this good.”
The Jordan River is a barrier, both physically—due to its deep and choppy waters—and spiritually. As mentioned above, Moshe is not allowed to traverse it; yet, Hashem brings His Chosen Nation over the Jordan River into the Promised Land (Yehoshua 3:13): "It shall transpire, just as the soles of the feet of the Kohanim, the bearers of the Ark of Hashem … rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan will be cut off … and they will stand as one column."
Indeed, this miraculous event is compared (Tehillim 114:3) to the splitting of the Red Sea: "The sea saw and fled; the Jordan turned backwards."
The splitting of the Jordan can be described in a natural manner, whereas the miraculous element could be the precise timing of the event. There were later historical events where in the aftermath of an earthquake or flooding, enormous boulders and clods of earth rolled down into the Jordan and blocked the river's flow. One such instance was the great earthquake of 1546, where the Jordan's flow ceased for two days. A similar even took place in the Jericho earthquake of 1927, where the Jordan stopped flowing for a day after an avalanche fell into the channel next to the Damia (Adam) Bridge.
The Jordan poses a transportation block on both its banks. It is only possible to traverse the Jordan in certain places: the ma'abarot, crossings, since in biblical times, there were no bridges over the Jordan. Most of the crossings are located in its upper course, north of the Yabbok estuary, while there are a few crossings in its southern course as well. During wars, military forces pursuing an enemy would block its path of retreat eastwards by wresting control of the crossings. For this reason, the soldiers of Jericho hurry to the Jordan crossings when pursuing the spies (Yehoshua 2:7): "So the men pursued them in the direction of Jordan to the crossings."
Similarly, after Ehud struck Eglon, the Moabite king, the Jews captured the Jordan crossings to block the path of retreat for the Moabites (Shoftim 3:28): "… they conquered the Jordan's crossings into Moab and did not let anyone cross." In this way, the Moabite soldiers could not flee back to their country from Jericho.
The Jordan River is long and snakelike, and is divided into three sections: (1) "The land of Jordan and the Hermon's peeks" (Tehillim 42:7) is the northern course. The sources of the Jordan, which flow at the foot of Mt. Hermon, are Snir (Hasbani River), which is its northernmost source—520 m above sea level; Dan (Leddan River); and Hermon (Banias River). These three streams merge at 80 m above sea level, and become the Jordan River. The channel then drops into Lake Hula. (2) From Lake Hula, it falls in a steep 282 m drop for 16 km into the Sea of Galilee. (3) The course of the Jordan that runs between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is called Ge'on HaYarden (Yirmiyahu 49:19): "Behold, I will descend from the heights (ge'on) of the Jordan." Most of it is covered by thick shrubbery, and rich with fauna. Ge'on hayarden is the lower part of the river channel.
The upper terrace adjacent to this channel, which is wide and fertile, is called several names in the Tanach: Arvat HaYarden, Kikar HaYarden, and Gelilot HaYarden.
The Talmud defines the part of the river called the Jordan, Yarden (Bechorot 55a):
Rabba bar bar Chana says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: The river is called Jordan only from Beit Jericho and below … That is also taught in a baraita: The Jordan River issues forth from the Cave of Pamyas and flows via the Sea of Sivkhi (Lake Hula), and via the Sea of Tiberius, (the Sea of Galilee), and via the Sea of Sodom (the Dead Sea) and continues and falls down to the Great Sea. But it is called Jordan only from Beit Jericho and below (to the south). Rabbi Chiya bar Abba says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Why is the river called Jordan? Because it descends [yored] from the city of Dan.