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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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the largest and most celebrated stream in Palestine. It is much larger, according to Dr. Shaw, than all the brooks and streams of the Holy Land united together; and, excepting the Nile, is by far the most considerable river either of the coast of Syria or of Barbary. He computed it to be about thirty yards broad, and found it nine feet deep at the brink. This river, which divides the country into two unequal parts, has been commonly said to issue from two fountains, or to be formed by the junction of two rivulets, the Jor and the Dan: but the assertion seems to be totally destitute of any solid foundation. The Jewish historian, Josephus, on the contrary, places its source at Phiala, a fountain which rises about fifteen miles from Caesarea Philippi, a little on the right hand, and not much out of the way to Trachonitis. It is called Phiala, or the Vial, from its round figure; its water is always of the same depth, the basin being brimful, without either shrinking or overflowing. From Phiala to Panion, which was long considered as the real source of the Jordan, the river flows under ground. The secret of its subterranean course was first discovered by Philip, the tetrarch of Trachonitis, who cast straws into the fountain of Phiala, which came out again at Panion. Leaving the cave of Panion, it crosses the bogs and fens of the lake Semichonitis; and after a course of fifteen miles, passes under the city of Julius, the ancient Bethsaida; then expands into a beautiful sheet of water, named the lake of Gennesareth; and, after flowing a long way through the desert, empties itself into the lake Asphaltites, or the Dead Sea. As the cave Panion lies at the foot of Mount Lebanon, in the northern extremity of Canaan, and the lake Asphaltites extends to the southern extremity, the river Jordan pursues its course through the whole extent of the country from north to south. It is evident, also, from the history of Josephus, that a wilderness or desert of considerable extent stretched along the river Jordan in the times of the New Testament; which was undoubtedly the wilderness mentioned by the evangelists, where John the Baptist came preaching and baptizing. The Jordan has a considerable depth of water. Chateaubriand makes it six or seven feet deep close at the shore, and about fifty paces in breadth a considerable distance from its entrance into the Dead Sea. According to the computation of Volney, it is hardly sixty paces wide at the mouth; but the author of "Letters from Palestine" states, that the stream when it enters the lake Asphaltites, is deep and rapid, rolling a considerable volume of waters; the width appears from two to three hundred feet, and the current is so violent, that a Greek servant belonging to the author, who attempted to cross it, though strong, active, and an excellent swimmer, found the undertaking impracticable. It may be said to have two banks, of which the inner marks the ordinary height of the stream; and the outer, its ancient elevation during the rainy season, or the melting of the snows on the summits of Lebanon. In the days of Joshua, and, it is probable, for many ages after his time, the harvest was one of the seasons when the Jordan over-flowed his banks. This fact is distinctly recorded by the sacred historian: "And as they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water; for Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest," Joshua 3:15 . This happens in the first month of the Jewish year, which corresponds with March, 1 Chronicles 12:15 . But in modern times, whether the rapidity of the current has worn the channel deeper than formerly, or whether its waters have taken some other direction, the river seems to have forgotten his ancient greatness. When Maundrell visited Jordan on the thirtieth of March, the proper time for these inundations, he could discern no sign or probability of such overflowing; nay, so far was it from overflowing, that it ran, says our author, at least two yards below the brink of its channel. After having descended the outer bank, he went about a furlong upon the level strand, before he came to the immediate bank of the river. This inner bank was so thickly covered with bushes and trees, among which he observed the tamarisk, the willow, and the oleander, that he could see no water till he had made his way through them. In this entangled thicket, so conveniently planted near the cooling stream, and remote from the habitations of men, several kinds of wild beasts were accustomed to repose, till the swelling of the river drove them from their retreats. This circumstance gave occasion to that beautiful allusion of the prophet: "He shall come up like a lion, from the swelling of Jordan, against the habitation of the strong," Jeremiah 49:19 . The figure is highly poetical and striking. It is not easy to present a more terrible image to the mind, than a lion roused from his den by the roar of the swelling river, and chafed and irritated by its rapid and successive encroachments on his chosen haunts, till, forced to quit his last retreat, he ascends to the higher grounds and the open country, and turns the fierceness of his rage against the helpless sheep cots, or the unsuspecting villages. A destroyer equally fierce, and cruel, and irresistible, the devoted Edomites were to find in Nebuchadnezzar and his armies.

The water of the river at the time of Maundrell's visit was very turbid, and too rapid to allow a swimmer to stem its course. Its breadth might be about twenty yards; and in depth, it far exceeded his height. The rapidity and depth of the river, which are admitted by every traveller, although the volume of water seems now to be much diminished, illustrate those parts of Scripture which mention the fords and passages of Jordan. It no longer, indeed, rolls down into the Salt Sea so majestic a stream as in the days of Joshua; yet its ordinary depth is still about ten or twelve feet, so that it cannot even at present be passed but at certain places. Of this well known circumstance, the men of Gilead took advantage in the civil war, which they were compelled to wage with their brethren: "The Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites:—then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan." Judges 12:6 . The people of Israel, under the command of Ehud, availed themselves of the same advantage in the war with Moab: "And they went down after him, and took the fords of Jordan toward Moab, and suffered not a man to pass over," Judges 3:28 . But although the state of this river in modern times completely justifies the incidental remarks of the sacred writers, it is evident that Maundrell was disconcerted by the shallowness of the stream, at the time of the year when he expected to see it overflowing all its banks; and his embarrassment seems to have increased when he contemplated the double margin within which it flowed. This difficulty, which has perhaps occurred to some others, may be explained by a remark which Dr. Pococke has made on the river Euphrates: The bed of the Euphrates, says that writer, was measured by some English gentlemen at Beer, and found to be six hundred and thirty yards broad; but the river only two hundred and fourteen yards over; then they thought it to be nine or ten feet deep in the middle; and were informed that it sometimes rises twelve feet perpendicularly. He observed that it had an inner and outer bank; but says, it rarely overflows the inner bank; that when it does, they sow water mellons and other fruits of that kind, as soon as the water retires, and have a great produce. From this passage, Mr. Harmer argues: "Might not the over-flowings of the Jordan be like those of the Euphrates, not annual, but much more rare?" The difficulty, therefore, will be completely removed by supposing, that it does not, like the Nile, overflow every year, as some authors, by mistake, had supposed, but, like the Euphrates, only in some particular years; but when it does it is in the time of harvest. If it did not in ancient times annually overflow its banks, the majesty of God in dividing its waters to make way for Joshua and the armies of Israel, was certainly the more striking to the Canaanites; who, when they looked upon themselves as defended in an extraordinary manner by the casual swelling of the river, its breadth and rapidity being both so extremely increased, yet, found it in these circumstances part asunder, and leave a way on dry land for the people of Jehovah. The common receptacle into which the Jordan empties his waters, is the lake Asphaltites, from whence they are continually drained off by evaporation. Some writers, unable to find a discharge for the large body of water which is continually rushing into the lake, have been inclined to suspect it had some communication with the Mediterranean; but, beside that we know of no such gulf, it has been demonstrated by accurate calculations, that evaporation is more than sufficient to carry off the waters of the river. It is, in fact, very considerable, and frequently becomes sensible to the eye, by the fogs with which the lake is covered at the rising of the sun, and which are afterward dispersed by the heat.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Jordan'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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