(Map 1:Y2–5). The major river in ancient Palestine, linking the two major inland lakes of Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the Dead Sea (also known as the Salt Sea). The principal source of the Jordan is the precipitation on Mount Hermon and the three springs near Tel Dan, Banias, and Hasbaya. In antiquity some of the headwaters of the Jordan River flowed through the Huleh Valley, a lake until modern times, which is some 300 m (985 ft) higher than the Sea of Galilee; this rapid drop in elevation, which continues farther south, probably explains the river's name (from Hebr. yārad, “to go down”). These sources combine near the northern edge of the Huleh Valley, and from that point the river is called the Jordan.
The river flows out of Kinneret at its southern tip, possibly an artificial outflow; 10 km (6 mi) south the Jordan is joined by its main tributary, the Yarmuk. Another tributary from the east is the Jabbok, in the Wadi Zarqa, 56 km (35 mi) farther south. The Jordan valley receives virtually no direct rainfall south of the Yarmuk. The total annual flow of the river into the Dead Sea, another 194 m (600 ft) lower than the Sea of Galilee, is 1.2 billion m3 (3 billion gal) of water. Despite this volume, the Jordan River has rarely served as a source of irrigation. The river bluffs of the flood plain of the Rift Valley (Arabic Ghor), which line both sides of the Jordan, are 500–1,000 m (1,500–3,000 ft) wide and constantly crumbling and rise at least 20–50 m (60–150 ft) above the river bottom. These factors constitute a serious impediment to irrigation, since the technology of pumping is fairly recent. The flood plain (Arabic Zor) is called “pride of the Jordan” (NRSV: “thicket”; Jer. 12.5; 49.19; 50.44; Zech. 11.3).
Because of the intense heat of the Rift Valley and the availability of moisture from the Jordan along its river banks, much of the vegetation there has the characteristic of a tropical jungle, which is typical of regions as far south as the Sudan. One plant that grows freely there is the papyrus. In addition there is much tamarisk and spina Christi on the river banks. In antiquity it was a haven for many wild animals, including lions. The river is fairly narrow and easy to cross, though the current is often swift.
Much of the importance of the Jordan River in the Bible derives from the fact that it assumes so central a place in the geographical nomenclature. It forms a natural boundary, so that Moab is “beyond the Jordan” and hence the Israelites must cross the Jordan in order to enter the Promised Land (Josh. 3). Although Israel often controlled territory east of the Jordan, the Jordan forms a natural eastern border, and Ezekiel's idealized nation is entirely to its west (see Ezek. 47.18). Jesus is reported to be baptized at “Bethany across the Jordan” (John 1.28). It is thus both as a primary water source, especially in the northern Ghor, and as a central feature of the Palestinian landscape that the Jordan River derives its importance.
Eric M. Meyers