If you’ve ever listened to how the old Negro spirituals portray the Jordan River, you would expect it to be deep, wide, and chilly. To cross it you need to row your boat ashore. The reality is rather different.
At Qasr al Yahud, near Jericho, the river is shallow, narrow, and pretty warm. And because it is an international border guarded by soldiers on both sides, the boat is useless.
This week, I went to Qasr al Yahud on a tour with my class from Matan, a women’s seminary in southern Jerusalem. We’re studying the territories assigned to each tribe during the settlement of the land of Canaan, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges. And where better to start than at the place Joshua led the people across the Jordan River?
G-d tells Joshua that the Cohanim, the priests, will lead the crossing. The Cohanim will carry the Ark of the Covenant, and when they step into the river, the waters will stop; they will heap up and the Children of Israel will cross on dry land. It sounds a lot like what happened to their parents and grandparents at the Red Sea when they left Egypt forty years earlier.
We know the crossing occurred a few days before Passover, the end of the rainy season. The Tanakh specifically tells us that the river was in flood. The Jordan must have been a mighty river back then, not the paltry stream we see today. In a year of plentiful rain, there would have been a significant flow of water. Photos from 1935 show the Jordan in flood, spread out for miles.
It wouldn’t happen today, even in a year of plentiful rain, because water flow in the river is highly regulated. The three main tributaries of the Jordan—the Dan, the Hasbani, the Banias—come out of the mountains join together just north of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The outflow from the southern end of the lake is controlled by the Degania dam, which is rarely opened wide. Very little of the river water flows out the southern end of the lake. Instead it is channeled through the national water carrier to cities, towns, and farms in Israel, or through special pipes to neighboring Jordan.
During rainy season, dry wadis throughout Israel become streams and rivers. Those on the eastern side of the watershed discharge into the Jordan, increasing its flow. Water from farms whose irrigation is not carefully controlled also increases groundwater runoff. Because many Palestinian villages in Areas A and B refuse to connect to sewage treatment lines, surface runoff is highly polluted. Between the low water flow in the river, plus the sewage and other pollutants in the river, by the time it gets to the vicinity of Jericho, it is a ugly greenish brown color.
Neither the small size of the river nor the pollution discourage Christian pilgrims. Every year approximately 300,000 visitors arrive, many to be baptized where John baptized Jesus more than two thousand years ago. Although the exact site of the baptism is unknown, evidence from the Bible points to the area known by its Arabic name as Qasr al Yahud.
Qasr al Yahud, like many names in Arabic and in Hebrew, can be interpreted two ways. It might mean “the Palace of the Jews” or it might mean the “Crossing [Place] of the Jews.” The latter translation refers to where the Jews crossed the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan.
The Biblical description of the river crossing indicates that this is the correct area. It is described as being opposite Jericho. Driving down from Jerusalem, we went past Jericho, and could see its outskirts behind us as we turned onto the Qasr al Yahud access road.
The Jordan River, for all its length from the Kinneret to the Dead Sea, is far below sea level. Near Jericho the land around the river is flat; if it is not too hazy, you can see for miles in any direction.
However, several miles north of Jericho, the mountains of Samaria come right down to the river. When the river is in flood, the mountains can act as a natural dam, constricting the flow. If an earthquake dislodges boulders, the river can actually be stopped here. Earthquakes did indeed stop the flow of the river for several days after an earthquake in 1546. The 1927 earthquake may have also have blocked the river and caused the water to back up for a few hours. Some scholars have theorized that such an earthquake was responsible for the Jordan stopping and the waters heaping up “like a wall,” allowing the Jews to cross without getting wet.
It is unlikely that such an earthquake would cause the waters to accumulate like a wall today, unless it also caused the Degania Dam to collapse.
The Bible records another instance of the Jordan River stopping to allow people to cross it on dry land. In Kings II, Elijah and Elisha walk to the river from Jericho. Elijah hits the water with his cloak, and the river splits so the two prophets can cross. As Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha grabs his cloak. He returns to Jericho, using the cloak to split the river so he a can again cross without getting his feet wet.
The people we saw on the banks of the Jordan this week were not worried about getting their feet wet. They had come to Qasr al Yehud specifically to dip in the Jordan’s water, as Jesus had.
The gift shop sells white baptismal gowns for the convenience of pilgrims who have not brought their own. Next to the gift shop is an enclosed area for those being baptized to change and to shower. Given the high level of pollution, post-baptism showers, even if not required by religion, are certainly necessary from a health standpoint.
I watched as the priest spoke to a group. They stood on the wooden platform as they prayed together and sang a hymn. Then the priest led them to the stairs. He stood on the second step, getting wet up to his knees. Repeatedly filling a cup with water, he poured it over the head of each person in turn. After being baptized, most of the people waded out into the waist deep water and dunked themselves up to their shoulders. Out in the deeper water, they lost their seriousness, and laughed as they bobbed up and down. Not one of them approached the floating cord that marked the border between Israel and Jordan.
Many of them posed for photos with their friends as they came back up onto the platform. I took a few photos of them too, but as I did so, I thought of how
I feel when tourists at the Kotel take photos. It always makes me uncomfortable to see a camera pointed in my direction as I pray. Yet, here I was doing the same thing. So I pointed my camera in another direction—towards the wooden platform on the other side of the river.
The Jordanian side of the river is as holy as the Israeli one, but we saw only two or three pilgrims on the opposite bank. The Jordanian soldier sitting there seemed bored. It looked like he was more interested in his phone than in watching the river. Just like the IDF soldiers on our side.
I could only wish that the soldiers on all our borders would have such dull uninteresting duties.