The Jordan River in Poetry and Prophecy by Jeremy M. Hutton

Today, the Jordan River is little more than a trickle because the nations on either side of it (Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan) use much of its water to support their populations. But in ancient times, the river could be so swollen by spring rains that it could not be crossed (see, for example, Josh 3:15). Most of the year, however, the river was easily forded at several locations, even if its topographic and ecological features evoked images of a harsh and difficult landscape, sometimes even viewed as mythologically dangerous.

Several plant species, including willow and tamarisk, inhabit the innermost riverbed, forming a nearly impenetrable thicket. This thicket was commemorated as the ga’on (literally, “swelling,” or, metaphorically, “pride”) of the Jordan in Israelite poetry. The prophet Jeremiah compared the Jordan’s lush and difficult copse to open terrain, asking, “if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?” (Jer 12:5). The Jordan’s thickets also served as the dwelling of lions (Zech 11:3), providing a fearsome image to which Jeremiah compares Yahweh’s swift action against Israel’s enemies (Jer 49:19, Jer 50:44). The same Hebrew word, ga’on, underlies the description of papyrus along riverbanks in Job 8:11.

The word “pride,” however, does not simply present a straightforward image of the Jordan’s thickets. In addition to this meaning, the Hebrew root also means “haughtiness” and “arrogance,” attributed sometimes to humans (for example, Isa 2:12, Jer 48:29) but also to enemies of a more sinister and mythic scope. In Job 10:16, the lion’s “bold” hunting is derived from this root, and in Ps 89:9 (Hebrew, verse 10), the sea itself is said to exhibit ge’ut, “raging.” Only when attributed to Yahweh does this root mean something admirable; for example, in Exod 15, the root is often translated as “triumphed gloriously” and “majesty,” indicating Yahweh’s fearsomeness (see also Isa 2:10-21).

The Jordan River, with its lush “pride,” could also be associated with the margins of civilization, as in Ps 42:6-7 (Hebrew, verses 7-8), where the psalmist “remember[s Yahweh], from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” Immediately following the geographical note, the poem moves to a tone of more mythic dimensions:

Deep (tehom) calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all the waves and your billows
have gone over me.  (Ps 42:7 [Hebrew, verse 8])

In Hebrew, the word tehom frequently pointed toward the mythic foundations of the world, which Yahweh had subdued while establishing cosmic order (see, for example, Gen 1:2, Gen 7:11, Isa 51:10, Ezek 31:4, Ezek 31:15). The mythic features of the Jordan are heightened in Job 40:23, which associates it with the mythological beast Behemoth. Finally, the Jordan River also undergoes personification in Ps 114, where the Jordan River “turns back” (Ps 114:3-5) upon having seen the approach of the people Israel, accompanied by Yahweh.

Jeremy M. Hutton, "Jordan River in Poetry and Prophecy", n.p. [cited 30 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/places/related-articles/jordan-river-in-poetry-and-prophecy

Contributors

Jeremy M. Hutton

Jeremy M. Hutton
Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin

Jeremy M. Hutton is an assistant professor of Classical Hebrew and biblical literature in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He is the author of The Transjordanian Palimpsest (de Gruyter, 2009).

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Belonging to the ancient region of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin name for the Roman province of Palaestina.

Application of human-like qualities to a concept, object, or nonhuman being; also called "anthropomorphizing."

Josh 3:15

15Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bear ... View more

Jer 12:5

God Replies to Jeremiah
5If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you,
how will you compete with horses?
And if in a safe land you fall down,
h ... View more

Zech 11:3

3Listen, the wail of the shepherds,
for their glory is despoiled!
Listen, the roar of the lions,
for the thickets of the Jordan are destroyed!

Jer 49:19

19Like a lion coming up from the thickets of the Jordan against a perennial pasture, I will suddenly chase Edom away from it; and I will appoint over it whomeve ... View more

Jer 50:44

44Like a lion coming up from the thickets of the Jordan against a perennial pasture, I will suddenly chase them away from her; and I will appoint over her whome ... View more

Job 8:11

11“Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh?
Can reeds flourish where there is no water?

Isa 2:12

12For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up and high;

Jer 48:29

29We have heard of the pride of Moab—
he is very proud—
of his loftiness, his pride, and his arrogance,
and the haughtiness of his heart.

Job 10:16

16Bold as a lion you hunt me;
you repeat your exploits against me.

Ps 89:9

9You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.

Exod 15

The Song of Moses
1Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has t ... View more

Isa 2:10-21

10Enter into the rock,
and hide in the dust
from the terror of the Lord,
and from the glory of his majesty.11The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low,
an ... View more

Ps 42:6-7

6and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.7Deep calls to deep
at the thunde ... View more

Ps 42:7

7Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.

Gen 1:2

2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Gen 7:11

11In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst fort ... View more

Isa 51:10

10Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to cross over?

Ezek 31:4

4The waters nourished it,
the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
around the place it was planted,
sending forth its streams
to all the trees of the ... View more

Ezek 31:15

15Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day it went down to Sheol I closed the deep over it and covered it; I restrained its rivers, and its mighty waters were checked ... View more

Job 40:23

23Even if the river is turbulent, it is not frightened;
it is confident though Jordan rushes against its mouth.

Ps 114

God's Wonders at the Exodus
1When Israel went out from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,2Judah became God's sanctuary,
Israel his dom ... View more

Ps 114:3-5

3The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.4The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.
5Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn b ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.