The Jordan River in Israelite History by Jeremy M. Hutton

The Jordan River runs through a broad, arid valley between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Jordan River Valley has been occupied for millennia, with agriculture focused on palm and date farming. Archaeological excavations have also confirmed the report in 1Kgs 7:46 (repeated in 2Chr 4:17) suggesting that inhabitants of the region east of the river exploited deposits of iron ore there.

Moreover, like many rivers, the Jordan often served as a political boundary between Israel and its neighboring nations; before the Assyrians annexed the Israelite territory east of the Jordan in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. (see 2Kgs 10:32-33, 2Kgs 15:29), the river also served as a border between the Israelite tribes themselves (see, for example, Num 32:19, Num 34:15). This is true not only of the biblical period but of the modern period as well; the river currently forms the border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories on the west and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on the east. In antiquity, the river probably formed a significant barrier to travel and could be forded only at certain spots. This imposed some restrictions on cross-river trade and movement.

Since the Jordan River plays a larger role in the biblical narratives than it may have played historically, it is difficult to describe the river’s place in history; it is perhaps more appropriate to talk about the river’s place in Israelite (that is, biblical) history writing.

Most famously, the book of Joshua claims that after the exodus from Egypt, Joshua led the Israelite fugitives across the Jordan River into Canaan (Josh 3-4). This conquest narrative became a key idea in the formation of the people Israel and served as a recurrent motif in Israelite literature. Another example of the same theme of crossing the Jordan appears in Jacob’s journey to Paddan-Aram to live with his uncle Laban; see especially his reflection on his life in Gen 32:10: “with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.” Although Jacob utters these words while crossing the Jabbok River (a small tributary of the Jordan) on his return from Paddan-Aram, this is probably intended to foreshadow Joshua’s similar statement during the conquest of Canaan (Josh 4:22).

The importance of crossing the Jordan River no doubt occasioned the stories surrounding Elijah and Elisha (see 2Kgs 2:1-14) and, ultimately, the ministry of John the Baptist on its banks (see Matt 3:1, Matt 3:13). But the fords of the Jordan were not always sites of peaceful unification for the people Israel. Frequently, we read of battles occurring at these fords (see Judg 3:28, Judg 7:24-25) or on the river’s eastern banks (Judg 8:4, 1Sam 11, 2Sam 10:17, 1Chr 19:17, 1Macc 5:24, 1Macc 9:42-49). Sometimes we even read of squabbling between the various Israelite tribes occurring at the fords (see Judg 12:5-6, 2Sam 20:1-2).

The topography and the climate of the valley through which the Jordan River flows have played a decisive role in the region’s settlement and political importance. This political importance has left its mark in the biblical text’s historical writing, in turn influencing the theological and symbolic importance of the area.

Jeremy M. Hutton, "Jordan River in Israelite History", n.p. [cited 5 Dec 2022]. Online:


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).

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.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

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

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

1Kgs 7:46

46In the plain of the Jordan the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zarethan.

2Chr 4:17

17In the plain of the Jordan the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zeredah.

2Kgs 10:32-33

Death of Jehu
32In those days the Lord began to trim off parts of Israel. Hazael defeated them throughout the territory of Israel:33from the Jordan eastward, al ... View more

2Kgs 15:29

29In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all ... View more

Num 32:19

19We will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on this side of the Jordan to the east.”

Num 34:15

15the two tribes and the half-tribe have taken their inheritance beyond the Jordan at Jericho eastward, toward the sunrise.

Josh 3-4

Israel Crosses the Jordan
1Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan. They camped there bef ... View more

Gen 32:10

10I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jor ... View more

Josh 4:22

22then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’

2Kgs 2:1-14

Elijah Ascends to Heaven
1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.2Elijah said t ... View more

Matt 3:1

The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

Matt 3:13

The Baptism of Jesus
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

Judg 3:28

28He said to them, “Follow after me; for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him, and seized the fords of the ... View more

Judg 7:24-25

24Then Gideon sent messengers throughout all the hill country of Ephraim, saying, “Come down against the Midianites and seize the waters against them, as far as ... View more

Judg 8:4

4Then Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed over, he and the three hundred who were with him, exhausted and famished.

1Sam 11

Saul Defeats the Ammonites
1About a month later, Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treat ... View more

2Sam 10:17

17When it was told David, he gathered all Israel together, and crossed the Jordan, and came to Helam. The Arameans arrayed themselves against David and fought w ... View more

1Chr 19:17

17When David was informed, he gathered all Israel together, crossed the Jordan, came to them, and drew up his forces against them. When David set the battle in ... View more

1Macc 5:24

Judas and Jonathan in Gilead
24Judas Maccabeus and his brother Jonathan crossed the Jordan and made three days' journey into the wilderness.

1Macc 9:42-49

42After they had fully avenged the blood of their brother, they returned to the marshes of the Jordan.43When Bacchides heard of this, he came with a large force ... View more

Judg 12:5-6

5Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead wo ... View more

2Sam 20:1-2

The Rebellion of Sheba
1Now a scoundrel named Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjaminite, happened to be there. He sounded the trumpet and cried out,
“We have no portio ... View more

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