Roll, Jordan, Roll

(Jewish Ideas Daily) — The mighty River Jordan cuts a tiny ribbon through the geological depression stretching from Syria to Ethiopia. The river’s output is paltry. But for millennia the Jordan has been a thread in Western consciousness; and it has now returned to the forefront of attention, courtesy of politics and science.

A group of far-right Israelis recently occupied abandoned churches near Qasr al-Yahud, a site east of Jericho on the Jordan’s western bank, one of several places claimed as the place where Jesus was baptized. The occupiers were protesting Jordan’s obstruction of Israeli plans to reconstruct the Mughrabi Bridge, which connects Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza to the Temple Mount. Farther downstream, two new bills have passed preliminary readings in the Knesset to pay for the rehabilitation of the Dead Sea—whose level dropped 17 centimeters in November alone.

The Jordan River is the sciatic nerve of the Southern Levant; every change in its health reverberates throughout the system. The river arises in Lebanon and northern Israel and flows south through Huleh Lake to the Sea of Galilee, where most of the water is impounded and used by Israel’s National Water Carrier. The small amount of water then remaining flows south—with, alas, little further input from the river’s many tributaries. It ends its 156-mile journey at the Dead Sea, almost 1400 feet below sea level, where the waters find no exit except as evaporation.

As Rachel Havrelock reminds us in her recent book “River Jordan, The Mythology of a Dividing Line,” the Biblical Jordan has many meanings. Abraham crossed the river from east to west to enter God’s promised land. Jacob wrestled with the angel on the river’s eastern bank—and was then named Israel, beginning a new people who would dwell primarily on the western bank while Jacob’s brother Esau remained in the east. In the Christian Bible, of course, the river is the place of the central sacrament of baptism. Havrelock tells how various places have competed for the title of Jesus’ baptism site, spinning the ancient sources to produce income from modern pilgrims.

Havrelock is less interesting when discussing the Jordan in modern culture and politics. Here, the story would have been more interesting if it had included the modern visionaries whose images of the Jordan fundamentally shaped its last few centuries. In 1847, U.S. Navy Lieutenant William Francis Lynch had two boats hauled by camel from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee, then used them to explore the Jordan and the Dead Sea. During World War II, conservationist and Christian Zionist Walter Lowdermilk envisioned five million Jews resettling Palestine, with Jordan River water irrigating the Negev and canals from the Mediterranean replenishing the Dead Sea. Engineer John Hays outlined an Americanized vision of regional dams and development in his aptly titled book “TVA on the Jordan.” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Eric Johnston, as Eisenhower’s Special Representative, negotiated a master plan for Jordan River involving Israel and its neighbors. These and other engineers and politicians wove the overarching narratives — and myths — of scientific development and peaceful cooperation.

Actual development has literally sucked the life out of the river. At least 1,300 million cubic meters of water once flowed into the Sea of Galilee. That amount is now reduced, and more than 80 percent of it is diverted before reaching the Dead Sea — whose volume, as a result, has shrunk by an estimated 13 cubic kilometers in 30 years. In 1979, the Dead Sea waters literally turned over, mixing their thin upper layer of sweet water with the massive volume of ancient hypersaline water below. Surrounding ground levels are subsiding, sinkholes opening up.

Though once-frequent predictions of 21st-century water wars have not yet materialized, Israel, Jordan, and Syria clashed during the 1950s and 1960s over their efforts to divert water from the Jordan and its tributaries. Perhaps desalinization or a canal is the answer: Lowdermilk’s colossal vision of a Mediterranean-Dead Sea canal has been joined by even more ambitious ideas for a Dead Sea-Red Sea channel, and saving the Dead Sea — along with generating electricity — is part of the plan. But these are unlikely to come soon enough to help the Dead Sea or the Jordan River.

There is some perversely heartening news. Geologists have determined that the Dead Sea dried up completely some 120,000 years ago; yet 25,000 years ago, a huge lake covered the entire valley from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee. Its fertile plant and animal communities attracted humans — who, just 15,000 years later, began farming. That which disappeared re-established itself without human intervention. Perhaps the lesson is to look beyond fleeting human narratives to the power of nature, even God, to reshape water and land according to a purer plan. What to do in the short term, though, remains a problem.

(This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily ( and is reprinted with permission.)