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Passing Over Jordan

( Originally Published 1908 )

I HAVE often wondered why the Jordan, which plays such an important part in the history of the Hebrews, receives so little honour and praise in their literature. Sentimental travellers and poets of other races have woven a good deal of florid prose and verse about the name of this river. There is no doubt that it is the chief stream of Palestine, the only one, in fact, that deserves to be called a river. Yet the Bible has no song of loving pride for the Jordan; no tender and beautiful words to describe it; no record of the longing of exiled Jews to return to the banks of their own river and hear again the voice of its waters. At this strange silence I have wondered much, not knowing the reason of it. Now I know.

The Jordan is not a little river to be loved: it is a barrier to be passed over. From its beginning in the marshes of Huleh to its end in the Dead Sea, (excepting only the lovely interval of the Lake of Galilee), this river offers nothing to man but danger and difficulty, perplexity and trouble. Fierce and sullen and intractable, it flows through a long depression, at the bottom of which it has dug for itself a still deeper crooked ditch, along the Eastern border of Galilee and Samaria and Judea, as if it wished to cut them off completely. There are no pleasant places along its course, no breezy forelands where a man might build a house with a fair outlook over flowing water, no rich and tranquil coves where the cattle would love to graze, or stand knee-deep in the quiet stream. There is no sense of leisure, of refreshment, of kind companionship and friendly music about the Jordan. It is in a hurry and a secret rage. Yet there is something powerful, self-reliant, inevitable about it. In thousands of years it has changed less than any river in the world. It is a flowing, everlasting symbol of division, of separation: a river of solemn meetings and partings like that of Elijah and Elisha, of Jesus and John the Baptist: a type of the narrow stream of death. It seems to say to man, "Cross me if you will, if you can; and then go your way."

The road that leads us from Jericho toward the river is pleasant enough, at first, for the early sun-light is gentle and caressing, and there is a cool breeze moving across the plain. It is hard to believe that we are eight hundred feet below the sea this morning, and still travelling downward. The lush fields of barley, watered by many channels from the brook Kelt, are waving and glistening around us. Quails are running along the edge of the road, appearing and disappearing among the thick grain-stalks. The bulbuls warble from the thorn-bushes, and a crested hoopoo croons in a jujube-tree. Larks are on the wing, scattering music.

We are on the upper edge of that great belt of sunken land between the mountains of Gilead and the mountains of Ephraim and Judah, which reaches from the Lake of Galilee to the Dead Sea, and which the Arabs call El-Ghr, the "Rift." It is a huge trench, from three to fourteen miles wide, sinking from six hundred feet below the level of the Mediterranean, at the northern end, to thirteen hundred feet below, at the southern end. The surface is fairly level, sloping gently from each side toward the middle, and the soil is of an inexhaustible fertility, yielding abundant crops wherever it is patiently irrigated from the streams which flow out of the mountains east and west, but elsewhere lying baked and arid under the heavy, close, feverous air. No strong race has ever inhabited this trench as a home; no great cities have ever grown here, and its civilization, such as it had, was a hot-bed product, soon ripe and quickly rotten.

We have passed beyond the region of greenness already; the little water-brooks have ceased to gleam through the grain: the wild grasses and weeds have a parched and yellow look: the freshness of the early morning has vanished, and we are descending through a desolate land of sour and leprous hills of clay and marl, eroded by the floods into fantastic shapes, furrowed and scarred and scabbed with mineral refuse. The gullies are steep and narrow: the heat settles on them like a curse.

Through this battered and crippled region, the centre of the Jordan Valley, runs the Jordan Bed, twisting like a big green serpent. A dense half-tropical jungle, haunted by wild beasts and poisonous reptiles and insects, conceals, almost at every point, the down-rushing, swirling, yellow flood.

It has torn and desolated its own shores with sud-den spates. The feet of the pilgrims who bathe in it sink into the mud as they wade out waist-deep, and if they venture beyond the shelter of the bank the whirling eddies threaten to sweep them away. The fords are treacherous, with shifting bottom and changing currents. The poets and prophets of the Old Testament give us a true idea of this uninhabitable and unlovable river-bed when they speak of "the pride of Jordan," "the swellings of Jordan," where the lion hides among the reeds in his secret lair, a "refuge of lies," which the "overflowing scourge" shall sweep away.

No, it was not because the Jordan was beautiful that John the Baptist chose it as the scene of his preaching and ministry, but because it was wild and rude, an emblem of violent and sudden change, of irrevocable parting, of death itself, and because in its one gift of copious and unfailing water, he found the necessary element for his deep baptism of repentance, in which the sinful past of the crowd who followed him was to be symbolically immersed and buried and washed away.

At the place where we reach the water there is an open bit of ground; a miserable hovel gives shelter to two or three Turkish soldiers; an ungainly latticed bridge, stilted on piles of wood, straddles the river with a single span. The toll is three piastres, (about twelve cents,) for a man and horse.

The only place from which T can take a photo-graph of the river is the bridge itself, so I thrust the camera through one of the diamond-shaped openings on the lattice-work and try to make a truthful record of the lower Jordan at its best. Imagine the dull green of the tangled thickets, the ragged clumps of reeds and water-grasses, the sombre and silent flow of the fulvous water sliding and curling down out of the jungle, and the implacable fervour of the pallid, searching sunlight heightening every touch of ugliness and desolation, and you will understand why the Hebrew poets sang no praise of the Jordan, and why Naaman the Syrian thought scorn of it when he remembered the lovely and fruitful rivers of Damascus.

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