By BRIAN KAYLOR
Growing up in a river town impacted the way I heard biblical stories as a child. Whenever our teachers would talk about God stopping the flow of the Jordan River so Joshua and the Israelites could walk across, I imagined the nearby Missouri River. Years later I learned the Jordan River was a small river, not like the ‘Might Mo.’
Today I visited the Jordan River. In Missouri, we would probably call it a creek (although it gets bigger during the rainy season that will start in the next month or two).
That’s not to say the miracle of the Israelites crossing is insignificant. The people probably could’ve crossed the Jordan River even in the rainy season (as it occurred). But it would’ve been tiring and somewhat dangerous. They would’ve carried their kids and belongings as the water level approached (or surpassed) the heads of the tallest men. They likely would’ve lost some items downstream. And perhaps a few older individuals or animals wouldn’t have survived the crossing.
It would be nothing like crossing the Missouri River – and definitely nothing like crossing the Mediterranean Sea as many Middle Eastern refugees try today. Nonetheless, the trip across the Jordan River could’ve been demoralizing. Maybe the people would’ve even considered instead turning around for another 40 years in the desert.
But the miracle didn’t merely make life easy for the people. It also provided a clear sign from God that they were headed in the right direction. Once the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the Jordan River, it stopped flowing. Only Joshua and Caleb had seen something like that before. The people knew God was leading the way by acting in a mighty way at this place!
(It turns out I’m not like the priests in the third chapter of Joshua since the water didn’t part when I stepped in. Of course, not having the Ark of the Covenant meant I really didn’t have a chance).
The area just east of Jericho and across the Jordan River remains packed with powerful history. Elijah crossed eastward with Elisha, passed the prophetic mantle over to Elisha, and then rode off in a fiery chariot. Nearby, John the baptizer appeared as the new Elijah, living in a cave near the spot where Elijah ascended. Walking down to the Jordan River, he baptized many people. Like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus came over to the east of the Jordan River. There John baptized Jesus as Heaven prophetically descended.
Our guide noted that the baptismal spot sits more than 1,300 feet below sea level. The nearby Dead Sea shore – the lowest spot on Earth – is only about another 100 feet lower. Our guide remarked that Jesus was baptized at “the lowest spot on Earth but the closest to Heaven.”
The Jordan River no longer flows at the place of Jesus’s baptism (but geological, archaeological, and historical evidence identifies the spot where the Jordan River used to meet up with a spring). The River sits a little west of there now, but the spring still flows down to the spot where the ruins of an old church marked the baptism’s location.
But it’s probably just as well that the baptismal site no longer sits on the Jordan River. The middle of the small stream marks the sometimes contentious boundary between Jordan and Israel. There we were standing so close to the modern nation of Israel, but crossing remains legally problematic. One could quickly get in trouble with border security agents. Or even a landmine. While Jordan removed the landmines around the baptismal site on its side of the Jordan River, Israel has many landmines left.
This holy site remains split down the middle and booby-trapped to prevent crossings. If the Jordan River stopped flowing today as a group prepared to cross, it could quickly spark an international incident. Staring across the Jordan River, I thought of the lines from a Wendell Berry poem.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
I stood on holy ground – and in holy water – today. I saw the spot believed to be where Elijah ascended and the cave believed to have housed John. I knelt down at the baptismal site and ran my hand through the shallow spring water. Then I walked over to the Jordan River and waded in it. And I looked at an imaginary dividing line in the River. This is still a sacred place. But we seem to be working hard to desecrate it.
You can see more photos from day five in Jordan here