River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line

River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line

by Rachel Havrelock

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As the site of several miracles in the Jewish and Christian traditions, the Jordan is one of the world’s holiest rivers. It is also the major political and symbolic border contested by Israelis and Palestinians. Combining biblical and folkloric studies with historical geography, Rachel Havrelock explores how the complex religious and mythological representations of the river have shaped the current conflict in the Middle East.

Havrelock contends that the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from the nationalist myths of the Hebrew Bible, where the Jordan is defined as a border of the Promised Land. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim the Jordan as a necessary boundary of an indivisible homeland. Examining the Hebrew Bible alongside ancient and modern maps of the Jordan, Havrelock chronicles the evolution of Israel’s borders based on nationalist myths while uncovering additional myths that envision Israel as a bi-national state. These other myths, she proposes, provide roadmaps for future political configurations of the nation. Ambitious and masterful in its scope, River Jordan brings a fresh, provocative perspective to the ongoing struggle in this violence-riddled region.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226319599
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/27/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Rachel Havrelock is assistant professor in the Jewish Studies Program and the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a coauthor of Women on the Biblical Road: Ruth, Naomi, and the Female Journey.

Read an Excerpt


By Rachel Havrelock

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-31957-5

Chapter One


They say that Ocean runs around the whole earth —Herodotus 4.8.2

Demarcation and naming divide the world into distinct places with which people can identify. The map and the name of a place become emblems that cover up the disunity, lack of clear borders, and proliferation of titles ascribed to a location. Acts such as drawing borders, naming natural features, building memorial structures, and telling stories of pioneering ancestors play central roles in colonization and settlement. This chapter investigates the process through which the map of a nation comes into being. The relevant examples derive from the Hebrew Bible and the context of antiquity, yet similar processes also determine the nature of maps from subsequent eras. Biblical maps display how the emblematic representation of the nation relies on intersecting mythic and political standards. The question of why there are two different maps of Israel's land stands at the center of the analysis. One set of maps spans from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Jordan River in the east and a second set reaches from the Sea to the River Euphrates. A conceptual stability results from the fact that the land in both cases spans from river to sea, while conflicting notions of the state arise from their discrepancies. I argue that the seeming paradox of conflicting versions of national territory illustrates how maps reconcile the idea of the nation with regnant mythic conceptions as well as how the nation borrows the means of self-presentation from empire.

The maps to which I refer are narratives that evoke place by consecutive enumeration of limits rather than by graphic symbols. We know of pictorial maps from the Ancient Near East such as the Babylonian Mappa Mundi and the Egyptian map of Turin. In contrast the maps of Israel's land are boundary lists, mediated in language. Although they first read like an inventory—a geographical corollary of the genealogy—the maps are rich in literary nuance and historical suggestion. From maps we learn how those in power such as monarchs or priests circumscribe space in order that institutions like the court or the priesthood be perceived as the center of state and cosmos alike. At the same time, the grandiose span of maps often signals a tremulous hold on power and territory alike and incongruous depictions suggest fronts of resistance.

The structure of this chapter follows J. B. Harley's suggested analysis of both "the cartographers' rules" for how maps should look and a map's "'signifying system' through which 'a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced, and explored.'" I discuss these issues in two subsections: the first deals with the "role of measured maps in the making of myth" and the second with the imperial standards by which smaller nations measure themselves.

Mythic Geography

What to call the place promised to Israel presents its own challenge: is it Canaan, the land of Amorites, the kingdom of Israel, or more generally the land bequeathed to the ancestors? In order to leave the concept sufficiently open, I call it "the land" throughout—the definite article anchors the concept, while the absence of a proper noun allows for its shifting nature. Since the land, its acquisition, and its contingencies constitute the central thrust of the Hebrew Bible, the question of where exactly this land lies requires an answer at several junctures. Just as the collation of texts by different authors from diff use periods leaves its mark as textual strata whose meanings are still being mined by scholars, so it has left us many lands.

The territorial referent key to understanding ancient Israel's place is unstable, made up of shifting borders and fluctuating dimensions. Despite the myths to the contrary, this is the nature of national as well as holy ground—subject to war and migration, historically alternating, disrupted by diaspora and mixed populations—that constantly undergoes change since borders exist in a state of flux. To the degree that national identities in general and those of biblical Israel in particular depend upon territory and / or the representation of territory, a land with shifting coordinates signals an identity under constant production. I suggest that the variation of the maps is not the result of imprecision or confusion, but rather the condition of different possibilities of identity.

Jordan Maps

The Jordan maps exist in only two versions, but enjoy thematic dominance because they conform to the idea of the land produced in exodus narratives where the experiences of wandering and homecoming correlate with the east and the west banks of the Jordan. Throughout these narratives and their accompanying laws, crossing the Jordan becomes synonymous with national reintegration. The books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua all stage the homeland west of the Jordan and employ the river as a legal, temporal, and territorial boundary. Numbers 34 contains the most prominent map in which the Jordan serves as the eastern boundary.

God spoke to Moses saying: "Instruct the Israelites by saying to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that will constitute your property, the land of Canaan as defined by its borders ... Your western border will be the Great Sea; this border will be your western border ... Mark your eastern border from Hazar-enan to Shepham. The eastern border will go down from Shepham to Riblah on the east side of Ain, from there the boundary will continue down to skirt the eastern edge of the Kinneret Sea [the Sea of Galilee]. Then the border will descend along the Jordan until it reaches the Dead Sea; this will be your land as defined by its borders." (Num 34:1–2, 6, 10–12)

The Mediterranean serves as the western boundary and the Jordan as the clearest eastern boundary, although the inclusion of northern lands considerably east of the Jordan means that the Jordan operates as the eastern border only from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea (figure 1). This stretch of the river most prominently delineates the land and serves as the setting for the Bible's Jordan crossing stories (Gen 28:10–22, 32; Josh 1–4; Judg 12:1–6; 2 Sam 17:22, 19:16–41; 2 Kings 2:2). The detail of the map transforms the land from a domain of nurture, "the land fl owing with milk and honey," into a domain of ownership, "the land that will constitute your property" (Num 34:2). The coordinates determine Canaan—with or without the presence of Israel—and allow it to be grasped in conceptual as well as military terms.

The other map in which the Jordan forms the eastern frontier occurs in the concluding vision of the book of Ezekiel. This exilic book assures the persistence of homeland by mapping it in scrupulous detail and portraying its borders as able to encompass overlapping claims. Self-consciously utopian, the map homologizes the land, the Temple, and paradise as interchangeable topoi of symmetry and abundance. The map moves from north to east to south to west delimiting "the land that the twelve tribes can claim as an inheritance" (47:13) and then allots territory with exacting equality to twelve non- priestly tribes. Even the nettlesome "strangers in your midst," who prove problematic in other biblical texts and other sections of Ezekiel, are granted citizenship and ceded territory in the virtual land (Ezek 47:22–23). The tribes of Israel are inscribed in "thirteen longitudinal strips" around a central portion reserved for Yahweh, the Zadokite priests, the Levites, and the archetypal monarch called nasi (48:1–29). The map stations all tribes west of the Jordan with Dan (48:1), Asher (48:2), Naphtali (48:3), the two Joseph tribes of Manasseh (48:5) and Ephraim (48:6), Reuben (48:23), and Judah (48:8) north of the sacred sphere, and Benjamin (48:28), Simeon (48:24), Issachar (48:25), Zebulun (48:26), and Gad (48:28) to the south. Although several tribes had been "lost" by the time of Ezekiel's composition, all have a place in the ideal national configuration. The mention of specific mountains and waterways suggests that the map is not only a utopian social vision, but also an assertion of a territorial homeland. However idealized, the tribal reunion and national restoration cannot be realized just anywhere—they require the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. In the absence of this land, the memory of its boundaries preserves a sense of social coherence and collective destiny.

Jonathan Z. Smith understands Ezekiel's maps as pragmatically survivalist. Their geographic and architectural images set up systems of distinction that do not depend on the places evoked. Instead, the distinctions can be overlaid on the calendar, on notions of kinship and identity, and onto ritual practice. The representation of sacred geography then operates to marry memory to transposable distinctions, not to communicate that the absence of place entails the demise of identity. Of the four maps that Smith identifies in Ezekiel 40–48, three (40:1–44:3, 45.1–8, and 47:13–48:35) outline "a hierarchy of power built on the dichotomy sacred / profane," and one (44:4–31) "is a hierarchy of status built on the dichotomy pure / impure." Stressing the transferability of the "complex and rigorous systems of power and status," Smith intimates that their potentially limitless replication arises from their mythic character. The dichotomies, not the places, are upheld as eternal and necessary. Ezekiel's maps and their systemic boundaries are mythic not only in their apocalyptic promise of a future Eden and in their potential for reproduction, but also in the structural sense of homologous oppositions evident in other biblical myths and other mythic systems.

The Jordan and Creation

Mythic allusions launch Ezekiel's narrative of transport. God lets him down on "a very high mountain" whose panoramic views recall Moses's final vision (Num 27:12; Deut 32:49, 34:1–4) and whose centrality emphasizes both the Temple's sacredness and its similarity to the garden of God (Ezek 28:14). The carved cherubs and accompanying date palms that line the Temple interiors (41:18–20, 25) "re-create Eden's ambiance" (Gen 3:24; Ezek 28:14) and the presence of God moves in from the east, the primal direction, to illuminate the world and resonate like the crashing of water (43:1). The new Eden is arable, with abundant trees (Ezek 47:7; Gen 2:9), swarming creatures (Ezek 47:9; Gen 1:20), and potential immortality offered by leaves that heal instead of withering and fruits that never rot (Ezek 47:12). The replenishing fruit trees beside sanctified waters promise an imminent and inclusive paradise.

Water is the dominant feature in the paradisical vision. As a river rises from Eden and branches out into four courses (Gen 2:10), so a single stream bubbles from beneath the Temple and swells into an uncrossable river (Ezek 47:5). The surging waters of Jerusalem symbolize a future of surpassing Babylon, a collective purification, and a national revivification catalyzed by a restored Temple (Isa 33:21; Joel 4:18; Zech 14:8). The river that emerges from the Temple, like the Jordan in Exodus narratives, divides terrain and epochs alike. The redemptive river that heals staid waters and revives fish and fruit trees (Ezek 47:9–12) morphs into the Jordan as it flows in the eastern region through the Arava and Dead Sea (47:8). As the unnamed, eschatologic river assimilates to the Jordan River, the Jordan accrues apocalyptic associations. More to our purposes, however, the merging of the two rivers shows the codependence of geography and myth. Ezekiel 47 juxtaposes two visions with a coursing river: the burgeoning paradise of the restored Temple and the division of tribal territories. The river of the paradisical vision follows the southern leg of the Jordan, and the Jordan of the territorial vision delimits the scope of the land (47:18). The twin rivers with a parallel course merge into a symbolic whole that endows the Jordan with eternal legitimacy as the eastern border of Israel's land. Thus, Ezekiel's serial visions lay bare a complex process always at work with borders in which authoritative accounts of origin compensate for their arbitrary nature.

As the Judean Desert and Jordan River Valley transform into the new Eden (Ezek 47), paradisical themes from Genesis 1–2 and Ezekiel 28 coalesce. The political tenor of Ezekiel's map has most in common with the myth of Genesis 1 and with Priestly programs in general. Ezekiel's Priestly status and the book's connection with the Holiness Code have long been recognized, while less noted is the interchangeability of ritual and spatial boundaries. The Priestly writers of the maps of Numbers 34 (Priestly source) and Ezekiel 47–48 (Holiness Code or a related Ezekiel source) desire that the Jordan be the border. Putting aside the questions of if, when, and how the Jordan functions as a border, it can be said with certainty that the Priestly school in its various avatars would very much like this to be the case. The motivations include the fact that as a topographical feature, a river naturalizes the sort of religious and ethnic divisions that the Priestly class puts in place and that the Jordan, associated with Israel's beginnings, authorizes the very premise of necessary borders. "A certain circularity obtains here: cosmogonies reinforced existing power structures by presenting them as derived from the divine order asserted by the cosmogony." Traditions about mixing and contamination trouble biblical representations of the east side of the Jordan, whereas notions of a river-bounded land clarify the scope of purity. Although the Jordan as a border narrows the land's midsection, when it is upheld, Priestly systems of differentiation including Israel's distinction among nations and the priests' distinction among Israel correlate with creation and appear unassailable.


Excerpted from RIVER JORDAN by Rachel Havrelock Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps
 Maps and Legends CHAPTER ONE
 The Two Maps of Israel’s Land CHAPTER TWO
 Israel and Moab as Nation and Anti-nation CHAPTER THREE
 Two Camps: Ancient Israel Between Homeland and Diaspora CHAPTER FOUR
 The Book of Joshua and the Ideology of Homeland CHAPTER FIVE
 The Other Side CHAPTER SIX
 Crossing Over: Prophetic Succession at the Jordan CHAPTER SEVEN
 Dipping In: Baptism and the State of the Body CHAPTER EIGHT
 Two More Maps of Israel’s Land CHAPTER NINE
 My Home Is Over Jordan: River as Border in Israeli and Palestinian National Mythology CONCLUSION
 The Baptism Business and the Peace Park
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