One More River To Cross

You could probably write a whole book just about the Jordan River imagery in hymns.

“Borders” in other words are psychological and spiritual as much as physical, and the Jordan (like many rivers) carries multiple symbolic meanings. To say that “we” live on this side of the river also means that they, those foreigners, those unclean people, live on the other shore, and are nothing to do with us.

 

The London Review of Books recently published a wonderful review by Robert Alter of Rachel Havrelock’s intriguing new book, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line. I have not yet read the book itself, but I am a huge admirer of Alter’s, and if he praises a book this highly, it’s definitely worth my attention. 

Havrelock traces the history of shifting ideas of the limits of the Holy Land. Israelite tribes certainly lived across the Jordan, and much Biblical history concerns the interactions with Ammon, Moab and Edom, but different writers varied as to whether the river constituted a hard and fast boundary. That may sound like a technical and even legalistic argument, but it gets to much deeper issues about the exclusiveness of the Israelite community, and its relationship to the wider Gentile world. “Borders” in other words are psychological and spiritual as much as physical, and the Jordan (like many rivers) carries multiple symbolic meanings. To say that “we” live on this side of the river also means that they, those foreigners, those unclean people, live on the other shore, and are nothing to do with us. 

This ongoing debate was at its sharpest in the post-Exile world, which produced two wildly divergent interpretations. The view in Ezra and Nehemiah “bases nationhood on racial purity and appears to conceive the nation as a wagons-circled concentration in Jerusalem of Judeans returned from Babylonia; the other, suggested in the Book of Ruth … involves a surprising reversibility of borders.” Havrelock then traces the more expansive view to later universalist movements – to rabbinic Judaism and, of course, to the world of John the Baptist and Jesus. I don’t know whether Havrelock explores the massive use of Jordan-symbolism in later Christian iconography. Actually, you could probably write a whole book just about Jordan imagery in hymns. 

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