Like many Americans, especially those of us who love the old hymns from the 1800s and their modern descendents in the Southern gospel tradition, I sang about the Jordan River long before I saw it. And when I did, it wasn't what I expected.
The Jordan River rises in the mountains above the Galilee and flows south past Jericho to the Dead Sea. While the north is fairly verdant, as it is at Israel's Yardenit baptismal site just below the Sea of Galilee (pictured at right, with a baptismal party dressed in white on the riverbank), mostly it flows through the desert and there isn't very much of it.
You wouldn't know that from the song, though.
Written by 18th-century English Baptist hymnwriter Samuel Stennett, "On Jordan's Stormy Banks" appears in the iconic shape-note songbook known as the Sacred Harp like this:
On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,From that description, I doubt Stennett ever saw the Jordan River.
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan's fair and happy land
Where my possessions lie.
O the transporting, rapt'rous scene
That rises to my sight!
Sweet fields arrayed in living green,
And rivers of delight.
Filled with delight, my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay!
Though Jordan's waves around me roll,
Fearless I'd launch away.
But his hymn was very popular in 19th-century America. Mark Twain knew it. (Growing up in Missouri how could he not?) And his reaction to it was about like mine.
In Innocents Abroad, his narrative of an 1867 tour of the Holy Land and his first successful book-length project, Mark Twain recalled wading the Jordan, and noted the "water was not quite breast deep, anywhere." He added it was dark, well before dawn:
So we saw the Jordan very dimly. The thickets of bushes that bordered its banks threw their shadows across its shallow, turbulent waters ("stormy', the hymn makes them which is rather a complimentary stretch of fancy) and we could not judge of the width of the stream by the eye. We knew by our wading experience, however, that many streets in America are double as wide as the Jordan. (387)In the fall of 2011, when I saw it, we were warned of minefields going back to the 1967 war. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, but the entire Jordan valley and the shores of the Dead
A few miles south of Galilee, we crossed through a military checkpoint and entered the West Bank territory occupied by Israel since 1967. Most of it is effectively closed to civilians, other than traffic on the main highways controlled by the Israeli army. And like military reservations everywhere it is pretty desolate except for a few irrigation projects in the Palestinian enclave around Jericho.
So the Jordan River didn't live up to expectations for me any more than it did for Mark Twain.
None of which means that "On Jordan's Stormy Banks" isn't one of the masterpieces of American vernacular hymnody. According to Samuel Stennet's Wikipedia profile, it appeared in Ripon's Selection (1787), a very influential source of Baptist hymns, and "found enormous popularity especially amongst 19th-century American Methodists. It was sung in camp meetings and brush arbors, and also found its way into the 1835 Southern Harmony and is one of the most well beloved hymns in the American shape-note tradition. It's still sung today, to several different tunes (click here to hear a traditional East Texas shape-note version and here for a choral arrangment of the most common tune by the Mercer Singers of Mercer University in Augusta, Ga.
So why the popularity of a 200-year-old Baptist and Methodist song associated with brush arbors and camp meetings in an age of praise bands, megachurches and contemporary worship services?
In an online essay on Sacred Harp shape-note singing titled "Stormy Banks and Sweet Rivers: A Sacred Harp Geography," theology student James B. Wallace of Emory University explains it as well as anybody:
Song after song in The Sacred Harp expresses longing for the next life, frequently designated "Canaan" and celebrated as a heavenly promised land. Rooted in Biblical descriptions, the geography of Canaan is depicted as a peaceful land of lush vegetation and gentle, flowing rivers where families and friends reunite permanently and all sorrows cease. By contrast, this present life is a tangled wilderness or the stormy banks of the Jordan River, which one must cross.Cool, it's a powerful metaphor. But what of the actual river?
The first time the River Jordan is mentioned is in the Old Testament, where the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land and "fit the battle" of nearby Jericho.
Located in an oasis and said to be one of the oldest cities in the world, with archeological features dating back to 9600 BCE. Mark Twain found it in ruins. "When Joshua marched around it seven times, some three thousand years ago, and blew it down with his trumpet, he did the work so well and so completely that he hardly left enough of the city to cast a shadow" (385). We didn't see any walls, although we did speed past an archeological dig that looked like something had come tumbling down there! But Jericho struck me as a nice little farm town. Even Mark Twain conceded "it is one of the very best locations for a town that we have seen in all Palestine."
Jericho is a tourist destination, so we saw street vendors selling kaffiyehs -- the traditional
The other, and I think more important, biblical tradition is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. While some legends maintain it took place in the Galilee, the weight of ancient tradition has it on the lower Jordan near Jericho.
According to the Gospel of John, in the words of the New International Version, it happened this way:
Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned [John the Baptist], “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
According to Holly Hayes, an Oxford-educated art historian who maintains the Sacred Destinations website, since 1994 when the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed, archaologists
have "uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods" at a site called al Magthas on Jordan's side of the river. It has been identified as the Bethany, or Bethabara, mentioned in St. John's gospel, and Pope John Paul VI visted in 2009.
More recently, the Israeli government has demilitarized the adjacent Qasr el-Yahud site on Israel's side of the river and opened it as a tourist attraction within the past year.
Jewish tradition also holds, according to an account in the Religion News Blog, that Qasr el-Yahud (which translates into English as castle of the Jews), "is where the ancient Israelites crossed into the Promised Land following their flight from Egypt."
But you sensed it was important to the people who padded in flip-flops down to the river, wearing white baptismal gowns. I'm Lutheran enough to think one baptism is enough for me, thank you, and we only had 15 or 20 minutes at Qasr el Yahud anyway. But as we experienced so often at the holy sites in Israel and the Occupied Territories, there was a sense of the imminence of God there, mixed in with the everyday-ness of the pilgrims going in and out of the showers showers, the flip-flops and the postcards, sodas and souvenir towels on sale in the concession stand.
Pilgrims or tourists, we were also part of something that qualifies as big business.
"Of the 3.45 million tourists who arrived last year, about 69 percent were Christian, and 38 percent defined their visit as a religious pilgrimage, according to the [Israeli] Tourism Ministry," reported the Associated Press when Qasr el-Yahud was developed in 2011. "Palestinians reject any Israeli moves to develop the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to establish an independent state ... Jordan maintains that its site on the other side of the river is the actual place were Jesus was baptized, competing for Christian tourism."
So Jordan's banks are still stormy.
But, as with the other sacred sites we visited, you couldn't help but get the feeling that great things -- in this case, foundational events for two of the world's more important religious traditions -- had happened here. And there was a sense of the holy, even on a quiet, sunny afternoon in the late autumn even with the ubiquitous minefield warnings on the fences and security guards chatting affably with the tourists.