A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The River Jordan: Neither Mighty Nor Wide

In my post earlier today about Doc Watson, I joked that about the only connection I could find to link him to the Middle East was that some of the spirituals he sang occasionally (and perhaps only on one album: it certainly wasn't his main type of music) had references to the River Jordan.

This brings up an issue which may be unfamiliar to many of my Middle Eastern readers: the symbolism of the River Jordan in American gospel music, whether black or white in origin, in which the Jordan symbolizes salvation (or in some of the black hymns, freedom). The Jordan's Biblical importance, as the entrance to the Promised Land which Moses was not allowed to cross; as the river across which the Chariot carried Elijah into the next world; and as the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus and where Jesus himself baptized others; all contribute to its power as a symbol, in hymns written by pious Christians who've never seen the real river Lyrics like this are common:
Oh, the Jordan River is Mighty and Wide;
Long Time Getting to the Other Side
As those who've seen it know, it's neither, and it isn't, if you exclude having to clear passport control where it's a border.

Western Christians, especially evangelicals and other Protestants who were raised on the old-time spirituals, are often surprised.to see the real river. They expect something like the Nile or the Tigris (or since they haven't seen those either, the Mississippi) and they encounter what in the US would not even merit the title of a river, but rather a steam or a creak or a run or a branch. Middle Easterners, I suspect, even Middle Eastern Christians, aren't familiar with this mostly Protestant traditional symbolism. Yet still it seems hard to cross when it is a symbol of crossing to the afterlife: 
And I'll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan
I'll be waiting drawing pictures in the sand
And when I see you coming I will rise up with a shout
And come running through he shallow waters reaching for your hand.
Those that treat the Jordan as a symbol of death and salvation often refer to it as cold:
Now look at that cold Jordan
Look at these deep waters
Look at that wide river 
Oh hear the mighty billows roar

You'd better take Jesus with you
He's a true companion
For I'm sure without Him
That you never will make it o'er
Or this couplet, which appears in many spirituals:
Oh, the River Jordan is chilly and cold'
It chills the body, but not the soul
It's not just American spirituals; there's the English tradition of Isaac Watts and the Wesleys which uses similar imagery, as in Watts' There is a Land of Pure Delight:
Could we climb where Moses stood
And view the landscape o'er
Not Jordan's stream, nor
death's cold flood
Should fright us from the shore
None of this has anything to do with the river called Yarden or Al-Urdunn, and everything to do with religious symbolism: some of the traditional Christmas carols also are ignorant of the real geography ("Born a King on Bethlehem's plain" hardly describes Bethlehem), but they are so inculcated in English and American culture that many pilgrims are disappointed to see the real river.

Sometimes, though, the spirituals acknowledge it isn't the earthly Jordan they speak of:

Roll Jordan, roll
Roll Jordan, roll
I want to go to heav'n when I die
To hear ol' Jordan roll

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