The Jordan Blockage Reexamined (Joshua 3:15–16)

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Excerpt When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, the waters were miraculously blocked so that they were able to cross on dry land: “the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam…while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off” (Joshua 3:16). Continue reading

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In the article I wrote for Biblical Archaeology Review on the archaeology of Jericho, I quoted geophysicist Amos Nur on evidence that such blockages have occurred numerous times in recorded history (1990: 54). Nur was Professor of Earth Sciences in the Geophysics Department at Stanford University for 40 years, until his retirement in 2008. He is now Director and Chief Technology Officer for Ingrain Corporation, Houston TX. Since the BAR article was published, Nur has written two articles (1991; 1996 [with Haggai Ron]) and a book (2008) on the geology of the Holy Land where he refers to the Jordan blockage. One of the main examples Nur used in these works is a purported damming of the Jordan as a result of the most recent major earthquake in the southern Levant in 1927.

Israeli geologist Ron Avni studied the 1927 earthquake in great detail, examining all of the contemporary records in Arabic, English, French and Hebrew (1999; Avni et al. 2002). The only witness he found for the blockage was famed British Jericho excavator John Garstang (Avni et al. 2002: 471, 473). Garstang first reported the blockage in his 1931 commentary on Joshua and Judges (137):

…the high west bank immediately below the [Jisr el-Damieh] ford collapsed, carrying with it the roadway…and just below, a section of the cliff, which here rises to a height of 150 feet, fell bodily across the river and completely dammed it, so that no water flowed down the river bed for twenty-one and a half hours.

This account was repeated in Garstang’s 1940 popular book (with his son J.B.E. Garstang) on his excavations at Jericho (137) and in the revised edition of 1948 (139).

It turns out that Garstang was in England at the time, so could not have been an eyewitness to the events of 1927 (Avni et al. 2002: 473). Garstang alludes to receiving information about the earthquake from the Director of Antiquities (1931: 137, n. 2), but does not give a source for his account of the blockage. He refers to “several living witnesses” that “crossed and recrossed the bed of the river freely on foot” during the blockage, but again gives no specifics and no documentation. Although Garstang’s account has been accepted and repeated by many researchers, Avni could find no corroboration (Avni, et al. 2002: 473):

None of the documents we examined mention damming of the Jordan River: not the documents of the British Mandate Government and the British Police, not the press releases on the earthquake, not Brawer (1928), Abel (1927), Willis (1928) and not even one of the German researchers who studied the earthquake in the Holy Land (Blanckenhorn, 1927; Sieberg, 1932).

Based on the biblical admonition of requiring more than one witness to establish a matter (Deuteronomy 19:15), Garstang’s single testimony cannot be used as a basis for claiming that the 1927 earthquake resulted in a blockage of the Jordan River. All is not lost, however, for we have two well-documented instances in the recent past of the Jordan River being dammed as described in the Bible, one in AD 1267 and another in AD 1546.

The 1267 event, documented by the Arab historian Nowairi, was very much like that described in the Bible. In 1266 a bridge was constructed across the Jordan at Damieh by order of Baybars I, Mamluk sultan of Egypt and Syria from 1260 to 1277. Damieh is biblical Adam, located 16 miles north of the Jericho ford. After completion, part of the piers gave way. When workers attempted to make repairs, they were unable to do so because of high water from the winter rains and accompanying strong currents. Then, on the night of December 7, 1267, an embankment collapsed into the riverbed causing the Jordan to be blocked from midnight to the fourth hour (approximately 10:30 am) the following day, allowing the necessary repairs to be made (Watson 1895: 257–58). The collapse was apparently caused by undercutting of the embankment by the flood waters (Watson 1895: 260). This is similar to the biblical event in that the Jordan was in flood at the time the Israelites crossed (Joshua 3:15). In this instance, however, since it was spring (harvest time) the flood was caused by snow melt from the Lebanon Mountains to the north rather than winter rains.

Jordan flooding

Flooding of the Jordan River in the vicinity of the Allenby Bridge, February 1935 (photo by G. Eric Matson, The American Colony, courtesy of Todd Bolen,

In 1546 a severe earthquake rocked the Holy Land. It is well documented, including three sources that record a blockage of the Jordan (Braslavski 1938, 1956).  The earliest information about the quake is an Italian letter written to a nobleman in Venice and published in Wittenberg, Germany, the same year. It states that the Jordan dried up for two days (Beinart 1955: 33–34, column ם; Ambraseys and Karcz 1992: 255). A Spanish document dated to the 16th century describes the same event, although it records “the Jordan stopped for a whole day” rather than two days (Beinart 1955: 33–34, column ג; Ambraseys and Karcz 1992: 255). The third source, written in Hebrew, was authored by one Isaac Levy and published in 1562 or 1625. He writes, “the gentiles report that the river Jordan is dry and they crossed it on dry land and that this lasted three days…the Jordan was dry and desolate because two big hills fell into the river” (Beinart 1955: 33–34, column א; Ambraseys and Karcz 1992: 257).

From our sources it appears that the Jordan can be cut off by landslides resulting from either undercutting by flood waters or being dislodged by earthquakes. From the biblical narrative, it is difficult to determine the exact cause. We are told specifically that the Jordan was in flood. On the other hand, archaeological evidence suggests there was earthquake activity at the time (Wood 1990: 58, n. 48). The fact that the blockage occurred at the right place and at the right time clearly points to Divine intervention. We will never know exactly what means God used to accomplish His purposes that day in the spring of 1406 BC. It could have been flood waters, an earthquake, or a combination of the two.

Jordan embankments

Embankments along the Jordan, view north, 1910–1920 (photo by G. Eric Matson, The American Colony, courtesy of Todd Bolen,


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    1927  Le récent tremblement de terre en Palestine. Revue Biblique 36: 571–78.
Ambraseys, Nicholas
    2009  Earthquakes in the Mediterranean and Middle East: A Multidisciplinary Study of Seismicity up to 1900. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University.
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    1991  And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Old Testament Writings of Doom and Destruction Are Now Providing Researchers with a Record of Earthquakes Spanning 4000 Years. New Scientist 131/1776: 45–48.
    2008  Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology and the Wrath of God. Princeton: Princeton University.
Nur, Amos and Ron, Haggai
    1996  And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Earthquake History in the Holy Land. Pp. 75–85 in Archaeoseismology, British School at Athens, Fitch Laboratory Occasional Paper 7, eds. S. Stiros and R.E. Jones. Athens: Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration and British School at Athens.
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    1932  Untersuchungen Über Erdbeben und Bruchschollenbau im Östlichen Mittelmeergebiet. Denkschrift Medizinisch Naturwissenschaft Gesellschaft Jena18: 159–273.
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    1895  The Stoppage of the River Jordan in A.D. 1267. Palestine Exploration Society Quarterly Statement 27: 253–61.
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