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Home > Dictionaries > Holman Bible Dictionary > RIVERS AND WATERWAYS IN THE BIBLE

Holman Bible Dictionary

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From the earliest efforts at permanent settlement in the Ancient Near East, people were attracted to the rivers and streams that ultimately would dictate population distribution between the mountains, deserts, and the seas. The flood plains of many of these rivers originally were inhospitable with thick, tangled jungles, wild beasts, and unpredictable flooding and disease. However, within the areas of plain and lowland that provided a more constant food supply and ease of movement, the need for a permanent water source attracted settlers to the river banks. Thus the early river civilizations of the Nile, the Tigris, and Euphrates starting about 3000 B.C., and the Indus civilization slightly later, resulted in response to the challenges and benefits these important waterways presented. Flood control, social and economic organization, and invention of writing as a means of communication developed. Trade was facilitated by means of navigable waterways. Since roads followed the lines of least resistance, the pattern of early trade routes conformed closely, especially in more rugged terrain, to channels and courses of the rivers and streams, and along the shoreline where the earliest fishing villages developed.

Rivers and Streams Each of the biblical rivers was developed to meet distinct human needs. A study of rivers helps understand the culture near the river.

1. Nile River The name Nile is not explicitly mentioned in KJV, but modern translations most often translated the Hebrew yeor as the Nile. The Nile plays a prominent role in the early events in the life of Moses in Exodus (Moses, Exodus 2:3; the ten plagues, Exodus 7:15,Exodus 7:20). The Nile is alluded to in many other passages as “the river” (Genesis 41:1), the “river of Egypt” (Genesis 15:18), the “flood of Egypt” (Amos 8:8), Shihor (Joshua 13:3), river of Cush among other names. The “brook of Egypt” mostly is a reference to Wadi el-Arish, the drainage system of the central Sinai. The prophets Amos (Amos 8:8; Amos 9:5) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 46:8) used the Nile as the symbol of Egypt, a concept that is readily understood in terms of the river's historical importance to the survival and well-being of the country.

For the Egyptians the predictable annual flooding of the Nile with the depositing of the fertile black alluvial soil meant the enrichment of the flood plain and the difference between food and famine. From the central highlands of East Africa, the Nile with a watershed of over one million square miles is formed by the union of the White and Blue Niles and flows a distance of nearly 3,500 miles. From its low ebb at the end of May, the flow of the river gradually rises to its maximum flood stage at the beginning of September. Historically, approximately 95 percent of Egypt's population depended upon the productivity of the 5 percent of the country's land area within the flood plain of the Nile. In the Delta at least three major branches facilitated irrigation in the extensive fan north of Memphis, the ancient capital of lower Egypt. See Egypt; Nile.

2. Euphrates First mentioned in Genesis 2:14 as one of the four branches of the river that watered the Garden of Eden, the Euphrates flows 1,700 miles to become the longest river in Western Asia. From the mountainous region of northeastern Turkey (Armenia), it flows southward into northern Syria and turns southeasterly to join the Tigris and flows into the Persian Gulf. On the Middle Euphrates, Carchemish, originally the center of a small city-state, became the important provincial capital of the Mitanni kingdom, later of the Hittite and Assyrian Empires. At Carchemish in 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar II defeated Pharaoh Necho as he began his successful drive to claim the former Assyrian Empire for Babylon (2 Kings 24:7; Jeremiah 46:1). Two important tributaries, the Belikh and Khabur, flow into the Euphrates from the north before it continues on to the ancient trade center at Mari. The Lower Euphrates generally formed the western limits of the city-states that made up the early Sumerian civilization. From the river plain to the delta, both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers regularly have formed new branches and changed their courses. About 90 percent of their flow mysteriously is lost to irrigation, evaporation, pools and lakes, and the swamps and never reaches the Persian Gulf. Lost as well in this region are the vast amounts of sediment that the Tigris and Euphrates bring from the mountainous regions. Sediment deposits along the lower courses of these rivers average 16 to 23 feet with 36-foot deposits in some regions. It has been calculated that the Tigris alone removes as much as 3 million tons of eroded highland materials in a single day. In the extreme south the two rivers join in a combined stream that today is known as the Shatt el-Arab.

The flooding of the Mesopotamian rivers in March and April differs from the Nile schedule which during that season is at its low ebb. The melting snows and rains at their sources create sudden, disastrous torrents that, along the Tigris especially, must be controlled by dams during such periods before they can supply a beneficial irrigation system. See Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

The course of the Upper Euphrates was described as the northern border of the Promised Land (Genesis 15:18; Deuteronomy 1:7; Deuteronomy 11:24; Joshua 1:4). David, in fact, extended his military influence to its banks during the height of his power (2 Samuel 8:3; 2 Samuel 10:16-18; 1 Kings 4:24). The terms “the river,” “the flood,” “the great river,” and “beyond the river” (Joshua 24:2-3; Ezra 4:10-13; Nehemiah 2:7-9) refer to the Euphrates, historically a significant political and geographical boundary.

3. Tigris From its source in a small lake (Hazar Golu), about 100 miles west of Lake Van, in Armenia, the Tigris flows in a southeasterly direction for about 1,150 miles before joining the Euphrates and emptying into the Persian Gulf. It achieves flood stage during March and April from the melting mountain snows and subsides after mid-May. While its upper flow is swift within narrow gorges, from Mosul and Nineveh southward its course was navigable and was extensively used in antiquity for transport. A series of tributaries from the slopes of the Zagros emptied into the Tigris from the east, including the Greater and Lesser Zab and the Diyala. The Diyala flows into the Tigris near Bahgdad. In antiquity its banks were inhabited by a dense population maintained and made prosperous by an excellent irrigation system. The Euphrates, flowing at a level nine meters higher than the Tigris, permitted the construction of a sequence of irrigation canals between the two rivers that resulted in unusual productivity. South of Baghdad where their courses again separated, a more complicated system of canals and diversions were necessary.

The banks of the Tigris were dotted by some of the most important cities of antiquity: Nineveh, the capital of Assyria during the Assyrian Empire; Asshur, the original capital of Assyria; Opis (in the vicinity of Baghdad), the important commercial center of Neo-Babylonian and later times; Ctesihyphon, the capital of the Parthians and Sassanians; and Seleucia, capital of the Seleucid rulers of Mesopotamia.

Rivers of Anatolia Several rivers water this part of modern Turkey. See Asia Minor.

1. Halys River From its sources in the Armenian mountains, the Halys begins its 714-mile flow to the southwest only to be diverted by a secondary ridge into a broad loop until its direction is completely reversed into a northeasterly direction through the mountainous regions bordering the southern shore of the Black Sea. As the longest river in Anatolia, the Halys, like the other principal rivers in Turkey, is the result of heavy rainfall in the Pontic zone. Because of their winding courses within the coastal mountain chains, none of these rivers is navigable. Within this loop of the Halys in the northern Anatolian plateau the Hittites established their capital Boghazkoy. The course of the Halys generally formed the borders of the district of Pontus.

2. Rivers of the Aegean Coast The broken Aegean coastline boasted a series of sheltered havens and inlets that prompted Greek colonization and the establishment the great harbor cities of the later Greek and Roman periods. The mouths of the Aegean rivers deemed ideal for maritime centers during colonization ultimately proved disastrous. The lower courses of these rivers, relatively short and following a meandering course over their respective plains, are very shallow and sluggish during the summer months. Their upper courses however, of recent formation, carry enormous quantities of alluvium from the highlands that tended to fill the estuaries and gulfs. Constant dredging was required to maintain the harbor's access to the sea and to avoid the formation of malaria-infested swamps. Thus the Hermus (155 miles) was diverted to prevent the destruction of the harbor of Smyrna (Izmir). To the south at Ephesus, the original town site on the disease-ridden marshlands was abandoned about A.D. 400 for the construction of a new harbor on the Cayster River. During the days of Ephesus' prosperity, the constant dredging was adequately maintained. However, with the decline of the Roman Empire after A.D. 200, the silting of the harbor brought the rapid decline of the city. Miletus, on the alluvial plain of the Maeander River (236 miles), was originally established on a deep gulf well sheltered from the prevailing winds. The great Ionian city had possessed four harbors, but the silting of the harbors by the alluvial deposits of the Maeander ultimately brought about the decline and abandonment of the city. Though these Aegean rivers were not navigable, the alluvial plains that bordered them provided convenient and vital access and communications to the interior.

Rivers of Syro-Palestine In Syria and Palestine rivers often separated peoples rather than providing economic power.

1. Orontes and Litani High within the Beqa valley that forms the rift between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, a watershed (about 3,770 feet above sea level) forms the headwaters of the Orontes and Litani Rivers. The rains and snow on the mountain summits at heights of over 11,000 feet course down into the 6–10 mile-wide Beqa which is a part of the great Rift (“Valley of Lebanon,” Joshua 11:17). From the watershed, the Orontes flows northward and bends westward to empty into the Mediterranean near Antioch. The Litani flows southward and ultimately escapes to the sea north of Tyre. Unfortunately, its lower course has formed such a deep, narrow gorge that it is useless for communication. See Palestine.

2. Jordan River A series of springs and tributaries, resulting from the rains and snows on the heights of Mount Hermon (up to 9,100 feet above sea level) at the southern end of the Anti-Lebanon mountains east of the Rift Valley, converge in Lake Huleh to form the headwaters of the Jordan River. Along the eastern edge of the Huleh Valley, it flows southward into Lake Kinnereth (the Sea of Galilee). Only about eight miles wide and fourteen miles long, the fresh waters of the Galilee and its fishing industry sustained a dense population during most historical periods. At the Galilee's southern end, the Jordan exits and flows 65 miles on to the Dead Sea (about 1,300 feet below sea level). The Jordan flows 127 miles with a drainage area of about 6,380 square miles. The Yarmuk River joins the Jordan five miles south of the Sea of Galilee. The Jabbok River reaches the Jordan from the east twenty-five miles north of the Dead Sea.

At the Jordan's end, the Dead Sea extends another 45 miles between high, rugged cliffs of Nubian sandstone and limestone between the arid wilderness bordering the Judean watershed on the west and the Transjordanian plateau on the east. The sea and the inhospitable terrain along its shoreline discouraged regular travel and transport within the area.

The Jordan appears never to have served as a waterway for travel or transport, but rather as a natural barrier and a political boundary, that because of its steep banks and the densely wooded fringe that lined its devious route (“thickets of the Jordan,” Jeremiah 49:19, NIV; compare 2 Kings 6:4) could be crossed without difficulty only at its fords (Joshua 3:1). Control of the fords during military confrontations in biblical times constituted a critical advantage (Judges 3:28; Judges 12:5-6). The Jordan's role as a political boundary appears to have been established already shortly after 2000 B.C. when the eastern frontier of the Egyptian province of Canaan followed the Jordan. Even though Israelite tribes were given special permission to settle in the Transjordan, it was always clear that, beyond the Jordan, they actually were residing outside the Promised Land (Joshua 22:1). Even in postbiblical times, the eastern boundary of the Persian and Hellenistic province of Judea followed the Jordan. Apart from the fertile oases that dotted the Jordan Valley, agricultural prosperity was assured during the Hellenistic and Roman times when irrigation was developed along the gradual slopes on either side of the Jordan within the Rift Valley. See Jordan.

3. Kishon River The Kishon River forms the drainage system of the Jezreel Plain and the southern portion of the Accho Plain. While a number of its small tributaries have their sources in springs at the base of Mount Tabor, in the southern Galilee, and in the extension of the Carmel in the vicinity of Taanach and Megiddo, the Kishon is rarely more than a brook within relatively shallow and narrow banks except during the heavy rains of the winter months. During those times its course becomes a marshy bog and impassable. From the Jezreel, it passes along the base of Mount Carmel through the narrow pass formed by a spur of the Galilean hills and into the Accho Plain, where some additional tributaries join before it empties into the Mediterranean. Its total length from the springs to the sea is only twenty-three miles. In biblical history it is best known for its role in the Barak-Deborah victory over the Canaanite forces of Sisera (Judges 4-5) and Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:40).

4. Yarkon River The Yarkon is formed by the seasonal runoff from the western slopes of the Samaritan and Judean hills that flows into the Brook Kanah, its major tributary, and the rich springs at the base of Aphek about eight miles inland from the Mediterranean shoreline. Though anchorages and small harbors, such as tel Qasile, a Philistine town, were established along its course and the cedar timbers from Lebanon were floated inland to Aphek for transport to Jerusalem for the construction of Solomon's palace and Temple, the Yarkon historically formed a major barrier to north-south traffic because of the extensive swamps that formed along its course. The profuse vegetation that bordered its banks probably suggested its name that was derived from the Hebrew yarok, meaning “green.” The Yarkon, in biblical times, formed the border between the tribes of Dan and Ephraim to the north. Farther inland, the Brook Kanah formed the boundary between Ephraim and Manasseh (Joshua 16:8; Joshua 17:9).

Major Bodies of Water Two major seas heavily influenced Israel's political, economic, and cultural history.

1. Mediterranean Sea The Mediterranean Sea had a width of 100–600 miles and stretched over 2,000 miles from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Palestinian coast.

Formed by the movement of the European and North African continental plates, the greater Mediterranean consists of a series of basins and extended shoreline that historically contributed to the vitality of maritime commerce and trade. The unusually straight coast along the south portion of its eastern shoreline and the lack of natural coves and harbor facilities limited Israelite opportunities for direct involvement in Mediterranean maritime commerce. While limited port facilities existed at coastal towns such as Joppa, Dor, and Accho, they were hardly adequate to facilitate more than a local fishing fleet and an occasional refuge during a storm for the larger merchant ships that frequented the great harbors established farther to the north along the Phoenician coast. As a result, the treaties established between the Israelite kings and the Phoenicians provided for an exchange of agricultural and horticultural produce in exchange for lumber and imports (2 Chronicles 2:16), and a mutually beneficial cooperation in maintaining a monopoly on both land and sea routes of commerce and trade (1 Kings 9:26-27). The Mediterranean became the “Roman” sea when the peaceful conditions of Roman control of land masses along most of the Mediterranean shoreline fostered a dramatic movement of products, merchandise and people to satisfy the diverse needs of the provinces and Roman policy in them. See Mediterranean.

2. Red Sea The Red Sea (Heb. yam suf, lit. “Sea of Reeds”) is a long narrow body of water separating the Arabian Peninsula from the northeastern coast of Africa (Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia). At its southern end its narrow straits (twenty-one miles wide) open to the Indian Ocean. With a length of about 1,240 miles and a width that varies from 124 to 223 miles, the total surface area is just over 176,000 square miles. While its average depth is about 1,640 feet, as a part of the great rift or fault that runs northward from Lake Victoria to the base of the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia, the Red Sea plunges to 7,741 feet near Port Sudan. It is the warmest and most saline of all the open seas. Though the shores of the Red Sea historically have been sparsely settled and its ports have been few, its waterway provided access to the distant ports of the Indian Ocean and the eastern shoreline of Africa where the Phoenician merchant fleets under lease to Solomon bartered for the luxury goods that graced the royal courts of the Levant (1 Kings 9:26).

In the north the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Elath (Aqaba) form the western and eastern arms making up the shorelines of the Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptian pharaohs used the Gulf of Suez as the shortest route to the Mediterranean. It was linked with the Bitter Lakes and the Nile by a canal that existed before 600 B.C. and was maintained by the Persians, the Ptolemies, and the Romans.

With the expansion of David's empire, the Gulf of Elath (Aqaba) provided the vital maritime trade outlet that the kings of Israel and Judah and the Phoenician allies exploited to fill the coffers of Jerusalem. After the demise of the Judean kingdom, the Nabataeans established a similar monopoly over the same marine commerce and the overland caravan routes through Petra to Damascus and Gaza for transshipment on the Mediterranean. Again in Hellenistic times, the Indian trade routes were reestablished and maintained throughout Roman times. See Red Sea.

Apart from the significant roles played by the Nile in Egypt and the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the rivers of the biblical world were small and mostly unnavigable. As a result, apart from the alluvial plains that bordered their banks, these rivers played a more meaningful role as barriers and boundaries than as waterways for travel and transport. In terms of early biblical history, the Mediterranean and the Red Seas played the more dominant roles in intercultural and commercial exchange. As the Greek and Roman Empires developed, the western seas—the Aegean, Ionian, Adriatic, and Tyrrhenian—grew in importance. In the north and east, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Persian Gulf with the mountain ranges that linked them basically formed the limits of the biblical world.

George L. Kelm

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'RIVERS AND WATERWAYS IN THE BIBLE'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.


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