Continued from last week…
We continue our journey down the Jordan Valley to the oasis city of Jericho. If we were travelling two thousand years ago, we would go by the coast route or the Jordan Valley route. The central mountain route was fastest, but who would want to go through Samaritan territory? We eventually arrive at the southern end of the Jordan which was a very wide stream at the time of Christ, especially during the spring flood. Now most of the water has been drained off for irrigation and only a trickle reaches the Dead Sea.
To get an idea of the Jordan as it once was, you should see it as it flows out of the Sea of Galilee. By the time it gets to its southern mouth it can be a little disappointing. We have arrived at the place of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. It, like most shrines in the Holy Land, is both confusing and disputed. The Gospel of John mentions Enon near Salim as one place where John the Baptist baptized, “…because there was much water there.” The Gospel of John also says that John baptized at Bethany beyond the Jordan, not to be confused with Bethany near Jerusalem. This was thought by ancient commentators to be Bethabara on the east bank of the Jordan near Jericho.
Eusebius of Caesarea located the place of the baptism of Jesus on the west bank of the Jordan. Maybe Jesus was baptized in the middle of the Jordan and they are both right. Who knows? Al-Maghtas (a word meaning immersion or baptism in Arabic) on the east side of the river in Jordan is now thought to be the earliest place venerated by pilgrims as the site of the baptism of Jesus. The site was excavated recently and was visited by St. John Paul the Great in March 2000. It was there somewhere and the desert is all around it – the desery into which Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil. Don’t wander around. It may be small but the place is desolate and dangerous. Stick with the group. Now on to Jericho! But, one must ask, “Which Jericho?”
Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than twenty successive settlements in Jericho. The first of goes back 11,000 years (9000 BC), and thus is one of the oldest cities on earth, if not the oldest. Plentiful natural springs have attracted people since people have been in the neighborhood. Jericho is called the “City of Palm Trees.” It is fertile and fruitful. The springs and natural pools are like a miracle as you come out of the desert. I am particularly fond of one of these spring/pools called the Well of the Prophet Elisha. In former times it was a crystal-clear pool next to a little truck stop where one could buy a cold bottle of non-alcoholic whatever. I was student with a pack on my back and had just been travelling (by car) in the sweltering Jordan valley desert. When I saw the cool clear water and the Arab women with their jars getting water to carry home, I ripped off my shirt and jumped in, much to the horror of the locals and the delight of a busload of Baptist pilgrims. The place is now marked by a very nice restaurant, gift shop, and a beautiful fountain. The well itself has been covered up by a rather sophisticated water works. I like to think that I contributed my little bit to the development and covering of the well. It keeps crazy tourists from jumping into the town’s water supply.
Next week, more about Jericho