Thickets of the Jordan, גאון הירדן

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English:

Thickets (or: jungle) of the Jordan, or Swell of the Jordan

Hebrew:

גאון הירדן (ge’on hayyarden)

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Biblical data

Introduction

גאון הירדן (geon hayyarden) occurs four times in the Hebrew Bible, three of them in Jeremiah (Jer 12:5; 49:19; 50:44), and the fourth in Zechariah (11:3). Is it the name of a specific site or of a region? And to what does it refer: the Jordan water flow (as suggested by Qimhi) or the vegetation unit of the Jordan river banks? In any event, גאון הירדן is taken to be a dangerous area. In Jer 12:5 it stands in opposition to ארץ שלום (“a secured land” or “a tranquil land”); in the other three instances, the danger is specified as the habitat of lions (Jer 49:19; 50:44; and Zech 11:3), who are a threat to shepherds.

The meaning of גאון הירדן has been debated, due to the גאון component of this phrase. According to HALOT (169), גאון stands for “height” of sea waves (Job 38:11) or the tone of the divine voice (Job 37:4), and HALOT reads the four occurrences of גאון הירדן accordingly. This meaning accords with the verb גאה, “to grow tall,” used of plants enjoying plenty of water (e.g., Job 8:11) or of rising waters (Ezek 47:5; and גאות הים in Ps 89:10).

Another meaning of גאון is “eminence,” a meaning restricted to God (Exod 15:7; Isa 2:10, 19, 21; 24:14; Mic 5:4), and Job 40:10 clusters this meaning with its others—height, eminence, and glory—as they play their role in the divine גאון. When it comes to individuals or to nations, however, גאון is evaluated negatively as “pride, hubris” (Prov 8:13; 16:18; Ps 59:13; Job 35:12). In the national sphere, גאון is a sin committed by Israel (Hos 5:5; 7:10; Amos 6:8; 8:7), by Jerusalem or Judah (Ezek 7:20, 24; 16:56; 33:28), and by their surrounding enemies: Assyria (Zech 10:11) or its ruler (Isa 14:11), Babylon (Isa 13:19), Egypt (Ezek 30:6, 18; 32:12), Moab (Isa 16:6; Jer 48:29; Zeph 2:10), Philistia (Zech 9:6), Sodom (Ezek 16:49), and Tyre (Isa 23:9), a sin that God will call to judgment (e.g., Isa 13:11). [1] גאון עזכם may refer to the land (Lev 26:19; and, with a positive tone, Ps 47:5) or to the Jerusalem temple (Ezek 24:21). Consolation prophecies mention גאון as the restored dignity of God’s people (Isa 4:2; Isa 60:15; Nah 2:3).

גאון הירדן was therefore commonly understood as a geographical term of a region, but two different options were designated as expressing the quality of height, either the rivers water height, hence “the swell of the Jordan,” or the vegetation regional conditions, i.e., the high flora of its banks. [2] Based on the Targum, medieval interpretation took גאון הירדן to refer to the water flow of the river (e.g., Qimhi on Jer 49:19). The fluctuations of the water height in the Jordan between winter and summer were recorded already in the mid-nineteenth century by Henri Tristram. [3] But it seems that biblical (both premodern and modern) scholarship, nineteenth century travelers reports, and studies of geographers of the land of Israel preferred to use this term in reference to the flora of this narrow region along the Jordan. [4] BDB 145 explains גאון הירדן as the “majesty of the Jordan, referring to the green and shady banks, clothed with willows, tamarisks, and cane in which lions made their covert.” Moshe Nadel takes the construct character of the expression quite literally: גאון refers to the flora which makes the Jordan a source of pride or glory. [5] Menashe Har-El suggests that the pride is relative, designating “the forest of the Pride of the Jordan” as “the pride of this arid region” in contrast to the “burning hot, desolate Jordan Wilderness.” [6] Modern biblical scholars have followed this line. [7]

For the sake of our discussion of גאון הירדן, as applied to vegetation, we are then left with two options. Is height the major characteristic of the vegetation in the Jordan valley (following the etymological meaning of גאה)? Or should we be thinking of “thickets”?

Distribution within the Bible

Three of the four occurrences of גאון הירדן in the Hebrew Bible are in Jeremiah.

  • Once in an individual lament (“confession”), Jer 12:5
  • Twice in parallel verses in two prophecies against the nations, Jer 49:19 against Edom and 50:44 against Babylon,

The forth occurrence, Zech 11:3, is taken as either judgment prophecy or as a lament. [8]

Parts, Elements, Features that Are Specified in the Bible

גאון הירדן appears to designate a feature of vegetation or a geographical region (not a place name), based on the following characteristics:

The oppositional parallel to ארץ שלום (“a secured land” or “a tranquil land”) in Jer 12:5 illustrates that גאון הירדן is an entire area taken to be dangerous.

Other geographic locations occur in the same context beside גאון הירדן; see Lebanon and the Bashan in Zech 11:1–3.

However, the vegetation formation to which גאון הירדן may refer is not specified. In contradistinction to the mention of specific plants like the cedars (ארזים) in Lebanon and the oaks (אלוני הבשן, Quercus) in the Bashan, the area of גאון הירדן is not characterized by specific plants in Zech 11:1–3, and the same is true in the other references. Rather, it is designated by its unique fauna, being the habitat of lions. However, the proximity in Zech 11 to those high trees of Lebanon and the Bashan drives us back to the context of height in reference to גאון הירדן.

Agreed throughout is that danger that resides in גאון הירדן; in three of the references, that danger involves lions that are said to settle in it (Zech 11:3) and attack from there (Jer 49:19; 50:44). [9]

Function in Context

All four occurrences are figurative, symbolizing a place of danger, which in Jer 12:5 refers to danger that threatens the prophet as an individual.

In Jer 49:19–20; 50:44–45 גאון הירדן is a simile for God’s furious war and threat against Edom and Babylon. God is to attack those lands as if he were the lion coming out from גאון הירדן. The discrepancy in these repeated verses is that this simile may indeed be geographically relevant (and understandable) when expressed in Judah and addressed to Edom, but it is hardly so when issued against Babylon. [10] In Zech 11:3, גאון הירדן is about to be devastated and will no longer be habitat of lions.

End Notes

[1] While HALOT (169) took גאון in human contexts to be critically judged as hubris based on the contexts of the above mentioned passages, note that BDB (144–45) has a different understanding of this word. גאון in itself means “exaltation” and thus has a neutral or even positive meaning when it refers to nations’ “exaltation, majesty, excellence,” referring to “their wealth, power, magnificence of buildings.” According to BDB, a second meaning with a “bad sense” of “pride” is more limited in its occurrences: Job 35:12; Ps 59:13; Prov 8:13; 16:18; Ezek 7:20; 16:49; Zeph 2:10; and, in reference to Moab, Isa 16:6 and Jer 48:29.

[2] The former option was suggested already by the Targum (to Jer 12:5) and was further elaborated already in medieval interpretation as by Qimhi (see History of Identification), as well as among modern critics such as McKane, Jeremiah I–XXV, 264–65. Lundbom, Jeremiah 1–20, 647 briefly refers to both options.

[3] Tristram, The Land of Israel, 222, 237–38, who further described a hunt of a great boar at the Gohr, the Arab name of the Jordan valley south of the Sea of Gallilee. The water flow phenomenon, however, cannot be validated in current times, as the Jordan waters are exhausted by Israel, Syria, and Jordan, and its flow to the Dead Sea has decreased significantly over the last few decades.

[4] For the early translations see History of Identification. McKane, Jeremiah I–XXV, 264–65 favored this last option, arguing that the alternative of “swell” cannot be accepted for three of the occurrences (Jer 49:19; 50:44; Zech 11:3). A mid-nineteenth-century report emphasizes the flora (Lynch, Narrative of the United States’ Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, 246, 252). Among the twentieth century studies, see in particular Glueck, The River Jordan, 62–77.

[5] Nadel, “Mountain Names Dependent on Hair,” 56–57.

[6] Har-El, “The Pride of the Jordan: The Jungle of the Jordan,” 69, 71.

[7] Boda, Zechariah, 647 translates גאון as “lush thicket,” although he recognizes that גאון serves as an attribute of several other nouns.

[8] Boda, Zechariah, 636–40

[9] Har-El,  “The Pride of the Jordan,” mentions different aspects of danger in this area under the general thought that “living conditions at the Pride were unbearable for both man and beast” (71). Among those terrible conditions he mentioned are destructive floods in the winter, malarial mosquitoes on its banks, and high temperatures, in addition to wild beasts within the “dense forest.” Not least, these conditions have become a hiding place for fugitives, robber bands, etc. (72).

[10] This difficulty has been raised by commentators; see, e.g., Lundbom, Jeremiah 37–52, 343, 429, who therefore considers Jer 50:44–46 to be another application of the oracle, this time against Babylon, and dates it prior to 594 BCE, a date he suggested for “the bulk of Jeremiah’s oracles” against Babylon (429).

Bibliography

Boda, Mark J. Zechariah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016.

Glueck, Nelson. The River Jordan. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1946.

Har-El, Menashe. “The Pride of the Jordan: The Jungle of the Jordan.” Biblical Archaeologist 41 (1978): 65–75.

Lynch, William F. Narrative of the United States’ Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea. Philadelphia: Lee and Blanchard, 1849.

Lundbom, Jack R. Jeremiah 1–20. Anchor Bible 21A. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Lundbom, Jack R. Jeremiah 37–52. Anchor Bible 21C New York: Doubleday, 2004.

McKane, William. Jeremiah I–XXV. International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986.

Nadel, Moshe. “Mountain Names Dependent on Hair: Journey on the Semantic Field (שמות הררים התלויים בשערה: תיור בשדה הסימנטי)” Leshonenu 19 (1954): 51–60 (Hebrew).

Tristram, Henri. The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine. 2nd ed. London: SPCK, 1866 (originally published 1865).

Contributor: Prof. Dalit Rom-Shiloni, DNI Bible Project Leader, Department of Biblical Studies, Tel Aviv University, Israel

History of Identification

Identification History Table

Hebrew Greek Aramaic Syriac Latin Arabic English
Ref MT LXX Revisions Targumim Peshitta Vulgate Jewish Christian KJV NRSV NJPS
Jer 12:5

ובארץ שלום אתה בוטח

ואיך תעשה בגאון הירדן

καὶ ἐν γῇ εἰρήνης

πῶς ποιήσεις ἐν φρυάγματι τοῦ Ιορδάνου

= in the pride of the Jordan

ובארעא שלמא את מתבטח ונפיל

ואיכדין את מדמי למעבד כקביל חיות ברא ברובי ירדנא … הא כמיא דנחתין שטוף לירדנא

ברובי ירדנא

= in a place of plant growth

ובארעא דשלמא תכיל אנת. ואיכנא עבר אנת בעושנה דיורדנן in terra pacis …

in superbia Iordanis

= in the pride of the Jordan

ואן לנת מנבטחאן פי ארץ׳ אלסלאם, פכיפ תעמל פי כבריאא אלארדן and if in the land of peace … then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan? in a tranquil land…

How will you fare in the jungle of the Jordan?

Jer 49:19

הנה כאריה יעלה מגאון הירדן

אל נוה איתן

ἰδοὺ ὥσπερ λέων ἀναβήσεται ἐκ μέσου τοῦ Ιορδάνου εἰς τόπον Αιθαμ

=from within the Jordan to the place Aitam

כאריא דסליק מרום ירדנא

והוה לדיר רעין

הא איך אריא נסב מן עושנא דיורדנן

לדירא דאתן

 

 

 

 

הוד׳א יצעד כאסד מן כבריאא אלארדן

אלא מרעאן דאיאמן

from the swelling of Jordan against the habitation of the strong out of the jungle of the Jordan against a secure pasture
Jer 50:44 הנה כאריה יעלה מגאון הירדן אל נוה איתן ἀπὸ τοῦ Ιορδάνου εἰς τόπον Αιθαμ

= from the Jordan to the place Eitam

כאריא דסליק מרום ירדנא והוה לדיר רעין הא איך אריא נסב מן עושנא דיורדנן לדירא דאתן

 

 

הא הו יצעד כאסד מן כבריאא אלארדן

אלא מרעאן דאיאמן

from the swelling of Jordan unto the habitation of the strong of the jungle of the Jordan against a secure pasture
Zech 11:3 קול שאגת כפירים כי שדד גאון הירדן φωνὴ ὠρυομένων λεόντων, ὅτι τεταλαιπώρηκεν τὸ φρύαγμα τοῦ Ιορδάνου

קל ניהומותהון כבני אריון

כד יביש עליהון רום ירדנא

קלא דאריותא דנהמין

דאתבזז עושנה דיורדנן

  צות זמג׳רה אלאשבול לאן כבריאא אלארדן חרבת a voice of the roaring of young lions; for the pride of Jordan is spoiled Hark, the roaring of the great beasts,

For the jungle of the Jordan is ravaged

 

Discussion

LXX Jer 12:5: e˙n frua¿gmati touv Iorda¿nou; as also Zech 11:3: to\ fru/agma touv Iorda¿nou  use frua¿ssw = pride, an equivalent used also for גאון עזים, Ezek 7:24; and גאון עזכם, Ezek 24:21 (see also גאון עזכם in LXX Lev 26:19 th\n u¢brin thvß uJperhfani÷aß uJmw◊n = the hubris of your pride). Compare to do/xa = glory, that translates גאון when  attributed to God (e.g., Exod 15:7).

However, in the two parallel verses in Jer 49:19 and 50:44, LXX does not present an equivalent for גאון, and simply refer to the lion coming up from (or out of) the river (50:44), and closer in 49:19: “from the midst of”.

The Aramaic Targum to Jer 12:5 is clearly interpretive, and in fact suggests a double translation of גאון הירדן. First addressing its vegetation, and the fear is of its wild beasts (ואיכדין את מדמי למעבד כל קביל חיות ברא די ברובי ירדנא , note that the lion is not specifically mentioned); second, the Targum closes with a consoling sentence that here refers to גאון הירדן as the water shed (taken as a blessing): הא כמיא דנחתין שטוף לירדנא. The other three occurrences are translated as מרום ירדנא, thus taking גאון הירדן more literally as the “height of the Jordan.”

The Syriac, Peshitta takes גאון to resemble power, thus uses עושנא, “the power of the Jordan”. This equivalent sustains for the four occurrences

The Aramaic Targum to Zech 11:3 takes גאון as referring to hight. Ibn Ezra has important comments on the interpretation suggested by the Targum to שדד as “being dried out” (כד יביש עליהון).

From the syntactical parallel to 3a, Ibn Ezra takes the verb as the predicate of כפירים and not of הירדן, and thus it was the lion that was robbed, the lion which the Jordan was proud of, i.e., its pride was based on the “thought” that no one could cross the Jordan in fear of the lion; Ibn Ezra further suggested a second option, that the pride of Israel was robbed in cis-Jordan.

 

Contributor: Prof. Dalit Rom-Shiloni, DNI Bible Project Leader, Department of Biblical Studies, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Biological Information