The London Review of Books recently published a wonderful review by Robert Alter of Rachel Havrelock’s intriguing new book, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line. I have not yet read the book itself, but I am a huge admirer of Alter’s, and if he praises a book this highly, it’s definitely worth my attention.

Havrelock traces the history of shifting ideas of the limits of the Holy Land. Israelite tribes certainly lived across the Jordan, and much Biblical history concerns the interactions with Ammon, Moab and Edom, but different writers varied as to whether the river constituted a hard and fast boundary. That may sound like a technical and even legalistic argument, but it gets to much deeper issues about the exclusiveness of the Israelite community, and its relationship to the wider Gentile world. “Borders” in other words are psychological and spiritual as much as physical, and the Jordan (like many rivers) carries multiple symbolic meanings. To say that “we” live on this side of the river also means that they, those foreigners, those unclean people, live on the other shore, and are nothing to do with us.

This ongoing debate was at its sharpest in the post-Exile world, which produced two wildly divergent interpretations. The view in Ezra and Nehemiah “bases nationhood on racial purity and appears to conceive the nation as a wagons-circled concentration in Jerusalem of Judeans returned from Babylonia; the other, suggested in the Book of Ruth … involves a surprising reversibility of borders.” Havrelock then traces the more expansive view to later universalist movements – to rabbinic Judaism and, of course, to the world of John the Baptist and Jesus. I don’t know whether Havrelock explores the massive use of Jordan-symbolism in later Christian iconography. Actually, you could probably write a whole book just about Jordan imagery in hymns.

The Jordan theme grabbed me so much because it relates to other topics in which I have a long-standing interest. One, oddly enough, is Westerns and the mythology of the Old West, in which The Border (usually, the Rio Grande) has such significance as a dividing line between civilization and barbarism – or freedom. In real life, that river border has of course changed its meaning yet again just over the past decade, as it has become increasingly difficult to cross, so that once fairly open lines between (say) El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are now real, intimidating, frontiers.

Related to that is the construction of nationality. Over time, people come to define themselves as communities in ways they never did before, and usually create for themselves plausible mythologies to prove that  this novel situation has always been the case – call it the Invention of Antiquity. This fascinating (and often bloody) process has swept over much of the world since about 1945. When I teach this material, a book I love to use is Kate Brown’s A Biography of No Place, about an ill-defined portion of the present Ukraine, which over the past century or so has had multiple identities thrust upon it. As I note in my class handout

Benedict Anderson famously imagined how communities imagine themselves, how a patch of land becomes France or Indonesia, rather than any other concept. Often, these secular territories replace older sacred landscapes – look for instance at the Four Corners country in the US, and how the four states divide up an ancient sacred landscape that was once unified. Kate Brown has done something much more radical, in taking a territory that has no such clear identity, that is pure borderland: “Her ‘no place’ is left-bank Ukraine, the borderland between shifting Polish-Lithuanian and Russian empires — the wedge of land made notorious by Chernobyl and its cloud”. She shows the different frames that can be placed upon this territory, and in so doing, she touches on “mainstream” history – the Soviet era, the Holocaust – but also shows how many such events take place on the fringes of her central story.”

That comment resonates with Havrelock’s Biblical example, not least because ancient Palestine too stood at the junction of several competing empires, and that fact contributed to how Israel conceived both of its present, and its past.

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