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River Jordan

The Mythology of a Dividing Line

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

As the site of several miracles in the Jewish and Christian traditions, the Jordan is one of the world’s holiest rivers. It is also the major political and symbolic border contested by Israelis and Palestinians. Combining biblical and folkloric studies with historical geography, Rachel Havrelock explores how the complex religious and mythological representations of the river have shaped the current conflict in the Middle East.

Havrelock contends that the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from the nationalist myths of the Hebrew Bible, where the Jordan is defined as a border of the Promised Land. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim the Jordan as a necessary boundary of an indivisible homeland. Examining the Hebrew Bible alongside ancient and modern maps of the Jordan, Havrelock chronicles the evolution of Israel’s borders based on nationalist myths while uncovering additional myths that envision Israel as a bi-national state. These other myths, she proposes, provide roadmaps for future political configurations of the nation. Ambitious and masterful in its scope, River Jordan brings a fresh, provocative perspective to the ongoing struggle in this violence-riddled region.

320 pages | 15 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Geography: Cultural and Historical Geography

History: Middle Eastern History

Religion: Judaism


River Jordan is a necessary vision of the Jewish past and future. Timely and beautifully written, Rachel Havrelock’s book will appeal to a wide circle of readers.”

Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan

“Havrelock offers a rich set of perspectives—literary, historical, ethnographic, and otherwise—for thinking about the waters of the Jordan as barrier and source of life. She patiently articulates the politics implicit in differing claims of the Jordan and the Euphrates as idealized boundaries of ancient Israel. She offers a concluding vision of the Jordan as a place of meeting rather than a place of separation. Her frank rather than despairing acknowledgment of the continuing power of ancient models, as of the potential power of other models lost in the din of competing claims, should trouble our frozen notions of ideologies past and identities in the present. And that’s exactly the kind of trouble we need from scholars now.”

Jonathan Boyarin, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

“Havrelock shows impressive mastery of a vast amount of material, and her theoretical sophistication allows her to formulate sharp questions at every turn. Brave and insightful in its analysis, River Jordan is a rare pleasure: an intriguing and intellectually adventurous book bolstered by Havrelock’s sparkling writing.”

Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College

River Jordan is a thought-provoking contribution to a growing body of criticism on the Bible as cultural text. The Jordan River is an incredibly rich site for the exploration of the changing significance of biblical traditions in diverse moments of reception.”

Ilana Pardes, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“Rachel Havrelock’s River Jordan is broad in scope, subtle in interpretive detail and written in lucid prose, with an assured mastery of the relevant scholarship—all the more remarkable because it is her first book. What she has done in effect is to invent a new kind of historical analysis . . . with culture comprising ideology and politics as well as national identity. . . . The salutary aspiration of Havrelock’s study is that after her long scrutiny of borders as barriers, lines of divisiveness and killing-fields, she reaches to imagine, in the very consciousness of the border as a mythological construct, an alternative way for peoples to live alongside each other and to interact with one another. This is a scrupulous work of scholarship that is also informed, quietly but effectively, by a moral vision.”

London Review of Books

Table of Contents

List of Maps
 Maps and Legends
 The Two Maps of Israel’s Land
 Israel and Moab as Nation and Anti-nation
 Two Camps: Ancient Israel Between Homeland and Diaspora
 The Book of Joshua and the Ideology of Homeland
 The Other Side
 Crossing Over: Prophetic Succession at the Jordan
 Dipping In: Baptism and the State of the Body
 Two More Maps of Israel’s Land
 My Home Is Over Jordan: River as Border in Israeli and Palestinian National Mythology
 The Baptism Business and the Peace Park
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