Wrong Side of the River

Robert Alter

  • River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line by Rachel Havrelock
    Chicago, 320 pp, £26.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 226 31957 5

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, which I would call cultural cartography, with culture comprising ideology and politics as well as national identity.

Everyone remembers that the Jordan River in the Bible marks the eastern border of the Promised Land. The biblical narrative at numerous points makes much of the crucial verb ‘to cross over’ in relation to the Jordan, and it is of course Moses’s fate to remain on the far side, looking out on the land from the east. The biblical picture, however, is much more complicated than this, as Havrelock shows. Contrary to popular conceptions of the Bible as a ‘book’, scholarship has long recognised that it is in fact a sprawling, disorderly anthology spanning many centuries and incorporating competing, sometimes clashing views. The originality of River Jordan is its demonstration that these disparate ideologies are translated into different maps of the land which express different constructions of ancient Israel’s national identity. These maps, moreover, are not merely of antiquarian interest, because at least some of them have continuing relevance in the conflict over the land today between Israelis and Palestinians.

The map most people recall is the one proposed by the so-called Priestly writers, who were responsible for Leviticus and a code emphasising purity and elaborate ritual distinctions, and were active from around the early eighth century BCE onwards. In this map the Jordan firmly demarcates the eastern border of the land of Israel. This separation of the country from its neighbours by a body of water fits nicely, as Havrelock argues, with the Priestly preoccupation with purity and the concomitant creation of barriers between the sacred and the profane. The notion of watercourses as boundaries, she goes on to say, following several previous scholars, also draws on cosmological ideas: in many biblical texts, as in their Canaanite antecedents, the world comes into being by the drawing of a dividing line between dry land and the primordial waters. This cosmological background is important to Havrelock’s overall case because she contends that borders have a mythological character that buttresses their appeal and that they do not inevitably correspond to fixed topographical features.

The Deuteronomistic writers – the reformist group that around 621 BCE created the core of the Book of Deuteronomy and began assembling the large historical narrative from Joshua to Kings – offer a far more expansionist map in which the eastern border is marked by a different river, the Euphrates. This ‘imperial’ notion, as Havrelock rightly describes it, was pure fantasy, for Israelite power was never projected deep into Mesopotamia. One might view it – although Havrelock does not explicitly say this – as a counterphobic expression of political anxiety: in the seventh century BCE the existence of the nation was threatened by an aggressive imperial power to the east, Assyria, which had already put an end to the northern kingdom of Israel (so called to differentiate it from Judah) in 721 BCE. (The Babylonians would later also fit into this picture.) The Deuteronomists’ grandiose map of the Promised Land was not endorsed by any significant trend in post-biblical Judaism, not even by the Revisionist Zionists, the precursor of the Likud, whose rousing anthem claimed rights to ‘both banks of the Jordan’, which meant all of Mandatory Palestine.

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