The Way Up is Down
Often if we travel in Israel, we hear the phrase ‘to make aliyah’ – meaning to permanently immigrate to Israel. The word ‘aliyah’ is derived from the root עלה (alah) – meaning to ‘go up’ or ‘to ascend’. Literally it means simply to ‘go up’ (as it going up steps). Since Jerusalem is located in the Judean hill country, any traveler going there is literally ‘going up’. In the T’nakh, we always read that anyone going to Jerusalem is ‘going up” while leaving Jerusalem is referred to as ‘going down’. The same is true with going to and coming from Israel.
This week we are discussing the root ירד (yarad) which has just the opposite meaning – to go down or to descend. A bit about the geography of Israel will help us in understanding these two roots and the words formed from them. The western border of Israel is of course, the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern border is the Jordan river. Interestingly enough, ‘Jordan’ is a Hebrew word (Hebrew: יַרְדֵּן (yarden) [Strong’s #909] and is formed from the root ירד (yarad). The Theological Workbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) states that in the T’nakh, “almost all of the 183 occurrences of the word, with the exception of poetical passages (Job 40:23; Psalms 42:6), are with the definite article [the Hebrew letter hey – ה which translates as ‘the’].” So when you look up ‘Jordan’ in the T’nakh, the Hebrew is spelled הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן and is translated as ‘the Jordan’. Most scholars derive the name, Jordan, from the verb יָרַד “to descend,” and hence the Jordan is also called “the descender.”
This is true not only etymologically speaking, but also geographically speaking. The Jordan is formed by four small springs along the lower slopes of Mount Hermon which is the tallest peak in Israel. One of these springs is near the location of Dan, Israel’s northernmost city (Judges 18:29). The Jordan flows through the Hula Valley and then onwards through a basalt rock gorge to the Sea of Galilee. The river reforms at the south end of the Sea of Galilee and descends to the Dead Sea, 1290 feet below sea level – the lowest spot on earth. The Jordan descends approx. 2,000 feet from Mt. Hermon in the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea following the Great Rift Valley (which extends onward to the great lakes of Africa). Since the much of the land of Israel is situated between the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Jordan valley on the east, travel is usually always either ‘up’ or ‘down’. And since Jerusalem is the geographical and spiritual focus of the Bible, travelers are either ‘going up’ to Jerusalem or ‘going down’ from it.
God always teaches us spiritual truths using physical means that we are familiar with. Concerning the root, yarad, the TWOT states, “there is also the feeling of moving from a place of prominence to one of lesser importance, i.e. from the temple or palace to a private house (e.g. 2 Samuel 11:9f.). Further to come down is to leave one’s place of prestige, to humble oneself (Isaiah 47:1; Jeremiah 48:18).” The root (ירד) – yarad is also used in the phrase “to go down to Egypt” meaning to leave the promised land to dwell among people outside of the covenant. It also meant to forsake God and to seek the help of man which would fail (Isaiah 30:2; 31:1). The root yarad is also used to describe God ‘descending’ to earth from Heaven. We have several pictures in the T’nakh. God descended on Mt. Sinai in fire (Exodus 19:18) and on the Tabernacle He appeared in a pillar of cloud (Exodus 40:34). God came down to earth to investigate man’s wickedness both at the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5) and at Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20). God also comes down to bring salvation to his people; e.g., He appeared to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3:8).
Until I studied this root, I could not understand why Jesus choose to be baptized in the Jordan instead of the Sea of Galilee. The bulk of His ministry was around the shores of Galilee. Why did He travel to the Jordan for His baptism? Now I realize that He was teaching us a most important lesson! God was once again descending to earth and this time, to save the whole world. John the Baptist, standing on the banks of this very river Jordan, identified Jesus this way as recorded in John 1:29: “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Speaking of the humility of Jesus, the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 2:7-8, “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Matthew records Jesus’ words to His disciples concerning ambition just prior to His final visit to Jerusalem: “Are ye able … to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Matthew 20:22) Today many Christians want to be baptized in the Jordan river because Jesus was baptized there. However, the physical location of baptism is not what is important! They are missing the entire point. One of the marks of a disciple of Yeshua is humility. Truly Yeshua descended more than any living person, leaving Heaven to come to earth and take on the form of man so that He could identify with mankind and bear the sins of mankind. Thus Yeshua, the greatest “descender”, was baptized in the river known as “the descender” to teach us this great truth!