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Jordan: Of Sandstone and Sanctuary


Jesus’ Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17)

At Bethany Beyond the Jordan, we were greeted by engineer Rustom Mkhjian, of Jordan’s Baptism Site Commission.

“We began development of this site in 1997,” he said. “Why so late? Because it could not be developed until we signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. Without that, we could not work here as archaeologists and theologians.

“Jesus tells us to build our house on a rock,” said Mkhjian, “so we have to be very careful to be correct in what we say about this site. What do we have to rely on in the Bible?

“First, we have Moses. We know he died east of the Jordan River. We have the prophets Elisha and Elijah. Elijah, too, lived opposite Jericho, east of the Jordan.

“John started his ministry here,” said Mkhjian. “We all know that John ate wild locusts and honey. This site has both. John was killed 35 miles southeast of here in Machaerus.

“Pilgrims throughout history have mentioned this site, and churches have been built here,” he continued. “Popes have visited this site; the last was Pope Francis this spring. This is the site where bridges of love and peace must be built.”

Several ancient church ruins remain near the site of Jesus’ baptism, and the Orthodox Church of John the Baptist is a landmark near the river. The Jordan River has moved westward over the centuries and is now 200 yards or so west of the earliest church ruins.

At the baptism site is a rudimentary wooden platform built along the river bank. The river is no more than 15 yards wide at this point. On the opposite side is a more ornate baptismal structure in the West Bank. Pilgrims gather on both sides to pray, to wade into the river or to be baptized.

While we were there, a Russian woman in a robe immersed herself in the river, beaming brightly when she emerged, happy to share her moment with all of us.

“The baptism site was the most meaningful place we visited for me,” said Ken Wooten of Academic Travel Services in Hendersonville, North Carolina. “I felt the impact of the scriptures in 2 Kings that placed Elijah at this site 1,000 years before John the Baptist. They were similar: Both were rough, cloaked in camel’s hair, preaching the word of God.

“Visiting the site compelled me to go back to all four Gospels. John the Baptist’s entire ministry was based there where we were, in Jordan at the southern end of the Dead Sea.”


Moses on Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 34:1-8)

It’s a long, winding drive up to Mount Nebo through parched desert mountains and dried creek beds. Bedouin tents are perched on hillsides. There is only scrub brush, very little of it green. Far below spreads the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea and Jericho.

Atop the mountain stands the Moses Memorial Church, which is now closed for renovation, but some of its celebrated mosaics are available for viewing. Jordan is a land of mosaics, but for many, visiting Mount Nebo is more about empathy, about sharing an ancient longing. Pilgrims stand on a terrace and peer out over a panoramic expanse overlooking the Jordan River and Israel, and their hearts go out to Moses.

“To stand there on Mount Nebo like Moses did and gaze out over the Dead Sea into the Promised Land was moving,” said Wooten. “Due to one indiscretion, Moses could not enter. Grace changed all that for us, but Moses lived under Old Testament law, and everything had its consequence.”