Did the Israelites Really Walk Across the Water?

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger,

How did God part the waters of the Jordan when the Israelites crossed on dry land in Joshua 3:14-16? Was the river shallow, and they stepped carefully on the rocks? Is the passage a metaphor? Or was this a real miracle?  Love, JNG

Dear JNG,

I am going to defer to our resident PITI scientist, Mark Marikos, for this fascinating answer.

Joshua 3:14-16 describes the fact that the Israelites crossed the Jordan River after 40 years in the wilderness. In flood stage, due to the spring rains and snowmelt from Mount Hermon, the river comprised a formidable barrier to the conquest of Jericho and the rest of the Promised Land (up to a mile wide, up to 12 feet deep, and swift).

So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them.

Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. (Joshua 3:14-16)

God stopped the water upstream, at the town of Adam, at just the right time, so that as the priest stepped out, 15-20 miles downstream, the water ceased to flow where they were.

This brought back a lecture I heard while a graduate student in the Earth and Space Sciences Department at UCLA. A geologist from the Israeli Geological Survey spoke on Geology and the Bible. Among his topics, he spoke about the crossing of the Jordan.

About 17 miles north of Jericho, at the site generally thought to have been the town of Adam (Tell ed-Damiyeh or modern-day Damiya), there is geological evidence that numerous landslides temporarily dammed the Jordan River at various times. At least seven historical earthquakes precipitated landslides that dammed the Jordan River near Damiya:

1927 AD (July 11 – stopped flow for 22 hours)1906 AD (stopped flow for 24 hours)1834 AD1546 AD (Jan 14 – stopped flow for two days)1534 AD1267 AD (December 8 – stopped flow for 10 hours)1160 AD

Was this the mechanism God used to “pile up the waters” at Adam while the Israelites crossed the Jordan miles downstream?

Some object, saying that such natural explanations rob God of the glory of a miracle. I disagree. Instead, I marvel at the precisely timed sequence of events that God would have had to execute to make it happen the way it did by natural processes. And He would have had to spend centuries, if not millennia, preparing the necessary conditions. You see, God was not just working upstream physically, but He was also working upstream in time.

A little geographical and geological background will help set the stage. The name “Jordan” means “descender”, alluding to the relatively steep gradient of the Jordan River valley in the region. That portion of the Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee at an elevation of 682 feet below mean sea level (MSL). About 70 miles downstream it enters the Dead Sea (Salt Sea or Sea of Arabah) at an elevation of about 1300 feet below MSL, the lowest dry land on earth. That is a drop of 620 feet in 70 miles, or about 1 foot every 600 ft.

The Dead Sea basin formed because of regional-scale tectonic activity. The Jordan Valley lies along The Dead Sea Transform Fault Zone, (DSTFZ) where the African and Arabian tectonic plates move laterally with respect to each other in a motion very similar to that along the San Andreas Fault of California. When portions of a transform fault lock up, the surrounding terrain may be warped up or down by the stresses. In this case the Dead Sea has been warped down several thousand feet below the surrounding region into a “trans-tensional” or “pull-apart” basin. It remains tectonically active today, and history records at least 4000 years of earthquake activity.

Because of its steep gradient, the Jordan River cuts several gorges, including one in the vicinity of Adam. There the river is deeply incised into marls of the Lisan Formation, loosely consolidated rocks formed in an ancestral lake that filled the entire Jordan Valley during the last Ice Age. Lake Lisan’s water level would have been about 90 feet higher than the current Sea of Galilee. The marls are comprised of alternating layers of coarse and fine grained sediments. Steep gorge walls of such rocks are inherently unstable and may fail when rattled by even minor earthquakes. This story occurs when the Jordan River was at flood stage. So it was likely a period of increased rainfall that would have saturated the rocks, making them even less stable.

The steeper a river’s gradient, the higher is its flow velocity. This figures into the story in several ways. First, high velocity makes a river more likely to undercut steep valley walls, making them more prone to failure. Second, it makes crossing more difficult. Third, it determines the size of particles that make up the riverbed. And fourth, it affects the rate at which volume changes can propagate downstream (e.g. cut-off, and restoration of flow).

So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that a landslide dam was the mechanism God used to “pile up the waters” near Adam. How could that have occurred at just the right time, in just the right manner, and lasted just the right amount of time to explain the phenomena recorded.

“… as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing.”

In lower-gradient rivers, the decline of water flow following a sudden damming of the river upstream would be relatively gradual, maybe taking a few hours at least to completely stop. However, in a steep-gradient river, the cessation of flow can be rather rapid, because of the high velocity.

Steep-gradient rivers also tend to have rocky, or gravelly river beds, rather than muddy beds, because the high velocity water washes fine sediments downstream instead of depositing them on the river bed. In this story, twelve large stones were carried out of the river bed, on the shoulders of twelve men to make the memorial at Gilgal (Joshua 4:4-10). This implies a stony river bed, that would drain (dry) quickly once flow stopped.

God’s first miracle was the precise timing required to stop flow at the crossing point at the precise time the priests step out. There is a time lag between the damming event and the passage of the last water 15 to 20 miles downstream. It would take a fairly sophisticated hydraulic model to predict what that time lag should be. But surely the Creator of hydraulics knows enough to do that without the help of a computer.

For the flow-cessation to be so rapid, the dam would need to be emplaced almost instantaneously, and be of such tight construction that there were no significant leaks to leave a trickle in the channel. Therefore, the landslide or rock-fall would have to be large enough to fill the river channel well above the river’s flood stage, and be traveling at a high velocity. The mix of landslide materials would need to be evenly graded from large boulders (for structural stability) to fine clays (for low permeability), with just the right proportions of the various grain sizes to be structurally stable and hydraulically tight. The source materials would need to be carefully selected and transported in such a way as to provide the required mix at precisely the time of dam emplacement.

The source materials for the dam would all have to have come from the volume of failed valley-wall, in the proper proportions to be mixed within the landslide and emplaced in their proper places. That means the rock units forming the gorge walls would need to have been deposited in a particular sequence, and be of suitable thicknesses to contribute the proper mix.

Engineered landslides are sometimes used to construct dams, but not always with such predictable results. And they usually require months, if not years of engineering and preparatory excavation to ensure success. But surely the Engineer of the universe could design and build such a dam.

The dam would have to have a specific size and geometry to contain the flood-waters of the Jordan river for just the required period of time, and then fail in a predictable manner to restore the flood flow just as the priests step out of the river channel.

Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Command the priests carrying the ark of the Testimony to come up out of the Jordan.” So Joshua commanded the priests, “Come up out of the Jordan.” And the priests came up out of the river carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD. No sooner had they set their feet on the dry ground than the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and ran at flood stage as before. (Joshua 4:15-18)

The events recorded do not appear to describe a catastrophic dam failure. Rather, it appears to have been a controlled release of water (at flood flow), probably by overtopping. The overtopping would have had to occur over a portion of the dam, or surrounding wall rock, not prone to rapid erosion that would render the structure unstable. Again, there would be a specific time lag between overtopping and re-establishment of flood flow 15-20 miles downstream.

The dam would have to have an impoundment capacity equal to the Jordan River’s flood flow for the time required for all of the Israelites to cross, for the twelve men to collect the twelve large stones from the river bed, and for the priest to carry the ark up out of the river channel – minus the time required for the overtopped water to travel the distance from the dam to the crossing point. Surely the Creator of time itself would have no difficulty performing such a precise sequence of events.

To ensure that all of the conditions and materials were available at the right place and the right time and under the right conditions would require millennia of preparation, and would include:

Building the required tectonic stress patterns into the region to trigger release of the landslide at the proper time.Tectonic down-warping of the Dead Sea basin to provide the proper stream gradient, Setting the course of the Jordan River by sculpting the land surface and emplacing fracture zones in the rock to guide erosion of the channel,Laying down the required sequences and volumes of the various rock types,

Each of these, in turn would involve countless details to ensure the required conditions. Hopefully you are beginning to grasp the wonder of God using natural phenomena to do the miraculous!

I don’t know if God did use a landslide at Adam to “pile up the waters”, but if He did, it is no less wondrous than some supernatural method. I look forward to the “instant replays” in Heaven, so we can see how far off are our speculations and ruminations. I am sure my wife, Mary, is even now in heaven, chuckling at how wrong I had this or that scenario. But in the meantime I can rest assured that God does indeed “work upstream” in my life.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalms 139:13-16)

God exercises the same care and precision in preparing the circumstances of my life, so that when I come to those critical “crossings”, everything unfolds according to His plan. If I could but know His methods, I would see the many years and decades and even centuries He spends bringing me to such critical junctures, and preparing my heart to “cross over” at just the right time.

Only an eternal, omnipotent God, who stands above time, could do that.

Only a God who loves me unconditionally and desires the best for me would do that.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

The only question is, will I step out in faith like the priests carrying the arc, and witness the mighty hand of God?


Ben-Menahem, A.; 1991

Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 96, pp. 20,195-20,216

Garfunkel, Z., and Ben-Avraham, Z.; 1996

Tectonophysics, vol. 266, pp. 155-176

Ken-Tor, R., et al.; 2001

Nur, A. 1991, And the walls came tumbling down: Old Testament writings of doom and destruction are now providing researchers with a record of earthquakes spanning 4000 years, NewScientist.com news service, 06 July 1991 , High-resolution geological record of historic earthquakes in the Dead Sea basin, Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 106, pp. 2221-2234, The structure of the Dead Sea basin,, Four Thousand Years of Seismicity Along the Dead Sea Rift,

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