QASR EL YAHUD

Deep in the Jordan Valley, northeast from ancient Jericho and not far from the Dead Sea, earth’s lowest point, the adventurous traveler can discover one of Israel’s hidden treasures if you don’t mind getting off the beaten path and traveling from HWY 90 to the banks of the Jordan River. Echoing stories from both Old & New Testament major biblical events together with a touch of the modern history of the State of Israel, a visit to Qasr El Yahud is like stepping into a mystic time capsule displaying a lush green oasis surrounded by an arid and dry wilderness. The ancient Arabic name, which means “The Castle of the Jews”, hails back to events that took place thousands of years ago; events that affected and changed the world forever.

Emerging during recent years as a popular Christian baptism site, Qasr El Yahud is linked with the location and the event of Jesus’ baptism by John (Matthew chapter 3). Christian scholars and pilgrims have recognized the location since the fourth century AD, and a number of ancient monasteries and churches built nearby celebrate the significance and wonder of that event, marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and His emergence into public life. Still, the site’s historic and religious significance goes further back in time than Jesus’ first century baptism. Jewish tradition recognizes that Qasr El Yahud is also the general location of the epic crossing of the Jordan River by the Children of Israel into the Promised Land nearly 15 centuries earlier, as they entered Canaan under the leadership of Joshua the Son of Nun. (Joshua chapter 3).

Think about it, this remote and hard to find oasis on the banks of the Jordan River, far from any modern major city or highway, has seen two separate historic events unfolding across its harsh terrain centuries apart. Historians estimate that the young Hebrew nation emerging from its 40 years’ wilderness journey was possibly numbering two to three million souls as they approached the Jordan River from the east. A massive and well-organized community moving slowly across the landscape under the banners of its 12 tribes, the young nation boasted a large and strong army as it neared the Promised Land. Following the Ark of the Covenant that was carefully carried on the priests’ shoulders, this unstoppable movement reached the Jordan River nearby Qasr El Yahud.

The crossing was divinely timed to take place during the spring of the year when the flow of water was at its peak due to the melting snow up north. This way, the miracle of the stopping of the River upstream, allowing the nation safe crossing, was dramatically displayed and recorded in Joshua 3:11-17. As it is written, “… as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest), that the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam … Then the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground…”

Fifteen centuries later, following the settlement of the Promised Land, the building and rebuilding of two Temples, and surviving repeated dangers from hostile neighbors and invading empires, another great crowd gathered at Qasr El Yahud on the First Century AD. The radical message of repentance of John the Baptist drew what historians estimate were millions of First Century Jews to the remote site. “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight.’ … Then Jerusalem, ALL JUDEA, and ALL THE REGION around the Jordan went out to him.” (Emphasis mine, Matt 3:1-5).

An epic event in its proportions and prophetic significance, this sprawling crowd of Jews, Romans, doubters, sceptics and curious observers served as the backdrop for the historic baptism of Jesus of Nazareth. Launching His public ministry at this humble and remote site on the banks of the Jordan River, a spiritual movement was born that has since impacted billions of souls worldwide. Was the location’s choice coincidental, or was there a divine hand guiding these events?

These days, it seems, many Christian disciples are finding their way to the birthplace of that spiritual movement, Qasr El Yahud, where Jesus of Nazareth, the fountainhead of their Faith, quietly slipped into the waters of the Jordan River. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’” (Matt 3:13-15). Both the nation of Israel and the Christian worldwide community place vital importance on the events that took place at the region of Qasr El Yahud, making this site grow in popularity each year.

To make matters even more interesting, this general location is also associated with Elijah’s rising up to heaven in a fiery chariot after passing his mantle on to Elisha who was called to continue the prophetic ministry to Israel (2 Kings chapter 11). Can you see the connection? We remember Jesus’ own description regarding John the Baptist, explaining to His disciples, “…I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he… for all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matt 11:11-14). Elijah the Tishbite ascended to heaven from the region of Qasr El Yahud when his mission was finished, and John the Baptist, coming in the Spirit of Elijah, reached the pinnacle of his ministry at that very same place when baptizing Jesus. As the angel spoke to Zachariah, John’s father, “He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17). The conquest of Canaan, the prophetic ministries of Elijah and John the Baptist, and the water baptism of Jesus of Nazareth are all anchored here.

Hidden from site, almost forgotten from memory and grossly neglected by the mainstream tourism industry for many years, Qasr El Yahud lay in waiting for centuries to come into full view. Following centuries of Turkish Ottoman Islamic rule that did not encourage Christian pilgrimage to this remote area, this rough region fell under the administration of the Jordanians until the Six Day War of 1967, and it often served as an operational base for Islamic terrorists targeting Israeli communities. The Israel Defense Forces secured the area, cleaned out the terrorists’ nests, and kept the region quiet and safe for both visitors and locals.

With the days of obscurity over, in recent years Qasr El Yahud has been refurbished with new and comfortable access to the waterfront, public showers, shady seating areas for prayer and meditation, wheelchair access and a parking lot. The site is under the administration of the Israel Parks Authority, the water quality is regularly inspected to ensure safety, and millions of Israeli Shekels are continuously invested in the maintenance and future development of this historic and religious site, precious to both the Jewish and Christian communities.

When planning your next visit to Israel, be sure to ask your SAR-EL operator to include Qasr El Yahud in your itinerary. You will not be disappointed.

Blessings from Jerusalem.
Samuel Smadja