1406 B. C.
Joshua 18:7 says that Gad, Reuben, and half the tribe of Manasseh received their inheritance on the other side of the Jordan. Although they had original intentions of continuing to be the same as the other tribes, the Rift Valley proved to be just too great a barrier for them to cross very much so that they could worship regularly with the other tribes. Gilead was the only Transjordan site that was colonized by the Israelites that had any significant role in intertribal history. All this land pretty much remained “foreign” land throughout the biblical period. In New Testament times the land was regarded as “gentile” territory. But the study wouldn’t be complete without a survey of the land that the Israelites had once taken for their own.
Land of the Transjordan
Transjordan includes the territory east of the Jordan River and extends about 150 miles from the southern shore of the Dead Sea to the base of Mount Hermon. This land falls within the modern state of Jordan. The region is made up of an elevated plateau that becomes higher as it extends southward, rising from 2 to 5 thousand feet in elevation. The average width of the territory stretches 25 miles from the eastern edge of the Jordan Valley to the Arabian Desert. The border between Transjordan and the desert was not fixed by definite geographical barriers, but fluctuated according to climatic and political conditions. In time of drought or political instability, the borders would retreat westward with the advance of the desert nomads.
Regions of the Transjordan
Four great canyons drain the western slopes of the Transjordan highlands, dividing the land into the major geographical regions significant in biblical times: Bashan, Gilead, Ammon, Moab, and Edom. After you read the description of each region, you can look at them on the map that follows below them:
The northernmost region that lay parallel to the Sea of Galilee was Bashan. It was noted for its rich volcanic soil and abundant rainfall which provided green grasslands for grazing cattle. Wheat was the primary crop of the region, and this region was regarded in New Testament times as being one of the great granaries of the Roman Empire. The south border was the Yarmuk, which was the largest eastern tributary of the Jordan River. It flows southwest and enters the Jordan Valley about five miles south of the Sea of Galilee.
There was a gorge which served as a natural boundary between Bashan and the broad limestone dome known as Gilead which was directly South of Bashan. The term is used rather loosely in the New Testament, with much of the time just meaning the territory instead of one particular place. This territory was about 40 miles from north to south and was famed in the biblical period for its forests, pasturelands, and medicinal balm.
The deep gorge of Jabbok served as the border between Gilead and Ammon to the south. This was the home of the Ammonites who were frequently at war with Israel. The territory had its center at the very edge of the Arabian Desert at Rabbah (on the map), which was about 23 miles east of the Jordan River. In the New Testament period, it was known as Philadelphia and was an important trading center in the Decapolis.
The Wadi Arnon emptied directly into the Red Sea because this land was south of the Jordan River. This was the gorge between Ammon and Moab, or the land of the Moabites. This territory extended about 35 miles south to the Wadi Zered. Although this land was considerably more barren than the land to the north, it was apparently still suited for grazing. 2 Kings 3:4 says that the King of Moab was a sheep breeder. This area is about 3,000 feet above sea level and 4,300 feet above the shores of the Dead Sea.
The Wadi Zered separated the land of Moab from the land of Edom. This was the territory of the descendants of Esau and is also known as Mount Seir. It was bordered on the west by the Arabah Desert, the Arabian Desert on the east, and the Gulf of Aqaba on the south. This region’s territory was not conducive to agriculture or cattle raising, but its hills were full of copper and the King’s Highway went through it, so there was much commercial business that went through this area. It was also here that the Transjordan mountains reached their highest elevations rising to heights of 5,000 to 7,500 feet.
All the Wadis that separate the different regions are actually valleys in between the mountains. They were natural run-offs for the overflow of the rivers and the water coming down from the mountain tops and running into the rivers and seas. They were not always full of water, just at times of overflow, although they probably had some water running through them at all times.
Climate of Transjordan
Since it is situated between the Rift Valley and the Arabian Desert, the land is influenced much by the moisture -laden Mediterranean winds. Annual rainfall is heaviest in the upper reaches of Bashan (30 to 40 inches) and on the heights of Gilead (20 to 30 inches) but diminishes in the territories further south (5 to 15 inches). These areas receive the full blow of the sirocco winds, which blast out of the desert as out of an oven during the transitional seasons which are April – June and September – October. These winds bring a steep rise in temperature by as much as 16 – 22° and a drop in relative humidity as much as 40%. The ferocity of the sirocco winds increases the farther one goes toward the east.
Economy of Transjordan
Where rainfall provided sufficient moisture for grasslands, cattle raising was an important part of the Transjordan economy, and what was grown in the rich and well-watered soil of Bashan. No doubt, though, the most important contribution to the culture was the famous King’s Highway. It passed through the region and provided commercial opportunities in the markets of Damascus, Elath, and Arabia. These trade opportunities had made the Edomites rich people.
In the next text, we will study the history and cities of the Transjordan area.