Monday, April 22, 2024

“Aquae Sanctae Terrae”: The Spiritual Signification of the Waters of the Holy Land (Part 1)

NLM is grateful to S.K., a seminarian from the Midwest, for sharing this recent paper with us. – PAK

Jordan River as it runs through northern Israel

“Aquae Sanctae Terrae”: The Spiritual Signification of the Waters of the Holy Land

Part 1: The Jordan’s Sources and Lake Hula


In the Fourth Book of Kings, Naaman the Syrian, derides the Jordan River when Elisha tells him to wash in it. He declares, “Are not the Abana, and the Pharphar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel, that I may wash in them, and be made clean?” [1]

At first glance, Naaman’s assessment seems accurate. Although the Jordan River, the springs that feed it, and the Sea of Galilee, are attractive bodies of water, they are not physically impressive. The Jordan is only 223 miles long. In comparison, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers each measure well over 1,000 miles. The Nile flows over 4,000 miles from its source in Lake Victoria. The Sea of Galilee at thirteen miles long and eight miles wide is equally unimpressive. It could fit into Lake Michigan 350 times. The other Holy Land lakes have even less to speak of. In most biblical maps, one will notice a small lake ten miles to the north of the Sea of Galilee. This is Lake Hula, or the Waters of Merom. At about three miles long and three miles wide, it is barely noted in the scriptures at all. The last lake, the Dead Sea, is the largest, but also the most repulsive. It is about three times larger than the Sea of Galilee. The sea’s water is so salty it cannot support any forms of life and is bitter to the taste. After a few minutes, it will also sting the flesh of those who swim in it.

Thus, if the waters of the Holy Land are not that special, why must Naaman wash in the Jordan? What makes this river and the waters of the Holy Land significant? The answer can be found on a map, but not a physical one. Hiding beneath the underwhelming marks these waters make on a physical map, is another map — a spiritual one. In this essay, I will do some spiritual cartography and map out the spiritual places these waters represent — revealing their true significance.

Water is one of the richest symbols in the scriptures. The Bible is packed with stories set in or around water. In the Old Testament, a few examples include: the gathering of the oceans during the creation narrative, the great flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses striking the rock, and the crossing of the Jordan in the book of Joshua. In the New Testament, we read of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, the miracle at the wedding in Cana, Christ sleeping in the boat during the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Christ walking on the Sea of Galilee, and water flowing from Christ’s side during the passion. Since I cannot cover every reference to water in this essay, I will limit myself primarily to the major events that occurred at the Jordan River and its lakes (Lake Hula, the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea). Water is an important element because it is a symbol of life. Water by its purity also signifies cleanliness and innocence. Finally, water is the matter used in the sacrament of baptism, which means there is a real material connection between water and sanctifying grace. These are the main attributes of water that will be covered in this essay.

Photo by Lawrence Lew OP (source)
Sources of the Jordan

The first place to pin on the spiritual map is Heaven. Where does this overlap with the physical map of the Holy Land? The answer is at the sources of the Jordan River.

The Jordan is formed by three small spring fed rivers that converge in the Hula Valley to form the Jordan River. [2] The three springs are located at an elevation of around 1,800 feet and are all near the foot of Mount Hermon in Lebanon. With their constant outflow of water, springs have an everlasting character, which reminds us of God, eternity, and Heaven.

There are also several places in the scriptures where we see springs and rivers flowing out of Heaven or places that resemble Heaven. In Genesis, we read that the Garden of Eden, a type of proto-heaven, was watered by a spring, “But a spring rose out of the earth, watering all the surface of the earth.” [3] This spring forms a river several verses later, “And a river went out of the place of pleasure to water paradise.” [4] Adam and Eve lost paradise through their sin. God, however, promises to make a new Heaven, which is symbolized by Ezekiel’s vision of a rebuilt Jerusalem. [5] The exiled Israelites returning to their home represent all believers (of the Old and New Testaments) returning to their true home of Heaven.

A life-giving spring is also depicted as flowing from the temple of this new Jerusalem. We know this does not represent a physical place, because no such spring flows or has ever flowed from the temple in Jerusalem, which means this is a depiction of something spiritual, such as spiritual temple or heavenly temple. This spiritual temple is Christ’s own body which was pierced on the right side and released a flow of purifying water. The verse from Ezekiel predicts this, “And behold there ran out waters on the right side.” [6] We read further that the spring forms a river which heals wherever it flows. The waters represent the healing effects of sanctifying grace which was merited by Christ’s passion and death. There is one place, however, that cannot be healed — Hell. This is signified by the verse, “But on the shore thereof, and in the fenny places they shall not be healed, because they shall be turned into saltpits.” [7] The springs in Eden, the temple of the new Jerusalem, and Christ’s side, all provide support for the idea that the three springs of the Jordan River represent Heaven.

Since there are three springs, a connection can be made between them and the three persons of the Holy Trinity. The formula for the sacrament of Baptism can also be linked with the three springs. In the sacrament, the minister pours a separate stream of water as he names each member of the Holy Trinity, one pour for each spring.

On a map, the three springs roughly form an inverted triangle. In the northwest, there is the spring which feeds the Hasbani River, in the middle/south, there is the spring which supplies the Dan River, and in the northeast, there is the spring which turns into the Baniyas River. All of the springs are renowned for their purity and natural beauty. The eastern spring and river get their names from the Greek nature god, Pan, who had a shrine located in a niche outside the cave where the spring begins. Above the cave is a massive rock wall about 200 feet high and 500 feet wide. [8] Located within sight of the cave, Philip the tetrarch, built the city of Caeserea Philippi in honor of Caesar Augustus. [9] On top of the rock wall, there was a white marble temple dedicated to Caesar. [10]

Father Stanley Jaki, a contemporary Bible scholar, argues that this was the location where Christ chose Saint Peter to be the head of the Church. He bases his theory on the verses from Matthew beginning with, “And Jesus came into the quarters of Cesarea Philippi: and asked his disciples, saying: Whom do men say that the Son of man is?” [11] Peter replies, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.” [12] To which our Lord responds,

Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. [13]

Father Jaki proposes that this scene took place outside of Pan’s cave under the large rock wall. Jesus and the Apostles would not have gone right up to the spring because of the presence of the pagan shrine. [14] He writes, “Standing at a distance, Jesus and the Twelve must have been impressed by the massive wall of rock rising over the source of the Jordan.” [15] The rock wall provides an appropriate background for Christ to speak these words to Peter. In the presence of the pagan temples and false gods, who vie conspicuously close to Christ and the source of the holy Jordan River, Peter boldly declares Jesus as the true God. The symbolism is obvious. Peter (whose name means rock) is likened to the massive rock wall. Christ rewards Peter’s faith by promising to build the Church on top of him. Christ is asserting His power over the false gods that dwell above and below the physical rock wall that they are standing in front of. Any remnants of these pagan images will be washed away by the Jordan.

If Father Jaki’s theory is correct, it would also fit with the theory that the source of the Jordan represents Heaven. The Church is erected as the gate through which believers must enter Heaven. Christ appoints Peter as the gatekeeper of this gate and gives Him the keys. It is also interesting that this particular spring is the one that flows from the east. Throughout the scriptures, God and His power are always depicted as coming from the east.

Lake Hula

Following the Jordan River south, we come to the Jordan’s first lake, Lake Hula, also referred to as the Waters of Merom. Historically it measured about three miles by three miles, and was five to ten feet deep. [16] The lake was drained in the 1950’s because it was a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes. [17] Today only a small wetland remains.

On the spiritual map, Lake Hula represents Purgatory. At an elevation of about 230 feet, it is nestled between the Jordan headwaters at around 1,800 feet in elevation and the next lake down, the Sea of Galilee, which sits about 700 feet below sea level. Lake Hula is only mentioned once in the scriptures, and is referred to as the Waters of Merom in the book of Joshua. The lake is the sight of a major battle between the Israelites and a coalition of pagan nations. God promises Joshua that he will be victorious in battle and commands him to take no quarter. [18] Joshua is a figure for Jesus. We know that Jesus’ victory on the cross merited enough grace for all to be saved, but the grace is only efficacious for those who believe in God and do His will. The strict command to annihilate all of the enemies is a warning to all those who reject God’s grace. There is no salvation for those who oppose God. After the battle, Joshua purges the area of all pagan influence. We read of Joshua capturing Asor, “Now Asor of old was the head of of all these kingdoms. And he cut off all the souls that abode there: he left not in it any remains, but utterly destroyed all, and burned the city itself with fire.” [19]

Like the land around Asor and Lake Hula, Purgatory is also a place of fiery purification. It is the place where God’s refining fire cleanses souls of any remaining earthly attachments. This fire, however, is deadly for God’s enemies. The historical presence of malaria around this lake also points to additional suffering for those who dwell around it. Lake Hula then is a fitting spot for Purgatory. It is a place of painful purgation where only the saved can go, but one which they would rather bypass.


[1] 4 Kings 5, 12 (All Bible quotes are from the Douay-Rheims translation)

[2] “Jordan River.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, inc., 25 Nov. 2023,

[3] Genesis 2, 6

[4] Genesis 2, 10

[5] Ezekiel 47

[6] Ezekiel 47, 2

[7] Ezekiel 47, 11

[8] Rev. Stanley Jaki, And on This Rock, (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1997), 10.

[9] Rev. Stanley Jaki, And on This Rock, 10.

[10] Rev. Stanley Jaki, And on This Rock, 15.

[11] Matthew 16, 13

[12] Matthew 16, 16

[13] Matthew 16, 17-19

[14] Rev. Stanley Jaki, And on This Rock, 77.

[15] Ibid. 77.

[16] “Jordan River.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, inc., 25 Nov. 2023,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Joshua 11, 6

[19] Joshua 11, 10-11

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