In the sense in which we employ the word, viz. for a perennial stream of considerable size, a river is a much rarer object in the East than in the West. SEE WATER. The majority of the inhabitants of Palestine at the present day have probably never seen one. With the exception of the Jordan and the Litany, the streams of the Holy Land are either entirely dried up in the summer months, and converted into hot lanes of glaring stones, or else reduced to very small streamlets deeply sunk in a narrow bed, and concealed from view by a dense growth of shrubs. The cause of this is twofold: on the one hand, the hilly nature of the country --a central mass of highland descending on each side to a lower level — and on the other the extreme heat of the climate during the summer. There is little doubt that in ancient times the country was more wooded than it now is, and that, in consequence, the evaporation was less, and the streams more frequent; yet this cannot have made any very material difference in the permanence of the water in the thousands of valleys which divide the hills of Palestine.
"River" is the rendering in the A.V. of seven distinct Hebrew words. These are not synonymous. Most of them have definite significations, and were used by the sacred writers to set forth certain physical peculiarities. When these are overlooked, the full force and meaning of the Scriptures cannot be understood; and important points of physical geography and topography fail to be apprehended.
1. אוּבָל (or אֵבָל), ubal, used only in three passages of Daniel (Da 8:2-3,6). "I was by the river of Ulai." It comes from the root יבל, which, like the corresponding Arabic, signifies to flow copiously. Its derivative, מִבּוּל, is the Hebrew term for deluge.
2. אָפַיק, aphik, from אפק, to hold or restrain. It thus comes to signify "a channel," from the fact of its "holding" or "restraining" within its banks a river. It is said in 2Sa 22:16, "The channels of the sea appeared, the foundations of the world were discovered" (comp. Ps 18:15).
The psalmist gives it very appropriately to the glens of the Negeb (south), which are dry during a great part of the year: "Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the channels in the Negeb." The beauty of this passage is marred by the present translation, "streams in the south" (Ps 126:4). The word is rightly translated "channels" in Isa 8:7. It ought to be rendered in the same way in Eze 32:6: "And the channels (rivers) shall be full of thee." But the most striking example of a wrong rendering is in Joe 3:18: "And all the rivers of Judah shall flow with waters." SEE APHIK.
3. יאוֹר (or יאֹר), yeor, is an Egyptian word, which is applied originally, and almost exclusively, to the river Nile, and, in the plural, to the canals by which the Nile water was distributed throughout Egypt, or to streams having a connection with that country. It properly denotes a fosse or river (it was expressed by ioro in the dialect of Memphis, and by iero in that of Thebes, while it appears as ior in the Rosetta inscription). It was introduced into the Hebrew language by Moses, and is used more frequently in the Pentateuch than in all the rest of the Bible. As employed by him it has the definiteness of a proper name. Thus, "Pharaoh stood by the river" (Ge 41:1; comp. ver. 2, 3, 17, etc.): "Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river" (Ex 1:22). The Nile was emphatically the river of Egypt. Subsequent writers, when speaking of the river of Egypt, generally borrow the same word (Isa 7:18; Isa 19:6; Jer 46:7; Eze 29:3; Am 8:8, etc.). In a few places it is employed to denote a large and mighty river, not like the rivulets or winter torrents of Palestine. Thus in Isa 23:10: "Pass through the land as a river, O daughter of Tarshish" (comp. 33:21). The usual rendering of this word in the A.V. is "river;" but it is translated "streams" in Isa 33:21; "flood" in Jer 46:7-8; Am 8:8, etc.; and "brooks" in Isa 19:6-8, where reference is manifestly made to the "canals" which convey the water of the Nile to different parts of Egypt. SEE NILE.
4. יוּבִל, yubal, is found only in Jer 17:8: "He shall be as a tree ... that spreadeth out her roots by the river." The word is radically identical with אוּבָל (No. 1), and its meaning is the same.
5. נָהָר, nahar, from the root נהר, which signifies to flow; and it may be regarded as the proper Hebrew equivalent for our word river. The cognate Arabic nahr has the same meaning, in which language also, as in Hebrew, it includes canals, as the "Naharawan of Khuzistan;" and the Scripture must mean the Euphrates and its canals, where it speaks of "the rivers (naharoth) of Babylon" (Ps 137:1). It is always applied to a perennial stream. It is possibly used of the Jordan in Ps 66:6; Ps 74:15; of the great Mesopotamian and Egyptian rivers generally in Ge 2:10; Ex 7:19; 2Ki 17:6; Eze 3:15, etc. It is often followed by the genitives of countries, as "the river of Egypt" (Ge 15:18), that is, the Nile; "the river of Gozan" (2Ki 17:6); "the rivers of Ethiopia" (Isa 18:1); "the rivers of Damascus" (2Ki 5:12). With the article, הִנָּהָר, han-nahar, the word is applied emphatically to the Euphrates; thus in Ge 31:21, "He rose up, and passed over the river;" and Ex 23:31, "I will set thy bounds ... from the desert unto the river" (Nu 24:6; 2Sa 10:16, etc.). The Euphrates is also called "the great river" (Ge 15:18; De 1:7, etc.). In one passage this word, without the article, evidently signifies the Nile (Isa 19:5); though in poetry, when thus used, the Euphrates is meant (7:20; Ps 72:8; Zec 9:10). In a few passages the word is translated "flood" (Jos 24:2; Job 14:11; Ps 66:6); but with a few exceptions (Jos 1:4; Jos 24:2,14-15; Isa 59:19; Eze 31:15), nahar is uniformly rendered "river" in our version, and accurately, since it is never applied to the fleeting fugitive torrents of Palestine. SEE TOPOGRAPHICAL TERMS.
6. נִחִל, nachal, is derived from the root נָחִל, which signifies to receive or to possess. Its usual meaning is a valley, probably from the fact of its receiving the surface water after rains, and affording a bed for a stream. Sometimes it is applied to a valley or glen, apart altogether from the idea of a stream. Thus in Ge 26:17, Abraham "pitched his tent in the valley of Gerar." As many of the valleys of Palestine were the beds of winter streams, the word was sometimes applied to the stream itself, as in Le 11:9-10; the "valley," the "brook," and the "river" Zered (Nu 21:12; De 2:13; Am 6:14); the "brook" and the "river" of Jabbok (Ge 32:23; De 2:37), of Kishon (Jg 4:7; 1Ki 18:40). Comp. also De 3:16, etc. Jerome, in his Quoestiones in Genesim, 26, 19, draws the following curious distinction between a valley and a torrent: "Et hic pro valle torrens scriptus est, nunquam enim in valle invenitur puteus aquae vivae." Sometimes, however, the rendering is incorrect, and conveys a very wrong impression. In Nu 13:23 "the brook Eshcol" should manifestly be "the valley of Eshcol;" and in De 3:16 the same word is rendered in two ways — "unto the river Arnon half the valley" (comp. Jos 12:2). Again, in Jos 13:6 the sacred writer is represented as speaking of "a city that is in the midst of the river;" it means, of course, valley (comp. 2Sa 24:5). Frequent mention is made of the "brook Kidron" (2Ki 23:6,12; 2Ch 15:16; 2Ch 29:16; 2Ch 30:14); but valley is the true meaning. In Ps 78:20 is the following: "He smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed." Neither of these words expresses the thing intended; but the term "brook" is peculiarly unhappy, since the pastoral idea which it conveys is quite at variance with the general character of the wadys of Palestine. Many of these are deep abrupt chasms or rents in the solid rock of the hills, and have a savage, gloomy aspect, far removed from that of an ordinary brook. For example, the Arnon forces its way through a ravine several hundred feet deep and about two miles wide across the top. The Wady Zerka, probably the Jabbok, which Jacob was so anxious to interpose between his family and Esau, is equally unlike the quiet "meadowy brook" with which we are familiar. And those which are not so abrupt and savage are in their width, their irregularity, their forlorn arid look when the torrent has subsided, utterly unlike "brooks." Unfortunately, our language does not contain any single word which has both the meanings of the Hebrew nachal and its Arabic equivalent wady, which can be used at once for a dry valley and for the stream which occasionally flows through it. Ainsworth, in his Annotations (on Nu 13:23), says that "bourne" has both meanings; but "bourne" is now obsolete in English, though still in use in Scotland, where, owing to the mountainous nature of the country, the "burns" partake of the nature of the wadys of Palestine in the irregularity of their flow. Burton (Geog. Journ. 24, 209) adopts the Italian fiumana. Others have proposed the Indian term nullah. The double application of the Hebrew nachal is evident in 1Ki 17:3, where Elijah is commanded to hide himself in (not by) the nachal Cherith, and to drink of the nachal. This word is also translated "flood" in 2Sa 22:5; Job 28:4, etc. SEE BROOK.
The frequent use of the word nachal in Scripture, and the clear distinction drawn between it and nahar by the sacred writers, are indicative of the physical character of Palestine — "a land of hills and valleys;" a land in which nearly all the valleys are dry in summer, and the beds of torrents during the winter rains. The Arabic word wady is the modern equivalent of the Hebrew nachal. It means a valley, glen, or ravine of any kind, whether the bed of a perennial stream or of a winter torrent, or permanently dry. Like its Hebrew equivalent, it is also sometimes applied to the river or stream which flows in the valley; but not so commonly as nachal. In reading the Hebrew Scriptures the context alone enables us to decide the meaning attached by the writer in each passage to the word nachal. In a few instances it appears to be used in two senses in the very same sentence (comp. 1Ki 17:3-7, etc.). See a picturesque allusion to such brooks in Job 6:15. When the word stands alone it seems to denote a mere winter torrent, a permanent stream being indicated by the addition of the word איתן, "perennial," as in Ps 74:15; De 31:4; Am 5:24. SEE VALLEY.
A few brooks are specially designated (in addition to the above), as the Brook of Willows (Isa 15:7), a stream on the east of the Dead Sea, probably the present Wady el-Ahsy, which descends from the eastern mountains and enters the eastern end of the Dead Sea; the Besor (the cold), a torrent emptying itself into the Mediterranean near Gaza (1Sa 30:9-10,21); and the Kanah, a stream on the borders of Ephraim and Manasseh (Jos 16:10; Jos 17:9). "The brook of Egypt," mentioned in Nu 34:5; Jos 15:4,47; 1Ki 8:65; 2Ki 24:7; Isa 27:12, which is also called simply" "the brook" (Eze 47:19; Eze 48:28), and described as on the confines of Palestine and Egypt, is unquestionably the Wady el-Arish, near the village of that name, which was anciently called Rhinocorura. The "river (yeor) of Egypt" is, however, the Nile; and it is unfortunate that the two are riot so well distinguished in the A.V. as in the original. Other examples are the valley of Gerar (Ge 26:17 ) and the valley of Sorek (Jg 16:4), so called probably from its vineyards, which Eusebius and Jerome place north of Eleutheropolis and near to Zorah. The valley of Shittim ("acacias") was in Moab, on the borders of Palestine (Joel 4:18; comp. Nu 25:1; Jos 2:1; Jos 3:1; Mic 6:5). See each name in its place.
7. פֶּלֶג, peleg. The root of this word appears to be the same as that of φλέω, φλύω, fleo, fluo, pluo, and the English flow; its meaning is "to gush" or "flow over." Peleg is equivalent to the Arabic palg, "a stream," and is always given to something flowing. Thus in Job 29:6, "The rock poured me out rivers of oil;" and La 3:48, "Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water." In the Bible it is used ten times, and is translated "rivers," except in Ps 46:4, where it is rendered "streams," and in Jg 5:15-16, "divisions," where the allusion is probably to the artificial streams with which the pastoral and agricultural country of Reuben was irrigated (Ewald, Dichter, 1, 129; Gesen. Thesaur. col. 1103 b); or perhaps to the gullies that intersect that high table land. SEE MOAB.
8. What is commonly rendered "conduit" (2Ki 18:17; 2Ki 20:20; Isa 7:3; Isa 36:2), once a "watercourse" (Job 28:25), is in one verse transformed into "little rivers," but with "conduits" on the margin (Eze 31:4). The word is תּעָלָה, tealah, and means simply a channel or conduit for the conveying of rain or water of any sort. SEE CONDUIT.
Rivers were worshipped by many nations of antiquity (Spanheim, on Callim. Apol. 112; Cerer. 14; Voss, Idololat. 2, 79 sq.), and especially in the East. Comp. Herod. 1, 138; Strabo, 15, 732; Arnob. Adv. Gent. 6, 11. On the Persians, see Heliodor. AEth. 9, 9; so the Egyptians. Some trace of the reverence for them so generally felt has been supposed by some to have existed among the idolatrous Hebrews (from Isa 57:6; Bosseck, De Cultu Fluminum [Lips. 1740]; Van Speren, in Biblioth. Hag. 4, 1, 81 sq.), but without ground (see Rosenmüller and Gesen. in Jes. ad loc.). The principal rivers mentioned in the Bible are the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Jordan (see each). See Swedie, Lakes and Rivers of the Bible (Lond. 1864). SEE PALESTINE.