The context for this text begins with the call of Abram. Yahweh said to Abram, “Get out of your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” (Genesis 12:1-3). That was the beginning of the covenant between Yahweh and what would later be the Israelite people.
After Abram departed Haran in Mesopotamia (hundreds of miles east of Palestine), he “passed through the land to the place of Shechem (a town forty miles north of what would later be known as Jerusalem), to the oak of Moreh. The Canaanite was then in the land. Yahweh appeared to Abram and said, ‘I will give this land to your seed.’ (Abram) built there an altar to Yahweh, who appeared to him” (Genesis 12:6-7).
The story related by our text, then, is the long-awaited fulfillment of the promise made so many years earlier to Abram. It is the story of Yahweh giving “this land” to Abraham’s descendants.
The context continues with the story of the Exodus—in particular the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14). In that story, the Israelites found themselves trapped between the seemingly impassable Red Sea and the seemingly unconquerable Egyptian army. The Israelites accused Moses of leading them to slaughter, but Moses replied, “Don’t be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of Yahweh, which he will work for you today” (Exodus 14:13a).
The Lord commanded Moses to lift up his staff and to stretch out his hand over the sea to divide it. When Moses did so, “Yahweh caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. The children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left” (Exodus 14:21-22).
When the Egyptian soldiers tried to follow, Yahweh had Moses stretch out his hand once again over the sea to cause the waters to resume their natural state, and the Egyptian soldiers were drowned. The key linkages between this story and the story related in our text is that, in both instances, Yahweh endowed his people with miraculous power—and, in both stories, the Israelites were able to proceed on dry ground through normally impassable waters.
The context continues as Yahweh delays the Abrahamic promise because of the sins of the people—in particular the lack of faith exhibited by spies that Israel had sent at Yahweh’s command to spy out the land of Canaan. Of the twelve spies, ten came back with a report of a land flowing with milk and honey—but inhabited by strong people—people of such great size that the spies felt like grasshoppers in comparison (Numbers 13). However, the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, “tore their clothes: and they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying, ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land. If Yahweh delights in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it to us; a land which flows with milk and honey. Only don’t rebel against Yahweh, neither fear the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defense is removed from over them, and Yahweh is with us. Don’t fear them'” (Numbers 14:6b-9). But the people rebelled against Joshua and Caleb (and, therefore, against Yahweh), so Yahweh decreed that “surely you shall not come into the land, concerning which I swore that I would make you dwell therein, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun” (Numbers 14:30). In the story related by our text, we see the fulfillment of that promise. Joshua leads the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land, and Caleb is there to receive a blessing and a reward (14:13).
It would also behoove us to look also at what happened in Joshua 1-3—the events prior to the story related by our text. In chapter 1, following Moses’ death, Yahweh commissioned Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land and once again outlined the original promise (1:1-9). Joshua and the people prepared for the invasion (1:10-18). Once again, they sent spies into the Promised Land. This time the spies returned with a positive report, “Truly Yahweh has delivered into our hands all the land. Moreover, all the inhabitants of the land melt away before us” (2:24). Israelite officers commanded the people to follow the ark of the covenant—but at a distance of two thousand cubits—a bit more than half a mile (one kilometer). At Joshua’s command, the priests took up the ark of the covenant and carried it to the front of the people (3:1-6).
Joshua 3 and 4 belong together. In Joshua 4, the twelve men selected in 3:12 will set up twelve stones to serve as a memorial the events of this day. Also, “On that day, Yahweh magnified Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared Moses, all the days of his life” (4:14). Then, when the priests obey Joshua’s command to come up out of the Jordan—as soon as their feet “were lifted up to the dry ground, that the waters of the Jordan returned to their place, and went over all its banks, as before” (4:18)—just as the waters of the Red Sea had returned to their place at Moses’ command during the Exodus.
JOSHUA 3:7-8. TODAY YAHWEH MAGNIFIES JOSHUA
7Yahweh said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to magnify you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. 8You shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, saying, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'”
“Yahweh said to Joshua, ‘Today I will begin to magnify you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that as I was with Moses, so I will be with you'” (v. 7). As noted above, this exaltation reaches its zenith in the next chapter, when the people feared Joshua “as they feared Moses” (4:14).
The purpose of Joshua’s exaltation is to demonstrate to the people that Yahweh is continuing to provide excellent leadership for them. This kind of reassurance was especially important following the death of Moses, who had led Israel so powerfully for forty years. That is why the various parallels between Moses and Joshua are so important. Yahweh is demonstrating that he is, indeed, with Joshua as he was with Moses.
“You shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, saying, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan'” (v. 8). The ark of the covenant is a chest made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. It is 2.5 cubits (45 inches or 114 cm) by 1.5 cubits (27 inches or 69 cm) by 1.5 cubits. It contains the tablets of the Ten Commandments as well as Aaron’s rod and a golden urn filled with manna. On top of the ark, two cherubim guard a gold mercy seat—God’s throne. The ark is the holiest object in Israel, and symbolizes the presence of God.
Yahweh commands Joshua to command the priests to carry the ark to the edge of the Jordan River—and then to walk into the river and to stand there. In the parallel event with Moses many years earlier, Yahweh commanded Moses to stretch out his staff over the Red Sea. In that instance, he spelled out what would happen—the waters would divide to allow the passage of the Israelites through the sea—and the waters would then close to drown the Egyptian army—demonstrating to the Egyptians that Yahweh was truly God (Exodus 14:15-18).
While Yahweh doesn’t appear to tell Joshua what will happen when the priests put their feet into the river, in verse 13 Joshua will explain to the priests what to expect when they obey.
JOSHUA 3:9-13. HEAR THE WORDS OF YAHWEH YOUR GOD
9 Joshua said to the children of Israel, “Come here, and hear the words of Yahweh your God.” 10Joshua said, “Hereby you shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Hivite, and the Perizzite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Jebusite out from before you. 11Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passes over before you into the Jordan. 12Now therefore take twelve men out of the tribes of Israel, for every tribe a man. 13It shall come to pass, when the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of Yahweh, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan will be cut off, even the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand in one heap.”
“Joshua said to the children of Israel, ‘Come here, and hear the words of Yahweh your God'” (v. 9). Joshua assembled the Israelites and tells them that the words they are about to hear from his mouth are not his words, but Yahweh’s. The role of the people is passive. They are to listen—to hear.
“Joshua said, ‘Hereby you shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Hivite, and the Perizzite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Jebusite out from before you'” (v. 10). Joshua refers to Yahweh as “the living God”—in contrast to the gods of the local people—gods fabricated of wood, stone, and their imaginations.
Joshua lists seven peoples. The word Canaanites is sometimes used generically for all the inhabitants of Canaan, but in this instance it is used to denote a specific people—those who live by the sea (5:1; Numbers 13:29). The Hittite Empire once consisted of most of what we today call Turkey, but that empire was either waning or had come to an end by this time. Numbers 13:29 identifies the Hittites as living in the hill country. The Hivites live “under Hermon in the land of Mizpah” (11:3). The Perizzites living among the forest (17:15). We know essentially nothing about the Gergashites. Amorites, like Canaanites, is sometimes used generically to refer to all the inhabitants of the region. In this instance, it is used more specifically for a group of people living in the hill country (Numbers 13:29; Deuteronomy 1:7). The Jebusites occupy the city of Jebus and the surrounding region. The city of Jebus became Jerusalem after the Israelites conquered it.
“Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passes over before you into the Jordan“ (v. 11). Joshua has just finished mentioning seven tribes whom the Israelites will soon displace. He now speaks of Yahweh as “the Lord of all the earth”—the one who reigns over those seven tribes and more—much more.
In the original Hebrew, this reads, “the ark of the covenant, the Lord of all the earth”—with the ark and the Lord in apposition. In other words, it equates the ark of the covenant and the Lord (Howard, 127). That could very well be the original intent, because the people thought of the mercy seat atop the ark as the dwelling place of God.
“Now therefore take twelve men out of the tribes of Israel, for every tribe a man“ (v. 12). Joshua doesn’t specify the purpose of these twelve men, but in the next chapter each man will take up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River to create a memorial. Then when their children ask the meaning of the stones, the parents can explain what happened here (4:3-9).
“It shall come to pass, when the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of Yahweh, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan will be cut off, even the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand in one heap“ (v. 13). Earlier, Joshua told the people, “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow Yahweh will do wonders among you” (3:5). Now he spells out what these wonders will look like. “The Lord of all the earth” will stop the flow of water in the river so that the waters pile up in a great heap (see also Exodus 15:8; Psalm 78:13).
JOSHUA 3:14-17. THE WATERS ROSE UP IN ONE HEAP
14It happened, when the people moved from their tents to pass over the Jordan, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant being before the people, 15and when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark had dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks all the time of harvest), 16that the waters which came down from above stood, and rose up in one heap, a great way off, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan; and those that went down toward the sea of the Arabah, even the Salt Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people passed over right against Jericho. 17The priests who bore the ark of the covenant of Yahweh stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan; and all Israel passed over on dry ground, until all the nation had passed completely over the Jordan.
“It happened, when the people moved from their tents to pass over the Jordan, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant being before the people“ (v. 14). Now comes the moment when the Israelites obey Yahweh’s commands and see a wondrous miracle. The priests carry the ark of the covenant at the front of the procession, and the people follow behind—two thousand cubits (roughly a half mile or one kilometer) behind (3:4).
“for the Jordan overflows all its banks all the time of harvest“ (v. 15). This is the springtime harvest at the end of the rainy season—a time when the water in the river would be at its maximum flow—flood season. In the next chapter, it says, “The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month” (4:19)—a date that corresponds to our springtime. This is an important detail, because it heightens the wonder of the miracle that is about to happen.
“and when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark had dipped in the edge of the water, that the waters which came down from above stood, and rose up in one heap, a great way off, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan; and those that went down toward the sea of the Arabah, even the Salt Sea, were wholly cut off” (v. 15b- 16a). When the priests obey Yahweh’s command by bearing the ark and stepping in the water, the miracle happens. The flow of the water stops, so that the water piles up in a heap—just as “the floods stood upright as a heap” at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:8).
Some commentators, looking for a natural cause for this blockage, suggest that a landslide upstream blocked the flow of the water. While it is possible that Yahweh created a landslide to block the water, looking for natural causes of Biblical miracles misses the point that Yahweh caused something extraordinary to happen. Yahweh doesn’t need to use methods that fit our usual categories. In my view, emphasizing natural causes for Biblical miracles is a form of spiritual neutering.
Scholars believe that Adam was a town on the Jordan River several miles north of Jericho. They believe that Zarethan was another town on the Jordan River located several miles north of Adam. The sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea) is located downstream a number of miles from point at which the Israelites are crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
“Then the people passed over right against Jericho“ (v. 16b). Just as the Israelites were able to cross the Red Sea in the midst of the waters, so here the people are able to cross the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.
“The priests who bore the ark of the covenant of Yahweh stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan; and all Israel passed over on dry ground, until all the nation had passed completely over the Jordan“ (v. 17). Dry ground is mentioned twice. Israel crossed on dry ground, and the priests stood on dry ground. This dry ground was in the middle of the Jordan River. It was like the dry ground that the Israelites experienced at the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:22, 29).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan