Israel Crosses the Jordan

3:1 Bright and early the next morning Joshua and the Israelites left Shittim and came to the Jordan. They camped there before crossing the river. 3:2 After three days the leaders went through the camp 3:3 and commanded the people: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God being carried by the Levitical priests, you must leave here and walk behind it. 3:4 But stay about three thousand feet behind it. Keep your distance so you can see which way you should go, for you have not traveled this way before.”

This chapter and the next describe the crossing of the Jordan. Thus, the desert was put behind them and the last barrier to the promised land overcome. Ch. 3 gives the events in order; ch. 4 returns to and elaborates on several points, especially the memorial of stones at Gilgal.

‘There are four speeches preparing the people for the crossing: one by the officers to the people (2-4), one by Joshua to the people and to the priests (5-6), one by the LORD to Joshua (7-8), and one by Joshua to the whole nation (9-13). Each speech reveals a bit more about the marvel to happen, reaching a climax in Joshua’s final address.’ (NBC)

“The ark of the covenant” – The ark was a gold-plated chest, 4 by 2 by 2 ft. It symbolised the throne of God and was sometimes carried into battle, Nu. 10:35; 1 Sa. 4-6. ‘Housing the Ten Commandments, Israel’s constitution (Dt. 10:1-4; 31:26), the ark stood for his ethical rule and Israel’s covenantal relationship with him. It also symbolizes the gospel for, in addition to housing the law by which all will be judged (see Rom. 2:12-16), its lid, the mercy seat, sprinkled with atoning blood, prefigures the cleansing blood of Christ (Heb. 9).’ (NBC)

‘See Ex. 25:10-22; Deut. 10:5. The ark plays a prominent role in chs. 3; 4; 6; and 8. It signifies not only the presence of the Lord (Num. 10:33-36), but specifically His covenant, which means His commitment to His promises as well as the consequent obligations of Israel.’ (New Geneva)

“A distance of about a thousand yards” – The purpose of the separation may be to ensure that the ark will be visible to the maximum number of people.

3:5 Joshua told the people, “Ritually consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will perform miraculous deeds among you.” 3:6 Joshua told the priests, “Pick up the ark of the covenant and pass on ahead of the people.” So they picked up the ark of the covenant and went ahead of the people.

3:7 The LORD told Joshua, “This very day I will begin to honor you before all Israel so they will know that I am with you just as I was with Moses. 3:8 Instruct the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, ‘When you reach the bank of the Jordan River, wade into the water.’ ”

“So that they may know” – ‘God’s acts are often said to have the purpose of bringing about knowledge (Ex. 8:10; Deut. 4:35; 2 Kin. 19:19; Isa. 45:6). Such knowledge is never merely intellectual. It is, however, attainable through hearing the news of God’s acts, as well as by seeing them (2:9, 10; 4:24). Here the object of knowledge is the presence of God with Joshua (1:5 note; cf. Ex. 14:31), which the people will experience through the faithfulness of God to His promises.’ (New Geneva)

‘Joshua prefigures Christ who leads his church out of the wilderness of this world to cross the river of death in their pilgrimage to the heavenly city.’ (NBC)

3:9 Joshua told the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the LORD your God!” 3:10 Joshua continued, “This is how you will know the living God is among you and that he will truly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites. 3:11 Look! The ark of the covenant of the Ruler of the whole earth is ready to enter the Jordan ahead of you. 3:12 Now select for yourselves twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one per tribe. 3:13 When the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the LORD, the Ruler of the whole earth, touch the water of the Jordan, the water coming downstream toward you will stop flowing and pile up.”

Seven nations are mentioned – the number probably symbolising completeness.

3:14 So when the people left their tents to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. 3:15 When the ones carrying the ark reached the Jordan and the feet of the priests carrying the ark touched the surface of the water—(the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest time)—3:16 the water coming downstream toward them stopped flowing. It piled up far upstream at Adam (the city near Zarethan); there was no water at all flowing to the sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea). The people crossed the river opposite Jericho. 3:17 The priests carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firmly on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan. All Israel crossed over on dry ground until the entire nation was on the other side.

Adam (the city near Zarethan) – As Humphries notes, the writer is emphasising that the water did not pile up where they were, but at some distance upstream.  This is another detail that counts in favour of the non-legendary nature of the account.  As for the city called Adam, it is probably what is now called Damia (i.e. dropping the Hebrew breathing at the beginning of the name, retaining the two consonants, and adding an Arabic ending.  This town is some 17 miles north of Jericho, on the banks of the Jordan River.

The crossing took place in April, at the time of the first harvest. The river was swollen, mainly as a result of snowmelt from Mount Hermon. This circumstances magnifies God’s power in bringing his people across the river (for at most other times of the year it was readily fordable). Moreover, there is a parallel between Moses and Joshua, in that the crossing of the Red Sea took place at the same time of year.

Colin Humphries interprets this event as reflecting the ordinary processes of nature, where the miracle is that of the timing of the event.

Humphries notes the rather precise geographical indicators given here.  In particular, he says, it is noteworthy that the text states that the water ‘piled up in a heap a great distance away’, and even tells us exactly where.  This itself counts strongly against the story being fictional.

It is to be noted that the River Jordan lies along the great rift valley, which is know for its frequent earthquakes due to tectonic activity.  For Humphries, a likely scenario is that an earthquake caused a mudslide upstream, leading to a temporary interruption in the flow of water.  The flow of the Jordan River has been cut off temporarily on a number of occasions (1096, 1160, 1267, 1546, 1834, 1906, and 1927).  These generally lasted one or two days.  The 1927 cutoff (which lasted about 21 hours) was caused, as the others probably were, by an earthquake leading to a landslide.  It is possible that the earthquake that caused the cutoff recorded here also led to aftershocks that resulted in the collapse of Jericho’s walls.

The people crossed over opposite Jericho – facing a problem as daunting as the crossing of the Jordan river. Jericho’s threatening walls could be seen in the distance, seemingly impregnable.