A. Instructions for crossing the Jordan River.
1. (1) Israel at the Jordan River.
Then Joshua rose early in the morning; and they set out from Acacia Grove and came to the Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they crossed over.
a. They set out from Acacia Grove and came to the Jordan: This was the last step in Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan. They now camped on the banks of the Jordan, the last obstacle between Israel and the Promised Land.
i. Israel had been waiting for the moment to enter the Promised Land and take possession of it for some 500 years, since God promised the land to Abraham and his covenant descendants (Genesis 15:18-21). Joshua and Caleb were more than 80 years old and waited for this moment. All Israel had been waiting for the generation of unbelief to die in the wilderness and a new generation of faith to take the land as they trusted God.
b. Lodged there before they crossed over: God told Israel to prepare themselves for three days at the shore of the Jordan River (Joshua 1:11). All that time, the people of Israel lodged in view of a rushing river, swollen with the spring rains. They were faced with the impossibility of the crossing.
i. The two spies had made their way across the Jordan River and back when they spied out Jericho (Joshua 2:1, 2:23). One could swim across the Jordan during flood season, but it was a heroic act (1 Chronicles 12:14-15). The whole nation with its women, children, and elderly, with all their livestock and possessions, could never be expected to cross the river that way. God gave Israel three days to consider the problem.
ii. “These events in Israel’s history describe a time of preparation for this new generation who would be called upon to occupy the land. Although Christians are not called to carry out the same physical acts, preparation is necessary for any life of ministry and service. As with Israel’s preparation, it involves hearing and believing God’s Word and the discipline of obedience to that word.” (Hess)
2. (2-5) The ark of God will lead the way.
So it was, after three days, that the officers went through the camp; and they commanded the people, saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests, the Levites, bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you must go, for you have not passed this way before.” And Joshua said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.”
a. When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God…set out from your place and go after it: Joshua didn’t first send the engineers and builders of Israel’s army. Instead, he sent the priests who carried the ark of the covenant, which was the visible representation of God’s presence with Israel. Joshua knew this was primarily a spiritual challenge, more than a test of man’s ability to plan and build.
i. The ark of the covenant had not yet been built when Israel crossed the Red Sea; there, God used other ways to manifest His presence to them. Here, God’s presence was mainly evident through the presence and the prominence of the ark of the covenant.
ii. On this occasion, God wanted the priests to carry the ark, when usually it was the responsibility of another family of the tribe of Levi, the sons of Kohath (Numbers 4:15, 7:9). The priests were of the family of Aaron, who descended from Kohath (1 Chronicles 6:1-3), yet there was normally a distinction between the duties of the priests and the sons of Kohath. Priests carried the ark on other special occasions (Joshua 6:3, 2 Samuel 15:25).
b. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: God required that His people keep some 1,000 yards (1km) behind the ark. This was for at least two reasons. First, to respect the holy nature of the ark of the covenant. Second, to make it possible for all Israel to see the ark. The ark of the covenant would show the way they must go, leading the way. Israel would accomplish this impossible task as they set their eyes upon God’s presence and followed the representation of His presence.
c. Sanctify yourselves: Because this would be a spiritual battle, Joshua required Israel to make spiritual preparations. Sanctify yourselves means they were to separate themselves from common things to focus on the Lord, and to see that the Lord would do wonders among them.
i. “What was implied in this command we are not informed; but it is likely that it was the same as that given by Moses, Exodus 19:10–14. They were to wash themselves and their garments, and abstain from every thing that might indispose their minds from a profitable attention to the miracle about to be wrought in their behalf.” (Clarke)
ii. “While the act was wholly God’s, it was performed on the fulfilment of certain conditions by the people. Charged so to do by Joshua, they sanctified themselves and thus made possible the action of God. Moreover, they moved in obedience to His command, setting themselves in array, with the priests leading before the parting of the waters.” (Morgan)
3. (6) Joshua’s step of faith: he sends the priests to walk across a swollen Jordan River.
Then Joshua spoke to the priests, saying, “Take up the ark of the covenant and cross over before the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people.
a. Take up the ark of the covenant and cross over before the people: God told Joshua to command this radical step of faith (Joshua 3:7-8). Joshua didn’t do this because of foolish presumption. Joshua acted as a man led by the Lord, and who remembered the similar work in the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14).
i. Joshua’s success depended on and grew out of the promise of God to him: This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success (Joshua 1:8). Joshua had the word of God on his lips, on his mind, and it guided his actions.
ii. “You may very properly join the dividing of the Red Sea to that of the Jordan, for so the Holy Spirit has done in the one hundred and fourteenth Psalm: ‘The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back.’” (Spurgeon)
b. So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people: Even considering God’s guidance, this was still an impressive step of faith for Joshua and the priests. This was the bold faith that would ideally mark the people of Israel in the Promised Land.
4. (7-8) God’s encouragement to Joshua.
And the Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. You shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, saying, ‘When you have come to the edge of the water of the Jordan, you shall stand in the Jordan.’”
a. This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel: The step of faith commanded by God and observed by Joshua was encouraged by the Lord Himself. This is the graciousness of God toward His people, giving them constant encouragement in the things which He commands them to do.
b. That they may know that as I was with Moses, so I will be with you: God promised to make Joshua a leader like Moses in the eyes of the people. The Lord would do this by using Joshua to miraculously lead the people across an impassable body of water, as He did with Moses at the Red Sea (Exodus 14).
c. When you have come to the edge of the water…you shall stand in the Jordan: Once in the water at the bank of the Jordan River, the priests of Israel were commanded to stop and stand, holding the ark of the covenant.
5. (9-13) Joshua encourages and instructs Israel.
So Joshua said to the children of Israel, “Come here, and hear the words of the Lord your God.” And Joshua said, “By this you shall know that the living God is among you, and that He will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Hivites and the Perizzites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Jebusites: Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is crossing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore, take for yourselves twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one man from every tribe. And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, the waters that come down from upstream, and they shall stand as a heap.”
a. Come here, and hear the words of the Lord your God: Joshua rightly put the emphasis on God’s word. He was only the messenger of the words of the Lord.
i. It was necessary for them to hear the words of the Lord, not to only see the things God would do. “For miracles do but excite men; they do but as the bells that call us to the sermon, they cannot work faith in us: but faith cometh by hearing.” (Trapp)
b. By this you shall know that the living God is among you: Joshua understood that God’s work here at Jordan would give Israel confirmation that God was with them and among them in the future conquest of Canaan.
i. “Seven peoples are listed in Joshua 3:10. Twenty-three times in the Old Testament we find such lists, including five times in Joshua (Joshua 3:10; 9:1; 11:3; 12:8; 24:11). The number and order of the names vary in each list, but seven is used often, probably as a number symbolic of completeness. Twelve peoples occur in all, but a core of seven—the seven mentioned here—comprises the ‘standard’ list.” (Howard)
c. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is crossing over before you into the Jordan: God commanded that the visible emblem of God’s presence – the ark of the covenant – would lead the way. By leading with priests carrying the ark instead of soldiers, God declared the key to Israel’s victory in the Promised Land would be fundamentally spiritual, not military.
i. “What was the ark? It was a representation of the character of God. The people had no image to worship; in fact, they were commanded not to make an image. One cannot make an image of God, for God is spirit. But God has a character, and the ark was a statement of that character.” (Schaeffer)
d. The waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, the waters that come down from upstream, and they shall stand as a heap: God had apparently revealed to Joshua how the Jordan would become a dry bed and passable by Israel. The waters would not be divided, as they were at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-22). Instead, the waters of the Jordan would be cut off upstream, leaving a dry riverbed before Israel.
i. God’s work at the Jordan of dividing the waters so Israel could pass was similar to what God did at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-22), but not the same. From generation to generation, God’s work is in some ways the same and in other ways brand new.
ii. “From a geological perspective, the Jordan River Valley lies at the juncture of tectonic plates that create an unstable region. Earthquakes can occur and have been known to block the flow of the river. No mention of an earthquake appears in the account in Joshua. Whatever secondary causes there were, the primary purpose was the exaltation of Israel’s God and his people.” (Hess)
B. Crossing the Jordan River.
1. (14-15) The faith of the priests and of Joshua.
So it was, when the people set out from their camp to cross over the Jordan, with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest),
a. The feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water: The priests began the procession, with the ark of the covenant some 1,000 yards or meters (Joshua 3:4) in front of the people. When the priests stepped into the river and stood there, the waters were still flowing as at flood season.
i. The text doesn’t tell how long the priests stood in the river. It might have been a moment, but it also may have been a long time. In a situation like that, even a moment seems like a long time.
b. Dipped in the edge of the water: It is human nature to want the riverbed to be dry before making a step. God called the priests of Israel to step out in faith.
i. “When the priest’s foot touches them, they shrink away. Jesus has stepped down into these floods as our High Priest. In Gethsemane their overflowing tide washed around Him. At Calvary the water-spouts went over his head. In the grave He seemed momentarily to have succumbed. But since then they have been cut off. Through the ages He has stood, bearing the ark of propitiation, and arresting the tumultuous floods. ‘Thus far, and no further.’” (Schaeffer)
c. For the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest: This was not the time of year when the Jordan was reduced to a trickle. Because of the spring rains, the time of early harvest, the river was swollen and overflowing its banks.
i. “The Jordan, as we have already seen, has its origin at the foot of Mount Lebanon, which mountain is always covered with snow during the winter months; in those months therefore the river is low: but when the summer’s sun has melted these snows, there is consequently a prodigious increase of waters, so that the old channel is not capable of containing them.” (Clarke)
2. (16-17) The Jordan is stopped, and the people cross over on dry ground.
That the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam, the city that is beside Zaretan. So the waters that went down into the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people crossed over opposite Jericho. Then the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan.
a. The waters which came down from upstream stood still: In some miraculous manner, God stopped the flow of the Jordan River. He may have used a natural occurrence such as an earthquake or a landslide. Even if the stoppage had an outwardly natural cause, the timing of it was a miracle of God.
i. “Adam is a site in the Jordan Valley, identified with Tell ed-Damiye, 18 miles north of Jericho.” (Hess)
ii. “It is possible that a landslide caused by an earthquake stopped the flow of the Jordan River. Landslides are common in the soft clay banks of the Jordan. At least two such landslides, each of which resulted in a damming of the river, are recorded in history: in A.D. 1267 and again in 1927. In the latter instance the slide occurred near the town of Adam (cf. Joshua 3:16), and the flow of the river was interrupted for about twenty-one hours.” (Madvig)
iii. “In some respects the passage of the Jordan was more strikingly miraculous than that even of the Red Sea. In the latter God was pleased to employ an agent; the sea went back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, Exodus 14:21. Nothing of this kind appeared in the passage of the Jordan; a very rapid river (for so all travellers allow it to be) went back to its source without any kind of agency but the invisible hand of the invisible God.” (Clarke)
iv. Later Jewish teachers couldn’t resist embellishing this remarkable miracle, claiming that “the waters of the river were piled up to a height of three hundred miles” and “all the peoples of the earth were witnesses of the wonder.” Some rabbis made the fanciful claim that “when the people arrived on the further shore, the holy Ark, which had all the while been standing in the bed of the river, set forward of itself, and, dragging the priests after it, overtook the people.” (Ginzberg)
b. On dry ground in the midst of the Jordan: As well, even with the flow of the river stopped, it was miraculous that the people could cross over on dry ground. God miraculously dried the riverbed so that they didn’t slog through marshy mud.
i. “The Hebrew term for ‘dry ground’ (harabah) does not require that the riverbed be powdery dry but simply means that it was no longer covered with water. This indicates terra firma as contrasted to the flooding river.” (Madvig)
ii. This miracle obviously connects with the miracle the nation experienced some 40 years earlier: the passing through the Red Sea (Exodus 14). God brought Israel out of Egypt’s bondage with a miracle, and He brought them into the Promised Land with a miracle.
iii. In some sense, it took greater faith for Israel to cross the Jordan River than it took for them to cross the Red Sea. At the Red Sea, Israel was pursued by the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:8-28). Crossing the Red Sea was to travel away from danger, and to put a barrier between Israel and the danger pursuing them. In crossing the Jordan River, Israel travelled towards potential danger, the many Canaanites who would war against them. When Israel crossed the Jordan River, they cut off their path of retreat and could be “trapped” and slaughtered in Canaan. Crossing the Jordan River mean that Israel was completely committed to the task of conquering the land of Canaan; they were left with no other option. This was a demonstration of great faith.
iv. Clarke suggests why the Canaanites did not fight Israel as they crossed the Jordan: “It was not merely because they were panic-struck that they did not dispute this passage, but because they must have supposed it impossible; and when they found the attempt was made, the passage was effected before they could prepare to prevent it.”
c. The priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan: In the record of this remarkable miracle, the ark of the covenant was central. The ark is referred to 14 times in these 17 verses. This was all about the trust Joshua, the priests, and Israel had in the God they knew was present with them. That representation of God’s presence remained in the middle of the riverbed until all Israel crossed over.
i. Present-day believers understand that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the ark of the covenant. He is Immanuel, which is translated, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Jesus Christ was Himself greater evidence of the presence of God than the ark of the covenant.
ii. Even as the ark led Israel across the Jordan, so Jesus has cleared the way for the victory of His people: Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross] (Colossians 2:15).
iii. “It was easier to believe that the torrent would not rush down on them when they could look at the priests standing there motionless, with the visible symbol of God’s presence on their shoulders. The ark was no more the cause of the miracle than were its carriers; but, just as Jesus helped one blind man by laying moistened earth on his eyes, and another by sending him to Siloam to wash, so God did here. Children learn best when they have something to look at. Sight is sometimes the servant of faith.” (Maclaren)
iv. As believers observe the word of God, obey the commands of God, follow after Jesus, and keep Jesus and His victory central, God will open miraculous paths for the progress of His kingdom.