OT History Part 1 – Joshua 3-4

Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over. After three days the officers went throughout the camp, giving orders to the people: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before. But keep a distance of about two thousand cubits between you and the ark; do not go near it.”
Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”
Joshua said to the priests, “Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on ahead of the people.” So they took it up and went ahead of them.
And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Tell the priests who carry the ark of the covenant: ‘When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.’”
Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God. This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you. Now then, choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.”
So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.

  • Joshua 3:1-17

When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
So the Israelites did as Joshua commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord had told Joshua; and they carried them over with them to their camp, where they put them down. Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.
Now the priests who carried the ark remained standing in the middle of the Jordan until everything the Lord had commanded Joshua was done by the people, just as Moses had directed Joshua. The people hurried over, and as soon as all of them had crossed, the ark of the Lord and the priests came to the other side while the people watched. The men of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh crossed over, ready for battle, in front of the Israelites, as Moses had directed them. About forty thousand armed for battle crossed over before the Lord to the plains of Jericho for war.
That day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they stood in awe of him all the days of his life, just as they had stood in awe of Moses.
Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant law to come up out of the Jordan.”
So Joshua commanded the priests, “Come up out of the Jordan.”
And the priests came up out of the river carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord. No sooner had they set their feet on the dry ground than the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and ran at flood stage as before.
On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”

  • Joshua 4:1-24

Noted Biblical Scholars, Teachers, and Preachers Comments

Joshua 3:1 ‘preparations for crossing’: “The Israelites are ready to leave Shittim 3:1). They travel about nine miles through tough, barren country to the Jordan, where their progress is doubtless noted by the spies of the fearful Canaanite rulers. Perhaps the easier fords were guarded by military detachments. It is naive scholarship to find a factual discrepancy between Joshua’s overly optimistic hope to cross the Jordan in three days (1:11) and the fact that the actual time elapsed was closer to eight days (cf. 2:22; 3:2). A disparity between human hopes and unfolding realities is not a factual error in the text.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Joshua 3:2-6 ‘the place of the ark in the crossing’: “The first series of commands emphasizes the dominant place of the ark in the events (3:2-6). The ark is to lead the line of march. The people are told to maintain a distance between themselves and the ark, thus emphasizing its sanctity. God’s presence, as represented by the ark, demands a sanctified people. The ark is placed at the head of the people.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Joshua 3:4 ‘fresh new territory’: “They were certainly where they had never been before; with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, none of them had even passed the Red Sea. They saw before them now a river that was full to the brim, and both deep and broad—how were they to cross it? There was not a boat in all their tents. Suppose they did cross it—there was a walled city within view frowning on them on the other side, and behind the walls were many powerful and ferocious enemies. Suppose they should conquer the men of Jericho; the whole land was full of cities equally strong, ‘fortified to the heavens’ (Dt 1:28). Their case was one that might naturally excite a thousand fears, but faith drove all fears away. They advanced straight on at God’s bidding, and the Lord came to their rescue by drying up the river, casting down the walls of Jericho, routing their adversaries, and ultimately giving them the whole of the land from Dan to Beersheba as their inheritance.
“Are we just now where we have never been before as to trials? Are the demands on our strength heavier than at any former period of our lives? Whether our way in the Lord is new or old, it is not a way of our own appointing. God has led us to our present place. Providence cannot have placed us in a wrong position; it must be right for us to be just where we are. ‘The course of my life is in your power’ (Ps 3 1:15).”

  • Charles H. Spurgeon, from sermon notes

Joshua 3:7-13 ‘the crossing as a miraculous work of God’: “This miracle demonstrates, to both the Israelites and the Canaanites, that God is present with his people to work on their behalf, particularly in giving victory over the peoples mentioned (3:7—13). The twelve men (v. 12) tie into the theme since they are to build a memorial for this great deed; but for the moment, this verse is another fragmentary anticipation of an idea to be more fully explained later (see 4:2-3). When the symbol of God’s presence is in the river, the waters will miraculously cease to flow.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Joshua 3:8, 10 ‘stand in the Jordan’: “The priests were to stand there to permit time for God’s words (v. 9) to stimulate reflection on the greatness of God’s eminent action in giving the land as He showed His presence (v. 10). Also, it was a preparation to allow the people following to get set for God’s miracle which stopped the waters for a crossing (vv. 13-17).
“Canaanite people to be killed or defeated were sinful to the point of extreme (cf. Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:24, 25). God, as moral judge, has the right to deal with all people, as at the end (Rev. 20:11-15) or any other time when He deems it appropriate for His purposes. The question is not why God chose to destroy these sinners, but why He had let them live so long, and why all sinners are not destroyed far sooner than they are. It is grace that allows any sinner to draw one more breath of life (cf. Gen. 2:17; Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:23).”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Joshua 3:10 ‘The Peoples around the Promised Land’:

1AmalekitesThe descendants of Amalek, the firstborn of Esau (Gen. 36:12), who dwelt S of Palestine in the Negev.
2AmmonitesThe descendants of Ammon, the grandson of Lot by his youngest daughter (Gen. 19:38), who lived E of the Jordan River and N of Moab.
3AmoritesA general term for the inhabitants of the Land, but especially for the descendants of Canaan who inhabited the hill country on both sides of the Jordan.
4CanaanitesBroadly speaking, these are the descendants of Canaan, son of Ham, son of Noah (ct. Gen. 10:15-18), and included many of the other groups named here.
5EdomitesThe descendants of Esau who settled SE of Palestine (cf. Gen. 25:30) in the land of Seir.
6GebalitesPeople of the ancient seaport later known as Byblos, about 20 mi. N of modern Beirut (Josh. 13:5).
7GeshuritesThe inhabitants of Geshur, E of the Jordan and to the S or Syria (Josh. 12:5).
8GibeonitesThe inhabitants of Gibeon and surrounding area (Josh. 9:17).
9GirgashitesA tribe descended from Canaan, which was included among the general population of the land without specific geographical identity.
10GirzitesAn obscure group which lived in the NW part of the Negev, before they were destroyed by David (1 Sam. 27:8, 9).
11HittitesImmigrants from the Hittite Empire (in the region of Syria) to the central region of the Land (cf. 23:10; 2 Sam. 11 :3).
12HivitesDescendants of Canaan who lived in the northern reaches of the Land.
13HoritesAncient residents of Edom from an unknown origin who were destroyed by Esau’s descendants (Deut. 2:22).
14JebusitesDescendants of Canaan who dwelt in the hill country around Jerusalem (cf. Gen. 15:21; Ex. 3:8).
15KenitesA Midianite tribe that originally dwelt in the Gulf of Aqabah region (1 Sam. 27:10).
16MoabitesThe descendants of Moab, the grandson of Lot by his eldest daughter (Gen. 19:37), who lived E of the Dead Sea.
17PerizzitesPeople included among the general population of the Land who do not trace their lineage to Canaan. Their exact identity is uncertain.

The MacArthur Study Bible, by John MacArthur (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997) 308. © 1993 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Joshua 3:14-17 ‘the crossing executed’: “The crossing is executed (3:14-17). There may be a natural explanation for this miracle, possibly a landslide at Adam. There are several instances in recorded history when the rugged cliff banks have fallen and blocked the Jordan. However, even if that were the case, the timing of the event still points to God’s miraculous power.
“The impact of the miracle is considerable. The waters cease while the nation crosses the dry river bed and continue to hold back until other tasks are completed. All the participants and all the watchers are impressed with God’s power and his presence with his people.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Joshua 3:16 ‘rose in a heap’: “The God of all power, who created heaven, earth, and all else according to Genesis 1, worked miracles here. The waters were supernaturally dammed up at Adam, a city fifteen miles north of the crossing, and also in tributary creeks. Once the miracle was completed, God permitted waters to flow again (4:18) after the people had walked to the other side on dry ground (3:17). As the Exodus had begun (cf. Ex. 14), so it ended.”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Joshua 3 ‘challenge’: “How frightful a thing it is for the preacher when he becomes accustomed to his work, when his sense of wonder departs, when he gets used to the unusual, when he loses his solemn fear in the presence of the High and Holy One; when, to put it bluntly, he gets a little bored with God and heavenly things.”

  • A. W. Tozer, God tells The Man Who Cares

Joshua 4:1-24 ‘the stones at Gilgal’: “The stones placed at Gilgal were carried over by twelve previously selected men, one from each tribe (3:12). When these men reached the midst of the river, they each picked up a large stone and carried it about eight miles to Gilgal where the nation camped for the night. Gilgal was about two miles from Jericho and excluding the Transjordan was the first territory in Canaan claimed by Israel for their inheritance. In later years Gilgal became an important center for the nation. Israel crowned their first king at Gilgal (1 Sam. 11); there David was welcomed back after Absalom’s rebellion was subdued (2 Sam. 19); and Samuel thought Gilgal important enough to include it in his ‘ministry circuit’ (1 Sam. 7:16). There was a ‘school of the prophets at Gilgal in the days of Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-2; 4:38). Gilgal was important to Joshua because it became his camp and center of operations (Josh. 9:6; 10:6, 15, 43; 14:6).
“This heap of twelve stones was a reminder of what God did for His people. The Jews were great believers in teaching the next generation about Jehovah and His special relationship to the people of Israel (Josh. 4:6, 21; Ex. 12:26; 13:14; Deut. 6:20; see Ps. 34:11-16; 71:17-18; 78:1-7; 79:13; 89:1; 102:18). To an unbeliever, the heap of twelve stones was simply another stone pile, but to a believing Israelite, it was a constant reminder that Jehovah was his or her God, working His wonders on behalf of His people.
“But also note that Joshua put an obligation on the Jews to fear the Lord and bear witness of Him to the whole world (Josh. 4:24). The God who can open the river is the God everybody ought to fear, love, and obey! Israel needed to tell the other nations about Him and invite them to trust Him too. The God of Israel cares for His people, keeps His promises, goes before them in victory, and never fails. What a witness to give to the world!
“It’s unfortunate that this memorial at Gilgal gradually lost its spiritual meaning and instead became a shrine where the Jews sinned against God by worshipping there. The prophet Hosea condemned the people for worshipping at Gilgal instead of at Jerusalem (Hos. 4:15; 9:15; 12:11), and Amos echoed his warnings (Amos 4:4; 5:5). Unless we teach the next generation the truth about the Lord, they will turn away and start following the world.”

  • Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Strong

Joshua 4:1-8 ‘picking up stones’: “Twelve stones picked up from the riverbed became a memorial to God’s faithfulness. They were set up at Gilgal (about one and one-fourth miles from Jericho), which was Israel’s first campsite in the invaded land (vv. 19,20). Placing twelve stones in the riverbed itself commemorated the place that God dried up, where His ark had been held, and where He showed by a miracle His mighty presence and worthiness of respect (vv. 9-11, 21-24).”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Joshua 4:1-3 ‘God’s command for the memorial’: “After the entire nation has crossed the Jordan, the commands for the memorial are given. Joshua is to ‘take’ (not ‘choose’; the men had been chosen earlier [3:12]) twelve men, who represent all the people, and build an altar at their encampment at Gilgal (4:1-3).”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Joshua 4:4-7 ‘Joshua’s command to the people’: “Joshua’s command to the people (4:4-7) adds more details, thus giving a fuller restatement of the content of God’s command. This principle of expanded repetition seems to be a deliberate literary device in the Book of Joshua. The men are commanded to get stones from the middle of the Jordan. Joshua tells the people, no doubt passing on what God had told him earlier, that the altar will be a sign to remind them of God’s wondrous deeds.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Joshua 4:9 ‘and amidst the river’: “Joshua set up the monument in the midst of the river (v. 9); and to the Jews, it must have seemed a strange thing for their leader to do. After all, who but God could see twelve stones heaped together in a riverbed? We aren’t told that God commanded Joshua to set up this second monument, but it’s likely that He did. At least, He didn’t reproach him for doing it.
“The monument at Gilgal reminded the Jews that God had opened the Jordan River and brought them safely across into the Promised Land. They had made a break with the past and were never to think of going back. The monument in the depths of the river reminded them that their old life was buried and they were now to ‘walk in newness of life’ (Rom. 6:1-4). …
“Meanwhile, whenever the Jewish children asked about the twelve stones at Gilgal, the parents would explain the miracle of the crossing of the river. Then they would add, ‘But there’s another monument in the middle of the river where the priests stood with the ark. You can’t see it, but it’s there. It reminds us that our old life has been buried, and we must live a new life in obedience to the Lord.’ The children would have to accept this fact by faith, and if they did, it could make a great difference in the way they related to God and to His will for their lives. …

“The Israelites were now in the land, but they were not yet ready to confront the enemy. There was still some spiritual preparation necessary for the people and for Joshua.”

  • Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Strong

Joshua 4:8-24 ‘the building of the memorial’: “The Israelites obey, taking twelve stones with them to their camp (4:8-24). Verse 9 seems to suggest the construction of a second altar in the middle of the Jordan where the priests stood with the ark. However, it probably simply indicates the source of the stones used for the altar at Gilgal, not the building of a second altar.
“The total obedience of the priests in waiting until the people cross is again described (vv. 10-13; cf. 3:17). This does not represent an alternate, parallel source somewhat clumsily redacted into a composite text. Rather it is a literary retrospection that introduces the next major event in the narrative: the exiting of the ark from the Jordan. As God had promised, the ideal leader is exalted in this event (v. 14). Obedience is reemphasized in that everything is done by specific command.
“The central theme of the entire crossing account is taken up again when the ark leaves the water. When the symbol of God’s presence is taken from the river bed, the waters immediately flow again. The miraculous power of God’s presence with his people has been dramatically shown.
“The date emphasizes a new beginning: it is in the first month of the sacred calendar, a new year for a new land (v. 19). The significance and remembrance of the memorial altar and the sign are reemphasized. The altar firmly points the Israelites to their historical ties with God. Further, God’s great signs are testimonies, not just to Israel, but also to the whole world.
“This passage may also demonstrate the nature of official worship at Gilgal. In light of the ancient custom of associating holy places with sacred stories, it is quite possible that the official worship activity at Gilgal was intended to be the recitation of this particular example of God’s great works.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

My Thoughts

A couple of general comments first. God had them carry the Ark into the middle of the riverbed and it stayed there until all Israel had passed.  This was hundreds of thousands of people while the priests held the Ark, but I doubt if they noticed that it was heavy.  And to think, the priests carried the Ark into a raging river at flood stage to exhibit their faith that God was going to do “something,” and they did not get their feet wet.  Just walking across the riverbed was a journey in faith.

God was making a statement that as long as they relied upon Him and went to Him for guidance, God would be their champion.  He used the same kind of sign that He gave Moses in the crossing of the Red Sea.  They had heard the story; now they lived the “part two” of that story.

But the other point seemed to be missed by the Baker Commentary and no one else mentioned it.  They crossed over on dry ground.  When I was a Boy Scout, we camped next to a lake that had been drained for maintenance.  When I was a scout leader, we did the same thing in a different part of the country.  I remember how muddy the ground was.  There were pools of quicksand, but simply stepping into what looked like solid ground would cause you to sink up to your knees in mud, with only a crust of what looked like dry ground on top.  A keen eye could tell, but only some of the time.  In each case, the lakes had been drained for weeks prior to us camping there.  It takes a while to dry the ground, naturally.

At the time when I was a scout leader, one of the other leaders ventured into what he thought was dry ground, wanting to rinse some pots in the river (that formed the lake).  He started sinking, and he quickly returned to the original shoreline, not getting half way to the river.  One of the boys, who always did what he was told NOT to do, thought sinking in the mud would be fun.  He got stuck.  We created a canvas and log work platform (distributing our weight over a larger surface area, to rescue the child who was waste deep by the time he started screaming – and oh, could he scream.  He probably runs a big business these days.  Then once rescued, he threw a tantrum when, in the suction of the mud as we pulled him out, one of his shoes came off.  The leader that had given the child the idea by venturing into the mud first, against my orders since I knew what would happen, lay prone on his belly on our log and canvas work platform and used a small shovel to dig the boy’s shoe from the mud.  A natural phenomenon might explain the sudden damming of the river at flood stage without overflowing the dam, but to walk on dry ground would be beyond the natural.

But the telling of this story is an atypical way of using the typical Hebrew method of storytelling.  The Hebrews gave the Toastmasters the idea of public speaking that the Toastmasters teach.  You tell them what you are going to tell them.  Then you tell them.  Then you tell them what you told them.  In Genesis, it starts with God creating the heavens and the earth, in the beginning.  Then it tells the story of the seven days of Creation.  Then in the after story, it returns to the sixth day of Creation to talk about the Creation of Adam and Adam’s partner, whom Adam names Eve.

Yet, in Joshua, the triple telling of the story is in the form of God commanding Joshua as to what Joshua needed to do.  Then Joshua commands the people.  That brought memories of my Army days.  The commander got the command from the colonel.  He turned to the platoon leaders and repeated what he had been told.  Then, we platoon leaders turned to our men with a perplexed look on our faces and the sergeants would say, “We heard the captain, and we’ll take care of it, Sir.”

But then the rest of Joshua 3 and 4 was the carrying out of those commands, the third telling of the story became the story.  But then the highlighting of the taking of the stones to Gilgal was mentioned, a fourth telling, if you will.

The Baker Commentary mentions that the second set of stones was probably not placed in the river, and the Scripture is vague on that point.  It almost seems like there is a misplaced modifier to make it ambiguous.  Probably the Baker Commentary authors cold not think what the use of these stones would be.  I like Wiersbe’s suggestion of the story within the story when telling the next generations.

But my mind goes to the Washington Monument.  On top of the Washington Monument, on the face of the aluminum cap that faces east, there are the words “Laus Deo” engraved, meaning “Praise to the Lord.”  Those words greet the morning sun and if the monument is still standing, they will face Jesus upon His return.  Only the birds can see it or a drone.  But we know that the words are there.  We know that those stones are there.  Revelation speaks of the Euphrates River drying up so that the armies from the east can cross, but if the waters of the Jordan also dried up, we would see the stones and know that God had this battle already won.  There may be a significant purpose for those stones in the End Times.  And yes, God can overcome the silt covering the stones with thousands of years of sediment collecting.  If He can stop the river, the sediment is a piece of cake.

Some Serendipitous Reflections

“1. When ‘you have never been this way before,’ what do you most need: A guide? A miracle? A signpost? A small group? Where in your life do you need these right now?
“2. In what way can you personally consecrate yourself for the ‘amazing things’ in your life God wants to do?
“1. Israel crossed the Jordan ‘on dry ground,’ but armed for war, indicating that God delivers, but battles will follow. Are you battle-ready or battle-weary these days?
“2. What one life-changing encounter with God will you be sure to tell your kids?
“3. What ‘memorial’ or other testimonial evidence would your co-workers, neighbors, or family come across which might prompt them to ask what God is doing in your life?
“4. From your group (or any other), what Jordan-like experience might well be ‘memorialized’?”

  • Lyman Coleman, et al, The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups

There are one set of questions for each chapter.

Substitute whatever group for any reference to a small group.

The second set of questions are soul searching.  Look for what God did rather than personal accomplishments.

If you like these Thursday morning Bible studies, but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Thursday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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