Commentary on Joshua 3:7-17
In the first chapter of the book of Joshua, the title character is exhorted four times—in the space of eleven verses—to “be strong and courageous.”1
This exhortation to bravery does not just stand by itself; it comes with two clear reasons. First, in Joshua 1:6, God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous “because you will lead this people to inherit the land that I swore to their ancestors to give to them.”
The second reason why Joshua is to be strong and courageous is because God promises in verse 9, “the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” These reasons are also promises that a future will be made secure, and that God will be present with Joshua in all the places he will go.
The lectionary text gives an answer to a question that Joshua never asks, though perhaps he wondered it: “How do I know?” Abram asked that question of God in Genesis 15:8, and people of faith ever since have continued to wonder. How can I know that the things God promises will come true? How can I trust that in the future God will do what God says? In the miracle of the parting of the waters and the experience of walking on dry land, Joshua, the people of Israel, and all of us today are given a concrete way to know God’s trustworthiness.
Though the lectionary begins with verse 7, the first six verses provide a geographical and theological setting. Joshua and the people leave Shittim and camp at the Jordan River, before they cross over. Geographically, Shittim is only about six miles away from the river, if Abel Shittim is the site.
But theologically, there is a more dramatic distance between the two. Shittim is where the Israelites were in Numbers 25, when so many of them worshiped the foreign god Baal of Peor. At the end of the book of Joshua, the people will make a covenant to only worship the Lord, and leaving Shittim is a start.
The lectionary selection begins with the Lord speaking to Joshua, telling him that this is the day God will begin to make Joshua great. Four things stand out in verse 7. First, the word “begin” signals that Joshua’s greatness is a process, not a task that will be completed in a single moment. Second, Joshua does not become great by himself, but it is God who will make him great.
Third, Joshua’s greatness is not an end unto itself, but the reason for it is clearly stated: so that the Israelites will know that God will be with him, as God was with Moses. Fourth is the implication that the people need to remember the past. How could they know that God was with Moses, unless they retell the stories, and recite the history? In order to move into the future, they cannot forget their past.
In verse 9, Joshua speaks to all the Israelites, inviting them to come and “hear” God’s words, but the experience they will have will involve more than just one of their senses. They will hear, but they will also see the waters “stand up in a single heap” (Joshua 3:13), and they will feel the ground under their feet as they cross over on dry ground (3:17).
There is no mystery about the reason for this experience, for Joshua tells the Israelites in verse 10: “By this you will know that the living God is in your midst, and without fail he will drive out before you the Canaanites … ”All the dramatic events that occur are so that the people will know that God is with them and will give them victory. And the events are dramatic! 3:4 tells us that the people must keep a distance of 2000 cubits—about three-quarters of a mile—from the ark.
And even if it is not the crossing of the Reed Sea in Exodus 14, neither is it just some trickle. Joshua 3:15 tells us that the crossing happens at the time of the harvest, when the river is at flood stage. The Jordan River also drops significantly in elevation. Its headwaters are at Mount Hermon, 9000 feet above sea level, and it ends at the Dead Sea, 1400 feet below sea level, so the Jordan is one of the fastest flowing rivers of its size.
The priests march ahead of the people bearing the ark, and as soon as their feet touch the water of the Jordan, it stops flowing, so that the people, spread out over a mile, cross over on dry ground.
In the Persian period, the term “Beyond the River” becomes a technical imperial designation for the land of the Israelites (cf. Ezra 3:11). Again, this can be understood geographically, that the Israelites settle into the land that is west of the Jordan River. But again, there is also theology in this name that ought to be remembered each time it is repeated: they crossed over the river led by God, on their way to the land God had promised to their ancestors long ago.
The purpose of the Israelites crossing the river is to fight and ultimately conquer the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. There is plenty of encouraging material in this text to preach on, but we ought not to ignore the aspect of the conquest. Another way to translate the Hebrew word ‘abar, “to cross,” is “to pass by.” Even when we are not conquering people groups, as the Israelites did, there is a danger of “passing them by” in the sense of ignoring them.
Today, we may not have the experience of seeing a rushing river stop and crossing through it on dry ground. But we have these stories that bear witness to the truth that God is among us, will do what God has promised to do, and will give us victory.
- Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 2, 2014.