Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

The story of the crossing of the Jordan highlights the authorization of Joshua’s leadership and demonstrates that sustained attentiveness to sacred tradition is foundational for Israel’s cultural identity.

October 30, 2011

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Commentary on Joshua 3:7-17

The story of the crossing of the Jordan highlights the authorization of Joshua’s leadership and demonstrates that sustained attentiveness to sacred tradition is foundational for Israel’s cultural identity.

This passage is of profound significance for Christian understanding of what it means to be formed in faith as a community that claims spiritual rootage in ancient Israel.

We listen for the authority of new vocations just as Israel did; we gather around Scripture just as Israel did. This story also demonstrates the seriousness with which ancient Israelite traditions explored the motif of journeying through liminal spaces toward fulfillment of the purposes of God. Our passage is of paramount importance as witness to the unsettling God who calls us into places of wilderness and challenges us to cross boundaries in our own spiritual journeys.

The Israelites had traveled through the wilderness for forty years, wrestling with deprivation, threats, and deep anxiety. Their deliverance from Egypt was only the beginning of their reformation as God’s people: they had to learn and relearn the truth that their God was mighty to save and swift to punish. Arriving at Sinai, they had claimed their covenantal identity in God’s marvelous and terrifying gift of the Law, the means by which they would draw near to Holiness itself and, on occasion, convict themselves of sin.

But ironically, the defining moment of grace atop Sinai had been met at the foot of the holy mountain by a defining moment of faithlessness. In the fraught pause before Moses returned with the Ten Commandments, the people had yielded to anxiety, trying to force the unfolding of a new narrative of their own making (“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” Exodus 32:4) and suffering fatal consequences.

Their journey toward Canaan would continue to be marked by risk. The destruction of Nadab and Abihu for offering “unholy fire” (Leviticus 10:1-7) and the divine fire and plague upon those who craved meat (Numbers 11) underline what was at stake as the Israelites negotiated the landscape, geographical and spiritual, that lay before them.

Our passage opens with God’s reassurance that the divine presence will be with Joshua just as it had been with Moses. This is not simply God ratifying Joshua’s promotion. God’s presence has been crucial for the survival of the people from the beginning of their wilderness journeying. Lack of drinking water had provoked Israel’s fear that God might have abandoned them: “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7), and after the Golden Calf debacle, Moses had implored God to remain present with this people (“If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here,” Exodus 33:15).

The Divine Warrior’s presence at the vanguard of Israel’s forces was, per holy-war ideology, vital for Israel’s success in military conflicts. Our passage is not so much about Joshua’s stature as about God’s continuing provision for God’s people through the Law, through Moses and Joshua, through the prophets, and through new leaders and new means of grace in subsequent generations (Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Isaiah 61; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 5; Hebrews 3-4).

Israel stands on the banks of the Jordan, poised on the brink of fulfillment of the promises of God. The story of the crossing places the ark of the LORD decisively at the center of the narrative action. The threat here is real, for the river is at flood stage. The ark goes before Israel into the waters of the Jordan, showing that “the living God” (verse 10), the “Lord of all the earth” (verse 13), is sovereign even in the most dangerous moments of Israel’s journey.

Parallels with the crossing of the Red Sea are transparently clear, as interpreters have seen from the similarity of content and a shared, rare Hebrew term for how the waters appear (as in a “heap,” Exodus 15:8 and Joshua 3:13, 16). Where the angel and pillar of cloud/fire were crucial as front and rear guard during the exodus from Egypt, here the focus on the ark emphasizes the indwelling of God’s holiness in the midst of Israel.

Israel’s deep reflection on its sacred traditions is visible not only in this story’s attentiveness to the narrative of the crossing of the Red Sea, but also in the editorial interventions within our passage. Several hands have worked on the literary shaping of Joshua 3-4. Many literary cues suggest this: the awkward interpolation about the selection of twelve men (3:12; their role will not be important until later); competing images of the priests as standing at the edge of the water (3:8, 13, 15) and in the middle of the riverbed (3:17; 4:3, 18); and most telling, the variant regarding whether the twelve memorial stones are to be set up in the camp on the far side of the Jordan (4:2-8, 20) or in the middle of the Jordan (4:9).

Deft indeed are the narratological techniques, including editorial framing and resumptive repetition, which shape the story into a coherent whole. The complexity of the final form reveals an Israel gathered reflectively around its ancient traditions, cherishing and preserving even contestatory moments as essential parts of an organic whole.

This passage offers magnificent riches for homiletics. The preacher might invite believers to look for God’s holiness at liminal times in their own spiritual journeys. One could explore this passage’s Exodus resonances as evidence that God offers deliverance from captivity not just in one paradigmatic instance but continually in the lives of sinners and whole communities.

Dramatizing the moment when the waters of the Jordan stand in a heap, the preacher might proclaim the saving love of God in Christ as a love which cannot be quenched by many waters (Song of Solomon 8:7), witness to our rebirth through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:3-4; so Origen), or affirm that no obstacle or threat can separate us from the love of God as we struggle toward obedience (Romans 8:31-39).

But the risks of this passage are grave and should be considered prayerfully. The story is bound up in the narrative of Israel’s attempted genocide and colonization of indigenous Canaanite groups (explicitly named in 3:10). Responsible preaching here might celebrate the power of the Gospel as reaching across ethnic, regional, and religious markers of Otherness (Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-4; Isaiah 11:1-9, 19:24-25; Acts 10) to draw all creation into the knowledge and love of God.