Commentary on Joshua 3:7-17
For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for All Saints, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.
Joshua 3-4 is a difficult text, perhaps combining previous independent sources and/or reflecting an obscure liturgical celebration of Yahweh’s leading the Israelites into the Promised Land.
To get the full picture, one must include all of chapters 3-4, but that clearly is too long for any one pericope. We will reflect on some of the numerous themes that are referred to in this passage in the hope that they will ignite ideas that will enrich your preaching.
“This day I will begin to exalt you [Joshua], so that they [Israel] may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (Joshua 3:7). Joshua 3-4 does much to certify Joshua as the legitimate leader of Israel and the credible successor to Moses. This beginning of Joshua’s exaltation is completed in Joshua 4:14. The exaltation of Joshua as the successor of Moses is not an end in itself; rather it certifies that the LORD was “with” Joshua as he was “with” Moses. The expression “I am with you” is one of the most compact and meaningful expressions of the gospel in the Bible. When God is with an individual or the whole people, God clearly accepts that person or people. Whatever sins may have occurred, they are no longer considered something standing between God and the believer. When God is with an individual or a people, the full power of the Almighty stands ready to help that person or people carry out their vocation. When Moses doubted his ability to lead Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 3:11-12) or worried about his ability to articulate the word of God (Exodus 4:10-12), he was reassured with simple sentences: “I will be with you” and “I will be with your mouth.” Small wonder then that Matthew gives the name for Jesus as Emmanuel or God is with us (Matthew 1:23), or that Jesus’ last word to his disciples is “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). God, the Promising One, had assured Joshua of his presence in Joshua 1:5 and fulfilled that promise as Israel crossed the Jordan in chapter 3.
“By this you shall know that among you is the living God” (Joshua 3:10). The verb “know” has a range of meanings from “comprehend” to “experience” to “recognize.” Any one of those meanings would fit here. “This” refers to the events of chapters 3-4, the safe passage of Israel through the Jordan at flood stage. The living God contrasts with the dying and rising gods in Israel’s environment. But it also contrasts with our doubt-filled fears that God does not exist or cannot help at all. Crossing the Jordan may not have made the headlines in the thirteenth century B.C., but God proving himself graciously present in the little things of our lives may be enough to evoke our faith and our faithfulness. When God makes sense of my life, my family, and my vocation, it is enough to call forth my praise: “My Lord and my God!”
“So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel” (v. 12). This verse apparently leads nowhere until one reads the next chapter. These twelve men piled up twelve large boulders at the very spot where the priests had stood with the ark of the covenant as the waters miraculously stopped flowing from the north so that Israel could cross over the Jordan on dry land. That nondescript monument in the midst of the Jordan would cause all inquisitive children to ask, “What do these stones mean to you?” (Joshua 4:6). The writer urges the readers not to miss this golden opportunity to share the story. Tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. Each of us has experienced significant moments, often in the trivialities of daily life, when we knew for sure that God was with us and was helping us. Be ready to tell that story! Or, as the writer of 1 Peter, urges, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
It wasn’t any old box that the priests were carrying to the middle of the Jordan River, but it was “the ark of the covenant” (v. 8) and “the ark of the covenant of the LORD of all the earth” (vv. 11, 13). That is, the ark symbolized the agreement that God had forged with Israel at Sinai, and it was the symbol of the God who is sovereign over all the earth. God’s power is for us! One of the wonderful collects of the church says, “God, your almighty power is shown chiefly in showing mercy.” God’s power is for us, and never more evident than when the almighty God hung weakly on a cross.
“The priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan ” (Joshua 3:17). Their priestly service was not at an altar, but in a potentially dangerous stream, and their standing there with the ark was for the sake of their sisters and brothers who passed over. We often get the clearest picture of God when sisters and brothers in the faith hang in there for us, seeing our welfare as their own highest good. The universal priesthood of all believers not only gives us direct access to God, but it provides opportunity for each of us to serve one another.
Tell me, what do these stones mean to you?