Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

It’s not surprising that a new, young leader like Joshua would feel anxious or inadequate.

Miner carrying sulphur
"A miner carrying sulphur at Kawah Ijen, Java," image by Matt Paish via Flickr licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

November 5, 2017

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Commentary on Joshua 3:7-17

It’s not surprising that a new, young leader like Joshua would feel anxious or inadequate.

Joshua is taking over the reins of leadership from the great and incomparable Moses who led Israel faithfully for forty years through the wilderness. Moses “was unequaled … for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12). A tough act to follow!

A second reason for Joshua to doubt himself is the Canaanite enemy he is about to encounter. An earlier spy mission into Canaan had revealed that “the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:28). A tough enemy to face!

Joshua needed repeated words of encouragement and support. Before his death, Moses had encouraged Joshua, “Be strong and bold … It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:7).

God also repeatedly reassured Joshua once he became Israel’s leader. “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5; see Deuteronomy 31:23). Again, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). A third time: “I will begin to exalt you … so that you may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (Joshua 3:7 — our text). God will keep repeating the reassurance, “Do not fear!” (Joshua 8:1; 10:8).

“Do not fear. I will be with you.”

The negative command — “Do not fear!” — and the positive command — “Be strong and bold! — recur often through the pages of Scripture. When God calls a leader or a community to a new mission, fear gives way to confidence and hope. Of course, it is true that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). But fearing and trusting in the LORD means not being afraid of the forces that resist God, even when the obstacles seem impossible to us.

Not being afraid is only possible because of the promise that God will be with us. Faithfully fulfilling God’s call in our lives is not, first of all, rooted in our own estimates of our human abilities and resources. Success depends instead on whether God is with us or against us.

Throughout Scripture, God proclaims to God’s people, “Do not fear … “I will be with you!” The list is long: Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Hagar (Genesis 21:17), Jacob (Genesis 27:41; 28:13-15), Moses (Exodus 3:11), fleeing Israelite slaves (Exodus 14:10, 13), the judge Gideon (Judges 6:14-16), King Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:5-7), the psalmist beset by powerful enemies (Psalm 118:6), the community of Jewish exiles (Isaiah 41:10; 43:5), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:8), Daniel (Daniel 10:12, 19), Mary (Luke 1:30), shepherds surrounded by angels (Luke 2:8-14), disciples caught in a storm (Mark 4:37-40), frightened disciples in the night of Jesus’ betrayal (John 14:27), disciples frightened by reports of a resurrected Jesus (Mark 16:8; Matthew 28:10, 18-20), the apostle Paul (Acts 18:9-10; 27:24; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), or John of Patmos (Revelation 1:17-18).

This large cloud of witnesses testifies that following God’s call into a new venture can often stir up fear in our hearts. Yet the repeated promises of God urge us to let go of debilitating fear: “I will be with you!” Trust God. Let go of whatever overwhelming anxieties and worries that paralyze you into retreat, inaction, or over reaction (Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 12:22-32).

Water, power, and the living God

The events of Joshua 3 have a ritual and sacramental quality to them. The text combines a spoken command (“Do not be afraid”), a spoken promise (“I will be with you”), and a material, physical sign that brings an identity-defining event to remembrance and interpretation for future generations.

Joshua promises that “the LORD will do wonders among you” (Joshua 3:6). That “wonder” will involve all Israel somehow crossing the raging floodwaters of the Jordan River (Joshua 3:15). At the center of this river crossing, the priestly tribe of Levites will carry the ark of the covenant in a liturgical procession.

The ark was a holy container that held the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 10:1-5; 31:26). The ark was also a material sign of God’s living presence in the midst of the people of Israel (“among you is the living God” — Joshua 3:10). As such, the ark radiated with holy and dangerous power. Any unauthorized person (non-priest) who came too close or touched the ark could die (see 2 Samuel 6:6-7). Thus, the people are instructed to give the ark some space — a distance of 2000 cubits or about 2/3 of a mile (Joshua 3:4).

Now the LORD’s great “wonder” is about to happen. As the toes of the priests touch the edge of the swollen waters of the Jordan River, the river abruptly stops flowing. The Jordan’s waters pile up in a “heap”! Dry land suddenly appears across the bed of the river. The priests solemnly process with the ark into the middle of the dry riverbed. The priests with the ark stand as the rest of the Israelites pass by (at a safe distance!) and cross into Canaan (Joshua 3:16-17).

What is the significance of this event? The crossing of the Jordan River clearly points back to the time of Moses and Israelites’ dramatic crossing through the parted waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-22, 26-29). Crossing the Red Sea involved fear and risk, but it led to freedom. The two water crossings — the Red Sea in Exodus 14 and the Jordan River in Joshua 3 — form bookends to Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom, from death to life.

Psalm 114 similarly puts the imagery of Israel’s fleeing Egypt through the sea (“the sea looked and fled”) in parallel with imagery of Israel’s crossing the river Jordan (“Jordan turned back” – Psalm 114:1, 3, 5). The parted waters and dry river bed in Joshua 3 also find resonance in the creation account in Genesis 1 when God pushed back the waters of chaos, making way for the dry ground that enabled new forms of life to appear (Genesis 1:2, 6, 9).

Stones Yearning to Speak

In the next chapter, Joshua completes the liturgical procession of crossing the Jordan River by commanding that two piles of twelve large stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, be erected. One mound of stones was set up at the water’s edge, and the other mound stood in the middle of the Jordan River as “a memorial forever” (Joshua 4:7).

These piles of stones are physical and material memorials, imbued with deep mythic meanings, memories and resonances over time. Like the waters of Baptism or the wine and bread of the Lord’s Supper, the stones resonate with commands (“Do not fear! Be bold! Remember!”). They sparkle with promises (“I will be with you!”). The rocks ring with a call to freedom rather than slavery, to life rather than death, to hope rather than despair. The stones yearn for a new preacher to lift up their voices again to proclaim the wonders of the LORD for a new day.