Joshua 3:1 Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites . . . went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over.
Forty years earlier, God parted the Red Sea for Moses, so he could lead the people of God out of Egyptian slavery. Now he would dry up the Jordan River for Joshua, so he could lead them into the Promised Land. Joshua was the new leader of Israel, and this was the moment they had all been waiting for.
Joshua 3:3 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.
The ark of the covenant was normally kept in the Most Holy Place, inside the tabernacle. But occasionally, it was used to lead the people of God in solemn procession. The ark is so important to this story, that it is mentioned no fewer than sixteen times.
It is frequently called the ark of the covenant because it housed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:16). They were the basis of the covenant God made with Israel, forty years earlier, at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20). Since the ark symbolized God’s throne (Exodus 25:22), the people understood that God himself was leading them into the Promised Land.
Joshua 3:4 But keep a distance of about two thousand cubits between you and the ark; do not go near it.
The people were to maintain a respectful distance from God’s throne. Two thousand cubits is over half a mile, and this would allow more people to see the ark than if it was being crowded. The ark was so sacred that no one was allowed to touch it on pain of death (2 Samuel 6:7). Even those who carried the ark were to use poles, inserted into rings, mounted on its side (Exodus 25:14).
Joshua 3:8 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.
The Jordan isn’t wide or deep, but the spring rains (and melting snow from Mount Hermon) caused it swell to about a hundred feet wide, and ten feet deep. The strength of the current would also make it difficult to pass. But without any sign of the water slowing down, the priests were told to stand in the river.
There are times when God requires his people to act on faith before they see his provision (Mark 11:24). The man with the shriveled hand was healed as he stretched it out (Luke 6:10); the bread and fish were multiplied as they were distributed (John 6:11); and the Jordan River would cease to flow only after the priests stepped into it. God does not always explain himself before he calls his people to act.
Joshua 3:15-16 [A]s 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.
Perhaps God put his hand in the river and stopped the flow himself. But why did he do it so far away? The town of Adam is about eighteen miles upstream. Why didn’t God put his hand in the river, right in front of the Israelites, so they could see his mighty power?
Sometimes God works directly, but he also works indirectly, through various means. The Jordan River has stopped flowing near the town of Adam more than once, due to a mudslide. As recently as 1927, in fact, the water stopped flowing there for over twenty hours.
The Jordan Valley is on a fault line, where earthquakes are known to occur. If an earthquake caused a mudslide to stop the river’s flow, just as the priests were stepping in, that would be no less remarkable than if God did it with his own right hand. In fact, the discovery of a natural cause gives additional credibility to the biblical record. We not only know what God did, we may even know how he did it.
Joshua 3:17 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.
When the whole nation had safely crossed over, the priests also crossed over, and came out of the river. 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 (Joshua 4:18).
By a miracle of timing, God revealed his providential care for his people. If they had arrived an hour sooner, the miracle would not have worked. If they had taken an hour longer to cross over, the miracle would not have worked either. But the moment they stepped into the river, the water stopped flowing. And the moment they stepped out of the river, the water returned to flood stage. The God of Israel is also the Lord of time. We may not always like his timing, but we can always trust it.
Joshua 5:13-15 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, Are you for us or for our enemies? Neither, he replied, but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come. Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, What message does my Lord have for his servant? The commander of the Lord’s army replied, Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy. And Joshua did so.
As Joshua prepared to fight the battle of Jericho, he met a heavenly figure with a drawn sword. His loyalty was not to the Israelites, or to the Canaanites, but to God alone. From this we understand that God is always for himself. Many want God to be on their side, but God is always on his own side. There are only two sides in life; Whoever is not with me is against me (Matthew 12:30), said Jesus.
The heavenly figure in this passage identified himself as the commander of the army of the Lord (Joshua 5:14). Israel was God’s army on earth, but God also has an army in heaven. The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands (Psalm 68:17), wrote the Psalmist. As Joshua fought God’s battles on earth, he was encouraged to know that heaven would be fighting too.
The commander revealed his identity when he said, Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy (Joshua 5:15). Since this is what God said to Moses at the burning bush, we know this figure is divine. And since Jesus said, These are the very Scriptures that testify about me (John 5:39), we know this figure is Christ. Furthermore, the drawn sword reminds us of Christ’s return. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations (Revelation 19:15), wrote John. The gentle shepherd from Nazareth is also a conquering king.
Reflection and Review
Why was the ark of the covenant used to lead God’s people?
How did God stop the Jordan River?
How do we know the commander of the army of the Lord was Christ?