Joshua 3:1-17

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After the account of the spies in Jericho and Rahab’s confession of Yahweh as the living God, we return in chapter 3 to the narrative of Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River, for which preparations were being made in chapter 1. “Along with the crossing of the Red Sea [at the time of the exodus from Egypt], the crossing of the Jordan represents one of the pivotal events in Israel’s [his]story.” [Hawk, 53] Chapters 3 and 4 form a single unit, but as each is primarily concerned with different parts of the event, we’ll take them separately.

Text Comment


You may remember my telling you that the each of the four sections of the book of Joshua is characterized by a leitwort, a word that indicates the section’s theme.In the case of the first section, from the beginning to v. 12 of chapter 5, that leitwort is the Hebrew verb “to cross” or “to pass over.” It occurs here in v. 1 and eight more times in the chapter. The first section of the book narrates Israel’s crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. This is an epoch making moment in the history of Israel as becomes clear by the attention that will be paid in chapter 4 to the importance of Israel’s remembering it.

Israel had been encamped at Shittim, some six miles from the Jordan, since their triumph over the kings, Sihon and Og, who had ruled the eastern bank of the Jordan until the Israelites arrived.


According to the inclusive way of reckoning time employed by the Hebrews, the three days would probably include the end of the day on which they arrived at the Jordan, the next day, and then the day on which they actually crossed the river. [Howard, 119]


The ark is central to this episode as is indicated by the fact that it is mentioned seventeen times in chapters 3 and 4. The ark, as you know, was the embodiment of Yahweh’s presence with the people. The space between the cherubim that stood above the gold box was considered the invisible Yahweh’s throne. [Hubbard, 150]


2,000 cubits is approximately 3,000 feet or a thousand yards, more than half a mile. Clearly Israel was to follow the ark across the river, but there is a spiritual point as well: Israel was to follow the Lord! [Howard, 122]


Consecration required a variety of ritual observances, washings, abstaining from sex and from certain foods, and donning clean clothes on the following day. A similar consecration was required of Israel at Mt. Sinai, just before the Lord descended to deliver his law to his people. The point was that they were to be fit witnesses of the Lord’s glory on the following day.


Joshua would not have any direct involvement in the miracle, but his leadership would be validated by it what God will do for the people under his leadership.


We still do not yet know what great sign the Lord would perform, only that one was coming.

The Bible sometimes uses the term Canaanites for all the people who lived in the Promised Land before Israel’s invasion. But the term also can refer to a specific group of people within the population of Palestine. We will hear about more than these seven people; this is a representative list.


The addition of “Lord of all the earth” seems to be a reminder that Yahweh was the living God, the maker and ruler of all things, not such a false and useless and powerless god as was worshipped by the Canaanite peoples just named.


There has been a lot of interest in this statement, because it seems unconnected to anything else. The narrator doesn’t tell us what the twelve men are for until later, so why mention them here; but perhaps it is to build suspense. We’re wondering what they’re going to do and why they have been singled out.


A point is made of the fact that when Israel crossed the Jordan the river was in flood. The Jordan Valley between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea varies in width from three to fourteen miles. Within this valley the river’s floodplain varies in width between two-hundred yards and a mile. But that floodplain was packed with tangled bushes which made the river much more difficult to cross. The fords of the river were as much ways through the tangled growth around the river as ways of crossing the water itself. Interestingly, that continues to be the case today, as Florence and I discovered when, traveling north on the highway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, we turned right on a little track to see if we could get down to the river. We got only as far as some thick bushes surrounded by water; we never reached the channel of the river itself.

The river channel, it is estimated, was from ninety to one-hundred feet in width and from three to twelve feet in depth. The current was relatively strong as the drop in elevation from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea computes to approximately nine feet per mile. So the river Israel faced that spring was not the placid stream you see today. The water would have been deeper, wider, and running faster than usual. Crossing it then would have been more difficult than at any other time of the year. [Davis, 37-38]

Water standing in a heap is also how the parting of the Red Sea is described. [Ex. 15:8]

Adam was probably a town some sixteen miles north of a crossing opposite Jericho. Found there are some high banks along the river that have been liable to periodic collapses sufficient to block the flow of the river for a time. In December of the year 1267 such a collapse stopped the flow of water for sixteen hours. In 1906 there was a similar event and also as a result of an earthquake in 1927. In that last case the river was dammed for fully twenty-one hours! [Kitchen, The Reliability of the Old Testament, 167] Often, as we know, the miracles of the Bible were events caused by natural forces, but ones that were timed exactly to meet the requirements of the situation. Not always, but often.

The Salt Sea and the Sea of Arabah are ancient names for the Dead Sea.


That men were standing for some time on dry ground in the middle of the riverbed confirms the reality of the miracle. Walking on dry ground is also the way the crossing of the Red Sea is described. [Ex. 14:21]

Key to the narrative of Israel’s crossing the Jordan River is the presence of Yahweh, represented by the Ark of the Covenant, and his terrible power. Without a doubt the Canaanites by now knew that Israel was coming. They knew where Israel was encamped, their scouts watched them move to the river — perhaps they amused themselves wondering just how Israel expected to throw its army across the Jordan when the river was in flood. But when they saw the water cease to flow from the north and the riverbed appear and Israel begin to cross on dry land, within hours, at the most a day, the news would have been breathlessly reported to every ruler in Canaan that all hope of being able to resist the invasion was lost.

Imagine Rahab hearing the news in Jericho. It would have confirmed everything she already believed. Yahweh was the living God and if it were his will that Israel occupy Canaan then the Canaanites would be powerless to stop them.

The point is that Yahweh has this power. The accent falls here in chapter three on the majesty of the Lord. Notice how it does.

  1. The ark is introduced which was the most powerful symbol of the divine presence in Israel. A beautiful gold box surmounted by two cherubim with wings outspread and Yahweh, invisible but present on his throne. It will be the ark as the presence of the Lord that will part the waters of the river.
  2. Notice too how the ark is identified, first in v. 11 and then again in v. 13: it is the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth. That language suggests that God is the creator of heaven and earth, the ruler over all that is on the earth, and the only living and true God. All the so-called gods of the ancient near east, and certainly the gods of Canaan, were, in effect, local deities attached to particular areas and peoples, likely to be subject to the gods of nearby nations stronger than theirs. When a people was conquered in battle its gods would be carted off to be put in the temple of the gods of the conquering nation, as if the gods themselves had been beaten in battle. But there is none of this with Yahweh, the Lord of all the earth and the only living and true God, as Rahab had realized and as she had said in chapter 2.
  3. Then the nation was required to keep a distance of more than half a mile between themselves and the ark. One does not approach the presence of the living God willy-nilly. The regulations of the tabernacle likewise enforced that separation between God and man. One must take great care when you are in the presence of God; one must respect the great distance that separates human beings from the holy one of Israel.
  4. That is why the nation was required to consecrate itself. They were to find themselves on the morrow in the presence of God as he revealed his glory. They had to be pure and so they readied themselves to be witnesses of that glory.
  5. Then there is the fact that Israel was ordered to cross the river at precisely that time of year and in precisely those conditions that made a crossing most difficult, if not impossible. Rivers are notorious barriers for armies. No one can read the history of warfare in Europe, for example, from the time of Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul to the Second World War without soon realizing what a formidable barrier a river can be to the advance of an army. That’s why so many bridges are destroyed in wartime. But some rivers are far more difficult to cross than others. And the Jordan in spring flood was a difficult river to cross. But Israel not only crossed it, she walked across it, she strolled across it on dry land! but crossed it on dry land! Divine power had been exercised on her behalf. A river had ceased to be a river in a moment just for her sake. And it ceased to be a river at precisely the moment the priests entered it carrying the ark.

All of this is summed up in v. 10 in Joshua’s exhortation to the people: “Here is your God…the living God among you.” Now perhaps you are thinking that all of that is obvious and hardly needs comment. But the fact is, the majesty of God has virtually disappeared from the consciousness of most Christians in the west and, frankly, you and I are today struggling to maintain any real sense of it ourselves. It is one of the reasons why a sense of the divine majesty has literally disappeared from the civic religion of America today, that sort of vague sense of God that many nominal believers catch from the religious life and conversation of the real believers around them. If real Christians have lost a sense of the glory of God, no one should expect it to be maintained by the nominal religious population and it hasn’t been. Many factors have contributed to this loss, of course, but several stand out in my mind.

First, the great engine of the consciousness of the divine majesty among God’s people has always been the worship of God’s house on the Lord’s Day. A sense of God’s otherness and our distance from him, a conviction that God is utterly beyond us, a deep mystery of personal life, was conveyed through the ages by many elements of that worship: from the architecture of the sanctuary, to the kneeling and standing of the people, from the music that was sung to the prayers that were offered, from the confession of sin to the seriousness with which God’s word was preached and heard, from the dress of the minister to the dress of the congregation.

But over the past generation, and literally just over this past generation, virtually every means employed to keep that 2,000 cubit distance between ourselves and the God we worship has been systematically removed. Church buildings increasingly say little or nothing about the God who is worshipped there, and certainly nothing about his majesty. As Winston Churchill said of English architecture, “First we shape our buildings and then they shape us.” Well, that is what is happening in American church architecture. The informality of language and dress do not communicate reverence in any noticeable way. The music now almost universally sung in American Christian worship does not serve to convey the majesty of the God being worshipped. Preaching is much more informal, chatty, and humorous. All of this would be one thing if while certain communications of the divine transcendence having been removed others were added. But the fact is that every change in Christian worship over the last generation has diminished any sense of the greatness, the fearfulness, the otherness of God and no changes to Christian worship serve to emphasize those things. All the changes have been in the same direction: toward familiarity with God, not toward a conviction of the distance that separates him from us.

Now, don’t mistake me. God is near us. He has always been near his people. He was in the ancient epoch and he is today near to those who call on him in truth. But, at the same time, the Bible was emphatic that the God who drew near to his people, who loved them as a father, who carried them in his arms, was none other than the God who dwelled in unapproachable light, the God whom no man has seen or can see, the God who inhabits eternity, and the God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who will by no means clear the guilty. The Bible is always careful to teach that God is both, not one or the other, and, in fact, if we forget or if we minimize one dimension or the other of the divine life — his immanence or his transcendence – the part we remember or emphasize will be misshapen and misunderstood. What makes God’s tenderness toward his people so amazing, so wonderful, and so life-changing is precisely that it is the Almighty, the Lord of Hosts, the Creator of heaven and earth, the immortal, invisible, omnipotent sovereign who is stooping down to love us.

But the fact is we find the Lord’s tenderness, his immanence, his nearness easier to contemplate and certainly less worrying than his majesty, his glory, and his transcendence. It is striking how thoroughly this side of God has been systematically removed in the public speech and conduct of the Christian church on the Lord’s Day. No wonder it is disappearing from the American Christian mind.

But the changes in worship are only part of the story. There is abroad in Christian thinking a deep and abiding prejudice against the Old Testament. It is very widely thoughtI come across this thought all the time even in people of whom I would have thought better of — that with the appearance of Jesus Christ and with his death and resurrection, the Christian faith took on a new, more friendly face. There is, so it is thought, less of the threatening aspect of God and more of the friendly now that the new epoch has been established. They think we are somehow closer to God nowadays than was the case in Joshua’s day.

But it is not so. It is not only the case that the Old Testament is rich with the revelation of God’s love and tender affection for his people, of his being near them to love and care for them — in fact most of the great statements on that theme you will find in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible, not the last twenty-seven — but the New Testament is full of the revelation of his fearful majesty, his implacable opposition to sin, and his readiness to judge, condemn, and punish the impenitent.

People somehow forget that when Ananias and Sapphira cheated on their tithe and lied about it, they were struck dead on the spot! They somehow fail to notice how much the prospect of God’s unforgiving judgment featured in the preaching of Jesus, in the writing of the Apostle Paul, and other authors of the books of the New Testament, and how relentlessly worrying is the final book of the Bible, John’s Revelation. The statement that our God is a consuming fire is found in both the Old Testament and the New.

You hear it all the time. You do, I do. This person or that person, we say, is angry at God because of some disappointment in his or her life. We should, of course, be tenderly sympathetic toward people who have suffered, having suffered ourselves and knowing the one who suffered so much for us, and we should care for them in their suffering, but, please, let’s all face facts. Being angry with God is pure, unadulterated stupidity! What? Is the Almighty God supposed to be wringing his hands because you’re upset with him? Is he supposed to alter his plans for the world because you don’t like what he has ordered in your own case? Being afraid of God makes sense. The Canaanites easily understood the implications of Israel’s crossing the Jordan at flood on dry land. Their situation was hopeless. Lots of them were going die and they were going to lose their place in the land of their fathers. Being desperate to submit your life to God in faith and penitence makes sense. If God is far, far too much for you, your only hope is to find peace with him — no matter what that costs you. Rahab had figured out that much. But being angry with God is utterly pointless. Do you think anyone shook his fist at the tsunami in Southeast Asia when he saw it roaring toward him? And if anyone did, to what point?

Or we hear that a good God wouldn’t allow a tsunami or an earthquake or a fire to devastate the lives of people. Really? How does anyone know that? The better question is: what sort of God is he who judges the world so severely, who tests mankind in such demanding ways, who refuses to allow human beings to find a home in this world? The living God, the God who has revealed himself in the Bible is a God of severe judgment, terrible power, relentless holiness, and implacable demand. And this world reflects his will. There is judgment everywhere one looks. The outstanding feature of world history is the “all-conquering” monotony of it, the monotony of pride, foolish and utterly counter-productive, man living to his own detriment and the detriment of others, the pride and futility in which he has always lived, lives today and will live until the end of the world. [Barth, CD IV/I, 505-508] There is the evidence everywhere of man’s greatness but still more evidence everywhere of man’s pettiness, his inability to make a permanent home of this world, to find true fulfillment of life, and to overcome his own defects. God will not let him! Whenever he grows confident, self-assured, there comes a tsunami, an earthquake, a fire, a war, some pestilence or plague.  To imagine that God is different today than he was that day Israel crossed the Jordan requires both reading another Bible and observing another world.

And there is still another reason why the majesty of God has leaked out of the consciousness of the church of the Western world. That world has made its peace with indifference to the holiness of God. It has chosen in case after case to abandon the Law of God and to substitute standards of conduct that violate God’s law in obvious and flagrant ways. It has made indifference to God’s judgment the foundation of its approach to morality. There is no fear of God anywhere one looks in this culture of ours. None. Where have you seen it? And the loss of that historic vision of God as holy and as the defender of his own righteousness and purity is now manifest in the church as well. The relentless pressure imposed upon the Christian mind by this culture and by its pervasive media was bound to have an effect and it has had a profound one. It has had it on me; it has had it on you. Sin and grace even for us are now more often slogans than hard edged realities. How can they be anything else when detached from the holiness of God, for it is that holiness that defines them and invests them with the terrible power they have in Holy Scripture and in authentic Christian life and worship. If sin is not an affront to God himself, if it is not an offense to the holiness of a God who’s eyes are too pure to behold iniquity, if it is simply self-destructive behavior, then grace will eventually be reduced to nothing more than another of today’s host of self-help therapies. If worship is no longer the privileged audience of sinners with a God of impossibly great holiness, then it will not be long before that worship changes its character in many ways; not long before it has become, as it has in so many instances, little more than entertainment. After all, if you need not bow before God, confess your sins to him in hopes that they might be forgiven in fear that they might not, sing praises to his holy name, and reverently attend to his Word, what will worship become except a meeting designed to be useful to you and to keep you coming back to church? It will not be long before it has been organized according to your tastes rather than God’s.

It is Israel’s God, a God of impossible majesty and terrible holiness and unfathomable power that has largely disappeared from the American evangelical mind and it is those things we are struggling to maintain in ours. But no wonder then that God no longer captivates the imagination of modern Western culture, that he is, at most, an afterthought, if he is thought of at all. A God without holiness and without terrible power, a God who does not command the fear of the world he has made is a God who is fundamentally uninteresting and unimportant. The human soul, made in the image of the living God, can only be satisfied by the living God, a God of impenetrable mystery and terrifying righteousness. That is the God who happens to exist, that is the God who is revealed to us from the beginning to the end of the Bible, and that is the God who is able to bring us into the Promised Land no matter the obstacles that stand in our way!

You do not; I do not really begin to grasp the majesty of God. We have our concept, our ideas about him, we use familiar words but they are altogether too weak and insipid. As Augustine observed long ago, “If you can grasp it, it isn’t God.” [Sermon 117.5] There is in the Bible’s revelation of God a great antithesis that must always be respected, an infinite difference between the Creator and the creature. The impenetrable mystery, the infinite majesty is fundamental to the Christian faith, to our conception of God and so to everything else. To think of God as too much like us is, in the Bible, idolatry, a terrible sin.

This is what Israel saw that day at the Jordan. The emphasis in the narrative is upon that fact. This is what the Canaanites saw from the other side of the river: the God who actually is! The God who could stop a river like that and send his people across it on dry land and put it back together again, just like that! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But if that God is for us as he was for Israel, who can be against us? The world doesn’t want God to be like that. We understand that. We get that. But Christians must never think that way. Christians must never wish that God were other than he is. Christians must rejoice that the living God is worthy to be feared. It is his glory and ours as his people that he is so far beyond us, so far beyond our finding him out. It is our highest privilege that this God should have made himself known to pipsqueaks like us.

Think of Israel standing so far from the Ark of the Covenant, having taken care to purify themselves the day before. Think of what they saw as their priests carried the ark into the river. Think of them drawing to the bank, stepping into the river, looking upstream to see if they could see a wall of water bearing down on them. Think of the shiver that passed down their spine when they realized what had happened. Most of these people had not passed through the divided waters of the Red Sea. This was a first for most of them. And think of this. The opening remark of the first sermon that an eighteen-year-old Charles Spurgeon preached to his new congregation after being called as its pastor:

“It has been said by some one that ‘the proper study of mankind is man.’ I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he call his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in the contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity.” [New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 1, 1]

I don’t think about God nearly as much as I ought. You don’t either. Joshua 3 is a reminder that we ought to be thinking about God all the time and reminding ourselves what he is like. That is what Joshua 3 is inviting us to do: to think about God; his majesty, his glory, his holiness, his terrible power. To think about God so that we might admire and love him more, so that we might fear him more, and so that we might trust him more.