4 September 2013

Joshua 3:1-17

“While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, 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.” (v. 17)


The crossing of the Jordan is presented in this and the next chapter as an elaborate ritual to ensure its significance was appreciated. Just as the crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:21-31) marked the change of status for Israel from slavery to free people, so the crossing of the Jordan on dry ground marks their transition from nomadic life to nationhood. The event became both for Jews and Christians deeply symbolic of entering a new era; consider the hymn Guide me, O thou great Jehovah with the lines, "When I tread the verge of Jordan … land me safe on Canaan's side".

Chapters 3 and 4 contain 21 uses of the Hebrew word that means 'cross over' making clear that this transition is indeed the main theme. Much of chapter 3 contains preparatory speeches by the leading officers, by Joshua, and by the Lord, whilst much of chapter 4 concerns steps taken to ensure the future remembrance of the occasion.

The "ark of the covenant", from the time of its construction in the desert, right through to the later Israelite monarchy, is a visible representation of the throne of the invisible God and therefore of God's power. Apart from the priests who have been set aside to manage this holy object the rest of the people are to mark their respect for God by keeping a distance of about a kilometre from it (verse 4). The story understands the presence of the ark as responsible for the temporary interruption in the river's flow; it is unimportant to propose any particular natural explanation.

"Canaanites" is often used as an inclusive term for all seven tribal peoples that are named in verse 10 as the existing inhabitants of the land; many of them are named as branches of Canaan's family in Genesis 10:15-18.

"Lord of all the earth" (vv. 11, 13) may only refer to the promised land in that 'earth' and 'land' are not different words in Hebrew. Nevertheless, later readers, for example in the time of the Exile when the final editing of the book of Joshua took place, would want to adopt the bigger meaning.

To Ponder

  • What do you find helpful or otherwise about the image of crossing the Jordan as a metaphor for dying and what follows?
  • A secondary theme in the passage (verse 7 and Joshua 4:14) is the elevation of Joshua's status as leader. How prominent do you think named leaders need to be in the church today? In what senses (if any) should they be "exalted"?
  • What visible signs of God's presence and power might be identified in today's world?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

Stephen Mosedale is a recently retired Methodist minister now living in Devon. He is enjoying the freedom that gives, whenever mood and weather dictsate, to walk on Dartmoor, photograph varied and ever-changing seascapes, or grow vegetables in the garden.