Background Story: God promised to bless the world through Abraham’s descendants who multiplied in Egypt but became enslaved. God called Moses to lead Israel and delivered Israel out of Egypt through the ‘Red Sea’. The Lord led them by the pillar of cloud and fire to Mt. Sinai where Lord established His covenant with Israel and gave them the 10 commandments. The Lord brought that generation to the border of their ‘Promised Land’ but they refused to enter. The Lord said that generation would wander forty years and die in the desert and their children would enter the land. Later when the second generation grumbled for water the Lord told Moses to speak to the rock and water would pour out. But Moses said, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock”. Moses struck the rock twice water gushed out but the Lord told Moses and Aaron that they couldn’t enter the land because they failed to honor the Lord as holy before Israel. Aaron died and his priesthood passed on to his son, Eleazar. The Lord had Moses commission Joshua as Israel’s new leader. Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo and the Lord let Moses see their ‘promised land’ but he was not to enter it. After Moses died, Israel came to the border of Canaan and Joshua as Israel’s leader was to get the people ready to cross the Jordan and enter Canaan. The Lord promised to be with Joshua as He had been with Moses and Joshua was to be strong and courageous. Joshua sent two men to spy out Canaan and they stayed at the house of a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab. When the king of Jericho found this out Rahab hid the two Israelite spies and sent the king’s messengers away in another direction. Because Rahab protected the spies they promised to spare Rahab and her household when the lord gave them the land. This brings us to the story of Israel crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3-5).
Crossing the Jordan
This story demonstrates that Joshua was God’s chosen leader and that God was fulfilling His promise to give Israel their land. It marks the end of Israel’s wilderness wandering and the beginning of their conquest of Canaan. The Israelites were to consecrate themselves because the Lord would do amazing things and would exalt Joshua. The Lord would lead Israel into the Jordan, dry it up, and lead them into the Promised Land. This would exalt Joshua so that Israel would know that the Lord was with them and with Joshua. The Lord would drive out the inhabitants of Canaan in order to give Israel their promised inheritance (9–13). While Israel camped by the Jordan River their officers told the people to move out when they saw the Levitical priests carrying the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ of the Lord. They were to follow the priests but they were to stay back about a thousand yards from the Ark. The Ark of the Covenant was the very throne of God and was no mere symbol (4:11; Dt. 10:8; 1 Sa. 6:7–12). The Ark (Josh. 3:13) demonstrated that God was leading Israel and would give them their land. The throne and presence of God went before the Israelites, in order to give all Israel a full view that it was God who was leading them.
Joshua, the Lord’s appointed leader, tells the priests to carry the Ark to the river’s edge. When the feet of the priests touched the Jordan River the waters of the river upstream piled up and the water flowing downstream was cut off. This would demonstrate to Israel that God was with them and that He would drive out the inhabitants of the land. As the Lord divided the Red Sea when Israel left Egypt, so now the Lord would cut off the waters of the Jordan and drive out the inhabitants of the land in order to give Israel their promised inheritance (Joshua 3:6-10). This was in fulfillment of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21) and which He confirmed to Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). The Israelites followed the priests, and as soon as the priests put their feet in the river, the waters of the Jordan upstream piled up and the water flowing downstream was cut off. The priests stood in the middle of the Jordan with the ark of the Lord and all Israel hurried across the Jordan on dry ground. The Lord had Joshua choose a man from each tribe to take up a stone from the middle of the Jordan where the priests stood with the Ark. The chosen representatives from each tribe collected a stone from the middle of the Jordan and carried it to the other side. Through these events the Lord exalted Joshua so that Israel revered Joshua as they had revered Moses. (Joshua 3:14-4:14).
After this the Lord told Joshua to command the priests with the ark to come up out of the Jordan. They did and when the priests set their feet on the dry ground the waters of the Jordan returned to flood stage. Israel camped at Gilgal and there was no turning back now. Joshua set up the twelve stones from middle of the Jordan as a sign and as a memorial (Ex. 12:26–27; Dt. 6:20–25). When their descendants asked the meaning of the stones they were to say that the Lord dried up the Jordan for Israel to cross over just as He did to the Red Sea when Israel came out of Egypt. This would demonstrate the power of Lord to the peoples of the earth and it would remind Israel to fear the Lord their God. The memory of these acts of God on Israel’s behalf would help to further shape Israel’s identity as God’s people. When the Amorite and Canaanite kings heard that the Lord had dried up the Jordan and Israel had crossed over they lost their courage to face the Israelites. These kings knew about the Lord’s mighty act, but instead of fleeing to him in faith, as Rahab had done, their rebellious hearts sank in fear and they were immobilized (2:10; 11:20).
Now before Israel could receive the land they were promised in the Abrahamic covenant they would need to receive the sign of that covenant (Genesis 15:18-19). After all, God had said that if an Israelite male failed to receive the sign of the covenant then they had broken the covenant (Genesis 17:14). So the Lord had Joshua circumcise the Israelite men because the men who were circumcised had all died in the desert for not obeying the Lord. Joshua circumcised the sons of those who died in the desert, and they stayed in the camp until they were healed. The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” Now the ‘Covenant Community’ stood in the land ready to take possession of it. No one in Egypt could now say that the Lord had delivered Israel out of Egypt only to kill them in the desert (Exodus 32:12, Numbers 14:13-16). The Lord had rolled away the reproach of Egypt from Israel so the place was Gilgal (Hebrew for ‘roll’). Then while they were camped the time came to celebrate the Passover. So the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after they ate the ‘Passover’ the Lord stopped supplying manna for the Israelites and the Israelites started eating the produce of Canaan. The celebration of Passover reminded the Israelites that they began their journey with God through his Passover. The years of eating manna ended and they tasted the food of their promised land, but now they must take possession of their inheritance.