The Great Barrier
The nation of Israel was now poised on the east side of Jordan. As soon as they crossed over, they would begin attacking the Canaanites and driving them out of the land. The first enemy stronghold on the west side of the river was the city of Jericho. Two spies sent to Jericho had just brought back the encouraging news that all of Canaan was terrified of Israel, for they had heard of Israel’s great victories with God’s help.
But before Israel could set foot in Canaan, they had to overcome a great obstacle. It was the season of the year when the Jordan River overflows its banks. In the center of the river, the water was swift and deep. How could Joshua transport well over a million men, women, and children to the other side? Even if they could quickly build a few large boats, moving all those people with their flocks and herds would take a long time. And accidents might happen that would cost lives.
The problem of crossing the river must have started much talk and speculation. If the nation was typical of people everywhere, some doubted that it could be done. Some were full of fear. Some buried their fear by keeping busy. But some had perfect peace because they trusted in God.
The exact chronology of the first three chapters is uncertain, but it appears that the three days in Joshua 1:11 is the same as the three days in Joshua 3:2. According to chapter one, when Joshua ordered his commanders to prepare food so that the nation would be ready to cross the Jordan, he said that the crossing would occur within three days. We can count the day of this pronouncement as day one. Then came the morning when he arose early and led the people from Shittim to the very edge of the river. We can reckon that this happened on the morning of day two. "After three days," which means "at the end of three days," his commanders announced to everyone that the day of the crossing would be tomorrow. Probably the announcement was circulated on day three. Hence, the crossing fell on day four.
Day three, the last day before the actual crossing, was devoted to final preparations: first, to arranging the vast multitude into a column that could file across the river in an orderly fashion; second, to the rites of sanctification. Then, on the very next day, they moved across.
We see here that Joshua was a decisive leader, who, as soon as he took power, seized the initiative and moved quickly to invade Canaan. He understood that delay could be fatal to his cause. The longer the nation sat idle, the greater the opportunity for strife and murmuring to gain a foothold. The people were better able to maintain their zeal for God if they kept busy doing His will. Thus, throughout his tenure as Israel’s leader, Joshua urged the people to press onward with unflagging efforts toward the goal of occupying the land.
Joshua’s plan for the march was simple. First went the priests bearing the ark of the covenant. The expression in verse 3 "the priests the Levites" does not mean that the whole company of Levites accompanied the priests. Rather, it is merely making explicit the tribal connection of the priests. They were Levites. The expression could be translated, "the Levitical priests." After the priests, beginning at a distance of 2000 cubits behind the ark, came the tribes. Two thousand cubits is about 3000 feet, a little more than half a mile.
The interval was chosen to accomplish two purposes. It was made short enough to assure that the ark would remain in sight, enabling the people to follow it. Joshua warned the people to stay on the path set by the ark, reminding them that they were going through unfamiliar country. We can imagine that he did not want marginal groups drifting away from the main body and getting lost or falling into peril. Also, the interval was made long enough so that no one in their haste to cross the river would get too close to the ark. Even the priests were not authorized to touch it. They slipped poles through rings on the corners of the ark and carried it on their shoulders. A tragic event later in the history of Israel demonstrated that to touch the ark, even by accident, was an offense punishable by death (2 Sam. 6:1-11).
We learn in chapter four that the first group in procession after the ark was the fighting force from Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh (Josh. 4:12-3). The rest of the nation probably came in the order of march that had been established years ago during the wilderness wanderings (Num. 10:14-28).
On the night immediately before the nation set out, Joshua ordered his commanders to pass through the camp and direct the people to sanctify themselves. The preparations Joshua wanted were probably the same as those undertaken before the nation saw God descend to Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:14-15). Then they washed themselves, following a certain ritual. Although washing with water did not remove their sins—the only true cleansing from sin is by the blood of Christ—the ritual impressed upon them their unworthiness to come near a holy God. Now as then, they needed to be clean because God was going to draw near. Joshua promised that the people would see God perform great wonders, but he did not say what these would be. We do not know whether Joshua himself knew at this time what would happen.
The next morning, Joshua commanded the priests to take up the ark and stand in front of the people. Then God spoke to Joshua and gave an amazing order. He said that when the priests reached the Jordan, they should go into the water and stop. So that he might relay the words of God to the waiting multitudes, Joshua called them to come near and listen. The people must have been in a state of great excitement and apprehension as they wondered how they were going to surmount the obstacle of the river. Most had not yet seen it, but no doubt they had all heard reports about it. They probably knew that the river was in flood stage and that they were coming to a point that did not afford easy passage. How then could they get across?
Before disclosing how the nation would overcome the obstacle before them, Joshua commanded each of the tribes to choose a representative who would stand by and await further orders. This process probably took awhile. Notice that Joshua did not bypass existing leadership within the tribes, but allowed it to do the choosing. Then when the ark was ready to move and the twelve representatives were gathered before him, Joshua revealed exactly what God was going to do. He said that as soon as the priests stepped into the river—indeed, at the moment the soles of their feet first touched the water—God would dam the river at some place northward and stop its flow. The waters would pile up in a heap instead of moving south. As a result, the people would cross over on dry ground, just as their forebears in the exodus from Egypt had done when they came to the Red Sea.
Joshua told exactly what would happen so that no one would doubt that the stoppage of the river was a miracle. There have supposedly been times in history when the Jordan River was blocked by natural means, in consequence of an earthquake perhaps. But Joshua’s ability to predict exactly when the river would stop flowing proved that the cause was supernatural.
Then the procession began, in the order Joshua had stipulated. After learning of God’s intentions, the people likely had feelings both of exhilaration, in their expectation of seeing a mighty miracle, and of anxiety, arising from fear that the miracle would not happen. But the anxiety was needless. Just as Joshua had said, the flow of the fast-moving river abruptly diminished when the priests stepped into the outer fringes of the flood. Soon, all water still coming from the north passed by, and the water behind it "stood and rose up upon a heap."
The author tells us precisely where God dammed the river. It was, literally, "very far above" the city of Adam, beside Zaretan (Zarethan). Scholars are fairly confident that the city of Adam may be identified with a place called Damiyeh, about nineteen miles above Jericho. The location of Zarethan, also mentioned in 1 Kings 7:46, is unknown. The sense of verse 16 has puzzled many readers, but the intended meaning is apparently this. The author is saying that the river bed was dry northward well beyond Adam and southward all the way to the Dead Sea, here called the sea of the plain and the salt sea. In consequence, the people had no trouble finding a way across. As far as they could peer in either direction, they saw no river.
After stepping into the flood at the edge of the river, the priests bearing the ark continued moving forward until they came to the very middle of the river bed. There they stopped. Twice in verse 17 the writer tells us that the river bottom was dry. The priests stationed in the middle stood on dry ground. Likewise the people walked over dry ground when they crossed to the other side. Just minutes after the water flow ceased, they should have found mud on the bottom. We must conclude that here was a second miracle. God not only checked the river, but also extracted all the water from the ground underneath so that His people had easy going.
Significance of the Miracle
The primary reason for the amazing miracle that God performed when He provided a dry path across the river was, of course, to bring glory to Himself. Yet the writer of Joshua furnishes three other reasons as well
God said, "This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee" (v. 7). The miracle was dramatic proof that God supported Joshua’s leadership, for it fulfilled Joshua’s promise that God would perform a wonder and it enabled the nation to carry out Joshua’s order to cross the river. Yet the miracle magnified Joshua not only by supporting his leadership, but also by setting him on a par with Moses. Perhaps the most memorable miracle that God performed at Moses’ request was the parting of the Red Sea, allowing Israel to escape from the army of Pharaoh. Now God stopped an impassable river, the Jordan, again for the purpose of giving His people a way to the land of promise. But now the leader whom God favored with the miracle was Joshua. The people of Israel could not help but compare the two events, and the comparison showed Joshua to be in no way inferior to his predecessor.
Joshua told the people, "Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Hivites, and the Perizzites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Jebusites" (v. 10). In other words, the miracle was intended to show Israel that their God, the Almighty God of heaven, would surely drive out all the heathen nations now living in Canaan. As Israel was stirring itself to enter the land, God gave the nation many encouragements to go on. He had already given them a strong new leader, Joshua, and filled him with confidence that he would not fail. He had already arranged for the spies to bring back a report showing that the Canaanites quaked in fear at the prospect of meeting Israel in combat. Now He gave a stunning demonstration of His power.
The list of nations slated for destruction appears frequently in the Books of Moses and Joshua, yet with many variations. Here, Joshua mentions the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites.
The name "Canaanites" has double meaning. First, it is a generic term for most of the peoples subsequently listed, for most if not all were descendants of Ham's son Canaan (Gen. 10:15–19). Second, it refers specifically to that branch of Canaan's offspring descended from Sidon, father of the Phoenician civilization dominant throughout coastal Palestine and Syria. In Joshua's day, the Canaanites in the restricted sense resided along the coast and in the fertile valleys of Palestine (Num. 13:29). The people of Jericho evidently belonged to this group.
In the remainder of the list we have names so ancient that several have left no trace in extrabiblical records. Critics at one time claimed that most were fictitious. They were, for example, skeptical that the Hittites, frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, actually existed, but all doubt was overthrown when archaeologists established that in the days of Joshua, the Hittites controlled a major empire in Asia Minor. Also in his day, some Hittites were living in the hill country of Canaan (Num. 13:29).
As for the other listed names, our only source of information is the Bible. The Hivites were centered in the north, near Mt. Hermon (Josh. 11:3; Judg. 3:3), but also occupied the cities of Gibeon (Josh. 9:3, 7) and, in the days of Jacob, Shechem (Gen. 34:2). The Jebusites dwelt in the mountains and possessed, as their chief city, Jerusalem (Num. 13:29; Josh. 11:3, 15:63). The Perizzites seemingly lived further north, occupying the mountains where Ephraim settled (Josh. 17:14–18). The home territory of the Girgashites is unknown, except that they resided west of Jordan (Josh. 24:11).
The Amorites were a numerous people on both sides of the river. On the east they were organized as two powerful kingdoms, one ruled by Og, the other by Sihon. There, Israel under Joshua conquered and wholly exterminated all Amorite inhabitants (Num. 21:13, 21–26; Josh. 2:10). West of Jordan, the Amorites dwelt in the hill country (Num. 13:29) and presented a significant obstacle to Israel's advance (Josh. 5:1;10:5). Even after the conquest, enough remained to trouble the Israelites who settled in the same region (Judg. 1:34–36).
Rahab divulged to the spies that Israel’s arrival at the threshold of Canaan had terrified its inhabitants. When they heard that the Lord had dried up the Red Sea and that Israel had overcome the Amorites, "Our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man" (Josh. 2:11). Therefore, we infer that the stoppage of the Jordan was a display of divine power not only to encourage Israel, but also to demoralize the enemy (Josh. 5:1). This miracle, affecting the river throughout its southern range, must have been observed by many Canaanites as well as by the Israelites. From their knowledge of what God had done at the Red Sea, these Canaanites must have readily figured out that God was at work again on behalf of His people, and news of the miracle must have swept through the land. It must have been a shattering blow to what courage they still had.
Besides the three reasons Scripture gives for the miracle, three more are evident.
The miracle is a mine of spiritual truth. The flow stopped when the ark came to the edge of the river and did not resume so long as the ark remained in the river bed. It looked, therefore, as if the ark itself held back the water. What does this signify? The ark is called in this chapter "the ark of the covenant" (v. 3), referring to the covenant that God had concluded with Israel at Mt. Sinai. This was a set of promises and obligations. The chief promise was, "Ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exod. 19:5-6). The chief obligation was, "Ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant" (Exod. 19:5). The obedience required of them was spelled out in an array of laws and statutes. The laws fundamental to all the rest were the Ten Commandments, which God inscribed on tablets of stone. These tablets were deposited in the very ark of the covenant that the priests carried across the Jordan.
Among the blessings that God promised Israel if they kept the obligations of the covenant was possession of Canaan. In his farewell speech to the nation, Moses made it plain that their possession of the land was contingent on their remaining faithful to God. If they observed all His commandments, they would prosper in the land God was giving them (Deut. 28:8-10). If, however, they turned aside from God to worship idols, God would eject them from the land of promise and make them captives in a strange land (Deut. 25-28).
The prominence of the ark at the crossing of the Jordan therefore served to remind the nation that possession of the land was not an absolute right, nor a prize they could secure by their own strength, but a covenant blessing which they received solely by God’s favor, and which they would forfeit if they did not honor God’s commandments. To underscore the lesson that God intended, the ark carried the tablets of the law, showing exactly how God expected the nation to live after they entered the land.
God’s covenant with Israel, generally known as the Mosaic covenant, was only one of several that God has presented to man, each at a critical point in redemptive history. No covenant between God and man is hammered out by negotiation. Rather, man’s only role in bringing a covenant into being is to hear God declare it. Bible scholars disagree on the exact number of covenants, but the most convincing analysis, in my view, recognizes seven. These are the covenant with Adam before the Fall (Gen.1:28–29; 2:17, 23–24), the covenant with Adam after the Fall (Gen. 3:15–19), the covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:1–17), the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:7–8; 22:15–18), the covenant with Israel rendered through Moses at Mt. Sinai and elsewhere (Exod. 20:1–17, etc.; Deut. 28), the covenant with David (2 Sam. 7:8–16), and the New Covenant secured by the death of Christ (John 3:3–21).
The various covenants differed greatly in their contents. They all involved some combination of obligations or strictures for man, rewards for keeping the obligations, penalties for failure to keep them, and unconditional promises.
|Covenant||Obligations or Strictures||Rewards||Penalties||Unconditional Promises|
|first Adamic|| 1. Be fruitful and multiply.
2. Exercise dominion over the earth and eat plants.
3. Honor marriage and family as the proper setting for procreation.
4. Refrain from the forbidden fruit.
|___||Death for eating the fruit||___|
|second Adamic|| 1. Difficulty in childbirth
2. Labor by sweat of the brow
3. Male dominance
|___||___||A coming victor over Satan|
|Noahic|| 1. Consume animals but not their blood.
2. Do not kill.
|___||Capital punishment of murderers||Never another Flood|
|Abrahamic||___||___||___|| 1. Numberless offspring
2. Occupation of the land
3. A seed to bless the world
|Mosaic||An array of laws and statutes||Manifold blessings||Manifold curses||Israel would be God’s special people.|
|Davidic||___||___||___||A seed to rule forever|
|Gospel||Belief in Christ||Eternal life||___||Damnation|
- The first with our forefather Adam set down four obligations. Man was was to reproduce abundantly, accomplish procreation in the setting of marriage and family, rule the earth with the right to take sustenance from plants, and refrain from eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The penalty for eating it would be death.
- The second with Adam amounted to a curse, reworking the provisions of the original covenant so that life in this world would be far more difficult. Notice that the second covenant is symmetrical with the first. Mankind would reproduce, but with difficulty. Also, it would exercise dominion over the earth, but the earth would be less manageable, for man could exercise dominion only by hard labor. A gift under the first covenant was marriage, but instead of being strictly a horizontal relationship—a union of equals—it would now be a vertical relationship, with male dominance. The fourth provision of the first covenant also had a counterpart in the second. It was now pointless to forbid fruit from the tree, since man had eaten it and brought death upon himself. Instead, God recalled the original prohibition by demonstrating His mercy. The agent responsible for the trouble would someday be crushed underfoot.
- The covenant with Noah renewed the first covenant with Adam, but modified it by permitting man to use animals as food, provided he did not consume their blood. Moreover, God added a new prohibition, the prohibition of murder, and He authorized capital punishment of murderers. Together with obligations God also gave a promise. He vowed never again to destroy the world by a Flood.
- The Abrahamic covenant offered mainly promises, with little in the way of conditions or obligations. Among these were the promise that his offspring would be numberless like the sand and the stars, that they would live perpetually in the land he trod as he wandered through Canaan, and that one of his descendants would be a blessing to the whole world. The reference was to Christ.
- The covenant with David was similar, in that the fulfillment lay in Christ. The throne of David will remain forever because the great son of David, Christ, will sit upon it.
- We have already discussed the terms of the Mosaic covenant, described in Hebrews as the Old Covenant (Heb. 8:13). It is the only one of the seven that has been rescinded.
- In its place God has introduced the New Covenant, which is "better" because it is "established upon better promises" (Heb. 8:6). The promises that God gave in the New Covenant but withheld from the Old include all the blessings following salvation. The blood of the sacrifices mandated by the Mosaic covenant did not take away sin forever. But to all those who accept salvation through the blood of Christ, God can say, "For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (Heb. 8:12). The promises of this covenant are summarized in the gospel: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31). The New Covenant contains warnings and penalties as well as promises. Those who reject Christ face eternal condemnation (John 3:18). Also, the New Covenant specifies many obligations. Unlike the laws of the Old Covenant, these deemphasize externals and give priority to maintaining a clean heart before God (see, for example, the Sermon on the Mount; Matt. 5-7).
Most of these covenants were established between God and a single man standing in place of his whole posterity. The posterity covered by the terms of the covenants with Adam and Noah was all subsequent generations of man. The covenant with Abraham applied to his descendants only, but the New Testament reveals that all believers are reckoned as his descendants. The covenant with David is the most restricted, having in view only those who fall in the line of succession to his throne. The Mosaic covenant differs from the rest in that God bestowed it upon a whole nation, the nation of Israel. The last covenant, the covenant sealed by the blood of Christ, is another with unlimited scope. All men come under its terms.
Besides picturing spiritual truth for the benefit of those under the Old Covenant, the ark’s place in overcoming the obstacle of the river also pictures spiritual truth for the benefit of those under the New Covenant. The key to interpretation is the symbolic meaning of the ark itself. Notice what the ark contained. Besides the tablets of law, it also held Aaron’s rod and a jar of manna (Heb. 9:4). The manna had been gathered shortly after Israel left Egypt, at the time when the Lord first sent manna to feed the people (Exod. 16:32-36). Aaron’s rod had been kept in the ark ever since the Lord caused this implement, made of dead wood, to send forth buds.
The Lord performed this miracle during the darkest period of Moses’ leadership. The nation was still seething with anger at the Lord’s sentence upon them for failure to march into Canaan and, most irrationally, they held Moses to blame for their loss of any prospect except to wander in the wilderness until they died. A large group of important men had risen up in opposition to Moses, claiming that he made himself too important (Num. 16:1-35). Was not the whole congregation holy? Moses and Aaron had no right to set themselves above everyone else (Num. 16:3). It is plain from reading the whole account that they thought Moses was a sorcerer pursuing his own agenda rather than God’s. The three ringleaders were Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and behind them were another 250 prominent men. But God quelled the uprising without mercy. He opened up the earth beneath the tents of the ringleaders so that it swallowed them up along with their families and their goods, and He sent a fire to consume their 250 followers, who were standing in the Tabernacle seeking to perform the office of a priest.
The remainder of the congregation were stunned. But instead of yielding to Moses, they accused him of killing godly men. In wrath, God sent a plague that consumed 14,700 of the people. The toll was no greater only because Moses took quick action to offer an atonement for the people's sin (Num. 16:41-50).
Then to demonstrate that He had chosen the house of Aaron and no other for the priesthood, God instructed a representative of each tribe to place a rod before the ark in the Tabernacle. On each was written the name of the chief man in the tribe, and on the rod of Levi was written Aaron’s name. God said that He would show His choice for the priesthood by making the rod of that man to put forth buds. On the next day all the rods remained as they were except Aaron’s. His had not only budded, but had also blossomed and produced almonds (Num. 17:1-9). As a lasting witness to the right of Aaron’s house to serve as priests, the budded rod was placed in the Tabernacle (Num. 17:10-11) and subsequently in the ark itself.
The three contents of the ark clearly represent the three persons of the Godhead. The tables of the law refer to God the Father, who is the author of all divine decrees. The jar of manna refers to God the Son, who is the heavenly bread and the bread of life. The budded rod refers to the Holy Spirit, seen in His role as the giver of life. He was the divine person who actually carried out the work of creation (Gen. 1:2). He quickens the animals (Psa. 104:30). And He produces spiritual rebirth (John 3:5-8).
We have in previous lessons shown that crossing the Jordan is a figure of salvation. If the ark represents the Triune God, we understand why the ark went first to make a way across. The incident pictures the important truth that salvation is solely a work of God. Except for the Father’s love, prompting Him to send His Son to be our Savior, and except for Son’s obedience even unto the death of a cross, and except for the convicting and transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we could not be saved. God is the One who conducts us safely through the river that keeps us from being saved.
What then does the river represent? It is obvious that if the people of Israel had attempted to swim across the river in full flood, they would never have reached the other side. They would have drowned. So, the barrier that Israel met at the Jordan teaches us the important truth that no human effort can achieve salvation—indeed, that a lifetime of doing what is right in one’s own eyes ends in death, from which there is no escape. There is no escape by human means because all men are sinners under the sentence of death. It is this sentence that the river particularly symbolizes. Yet when we follow the ark, as it were, by accepting God’s plan of salvation, this sentence is lifted from us, and we can pass safely through the river. By the grace of God we can leave the wilderness of sin and gain the land of fruitful service.
The miracle serves as encouragement to all of God's people down through the ages. It should serve as encouragement even to us living in perilous times (2 Tim. 3:1). When we look at the moral decline of the modern world, when we see the apostate condition of the church in America, when we consider the spiritual darkness in our own community, it seems as if we have come to a great impassable river keeping us from entering the land of blessing. But is the river impassable? No, we just need a miracle to stop the water flow. Those who failed to believe that God would take them across Jordan proved to be foolishly deficient in faith. Let us not repeat their mistake. Let us believe by faith that God will yet give us revival.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.