“The priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan” (v. 17).
Just before the death of Moses, the Israelites arrived at the plains of Moab, making their camp at Shittim, northeast of the Dead Sea (Num. 25:1; Deut. 34). From there, Joshua sent two spies to the Canaanite city of Jericho in order to get a sense of what the residents of the promised land thought about the Israelites who were soon to invade. These spies reported that the Canaanites were afraid of the Israelites because of the mighty acts that brought Israel out of slavery and defeated Egypt (Josh. 2). This set the stage for Israel to invade the land, as God commanded them to do (chap. 1).
To enter the promised land, the Israelites had to move west across the Jordan River. Joshua ordered the people to set out from Shittim, and they came to the Jordan, where they camped for three days (3:1–2). It was springtime, when the Jordan would have been a rushing torrent of water due to the melting of the mountain snow. Joshua 3:15 reports that the river was overflowing at that time, and the riverbanks would have been covered with thick brambles. The Israelites faced a river that was seemingly impossible to cross, and the three-day delay would have impressed on them the difficulty of their situation. God would have to intervene for them to enter the land.
Joshua ordered the priests to pick up the ark and carry it before the people (vv. 1–6). Normally, non-priestly Levites carried the ark (Num. 4:15), but the fact that the priests carried the ark and that they went before the people highlights the importance of the event. The ark was the physical representation of God’s presence in Israel (Ex. 25:22), and its movement here indicates that the Lord would lead the people into the land. The people had to stay far from the ark and to “consecrate” themselves to follow it, for God is a holy God and the land into which they were going would be holy to Him.
This careful preparation indicated that what was about to happen would demonstrate to the Israelites that God would be driving out the Canaanites and giving the land to His people. But lest they have any doubts, Joshua told Israel that God was going to do something to show His power and will to give Canaan to them (Josh. 3:7–13). And God did intervene with a miracle similar to the crossing of the Red Sea. When the priests carrying the ark put their feet in the water overflowing the banks of the Jordan River, the water stopped and the people crossed over on dry land (vv. 14–17; see Ex. 14). If God could accomplish that, surely He could defeat the armies of Canaan.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Matthew Henry comments that the miracle of the Red Sea crossing under Moses was repeated in the Jordan River crossing under Joshua “to show that God has the same power to finish the salvation of his people that he had to begin it.” God did not bring the people out of Egypt and leave them to finish their own salvation; He was with them to bring it to completion. The same God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it (Phil. 1:6).