Lesson 3 -- Joshua 3:1 - 5:12
Entering the Promised Land
Memorial and dedication on the banks of Jordan

An exposition by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Part of a study of the Book of Joshua

Note: Since we have covered nearly three full chapters, this exposition has gotten a bit long. Please forgive me my ramblings. But I want to explore some important spiritual lessons touched on in this passage.


The people of Israel have been encamped at Shittim for many months. From there they have conquered the Ammonite kings Og and Sihon on the east side of the Jordan (where the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and part of Manasseh have settled). Here they have heard Moses recite the Law to them (contained in Deuteronomy, which means "second law"). But now it is time to go. They move only the six or seven miles from Shittim to a new encampment right on the banks of the Jordan River. Here they stay for three days.

Breaking Camp (3:1)

I've wondered why they should break camp to move such a short distance and stay such a short time. But the reason is pretty obvious. In Shittim they had settled in. They had been there for months, perhaps years, and were too accustomed to sedentary camp life. To take possession of the Promised Land, they need to regain their pilgrim stance once more.

When we're too comfortable with things in our lives -- or perhaps have accepted the compromises for too long -- it is difficult to make the changes necessary to re-align ourselves with God's will. We need change and the uncertainty that goes with it to become re-dependent upon God. And that is certainly what the people needed at this point.

So they finally break camp. It may have taken several days to get ready, we don't know. But finally the two silver trumpets sound (Numbers 10:1), and the call is heard: "Rise up, O LORD! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you" (Numbers 10:35).

It is a short trip, and that night they encamp on the banks of the Jordan and peer across the flooded river in the gathering dusk to the city of Jericho beyond it.

Consecrate yourselves (3:5)

But instead of making an immediate crossing, there is a three-day wait, and then a call for consecration. Joshua commands the people, "Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do amazing things among you" (vs. 3:5).

This consecration is probably similar to that which took place at the foot of Mt. Sinai prior to entering into Covenant with God.

"And the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people...." After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. Then he said to the people, "Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations." (Exodus 19:10-11, 14-15)

What significance did washing have? Spiritual cleansing. If you've ever camped, you know how dirty you can get and how glad you are for a shower. A pile of dirty clothes goes into the washer. But they may have had only one pair of clothes to wear, not numerous sets. So when they washed their clothes, it was a major undertaking. Perhaps it included bathing, too, though that isn't specifically mentioned.

Abstaining from sexual relations was so that the people would be ceremonially clean. Not that there was anything wrong with married sex. But the Law indicated, "When a man lies with a woman and there is an emission of semen, both must bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening" (Leviticus 15:18). This was necessary, for example, to partake of holy things. Those going into battle in David's day abstained from sex because they were on a holy mission (1 Samuel 21:4-5), which fits the situation at Jericho exactly.

So often we attempt to undertake holy ministry without adequate preparation and consecration. The result is powerlessness and sometimes disgrace. Our consecration is not primarily outward, as it was for the Old Testament people, it is inward and spiritual. Having been involved in "professional" ministry all my adult life, I know how easy it is to take for granted our ministries, and do them with little thought of the holy things we are touching. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). That daily consecration and renewal of death to self is essential for ministry with power.

The Ark Goes before Them (3:3-4, 6-8)

Joshua instructs the people to watch the ark, to see where it goes, and to follow it. "Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before" (Joshua 3:3-4a). Now the ark probably only moved a few hundred feet from where it had been located during the brief encampment, but the people were to follow it.

Ever since the people had been given the ark and tabernacle in the wilderness, when the cloud lifted and moved forward, that was the signal for the people to pack up and follow, to go where God was leading. Today the ark -- the symbol of the throne of God -- indicated where they were to go. Notice the sense of awe and holiness about the ark: "Keep a distance of about a thousand yards between you and the ark; do not go near it" (3:4b).

The obvious lesson for us is that we are to see what God is doing and then follow him in it. This was Jesus' practice, too. "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does" (John 5:19). Too often, like little children on a walk, we run on ahead. Instead of being followers of our Father, we want to be leaders. Not so, Jesus. Before taking important steps, such as appointing the apostles, he spent the night in prayer. He often retreated from the crowds to spend time with his Father and pray and get his bearings.

Dear friend, right now in your life, are you following him or off on your own? The lesson of the ark going ahead of us is a reminder to come back from our wanderings and to take our appointed place -- following God.

The Water Stopped Flowing (3:14-17)

If you'd been one of the Israelite children, you would have asked your mother, "How are we going to get across the river?" And your mother would probably look at you and say, "God will make a way."

But there was no way. The Jordan River was at full flood stage in the spring, carrying the runoff from hundreds of square miles of territory, including the west side of Mt. Hermon in the north, the mountains around Galilee, and the east side of Canaan's hill country. Rainfall in Palestine is primarily in the winter months, much like the "Mediterranean climate" found in California. The "early rains" ("former rains") fall in October with most precipitation occurring from December through February. The "latter rain" occurs in April. The scripture says, "Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during the harvest" (3:15a), speaking of the barley harvest which took place in April following the spring rains. April was also the month of Passover (5:10).

The spies would have had enough trouble swimming across to carry out their intelligence mission. Getting the whole army across would be difficult, dangerous, and make them vulnerable to attack. But how do you get the women and children across? The only answer the mother could give was, "God will make a way." And that's often the only way we know how to answer our own doubts and fears. "God will make a way."

This was a crucial test of Joshua's leadership. He told the people, "As soon as the priests who carry the ark of the LORD -- the Lord of all the earth -- set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap" (3:13). It was a faith statement for Joshua, and he delivered it to the people as he had received it from God. Then he announced the crossing, based on God's word that he would perform a miracle. And God did, just as he had for Moses at the Red Sea, a generation before.

Just how did God stop the waters? We're not told specifically, except that

"As soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water's edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho" (3:15-16).

A miracle! you exclaim. Yes, but perhaps not the kind of miracle you think.

An Arab historian reports that in AD 1267 landslides dammed the river for several hours. A similar occurrence took place in 1927. How? The geography of the Jordan Valley is unique. At the crossing point just a few miles north of the Dead Sea, the elevation is nearly 600 feet below sea level. The Jordan lies along what is known as a "rift valley," where two of the earth's major tectonic plates meet in a primary fault line. These plates slip against each other somewhat like the San Andreas Fault that caused the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In a few minutes, the land on either side of the fault slipped a full 20 feet during the quake. When large earthquakes happen along river valleys, landslides occur, like the ones that blocked the Jordan in 1267 and 1927. (For a study of these, see A. Shapira, R. Avni, and A. Nur. Note: A new estimage for the epicenter of the Jericho earthquake of 11 July, 1927. Israel Journal of Earth Sciences, Vol. 42. #2, 1993, pp. 93-96.). Now the scripture doesn't explicitly tell us an earthquake occurred, but I consider it pretty likely.

If you can explain a miracle by natural means, is it still a miracle? Oh, yes! The miracle is in the timing. God tells Joshua what he is going to do. Joshua tells the people what will happen. The priests come to the edge of the river, and just as they get there the river stops flowing. That, friends, is a genuine miracle.

And so the people of Israel cross the Jordan River on dry ground, just as their parents had crossed the Red Sea, wondering at the awesome power of their God.

Standing in the Water (3:8, 15-16)

I've always been impressed by the fact that the water didn't stop until the priests' feet touched it. Sometimes, God's miracles take place ahead of us. The Red Sea was parted and then the people of Israel went through. But sometimes, God waits for us to take steps of faith before the miracle begins.

Jesus encountered some lepers along the border between Galilee and Samaria. "Jesus, Master," they called in a loud voice, "have pity on us!" Jesus' reply is interesting: "Go, show yourselves to the priests," he tells them. "And as they went," the scripture records, "they were cleansed" (Luke 17:11-14). If they had waited to be cleansed before starting their journey, if the priests had waited for the waters to stop before taking the next step, they would all be waiting still.

Sometimes, we have to do all we know to do, and then God does what only he can do. Perhaps you're in that kind of place right now. You feel God is leading you to take a step that will make you look foolish, vulnerable, and you are afraid to take it. Now you know what Joshua felt like. But he did what God told him to do, and announced what God had promised to do, and God came through for him.

I don't like living like that! you say. I understand. We like to see it before we believe it. But faith believes before it sees. "We walk by faith, not by sight"(2 Corinthians 5:7), not because this is our way, but because it is his way.

Twelve River Boulders (chapter 4)

Chapter 4 details the collection of river boulders -- one for each tribe -- that are stacked in an impressive pile on the far bank "to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever" (4:7). When their descendents ask, "What do these stones mean," they are to answer, "Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground. For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over" (4:21-23).

We see several stone memorials placed in Old Testament days. Jacob sets up a stone at Bethel after God revealed to him in a dream that he had not deserted him. "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:16-17). After the massing Philistine armies were destroyed by a thunderstorm, Samuel sets up a stone and names it Ebenezer ("stone of help"), saying "Thus far has the Lord helped us" (1 Samuel 7:12).

Memorials give us -- and future generations -- points of reference so we don't forget the significance of God's past dealings with us. Nor are these memorials always set in stone. After the Exodus, God instructs the people to remember their deliverance out of Egypt through the Passover feast. To this very day, on Passover night, Jewish families prompt the youngest child to ask the ancient question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" And the father replies by telling the story of God's great redemption, of the sacrificial blood of a lamb on each Israelite doorpost and lintel, of bread dough freshly made "before the yeast was added" (12:34), and of the awesome crossing through the Red Sea.

Unleavened bread reminded them of God's deliverance, much as the Lord's Supper reminds us of Jesus' suffering on our behalf. The bread reminds us of his body broken for us; "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). The red wine reminds us of his blood "poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28).

Memorials are part of our faith for they produce the thankfulness so necessary to true faith.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one.
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

by Johnson Oatman, Jr., 1897

Remembrance and thanksgiving are what separate whining prayer from the prayer of faith that God answers (Philippians 4:6-7).

Sometimes, however, memorials move beyond the role of prompting remembrance into veneration, in and of themselves. The magnificent Cologne Cathedral houses a gilded reliquary box, purported to contain the bones the Three Magi. In the Middle Ages it attracted crowds of pilgrims who came to pray near these relics and expect a miracle. No longer memorials to faithful believers in the Messiah, their bones became objects of veneration -- and along with that the very real danger of idolatry. God used Gideon to defeat the huge Midianite army with just 300 men. But afterwards he fashioned a gold ephod with the plunder that became much more than a memorial of victory. "All Israel prostituted themselves by worshipping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family" (Judges 8:27). God-ordained memorials point to him, not to themselves.

The LORD exalted Joshua (4:14)

Before the Jordan crossing, God has told Joshua, "Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses" (3:7). After the crossing we read, "That day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they revered him all the days of his life, just as they had revered Moses" (4:14).

This passage troubles us because we Christians have difficulty with prominent leaders. We have seen too many topple from very visible public roles due to moral failure. What is it about us Americans? We don't want kings, yet we are attracted to mystique of royalty.

God himself exalts some people so that he might use them as leaders of his people. For forty years the people had followed Moses in their wilderness journeyings. They grumbled, maybe, but still followed, because of the way God had exalted him. Joshua is about to lead the Israelites into battle. Unless they are prepared to follow him unquestioningly, they will fail in their mission. God calls some people to be strong leaders to accomplish his purposes.

But these same leaders are not perfect, and pastors are chief among those who have failings. People place pastors and their families on a pedestal, view them scrupulously, and seem surprised to find imperfections. (And it is just as painful for the pastors and their families, who seem to live in fishbowls.) We must learn that God exalts some so he may lead his people through them. It is not for us to cut them down to size. That is for God to do. God's had experience with Moses and Saul and David, and he will deal with your pastor too, when he needs it. Leaders are called to a higher standard, and will be accountable for their actions (1 Timothy 5:17-22).

Sometimes I've wondered about leaders who have more prominence than I. Why are they so special? sneers my leader-envy. Are they better than the rest? No, I don't think so. Sometimes they have glaring flaws. But God chooses to exalt them and use them to lead his people to accomplish his purposes. Instead of grumbling, we need to accept that, and pray for them and follow them.

Billy Graham conducted a revival in Sacramento in 1996. As he talked with the people night after night, I was amazed at his candor. When it came time to talk about sin, he always included himself. "I've done things I'm ashamed of," he would say, and point our eyes -- along with his own gaze -- to the awesome grace of God. Billy Graham is truly a leader God has exalted in our day. But I couldn't help thinking as I saw thousands flow down the aisles to the center of the arena, that in heaven the rewards will not be given on the basis of who has been most exalted on earth, but to those who have faithfully done their part with what God has given them. To some is given more, to some less. It may be the intercessors who pray for the meetings unseen in a back room will receive the greatest reward. No, exaltation to leadership is a perk not for merit, but a gift from God to the body, that leaders might lead God's people to do his will.

Circumcision and Passover (5:1-11)

On the east bank of the Jordan the people consecrate themselves. On the west bank they do also. This is not yet the time to attack Jericho -- there is still spiritual preparation to take place. I'm often too eager to achieve the goal than to do the careful work of heart preparation necessary to achieve it. This passage reminds me to do first things first. To do things I may have put off for years.

An entire generation had grown up uncircumcised. Circumcision was the mark that a man was a part of the Covenant People. God had first given this command to Abraham, 450 years prior to crossing the Jordan. "This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between you and me" (Genesis 17:10-11).

While the Israelites had apparently practiced circumcision of boys on the eighth day while in Egypt, for some reason during their wilderness journeyings they had not maintained the practice (5:5). A whole generation of men and boys were uncircumcised. Yet to partake of Passover required the circumcision of all male participants (Exodus 12:48), and the time for Passover had come.

We find a curious reference in 5:9: "The LORD said to Joshua, 'Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.'" The word "roll" (Hebrew galal) sounds something like Gilgal, the name they gave the place after this event. But what was the "reproach of Egypt"? It wouldn't have been the disapproval of their Egyptian captors toward circumcision; the Egyptians too practiced circumcision. Perhaps it was the shame of the true People of God being uncircumcised for forty years while Egyptians themselves did not neglect the practice. (so Thomas Lewis and Carl E. Armerding, "Circumcision," ISBE 1:701). Perhaps it refers not so much to circumcision as to their finally being across Jordan in the Promised Land, forty years after they had left Egypt for this destination (Numbers 14:13-16; Deuteronomy 9:28; so Marten H. Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, NICOT, 1981, p. 102.). However, we interpret the verse, it doesn't have much bearing on our understanding of the whole passage.

The point here is that we may some catching up to do. We have a way of putting off prerequisties -- we can do them later. But there comes a time when we must do the will of God, so that we might experience his blessings for us. In this case, the men were all circumcised so they might partake of the blessing of Passover, and the Unleavened Bread prepared with flour from the harvest of the Promised Land.

The Manna Ceased (5:12)

Our passage ends with just a single verse to mark the termination of a forty-year miracle:

"The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan" (5:12).

When it had first been given, the manna was a lifesaver. The Israelites had no food and no way to coax enough nutrition from the desert to feed a million and a half people. So God sent them manna for food. It appeared each morning except on the Sabbath as flakes of frost on the desert floor, and they would collect it in baskets to feed their families. "It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey" (Exodus 16:31). For forty years God provided manna as the Israelites' staple food, even after they got tired of eating it and complained about it (Numbers 11:4-6).

We see some other examples of special provision in the Bible. God sent a raven to feed Elijah during a severe famine (1 Kings 17:4-6), and later brought him to the home of a widow who only had enough flour and oil for one last meal to feed herself and her son. But because God touched it, "the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry" until the famine was over (1 Kings 17:16).

I expect that the Israelites began to take manna for granted after a while. They took it as the natural course of events, whereas it was a very special provision for a special time in the formation of God's people. And then there was a day when the manna stopped (5:12). Maybe it's the Sabbath, they thought. But the next day there wasn't any manna either. And it never ever came again. It was God's provision for a special time, and now it was no longer needed. Now the Israelites could eat the produce of the tilled field, and the need for special provision ceased.

We often take God's supernatural provision for granted. What about the Holy Spirit's presence with us? Too often we are unappreciative and unthankful. We act as if we have no clue about the price paid so that the Holy God could live within our mortal bodies and allow us to commune readily at his very throne. We must not take God's miracles for granted.

Have you ever observed how marvelously God sometimes reveals himself to brand new Christians? They'll see miracles and perform exploits that have the older saints scratching their heads in wonder. But later comes a time when they, too, must learn some of the difficult lessons of faith and patient endurance, and the miracles they took for granted are now withheld from them.

Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home In his wonderful book on Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), Richard J. Foster examines a subject that few evangelicals have written about, what St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) termed "The Dark Night of the Soul." It is an experience of forsakenness, where you don't feel God's presence or experience him like you once did. The joy of the Lord you once knew has dried up, and you learn to go on faith alone, unpropped by supports of outward emotion and inner assurance. This is real, and much more common that many are willing to admit. It is also designed by God to draw us closer to him and to strengthen our faith. When we do come out of this wilderness time, we are the stronger for it and have learned to walk with God in a new dimension. Too often we take God's blessings for granted.

There's a second lesson here, too, that God's supernatural provision may only be for a time. There is a season to gather the bread from heaven, and there is also a season to undertake the hard labor of tilling and sowing, of tending and reaping. "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" (Genesis 3:19) -- that is, most of the time. The Christian life includes times of abundance as well as hunger, of nakedness as well as being fully clothed. Lest we look down on our brothers and sisters who are undergoing difficulty, we need to remember that "it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth" (Deuteronomy 8:18). Some faith teachers to the contrary, poverty is not necessarily a sign of lack of faith (though it can be). Poverty is sometimes our lot. The Apostle Paul, certainly no slouch when it came to faith, recounts his sufferings (2 Corinthians 11:22-28), but affirms:

"I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13).

So where are you, my friend? Are you in a time of manna in your life? Or do you have to work very hard for your daily bread? Are you going through a time of consecration? Are you still healing from circumcision that you had put off for years? Don't despair. Even though we go through times of change, such as when the manna stops -- and change is difficult for all of us -- God is still with us to provide for us. By natural means and spiritual, our God is leading us as we walk along with him. Whether in the Wilderness or the middle of the Jordan or in the Promised Land, he has given us this unshakable word:

"Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Joshua 1:9, 5)

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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