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Crossing the Jordan River (3:1-5:1)
Israel’s conquest of Jericho was more than just a military exercise. It had religious meaning. The Israelites were to cleanse themselves before God, because he was the one who would lead them against their enemies. His presence was symbolized in the ark of the covenant (GNB: covenant box), which the priests carried ahead of the procession in full view of the people (3:1-6).
As God had worked through Moses, so he would work through Joshua. Just as the waters of the Red Sea had miraculously dried up to allow the former generation to escape from Egypt, so the waters of the Jordan would miraculously dry up to allow the new generation to enter Canaan (7-13).
It seems that the way God stopped the Jordan was by a collapse of its banks at the town of Adam (twenty-five kilometres upstream) that dammed the river. God was controlling events according to his perfectly timed plan, so that the waters at the river crossing dried up just as the priests arrived there. The priests then stood in the middle of the dry river bed until all the people crossed over (14-17).
Twelve men, one from each tribe, were then sent back to take twelve stones from the river bed, to be set up at the place where the people camped that night as a memorial of the great event (4:1-8). Joshua set up another memorial of twelve stones in the middle of the river itself, before the river broke through the earth dam upstream and returned to its normal flow. These remarkable events caused the people to give Joshua the same honour and respect as previously they had given Moses (9-18; cf. 3:7).
Once the people had established their camp at Gilgal, Joshua took the twelve stones that the men had brought from the river and set up the memorial (19-24). When the Canaanites heard about the Israelites’ miraculous crossing of the Jordan, they were filled with fear (5:1).
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Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Joshua 3". "Fleming's Bridgeway Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
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