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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 3

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Joshua 3 and Joshua 4 must certainly stand on a very high plateau of importance, due not merely to the astounding miracle that took place, but also to the typical nature of the historic movement of Israel across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The narrative here weaves together a number of very important elements:

(1) the elevation of Joshua in the estimation of the people;

(2) the function of the ark of the covenant and the priests who carried it;

(3) the beginning of the crossing, its continuation, and its conclusion;

(4) the erection of two memorials - one in the middle of Jordan, the other at Gilgal;

(5) the cessation of the manna; and

(6) the timing of the event with reference to the 10th of Abib and the approach of the First Passover in Canaan.

As recorded here, the narrative is very complex. As Blair pointed out, this complexity is the very thing overlooked by, “Those who have attempted to solve this narrative by appealing to `different accounts’ woven together.”(F1) We might be able to forgive such explanations if there were any different accounts, but, of course, this is the only account that has come down through history. Those ephemeral, imaginary “accounts” prior to this one are known to be non-existent except in the imaginations of men who are already committed to a denial of the sacred record found in the Bible.

If one wonders why famous and honored “scholars” blunder so disastrously in the interpretation of miracles, Woudstra accurately explained it thus:

“In the Biblical view, MIRACULOUS events have one unambiguous and clear meaning. Those who do not accept them as such fly in the face of evidence which all can see. Only blindness of mind caused by sin makes people misinterpret miracles.”(F2)

The peculiarities of the narrative of these two chapters are marked by the piecemeal manner of its relation. There is a free use of provisional endings, which do not signal the final conclusion of a given factor at all, but the interruption of the record in order for the historian to insert a parenthesis, a prolepsis, or to take up another phase of the overall history. This episodic treatment of the grand event related here is nothing new to the histories of the times of Joshua and earlier. We shall meet with it again in Joshua 10. It is an undeniable earmark of the near mid-second millennium writings that have come down through history. Keil has favored us with a step-by-step analysis of these two chapters as follows:

The final preparations for the crossing (Joshua 3:1-6).

The commencement of the crossing (Joshua 3:7-17).

The further progress of the crossing (Joshua 4:1-14).

The crossing concluded (Joshua 4:15-24)(F3)

Furthermore, in each of the final three sections outlined by Keil, the account is arranged according to the following plan:

In each of them, God’s command to Joshua comes first (Joshua 3:7-8; Joshua 4:2-3; and Joshua 4:15-16).

Then there is the communication of this command to the people of Israel.

This is followed by the execution of God’s command through Joshua (Joshua 3:9-17; Joshua 4:4-13; Joshua 4:17-20).(F4)

The above are some of the considerations that lie behind the decision to treat these two chapters as a single unit in this commentary.

Verse 1

“And Joshua rose up early in the morning; and they removed from Shittim, and came to the Jordan; and they lodged there before they passed over.”

Why was this preliminary approach made? Shittim was at most only five or six miles from the river, but here Joshua brought Israel to the very brink of the Jordan. Many have thought that God wanted the people to get a good look at that river in flood stage before they passed over it, and this is probably the correct explanation. Pink saw this three-day pause by the terrible Jordan as God’s impressing upon the Israelites, “that they had no means of crossing it, that they were utterly helpless, and that they were thus completely shut unto God as their only hope.”(F5)


This terrible river, lying at the bottom of the most spectacular gash upon the surface of the planet earth, most of its course lying even below the level of the sea, is an astoundingly appropriate symbol of death.

The very name “Jordan” means “descender.”(F6) The Encyclopaedia Brittanica gives the meaning as “the down-comer.”(F7) Such names reflect the amazing steepness of the river throughout its course. From its source to its entry into the Dead Sea the distance is only about 65 miles, but the river meanders for a length of about 200 miles, with “an average loss of altitude of about 9 feet per mile.”(F8) The rank vegetation on each side of the river abounds with large quantities of castor oil plants, oleanders (poisonous), tamarisks, and acacias.(F9)

The landscape on each side of the Jordan was in most places covered with the rank growth due to the annual flooding, and it was a cluttered mass of deposits of mud, gravel, dead weeds, driftwood, and exposed roots of trees. The swiftness of the river was rendered even more dangerous by its zig-zag current and muddy bed. It could easily sweep a man from the side into midstream. In the April flood, the Jordan just about doubled in size, from its usual 90 to 100 feet in width to almost twice that.(F10)

In a very real sense, Jordan was the river of death. It terminated in the Dead Sea, where life is impossible. The salinity of the Dead Sea surpasses that of any other body of water on earth. Its waters have been called “a syrup of sodium chloride”!

But over and beyond these characteristics which certainly entitle the river to stand as a symbol of death, it is in the Grand Analogy of the Two Israels that its unique place in this function is sealed and certified. (See the details of the Grand Analogy in Vol. 7 of my N.T. series of commentaries, pp. 149,150.) Just as Joshua led Israel over Jordan into the Promised Land, just so our Lord Jesus Christ leads Christians (the New Israel) over the Jordan of death into “the eternal habitations!”

Verses 2-3

“And it came to pass after three days, that the officers went through the midst of the camp; and they commanded the people, When ye see the ark of the covenant of Jehovah your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it.”

The chronology of the narrative here follows no stereotyped pattern. “There can be no reasonable doubt that the spies had returned before the order given in Joshua 1:10, and there is no need to suppose that each separate act was enjoined at the moment when the necessity for the injunction came.”(F11) The order for the people to follow the ark of the covenant, given here in preparation for the march, would not be obeyed until some time later. It seems to be mentioned here because of the supreme importance of the truth typified by it, namely, that only by following Divine instructions could the crossing be executed. Commenting on the symbolism of following the ark, Matthew Henry remarked that, Christians should follow their pastors, only as far as the pastors were holding up the Word of God. They (Israel) must follow the priests as far as they carried the ark, but no further; so we must follow our ministers only as they follow Christ.”(F12)

This crossing of the Jordan would be, for Israel, AN EXTREME ACT OF FAITH. It was one thing to follow God’s Word into the Red Sea, for their facing the vengeful armies of Pharaoh was the only alternative for not doing so, but here, they would cross into hostile country to face fortified cities with no immediate hope of retreat on their part. There would be armies with chariots and fighting unto the death. “Here a whole nation took the step to hazard their lives in total commitment to the Lord!(F13) It was a tough generation indeed that followed Joshua into Canaan. They were accustomed to hardship. They were a lean, hardened, and determined group of people, disciplined to face and overcome any hardship. What a contrast with their status 40 years earlier!

“The priests the Levites” The mention of Levitical priests here was not, as some have supposed, to distinguish between the Levitical priests and other priests who were not Levites. “It was not until much later, in the times of Jeroboam, that non-Levites were made priests.”(F14) The most likely reason for the Levitical priests, and not the Kohathites, being commissioned here to carry the ark (contrary to the normal pattern which assigned the task to the Kohathites), appears to be, as Plummer said, “That it was to emphasize the position of Levi as the sacerdotal tribe, having no part in the war… This expression occurs forty-five times in the O.T. with the meaning that the priests are from the tribe of Levi.”(F15) There were a number of other “special occasions” upon which the priests replaced the Kohathites as bearers of the ark. Adam Clarke listed these examples: (1) when they compassed Jericho; (2) when they took it to war against the Philistines (2 Samuel 15:25); (3) when David sent it back to Jerusalem; and (4) when it was taken out of the tabernacle to be deposited in the temple (1 Kings 8:6-11).(F16)

Verses 4-6

“Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go; for ye have not passed this way heretofore. And Joshua said unto the people, Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow Jehovah will do wonders among you. And Joshua spake unto the priests, saying, Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people. And they took up the ark of the covenant, and went before the people.”

“Sanctify yourselves” Longacre described what is meant by this command thus: “It consisted in the washing of garments and bodies as well as abstaining from any act or object regarded as unclean.”(F17) The same author also gave as a good modern example of “sanctification,” “The actions of a Mohammedan making his ceremonial ablutions before going into the mosque to pray.”(F18) Arthur Pink’s comment on this is especially good, particularly as it is related to the great bulk of current-day preaching. He said:

“The hirelings harp continuously on God’s grace, His promises, and naught but faith required by Him; and woefully fail to stress God’s holiness, His precepts, obedience being indispensably necessary.”(F19)

Yes, God’s grace took them over, all right, but note the part that Israel themselves played in this tremendous blessing. (See further comment on sanctification in this series, Vol. 2, Exodus, pp. 160, 261.)

Verses 7-10

“And Jehovah said unto Joshua, 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. And thou shalt command the priests that bear the ark of the covenant, saying, When ye are come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, ye shall stand still in the Jordan. And Joshua said unto the children of Israel, Come hither, and hear the words of Jehovah your God. And Joshua said, Hereby shall ye know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Hivite, and the Perizzite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Jebusite.”

In Joshua 3:7, it is revealed that one of the purposes of the great miracle in this chapter was that of elevating Joshua in the minds of all Israel. This was by no means the most important purpose, but was surely one of the reasons for it. In the kind of war about to be begun by Israel, the utmost confidence in their leader was prerequisite to all success. Notice how the suspense is maintained throughout this complicated narrative. The matter of the priests standing at the edge of the Jordan is here rounded off in a kind of conclusion, but the astounding thing that will happen at that time is not related here. The historian, at this time, will speak of what God is ABOUT TO DO.

“This method of writing, so peculiar to the Hebrews, marks and rounds off several points in the narrative. Some repetitions were inevitable. It is to this method of dove-tailing of the different points that we must attribute the distribution of the revelation and commands which Joshua received from God, during the several portions of this history.”(F20)

“Hereby ye shall know” (Joshua 3:10). This is rendered, “By this” by some scholars. “The words anticipate what will not be explained until Joshua 3:13. The account moves slowly. These preliminaries serve to create a feeling of suspense.”(F21)

The seven condemned nations of Canaan (Joshua 3:10). The seven peoples enumerated here were the principal racial divisions of the fragmented city-states of the land of Canaan. Several times in the O.T. these lists appear, not always exactly as they are here. Similar lists are given in Genesis 15:19-21; Exodus 3:17; Exodus 23:28; Deuteronomy 7:1. The extreme debauchery of the pre-Israelite Canaanites provided the moral ground upon which God found it necessary to destroy them. The shameful sins of mankind until this very day may be traced, in part, to the failure of Israel to obey the Word of God in the “cutting out” of the moral cancer of Canaan. God had long ago marked out the Canaanites for destruction, but the reason that it did not occur sooner was that “their cup of wickedness” had not become full.

We should not be confused with the manner in which this wonderful story is told.

“A certain completeness and finish are given to each division of the narrative; and, in order to effect this, the writer more than once repeats himself, anticipates the actual order of events, and distributes into parts occurrence which in fact took place once for all.”(F22)

Verses 11-13

“Behold the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passeth over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore take you twelve men out of the tribes of Israel, for every tribe a man. And it shall come to pass, when the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of Jehovah, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, even the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand in one heap.”

These verses outline the miracle that was to occur and which would permit Israel’s passage of the Jordan. What will happen is plainly foretold.

“The waters shall be cut off… the waters that come down from above” This simply meant that the waters upstream would suddenly cease to flow by Israel’s position.

Now it is perfectly true, of course, that the unaided word of God, without any agency whatever, could have produced the result indicated here, but, inasmuch as the instrument of “strong winds” was utilized in the miracle of the Red Sea crossing, there is no reason whatever why natural phenomena might also have aided here. In such a case, which we believe to be the proper understanding of this place, the miracle consisted in its timing, and in its being precisely predicted by the Word of God communicated to Joshua, and by its being precisely terminated with the complete passage of Israel over the river. This understanding does not diminish in any degree whatever the truly miraculous nature of this astounding event.

That mighty rivers sometimes stop flowing for a day, or even flow upstream, cannot be denied. “The Jordan itself, in the year 1266, was left dry for ten hours as the result of a landslide; and in 1927, an earthquake near Adam (Adamah), stopped the Jordan’s flow for twenty-one hours.”(F23) Also, there is the amazing instance right here in America of the New Madrid (Missouri) Earthquake of 1811, 1812 (Three shocks in December, January, and February), that sent the Mississippi River running upstream for 27 hours, when the flow of the river filled Reelfoot Lake formed by the earthquake!(F24) The Jordan river, near Adam, moves through an area with high mud-cliffs (150 feet high) on each side; and the instances in which the river has stopped flowing (historically), the strong current had undermined a portion of these cliffs, causing the sudden landfill that stopped the river. This writer finds no difficulty at all in the supposition that such a thing is exactly what God brought about here, by miraculous design, timed exactly to fit the crossing of Israel, and made known in advance to Joshua. Those factors of the occurrence make it just as miraculous as any supernatural event could possibly be.

Verses 14-17

“And it came to pass, when the people removed from their tents, to pass over the Jordan, the priests that bare the ark of the covenant being before the people; and when they that bare the ark were come unto the Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (for the Jordan overfloweth all its banks all the time of harvest), that the waters that came down from above, rose up in one heap, a great way off, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan; and those that went down toward the sea of Arabah, even the Salt Sea, were wholly cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho. And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of Jehovah stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan; and all Israel passed over on dry ground, until all the nation had passed clean over Jordan.”

The symbolism of this place is marvelous. The Jordan River, symbol of DEATH, was stopped by the power of God. Note too that the stoppage was all the way back to ADAM. The consequences of death for the whole human race were removed when Christ led the way for his people over the Jordan of death! The fact that we do not know exactly where this “Adam” was located is not important. The usual opinion, as noted by Rea, that places it “some fifteen miles”(F25) above the site of Joshua’s crossing is as dependable as any.

The waters standing up in a heap is, of course, exactly what waters always do behind a dam, and, since this miraculous stoppage took place miles above where the Israelites were, they might not have known exactly where the waters were gathered together in a heap until some time later. Joshua’s knowledge of this came in advance from a direct revelation of God. Significantly, the place identified as Adam is the precise location of the tallest of those great mud cliffs that line the banks of the Jordan.

There is additional information here in Joshua 3:17. At some point in the progress of Israel over Jordan, the priests moved into the very midst of Jordan, where they stood until the passage was completed. “The priests bearing the ark first took up their stand on the brink of the river, but as they advanced to mid-channel, the river was dried up before them.”(F26)

The special significance of this miracle is, in part, due to the flooded stage of the Jordan. Repeatedly, the Scriptures declare it to have been flooded “in the time of harvest,” and it is rather ridiculous that some people have denied this. Plummer pointed out that the wheat harvest, which comes six weeks later than the barley and flax harvest, is not the harvest time spoken of here. The time was April, when the melting snows of Mount Hermon, as always in the time of the spring thaw, send the Jordan booming out of its banks. It will be remembered that Rahab hid the spies in stacks of flax which had been harvested, identifying this “harvest time” as the one of the spring floods.

Dummelow summarized his comment on this miracle thus:

No matter what natural means might have entered into the performance of this wonder, MIRACLE it still remains, being a clear exhibition of personal providential purpose in connection with the great plan of Israel’s mission to the world.(F27)

Before leaving these verses, notice “how the account comes to a provisional conclusion, reporting how the people passed over opposite Jericho.”(F28) Of course, they have not really crossed over yet; that takes place in Joshua 4.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/joshua-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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