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Joshua may have moved the nation from Shittim to the Jordan’s edge at approximately the same time he sent the spies on their mission (cf. Joshua 3:1-2; Joshua 1:11; Joshua 2:22). However, the sequence of events was probably as it appears in the text. Chapter 1 Joshua 3:11 describes one three-day period during which the spies were in Jericho and the hills. A second, overlapping three-day period began on the next day (day four) with the people’s arrival at Shittim (Joshua 3:1), and concluded two days later (on the sixth day) with the officers giving the people last-minute instructions about the crossing (Joshua 3:2-4). The people then crossed the Jordan on the next day (day seven). [Note: David M. Howard Jr., "’Three Days’ in Joshua 1-3 : Resolving a Chronological Conundrum," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:4 (December 1998):539-50.]
"Duty often calls us to take one step without knowing how we shall take the next; but if brought thus far by the leadings of Providence, and while engaged in his service, we may safely leave the event to him." [Note: Bush, p. 41.]
God continued to lead His people by means of the ark. Whereas in the wilderness the cloudy pillar over the ark was the focus of the Israelites’ attention, now the ark itself became the primary object of their interest. The writer mentioned the ark 17 times in chapters 3 and 4. It was the visible symbol that God Himself was leading His people into the land and against their enemies.
". . . the ark was carried in front of the people, not so much to show the road as to make a road by dividing the waters of the Jordan, and the people were to keep at a distance from it, that they might not lose sight of the ark, but keep their eyes fixed upon it, and know the road by looking at the ark of the covenant by which the road had been made, i.e., might know and observe how the Lord, through the medium of the ark, was leading them to Canaan by a way which they had never traversed before; i.e., by a miraculous way." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 41.]
Other frequently recurring words in chapters 3 and 4 are "cross" and "stand" used 22 and five times respectively. These words identify other emphases of the writer.
The people’s self-consecration (Joshua 3:5) consisted of their turning their hearts to God and getting their attitudes and actions right with Him (cf. Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17). God had previously promised to do wonders (Joshua 3:5, awesome miracles) when they would enter the land (cf. Exodus 34:10). Undoubtedly the people had been looking forward to seeing these miracles in view of what their parents had told them and what some of them remembered about the plagues in Egypt.
B. Entrance into the land 3:1-5:12
The entrance into the land was an extremely important event in the life of Israel. The writer marked it off in three major movements. Each one begins with a command from God to Joshua (Joshua 3:7-8; Joshua 4:1-3; and Joshua 4:15-16), followed by the communication of the command to the people, and then its execution. The way the narrator told the story seems designed to impress on the reader that it was Yahweh who was bringing His people miraculously into the land.
1. Passage through the Jordan chs. 3-4
This section contains two parts: the actual crossing of the Jordan River (ch. 3) and the commemoration of that crossing (ch. 4).
The crossing of the river ch. 3
The miraculous parting of the Jordan was only the beginning of a series of miracles that demonstrated to the Israelites that their God was indeed among them. He was active for them and working through Joshua to give them victory (Joshua 3:7).
This event bore many similarities to the crossing of the Red Sea (Joshua 3:13; cf. Exodus 14). In contrast, Moses had divided the waters of the Red Sea with his rod. Joshua divided the waters of the Jordan with the ark that had become the divinely appointed symbol of God’s presence since God gave the Mosaic Covenant (Joshua 3:8).
Evidently the pushing back of the waters of the Jordan was to be a sign to the Israelites that God would push back the Canaanites (Joshua 3:10). The title "the Lord of all the earth" occurs here (Joshua 3:11) first in Scripture indicating Yahweh’s absolute sovereignty over this planet. Because He was "the Lord of all the earth" He could give Canaan to the Israelites.
The Israelites crossed the Jordan when the river was at its widest, deepest, and swiftest, in late April or early May. As the snow on Mt. Hermon melts and the rainy season ends, the Jordan rises to a depth of 10-12 feet and floods to a width of 300-360 feet at this point today. Normally it is only 150-180 feet wide here. However, in Joshua’s day the river may only have been full up to its banks, as the Hebrew text suggests. The people considered crossing the river at this time of year by swimming a heroic feat in ancient times (cf. 1 Chronicles 12:15). This is probably how the spies crossed.
The town of Adam (Joshua 3:16) stood about 18 miles north of Jericho near where the Jabbok River empties into the Jordan Valley. Interestingly, several earthquakes have sent much soil into the Jordan River in modern times at this very location, damming up the river for many hours (in A.D. 1267, 1837, and 1927). [Note: Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands, pp. 37-38.] Perhaps an earthquake is what God used in Joshua’s day too. God may have supernaturally used a natural phenomenon, a landslide, near Adam to cut the waters of the Jordan off as they flowed south. [Note: Madvig, p. 272.] Another possibility is that the phenomenon was completely supernatural. [Note: Campbell, "Joshua," p. 335.]
Two million Israelites could have crossed the river in half a day if the procession was a mile or more wide. The dry ground (Joshua 3:17) was a miracle too (cf. Exodus 14:21).
The major emphasis in chapter 3 is on the great miracle that God performed to lead the Israelites into the land. The conquest of the land would continue God’s works for His people, all of which they were to remember and appreciate.
"The people of God [i.e., Israel] must realize that God does not help them automatically. God helps them when they obey his commands given through his leader." [Note: Butler, p. 52.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Joshua 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany