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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 4

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - UnabridgedCommentary Critical Unabridged

Verse 1

And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over Jordan, that the LORD spake unto Joshua, saying,

The Lord spake unto Joshua saying,

Verse 2

Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man,

Take you twelve men - each representing a tribe. They had been previously chosen for this service (Joshua 3:12), and the repetition of the command is made here solely to introduce the account of its execution. Though Joshua had been divinely instructed to erect a commemorative pile, the representatives were not apprised of the work they were to do until the time of the passage.

Verse 3

And command ye them, saying, Take you hence out of the midst of Jordan, out of the place where the priests' feet stood firm, twelve stones, and ye shall carry them over with you, and leave them in the lodging place, where ye shall lodge this night.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 4

Then Joshua called the twelve men, whom he had prepared of the children of Israel, out of every tribe a man:

Joshua called the twelve men. They had probably, from a feeling of reverence, kept back, and were standing on the eastern bank. They were now ordered to advance, and picking up each a stone, probably as large as he could carry, from around the spot in the channel "where the priests stood," pass over before the ark, and deposit the stones in the place of next encampment (Joshua 4:19-20) - namely, Gilgal.

Verse 5

And Joshua said unto them, Pass over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of Jordan, and take ye up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel:

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 6

That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones?

That this may be a sign among you. The erection of cairns, or huge piles of stones, as monuments of remarkable incidents, has been common among all people, especially in the early and rude periods of their history; and it is practiced by the Arabs still ('Researches and Missionary Labours,' by Joseph Wolff p. 492). They are the established means of perpetuating the memory of important transactions especially amount the nomadic people of the East; and although there be no inscription engraven on them, the history and object of such simple monuments are traditionally preserved from age to age. Similar was the purpose contemplated by the conveyance of the twelve stones to Gilgal: it was that these might be a standing record to posterity of the miraculous passage of the Jordan.

Verse 7

Then ye shall answer them, That the waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it passed over Jordan, the waters of Jordan were cut off: and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 8

And the children of Israel did so as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones out of the midst of Jordan, as the LORD spake unto Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them unto the place where they lodged, and laid them down there.

The children of Israel did so - that is, it was done by their twelve representatives.

Verse 9

And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests which bare the ark of the covenant stood: and they are there unto this day. Joshua set up twelve stones ... in the place where the feet of the priests ... stood. In addition to the memorial just described, there was another memento of the miraculous event, a duplicate of the former, set up in the river itself, on the very spot where the ark had rested. This heap of stones might have been a large and compactly-built one, and visible in the ordinary state of the river. Since nothing is said whence these stones were obtained, some have imagined that they might have been gathered in the adjoining fields, and deposited by the people as they passed the appointed spot. [Kennicott proposes here to follow the Syriac version in reading mitowk (H8432), from the midst, instead of bªtowk (H8432), intimating that there was only one set of stones-namely, that taken from the mid channel of the river. This suggested emendation, however, is not supported by manuscripts authority; and the Septuagint says expressly, allous (G243) doodeka (G1427) lithous (G3037), other twelve stones.]

They are there unto this day - at least twenty years after the event, if we reckon by the date of this history (Joshua 24:26); and much later, if the words in the latter clause were inserted by Samuel or Ezra.

Verse 10

For the priests which bare the ark stood in the midst of Jordan, until everything was finished that the LORD commanded Joshua to speak unto the people, according to all that Moses commanded Joshua: and the people hasted and passed over.

The priests which bare the ark stood in the midst of Jordan. This position was well calculated to animate the people, who, with their wives and children placed in the center, 'as if being afraid for them lest they should be borne away by the stream' (Josephus, 'Antiquities,' b. 5:, ch. 1, sec. 3), probably crossed below the ark, as well as to facilitate Joshua's execution of the minutest instructions respecting the passage (Numbers 27:21-23). The unfaltering confidence of the priests contrasts strikingly with the conduct of the people who "hasted and passed over." Their faith, like that of many of Gods people, was, through the weakness of nature, blended with fears. But perhaps their 'haste' may be viewed in a more favourable light, as indicating the alacrity of their obedience; or it might have been enjoined, in order that the whole multitude might pass in one day.

Verse 11

And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over, that the ark of the LORD passed over, and the priests, in the presence of the people.

The ark ... passed over. The ark is mentioned as the efficient cause: it had been the first to move-it was the last to leave; and its movements arrested the deep attention of the people, who probably stood on the opposite bank, rapt in admiration and awe of this closing scene.

And the priests, in the presence of the people. [The Septuagint has di' (G1223) lithoi (G3037) emprosthen (G1715) autoon (G846), and the stones before them.] It was a great miracle, greater even than the passage of the Red Sea, in this respect, that it was performed on a large river, remarkable for the extraordinary rapidity of its current, and at the season of its fullest volume. No doubt Israel could have effected their entrance into Canaan without a miracle, as they could have passed from Egypt into Canaan without the necessity of going through the midst of the Red Sea. But the necessity for these miracles was a moral, not a physical one; and in that view, both of them were subservient to the purpose of teaching various fundamental truths of religion. They were calculated to convince the Israelites of God's presence and nearness to them; and the people of the surrounding countries, that while the gods of the pagan were nonentities, Yahweh was the living God, the Almighty and Sovereign Controller of all nature. And those lessons were effectually taught; for while the awful displays of divine omnipotence paralyzed the nations with terror and despair, the revelation of God's power and grace in favour of the Israelites produced a most animating effect on the faith and courage of that people, and at the same time deepened their sense of dependence upon Him for their easy acquisition of the promised land. They were made to feel, both by the miraculous ebb of the Jordan, and by other miracles afterward performed, that they were saved, not by their own sword and bow, but by the right hand of the Lord; and that their possession of Canaan was not the fruit of their conquest, but the gift of God.

Verse 12

And the children of Reuben, and the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh, passed over armed before the children of Israel, as Moses spake unto them:

The children of Reuben ... passed over armed before the children of Israel. There is no precedency to the other tribes indicated herethere is no reason to suppose that the usual order of march was departed from; but these are honourably mentioned, to show that, in pursuance of their engagement (Joshua 1:16-18), they had sent a complement of fighting men to accompany their brethren in the war of invasion.

Verse 13

About forty thousand prepared for war passed over before the LORD unto battle, to the plains of Jericho.

To the plains of Jericho. That part of the Arabah or Ghor on the west is about seven miles broad from the Jordan to the mountain entrance at Wady-Kelt. Though now desert, this valley was in ancient times richly covered with wood: an immense palm forest, seven miles long, surrounded Jericho.

Verse 14

On that day the LORD magnified Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared On that day the LORD magnified Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared Moses, all the days of his life.

On that day the Lord magnified Joshua. It appeared clear, from the chief part he acted, that he was the divinely-appointed leader; for even the priests did not enter the river or quit their position except at his command; and thenceforward his authority in his new office appeared as legitimate, and was as firmly established, as that of his predecessor. By the performance of a miracle so closely resembling the passage of the Red Sea, a striking attestation was given to the divine promise - "As I was with Moses, so I will be with thee."

Verses 15-17

And the LORD spake unto Joshua, saying,

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 18

And it came to pass, when the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD were come up out of the midst of Jordan, and the soles of the priests' feet were lifted up unto the dry land, that the waters of Jordan returned unto their place, and flowed over all his banks, as they did before.

The priests that bare the ark ... were come up out of the midst of Jordan, and the soles of the priests' feet were lifted up [ nitquw (H5423)] - were plucked out of the miry, wet, sandy channel (Josephus, 'Antiquities,' b. 5:, ch. 1:, sec. 3), and placed on the dry land. Their crossing, which was the final act, completed the evidence of the miracle; for then, and not until then, the suspended laws of nature were restored, the waters returned to their place, and the river flowed with as full a current as before. It was a stupendous miracle; and although writers like Stanley suggest that the drying up of the river might have resulted from the natural agencies of earthquake and volcanic convulsion ('Lectures on the Jewish Church,' first series, p. 233; 'Sinai and Palestine,' p. 279), yet there is no possibility, by rationalistic insinuations, of evading the fact that the baring of the channel took place exactly as Joshua had foretold (Joshua 3:13), and ceased only upon the removal of the ark from the river-bed.

The miracle will appear the more stupendous when it is considered 'how many there were in this grand host that made the passage.' Just before crossing the Jordan, the number of fighting men was 601,730 (Numbers 26:51). Supposing each to be married, the number would be increased to 1,203,460; and allowing an average of but one child to each family, the number would become 1,805,190. Now, adding the Levites, of which there were 23,000 males alone (Numbers 26:62), the aged among 'the females, the mothers in Israel,'-for, according to Numbers 26:63-65, with the exception of four, all the men were young and in the prime of life, and, we will suppose, in fine health-and making no further addition for captives, except that of the 33,000 taken from the Midianites not long before, and we shall have a host so nearly amounting to 2,000,000 that we may safely base our conclusions on that number. If any should still object, we would remind them that in this estimate nothing is said of the countless numbers of animals following the Israelites, and of which they had just before taken more than 800,000 sheep, cattle, and donkeys from the Midianites alone. With these statistics we can arrive at a conclusion which adds great interest to this sublime and exciting scene in the history of the Israelites.

From the account given in Joshua (Joshua 3:1-17; Joshua 4:1-24), the host arose in the morning, completed the passage across the Jordan, until they "were clean passed over," and went into the plain of Jericho, at least some distance from the banks, to the site of Gilgal. This, we may suppose, occupied at the longest not more than half a day, or eight hours. Now, with these data before us, it appears that, so far from looking for a point or particular place of passage of the Israelites, we are to infer that the line of passage was not less than a mile, perhaps more, in length; and all suppositions heretofore made as to 'points' and 'fords' do not take into consideration the crowd and the haste; because they 'hasted to go over.' If we suppose that lines of 2,000 in number passed over at intervals of half a minute, then it would have required more than eight hours for the people to pass; and these lines (allowing but one and a half foot right and left of each person) would have extended considerably over one mile. A calculation making allowances for the irregularity of some, for the tents, baggage, and animals, would increase the time from a half minute to one minute for each line of 2,000; and as the time occupied is fixed. the line must be doubled to reach the same result, as an increase in space will compensate for loss of time; therefore the 4,000 would also double the length of 2,000, and become a line of passage considerably over two miles in extent.

But in order to a full and practical understanding of this passage, it must be borne in mind that it was "right against Jericho;" and though the plain of Jericho may be meant, we shall see that there is a limit. Allowing but one yard square for each of the host to stand in, the whole number would require a place 1,414 yards, or nearly three-quarters of a mile, square; and, with their necessary baggage, etc., fully one square mile. Therefore they must not only cross the river, but average a further travel of a half mile beyond (Osborn's 'Palestine, Past and Present,' pp. 419-421).

Verse 19

And the people came up out of Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped in Gilgal, in the east border of Jericho.

The people came up out of Jordan on the tenth day of the first month - i:e., the month Nisan, four days before the Passover, and the very day when the paschal lamb required to be set apart, the providence of God having arranged that the entrance into the promised land should be at the feast.

And encamped in Gilgal. The name is here given by anticipation (see the note at Joshua 5:9). It was a tract of land, according to Josephus ('Antiquities,' b. 5:, ch. 4:, sec. 2), fifty stadia (six and a half miles) from Jordan, and ten stadia (one and a quarter miles) from Jericho, at the eastern outskirts of the palm forest, and in the vicinity of the village Riha. But, according to Robinson, no trace either of its name or site remains.

Verse 20

And those twelve stones, which they took out of Jordan, did Joshua pitch in Gilgal.

Those twelve stones ... did Joshua pitch in Gilgal. Probably to render them more conspicuous, they might be raised on a foundation of earth and turf; and as the Hebrew word Gilgal signifies a circle, it may be applied either to a circular stone or a circular row of stones: so that Gilgal was a place for the assembling of the people, first, for religious purposes, and afterward for general objects, especially for holding courts of justice (cf. Joshua 9:6; Joshua 10:6-7; Joshua 14:6; Joshua 15:7; 1 Samuel 10:8; 1 Samuel 11:14-15; 1 Samuel 13:4-9; 1 Samuel 15:21). Stonehenge, Crookem Tor on Dartmoor, and the Druidical circles were similar in construction, and devoted to analogous purposes. To find these stones is one of the objects contemplated by the Palestine Archaeological Association, the council of which, in the prospectus issued October, 1854, use the following words regarding them: 'Doubtless these stones which Joshua pitched were large and remarkable, and were probably arranged numerically, and with some significant order, that their purpose might be ever afterward recognized. Nor is it improbable that some name or device might have been put on them, to identify them individually with the tribes of Israel. The remote period of those stones would lead us to expect that they would, many years ago, have sunk into the earth, and would be hidden under an accumulation of mosses and herbage, but still not lost beyond the reach of diligent and skillful research.' The pile was designed to serve a double purpose-that of impressing the pagan with a sense of the omnipotence of God, while at the same time it would teach an important lesson in religion to the young and rising Israelites in later ages; and it became the first sanctuary in Canaan (Joshua 4:15), the earliest station of the tabernacle (Joshua 18:1).

Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Joshua 4". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/joshua-4.html. 1871-8.
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