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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 4

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary


Verses 1-24


[This chapter, more than many others, affords us a noticeable example of the style of the Hebrew historian. While the central theme of the whole chapter is the building of the stone monument in Gilgal, observe how farther particulars of the passage of the Jordan are recorded, which the writer did not wish to interrupt the order of his narrative, in chapter 3, to tell. Strict chronological order is not sought after by him, but rather a record of the facts, leaving the reader’s common sense to infer the order; or rather, treating the order of events as of little moment. See Introduction.] 1. All the people All the people of the nine and a half tribes which afterwards permanently occupied Western Palestine, and the forty thousand picked soldiers of the Eastern tribes.

[ 2. Take you twelve men These men were surely not elected after the people had crossed the Jordan and while the priests were standing in the river bed, but previously, as Joshua 3:12 clearly implies. See note there. The command there given to Joshua was to elect the twelve men now that is, before crossing and the exact repetition of the command in this place is only in keeping with the simple style of the Hebrew historian. The choosing of the twelve men, which was, perhaps, done by a popular election, took place before they crossed over; the orders to take each man a stone from the midst of the Jordan were given after all the people had crossed.] 3. The place where the priests’ feet stood firm After the waters had rolled away at the touch of the priests’ feet, they bore the ark into the middle and deepest part of the channel. See note on Joshua 3:13. This is also implied in the command, “Come ye up out of Jordan.” Joshua 4:17.

Lodging place Gilgal, six miles west of the Jordan. See Joshua 4:19-20. They lodged at Gilgal not one night only, but many days.

Verse 5

5. Pass over before the ark Advance to a position immediately in front of the ark, and take up the stones. As this order seems to have been given after the people had crossed, we naturally understand that the twelve men passed back again to the place where the ark rested, and thence transported the stones, while all Israel stood beholding them.

According unto the number of the tribes A memorial not only of the wonderful interposition of Jehovah, but of the federal unity of the nation one composed of twelve.

Verse 6

6. That this may be a sign among you By this simple device two grand purposes are subserved: (1.) The preservation of national history and religious knowledge; (2.) The religious education of the young. The inquisitiveness of the children is not to be repressed, but rather stimulated by impressive monuments of historical events, and by symbols of religious truths. “Object teaching,” which has recently been brought forward in the art of education, is here introduced as a method of instruction by God himself. By the presentation of visible objects to the eye, divine truth may be most vividly photographed upon the soul. Hence the value of travel in historic lands as an educator. Renan says: “Seeing Palestine is the fifth gospel.”

Verse 7

7. Memorial… for ever The Hebrew word here used is the strongest one in the language to express eternity. But it is often used in a popular way to indicate not absolute eternity, but a period indefinitely long, especially when the “speaker is led by his strong desire to overlook the fact that what he is speaking of must have an end.” Keil. The importance of this memorial as a proof of the miraculous passage of the Jordan is thus set forth by Mr. Leslie: “Let us suppose that there never was any such thing as that passage over Jordan; that these stones at Gilgal were set up on some other occasion; and that some designing man in an after age invented this book of Joshua, affirmed that it was written at the time of that imaginary event by Joshua himself, and adduced this pile of stones as a testimony of the truth of it; would not every body say to him, ‘We know this pile very well; but we never before heard of this reason for it, nor of this book of Joshua? where has it lain concealed all this while, and where and how came you, after so many ages, to find it? Besides, this book tells us that this passage over Jordan was ordained to be taught our children from age to age, and therefore that they were always to be instructed in the meaning of this particular monument as a memorial of it; but we were never so taught when we were children, nor did we ever teach our children any such thing; and it is in the highest degree improbable that such an emphatic ordinance should have been forgotten, during the continuance of so remarkable a pile, set up for the express purpose of perpetuating its remembrance.”

Verse 8

8. Israel did so They did so by their twelve representatives, according to the old law-maxim: Qui facit per allure, facit per se “He who acts through another acts through himself.”

And laid them down They did not construct them into a monument. This Joshua did afterwards. Joshua 4:20.

Verse 9

9. And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan [The and at the beginning of this verse, and twelve stones, without the article, indicate with sufficient clearness that these twelve stones were different from those just mentioned in Joshua 4:8. This is still more evident from the fact that these were set up in the midst of Jordan, those in Gilgal. Joshua 4:20. The fact that we find no record of any command from God to Joshua to erect this monument in the river does not disprove the existence of such a command, which a concise writer may omit, and yet describe its execution. See note on Joshua 3:6. Or we may suppose that Joshua and the elders erected this river monument for their own satisfaction, and not by divine command.] But if these stones were set up in the midst of the river they must have been covered by the returning waters and probably swept away; how, then, could our author have known that they were there in his day? We reply that even if the pile was always below the surface of the water it might be seen or felt by careful examination, and be a thing of deep interest, especially to the men of that generation. But it is probable that these stones were not limited in size to the carrying capacity of one man; and they may have been placed upon an elevated base of rocks, so that they would ordinarily rise above the top of the water. It is very certain that our author, perhaps himself an eye-witness of the crossing of the Jordan, had more means of ascertaining the truth of his statements than we of the present day can possibly have to contradict his testimony. The word for set up signifies rear up, erect, and implies that the monument was of considerable height. As the memorial at Gilgal indicated very definitely the place of the passage, the monument to show the spot where the priests stood with the ark on their shoulders needed not to be very conspicuous.

And they are there unto this day This implies that the stones were for years visible either beneath or above the waters; otherwise the presence of the monument at a later day could not be asserted. On the theory that Joshua is the author of this book in its present form, having written it in his last years, it was about twenty years after these events that this memorial was existing. But if these words were added by a later hand they show the still longer continuance of the monument.

Verse 10

10. The priests… stood… until every thing was finished It is not necessary to suppose that the building of the river monument took place after the people had passed, but it could have been built while they were hastening across the dry channel. This would abbreviate the time of the priests standing still and supporting the ark.

According to all that Moses commanded Joshua We do not find in the books of Moses any directions respecting the manner of passing over the Jordan, and of perpetuating the remembrance of that event. The meaning of this passage must be that Joshua obeyed Jehovah as Moses had commanded him, without being enjoined any special duty in this case. Numbers 27:23; Deuteronomy 3:28; Deuteronomy 31:23. In accordance with the precept of his illustrious predecessor, he had been very attentive to the words of God.

And the people hasted There were obvious reasons for their haste. The priests were in a painful attitude, bearing the ark with the tables of stone within. The waters, rising up above, with no visible barrier to keep them from dashing suddenly down upon the people in the channel, would produce a trepidation in the beholders, and quicken their pace. Haste was also necessary in order that the entire nation, with all their possessions, might cross in one day. The supernatural never supersedes the fullest exercise of our natural abilities.

Verse 11

11. The ark of the Lord passed over Great prominence is given to the ark as the visible instrument of the miracle, the first to enter and the last to leave the bed of the Jordan.

In the presence of the people Who, after their own hasty passage, were now standing on the western bank, contemplating the wonderful spectacle. This greatest miracle of the Old Testament had at least a million eye-witnesses.

Verse 12

12. And the children of Reuben The conjunction and does not indicate the order of events, but the historian wishes by repetition to give emphasis to the statement that the eastern tribes had already passed over to assist their brethren in the conquest of the land.

Armed See Joshua 1:14, note.

Before That is, in sight of. They were, perhaps, placed in the van to ensure the fulfilling of their promise, or because they were unencumbered with their families and flocks, which they had left on the eastern side of the river.

Verse 13

13. Forty thousand For their entire military strength see Joshua 1:14, note.

Plains of Jericho A part of the Ghor or Arabah near Jericho. The mountains on the west fall back considerably to the south of the entrance into the Wady Kelt, and sweep toward the southwest, and then turn again toward the Dead Sea. The valley on the west of the Jordan is at this point seven miles wide.

Verse 14

14. The Lord magnified Joshua This is the fulfilment of the promise in Joshua 3:7. See the note.

And they feared him, as they feared Moses “This was not, indeed, the chief design of the miracle, to exalt the power and authority of Joshua. But as it was of the greatest importance to the people generally that the government of Joshua should be firmly established, it is very properly mentioned as the crowning advantage resulting from it, that he was, as it were, invested with sacred insignia, which produced such veneration among the people that no one dared to despise him.” Calvin.

All the days of his life Joshua’s life.

Verse 15

15. The Lord spake unto Joshua The Hebrew having no pluperfect, this may be rendered had spoken. This repetition of what has been previously described is for the purpose of showing how Joshua was magnified, by connecting his agency with the miracle. “The priests did not quit their station till Joshua, who had ordered them thither, ordered them thence; nor did he thus order them until the Lord commanded him: so obedient were all parties to the word of God.” Scott.

Verse 16

16. Ark of the testimony This was so called because it contained the two tables of testimony. Deuteronomy 31:18; see note on Joshua 3:3. Gesenius renders, ark of the law.

Verse 18

18. The soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up unto the dry land Hebrew, plucked up, that is, from the miry bed of the river, which was dry only in the sense of being drained of water.

The waters of Jordan returned As the waters suddenly stopped when the ark was borne into them, and flowed onward again when the ark left the bed of the river, the wonderful miracle must be ascribed to the ark as the instrument, and to God as the efficient cause.

Click image for full-size version

Verse 19

19. The tenth day of the first month In Joshua 5:10, we learn that the passover, the anniversary of the Exodus, occurred on the fourteenth of the same month, so that there were forty years, wanting four days, between the departure from Egypt and the entrance into Canaan. They did not enter earlier because of their unbelief. Hebrews 3:19.

Gilgal On the significance which the Israelites afterwards attached to this name, see note on Joshua 5:9. According to Josephus, Gilgal was fifty stadia, about six miles, from the Jordan, and ten stadia, exceeding a mile, from Jericho. No trace of the name or site now remains. This Gilgal must be carefully distinguished from another Gilgal in Central Palestine, known by the modern name Jiljilia. See note on Joshua 9:6. Gilgal is noted as the first encampment of Israel in Canaan. Here was the scene of the circumcision, here the first passover was celebrated in the land, and here the manna ceased to fall.

Verse 20

20. Did Joshua pitch in Gilgal The Hebrew word here rendered pitch is precisely the same as that rendered set up in Joshua 4:9, where see note. These twelve memorial stones were here built up by Joshua into a perpetual monument, resting, doubtless, upon a pedestal, to render it more conspicuous. More than six hundred years afterwards the Minor Prophets, Hosea (Hosea 4:15; Hosea 9:15; Hosea 12:11) and Amos, (Amos 4:4; Amos 5:5,) repeatedly reprove the Jews for going to Gilgal “to multiply transgression;” and Stanley, in his History of the Jewish Church, suggests that this monument came to be regarded with idolatrous veneration, like the worship of the cross among the Papists.

Verse 24

24. All the people of the earth We need not limit this expression to mean merely the nations of the land of Canaan, for this amazing miracle was doubtless designed to teach impressive lessons of divine power to the nations of all coming ages.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Joshua 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/joshua-4.html. 1874-1909.
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