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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Joshua 4

 

 

Introduction

Commentary On The Book of Joshua Chapters 1-4.

Israel prepare to enter the land of Canaan, and experience the miraculous power of YHWH in opening up the River Jordan so that they can pass over. Meanwhile two military scouts have reconnoitred Jericho, being saved from capture by a prostitute innkeeper Rahab who is promised that when Jericho is taken she and all her close family will be spared. The crossing of the Jordan is safely accomplished and twelve stones set up as a memorial of the event.

Chapter 4. Setting Up A Memorial.

This chapter describes how God commanded that the men of Israel should take twelve stones out of the middle of Jordan, and carry them to the first place they lodged at as a memorial of their passage over it. It also describes how Joshua set up twelve other stones in the river itself, and how many men from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, went before the Israelites when they crossed over. Once this was done, the priests were ordered to come out of Jordan, and the waters then returned to their place. The time when this miracle was wrought is noted, and an account given of Joshua's placing the twelve stones taken out of Jordan in Gilgal, and the use that they would have in the future time.

The importance of this episode comes out especially in the deliberate repetition and tracking back that takes place which has confused many scholars. They overlook the fact that this was intended to be read to the people, and that the repetition and tracking back enabled the listeners not only to grasp the story but to take part in it and to grasp it fully so as to remember it. It helped to ram the significance of the story home to them, together with each important detail, so that they would not overlook it or forget it. They could not glance back at the previous page to remind themselves what had happened, so the account repeats it to ensure that they have grasped and absorbed it. A reading of many ancient narratives will bring home how this was an important method used by ancient writers.


Verses 1-3

Chapter 4. Setting Up A Memorial.

This chapter describes how God commanded that the men of Israel should take twelve stones out of the middle of Jordan, and carry them to the first place they lodged at as a memorial of their passage over it. It also describes how Joshua set up twelve other stones in the river itself, and how many men from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, went before the Israelites when they crossed over. Once this was done, the priests were ordered to come out of Jordan, and the waters then returned to their place. The time when this miracle was wrought is noted, and an account given of Joshua's placing the twelve stones taken out of Jordan in Gilgal, and the use that they would have in the future time.

The importance of this episode comes out especially in the deliberate repetition and tracking back that takes place which has confused many scholars. They overlook the fact that this was intended to be read to the people, and that the repetition and tracking back enabled the listeners not only to grasp the story but to take part in it and to grasp it fully so as to remember it. It helped to ram the significance of the story home to them, together with each important detail, so that they would not overlook it or forget it. They could not glance back at the previous page to remind themselves what had happened, so the account repeats it to ensure that they have grasped and absorbed it. A reading of many ancient narratives will bring home how this was an important method used by ancient writers.

Joshua 4:1-3

And so it was that when all the people were clean passed over Jordan, YHWH spoke to Joshua, saying, “Take you twelve men out of the people, a man from each tribe, and command them saying, ‘Take you hence out of the midst of Jordan, out of the place where the priests' feet stood firm, twelve stones, and carry them over with you, and set them down in the lodging place where you shall lodge this night.’ ” ’

The piling up of stones was a recognised method of establishing a memorial. It carried covenantal overtones (Genesis 31:46-48). Here, as in Genesis, each tribe was represented by a stone. As promised the twelve tribes had reached the promised land. God had fulfilled His covenant.

Other examples of memorial stones can be found in Genesis 28:18; Genesis 31:45-49; Joshua 7:26; Joshua 8:29; Joshua 24:26; 2 Samuel 18:18). In no case where they put in a circle.

The command was through Joshua to the people. ‘Take you (plural).’ It was the people who were to select the twelve men. These twelve men, representatives of each tribe acting on behalf of the people, were then to take from the place where the priests stood with the Ark, in the middle of the Jordan riverbed, twelve stones, and place them where they lodged that night on behalf of the whole people.

“Out of the place where the priests' feet stood firm.” This may signify that the priests very sensibly stood on rocks on the river bed, but it need not mean that those actual rocks had to be selected.

It should be noted that there is no mention of a circle of stones and Gilgal strictly means ‘a rolling’ or ‘the cartwheel’, not specifically a circle. If the account was supposed to explain a famous circle of stones that fact would surely have been made clear. The usual method was piling up stones and there is no reason to doubt that this was so in this case. The pile showed that the twelve tribes had survived and had arrived and camped there.


Verse 4-5

Then Joshua called the twelve men whom he had prepared of the children of Israel, out of every tribe a man, and Joshua said to them, “You, pass over before the Ark of YHWH your God into the midst of Jordan, and take you up every man of you a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel.”

The twelve men whom Joshua had told the tribal leaders to select (Joshua 3:12) were now informed of their purpose. They were to go into the middle of the river where the priests had been standing, and each bring a large stone, small enough for one man to carry but large enough to require shoulder work, to the bank.

“Pass over before the Ark of YHWH your God.” This probably signifies that the Ark was still in the river bed with the priests, and they were to cross to where it was and come ‘before’ it, and gather the stones. This seems the most likely as it was the Ark’s presence that guaranteed that the waters would not flow. It must be seen as probable that these men had re-sanctified themselves for the task, although possibly their previous sanctification (Joshua 3:5) was sufficient, for they alone were allowed near the Ark by divine dispensation (compare the elders on Sinai - Exodus 24:9-11). Alternatively it could mean that the Ark had now been brought to the west bank and they were to enter the river bed again, followed by the priests with the Ark, for the purpose of gathering the stones. This latter is unlikely as the Ark would surely have led the way.

The differing ways of describing the Ark by the attached genitival phrases was to bring out the different aspects of and sacredness of the Ark. It represented the binding covenant, the words of YHWH it represented YHWH Himself as the King on His throne; it represented the covenant of YHWH Himself, it represented the covenant of YHWH their God, it represented the Lord of the whole earth.


Verse 6-7

“That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask in time to come saying, ‘What do you mean by these stones?’ Then you shall say to them, that the waters of Jordan were cut off before the Ark of the covenant of YHWH. When it passed over Jordan the waters of Jordan were cut off, and these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel for ever.”

The stones were intended for a permanent sign to future generations, to remind their children, and their children’s children, of this amazing event. They would be able to stress that the stones came from the bottom of the river when it ceased flowing at YHWH’s command. Note the repetition to bring home to the hearers the important and central fact, ‘the waters of Jordan were cut off’. Repetition was like two witnesses, it stressed the truth that was stated.


Verse 8

And the children of Israel did so, as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones out of the midst of Jordan as YHWH spoke to Joshua, in accordance with the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and they carried them over with them to the place where they lodged and set them down there.’

This was what they had been commanded to do and this was what they did. The overall stress is that they were obedient to what YHWH commanded. They took up twelve stones from the bed of the river, one for each of the tribes of Israel, and carried them to the place where they lodged that night.

Notice the stress that all Israel was involved in the act of the twelve men. The men did it as their representatives, but it was all Israel who were doing it. This was stressed by the plural ‘you’ in Joshua 4:2, and now here.


Verse 9

And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the Ark of the covenant stood, and they are there to this day.’

As well as setting twelve stones from the river on the land, Joshua also arranged for the placing of twelve stones in the river from the land. This was a wise move. The twelve stones on the land could be vandalised or removed by enemies but those in the river, placed so as to be obvious from the shore, would not be likely to be so treated. They may have been placed by the ford so as to be in shallowish water, which may well have been where the priests crossed and stood. The stones were there as replacing the priests. There may well have been twelve priests bearing the Ark as representing the tribes. But every time an Israelite crossed the ford at that point he would see the stones in the water and remember how the priests had stood in the Jordan riverbed with the Ark of YHWH their God, Lord of the whole earth, and how it had been dry.

“They are there to this day.” This could have been said a few years later. It is not necessarily an indication of a long gap. Could this suggest that the stones placed on the land were not in fact there to that day?

Alternatively we could read the whole verse as meaning (to paraphrase and amplify) ‘and Joshua set up the twelve stones which had been laid down (per Joshua 4:8). These were twelve stones which were previously in the midst of Jordan in the place where the feet of the priests which bore the Ark of the covenant stood (as mentioned in Joshua 4:3), until he arranged for them to be taken up and set in their night’s lodging place, and they are there to this day’. So ‘in the midst -- stood’ is seen as explaining which stones were in mind and where they came from. NIV reads it this way. But if it is so it reads very awkwardly.


Verse 10

For the priests who bore the Ark stood in the midst of Jordan, until everything was finished that YHWH commanded Joshua to speak to the people, according to all that Moses commanded Joshua, and the people hurried and passed over.’

Note here the twofold emphasis. Firstly that the people obeyed YHWH in everything that He had commanded through Joshua, and secondly that Joshua behaved uprightly in the way that Moses had commanded him, by obeying YHWH in accordance with the laws of Moses, turning neither to the right hand or to the left (Joshua 1:7 compare Deuteronomy 31:7). In all that Joshua did Moses was behind him and was his mentor.

Note also that the priests stood firmly in the midst of the Jordan with the Ark of the covenant of YHWH until everything was completed. For all would believe that were the Ark to leave the river the waters would flow again. It was only YHWH Who was holding them back.

“And the people hurried and passed over.” There were many of them and many possessions. As hour by hour passed they swarmed over, moving quickly so that those behind might also be able to follow.


Verse 11

And so it was that, when the people were clean crossed over, the Ark of YHWH crossed over, and the priests in front of (in the presence of, in front of the eyes of) the people.’

Once all were over and the stones in the Jordan were in place, and the other stones were on the bank waiting to be set in their night’s lodging-place, then the priest’s finished their crossing, bearing the Ark of YHWH ready for the battle to come (see Joshua 4:11-12), in front of all the people.

“In front of”. ‘In the presence of the people’ or ‘before the people’, compare the use of ‘before’ in Joshua 3:5). It means in front of their very eyes.


Verse 12-13

And the children of Reuben, and the children of Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh, passed over armed before the children of Israel, as Moses spoke to them, about forty eleph ready armed for war, passed over before Yahweh to battle, to the plains of Jericho.’

This is not chronologically placed. The point is that they passed over at some stage in the sight of the people and in the sight of YHWH, ready armed for the coming battle, just as the ‘Ark of YHWH’ had crossed over ready for the battle. This was not just a crossing over, it was a crossing over with a martial purpose.

“To the plains of Jericho.” These were in striking contrast to what they had left. The plains of Jericho were well watered and fruitful, with rich soil, a greenhouse climate and irrigated by perennial waters.

“Forty eleph.” That is, forty fighting units (the word eleph means ‘family’, ‘clan’, ‘sub-tribe’, ‘military unit’, ‘captain’, or ‘thousand’). Compare Judges 5:8; 2 Samuel 10:18. These were all the young fighting men of these tribes, fit and ready to serve Yahweh. The older men and the younger remained to assist their families to settle.


Verse 14

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

That day was the making of Joshua in the eyes of the people more than any other day before or after. It filled them with awe. They recognised that here was one who was entrusted with awesome powers by YHWH, just as Moses had been before him, that Joshua was a second Moses. And they never forgot it.


Verse 15-16

And YHWH spoke to Joshua, saying, “Command the priests who bear the Ark of the testimony, that they come up out of Jordan.” ’

Having described the exit from Jordan of the Ark in verse 11 the writer now amplifies what happened and adds to it the words of Joshua about the event. This repetition and moving onwards is typical of ancient narratives. It occurs regularly throughout the Pentateuch (and is misrepresented by modern commentators as the evidence of sources as though ancient men wrote in the same way as moderns). There were of course possibly sources (such as the Book of Jasher) but not as suggested by the Documentary Theory.

The Ark is here called ‘the Ark of the Testimony’, a regular description only otherwise found in Exodus, although ‘the Ark of Testimony’ is used in Numbers 4:5; Numbers 7:89. It then became ‘the Ark of the covenant of YHWH’ (Numbers 10:33; Numbers 14:44; Deuteronomy 10:8; Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:25 see also Deuteronomy 31:26). This description was thus of great significance. The Ark of the Testimony was the initial description of the Ark which resulted from the revelation of God at Sinai and the giving of His ‘testimony’, His covenant in Exodus 20:1-17. Thus here the description emphasises that YHWH’s spoken ‘testimony’ to Israel was renewed as they entered the land. Jordan had become a new Sinai, where the revelation of YHWH’s power had been revealed, and from which His people would move in the strength of a renewed covenant. This will immediately be followed by the circumcision of the people (Joshua 5:3).


Verse 17

Joshua therefore commanded the priests saying, “You, come up out of Jordan.” ’

The emphasis is on the fact that Joshua did precisely what YHWH commanded. The aim is to bring out Joshua’s instant obedience to YHWH’s commands.


Verse 18

And so it was that when the priests who bore the Ark of the covenant of YHWH came up from the middle of Jordan, and the soles of the priest’s feet were lifted up to the dry ground, the waters of Jordan returned to their place and went over all its banks as previously.’

The removal from the middle of the Jordan, of the Ark with its attendant priests, produced a remarkable effect. For immediately waters began to come down the river bed from the north, steadily increasing until once again they became a river in flood, overflowing its banks. Even the release of the waters were under YHWH’s control. Notice the mention of dry ground. That means completely dry rather than being simply not covered by water.


Verse 19

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

This time note is reminiscent of time notes in the account of the flood (Genesis 8:14), the account of the Exodus (Exodus 16:1) and of similar time notes in the Babylonian flood story. They were clearly ancient practise in such narratives. The tenth day of the first month was the day when Passover lambs had to be set aside (see Joshua 5:10; Exodus 12:3). It was indicating that YHWH had again protected His people. Israel had two dates which were seen as inaugurating a new year, one which began in September/October (Exodus 23:16), the agricultural year, and one which began in March/April. The latter was instituted at the Exodus (Exodus 12:2), a memorial of the great deliverance from Egypt, while the former went back into time immemorial.

The fact that the latter did not fully take over from the former demonstrates the strength of custom. They would always through the centuries think of the agricultural year as beginning in September/October and the redemptive year as beginning in March/April. Until their lives became more regulated by the establishing of a sophisticated royal court it mattered little. As a whole they thought more in terms of seasons than of months. The Canaanites at Ugarit used totally different names for the months of the year, although we only know four names of months in early Hebrew, Abib (Exodus 13:4), Ziv (1 Kings 6:1; 1 Kings 6:37), Ethanim (1 Kings 8:2), and Bul (1 Kings 6:38), three of those coming from the time of Solomon. Usually months were identified by numbers (Genesis 7:11; Genesis 8:4-5; Exodus 12:2; Exodus 19:1; Numbers 33:8; Deuteronomy 1:3).

“They encamped in Gilgal.” Gilgal means ‘a rolling’, therefore ‘that with which one rolls, a cartwheel’. The Israelites were a practical people and thought of wheels as ‘rollers’ rather than as ‘round’. However, from its use scholars have suggested ‘a circle’ and relate it to the stones set up by Joshua, but there is no reason for thinking that Gilgal referred to a circle of stones other than speculation. The stones were in fact probably put in a heap. The description ‘Gilgal’, if it was Canaanite, probably relates to some local phenomenon such as a place where stones were rolled for the purpose of offering sacrifices. It was on the eastern side of Jericho. The watchmen in Jericho must have been terrified as they saw this great army camping there. (There were other Gilgals elsewhere in Canaan (Joshua 12:23; Joshua 15:7) which supports a Canaanite origin for the name).

The site of Gilgal is considered by many to be Khirbet el-Mefjir where evidence of early iron-age occupation has been discovered, and it fits in with the topographical data, as indeed does the whole account. It became a permanent camp for Joshua during his activities in Canaan (Joshua 5:10; Joshua 9:6; Joshua 10:6; Joshua 10:15; Joshua 10:43; Joshua 14:6). No doubt he found great strength from returning to the site of YHWH’s great work, and it was relatively secure form attack, with the east bank possessed by Israel.


Verse 20

‘And those twelve stones which they took out of Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal.’

This was in obedience to YHWH Who had told them that they must be set up at the place where they first lodged (Joshua 4:3). The stones had been carried there and laid there (Joshua 4:8), now Joshua erected them in a pile (or in a line, or even as a memorial altar) and declared their significance and importance for the future. The heap was a witness to the faithfulness of YHWH and His great power (compare Genesis 31:48). It indicated the border of the land and that YHWH watched over the land (compare Genesis 31:49; Genesis 31:52).


Verse 21-22

And he spoke to the children of Israel, saying, “When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What mean these stones?’ Then you shall let your children know saying, ‘Israel came over this Jordan on dry land’.” ’

The stones also stood as a witness to future generations of this amazing event when the people had crossed over the riverbed of Jordan at a time when it was in flood, because YHWH had held back the waters so that they could cross, and had immediately released them once they were across. For the question asked by the children compare Exodus 12:26; Exodus 13:8; Exodus 13:14; Deuteronomy 4:9; Deuteronomy 6:20-21; Deuteronomy 11:19; Deuteronomy 32:7. The teaching of children about YHWH and His activities on their behalf was considered of vital importance in Israel.


Verse 23

For YHWH your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until you were passed over, as YHWH your God did to the Sea of Reeds, which he dried up from before us, until we were passed over.”

Note the change of pronoun to ‘us’. Joshua had been present at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds when they left Egypt, and he now likened the two events. The same God had taken them through the waters then and had brought them through the waters now. He was the same God as the Great Deliverer from Egypt. The two events were constantly linked together in the people’s worship of God (see Psalms 114).

These words are not part of what is to be specifically said to the children although no doubt the gist of them would be conveyed, for, had they been, the same pronouns would have been used throughout.


Verse 24

“That all the people of the earth might know the hand of YHWH, that it is mighty, that they might fear YHWH your God for ever.”

These two great events were not just a witness to the children of Israel but to the whole world far and wide. They too would be made to recognise the great power of YHWH, and learn to ‘fear’ Him (compare Deuteronomy 28:10), especially when One Who was greater than all would one day come up out of that Jordan to become a witness to and sacrifice for that world.

For the fear of YHWH compare Deuteronomy 6:2; Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 5:29. Joshua was steeped in the ancient traditions and especially in Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy. It signified reverent awe. We too must remember that like them we must love God and fear Him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. He is not to be treated lightly.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Joshua 4:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/joshua-4.html. 2013.

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