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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
Joshua 3





Joshua and the people come to Jordan: the priests go before, bearing the ark; which standing on the bank of Jordan, the waters are divided, and all the people pass through the river as on dry ground.

Before Christ 1451.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. And Joshua rose early in the morning, &c.— Early the next morning, after he had ordered the army to make all necessary provision for speedily entering the enemy's country, (chap. Joshua 1:10-11.) he raised the camp; and the Israelites, who were at Shittim from the fifth day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year after their departure out of Egypt, advanced to the banks of the Jordan.

And lodged there before they passed over The French version renders this, and lodged there that night; and the Vulgate, they came to Jordan, where they tarried three days. The truth is, that the Hebrew word jalinu, signifies not only to pass the night, but also to tarry some time; to stop. Every one agrees, that God chose that the miraculous passage of the Jordan should be performed in the day-time, either that the prodigy might be more incontestable, or that it might spread more terror among the Canaanites.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. And—after three days—the officers went through the host Not that they passed through it after the people had continued three days on the banks of the Jordan, but at the end of the three days mentioned chap. Joshua 1:10-11 in which we follow Usher's calculation. Immediately on Joshua's taking upon him the conduct of Israel, he sent spies to make a discovery of Jericho and its environs: after which, he proclaimed in the camp, that they were to prepare themselves for marching at the first notice; and three days after this proclamation, he issued a second, which is that now in question.

Verse 3

Ver. 3. When ye see the ark—and the priests the Levites bearing it See Numbers 4:15. The Levites of the family of Kohath were appointed to the office of carrying the ark of the covenant; but, in extraordinary cases, this care was committed to the priests, who are here called the Levites, for a reason given in a former place. See Deuteronomy 17:9.

Then ye shall remove, &c.— Whereas in common marches the ark was carried in the middle of the camps, as we read Numbers 2:17. God on this occasion would have it carried in the front, or at the head of the whole army, as it had been at the first march which was made on leaving mount Sinai. Numbers 10:33.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. There shall be a space, &c.— The ark here supplying, in some measure, the place of the miraculous cloud which had guided the Israelites in their several encampments, and which, for that purpose, had always marched before them; it was necessary that it should be carried at the head of the people. But, on the other hand, whereas in the common marches there was little space between the ark and the body of the army, God, on this occasion, required the Israelites to leave betwixt it and the head of their camp a distance of about 2000 cubits, i.e. 3500 feet, more or less; for, in a great army, the marshalling can hardly be perfect. But wherefore this disposition? Why this distance between the ark and the camp of the Israelites? The reason is evident from the words immediately following: it was in order that the Israelites might know the way, &c. in order that it might serve as a signal to the whole army, instead of the miraculous pillar, which then probably ceased to conduct the Israelites in their marches. We may also add two other reasons: First, That God was desirous it should appear in a sensible manner to all Israel, that the sacred symbol of his presence had no need of a guard; that it could run no risk from enemies, at what distance soever from the army; and, consequently, that the Israelites themselves had nothing to apprehend under so high a protection. Secondly, That, by this arrangement, God chose to remove from the Israelites every pretence for looking closely into this sacred ark, which, most probably, was uncovered in the passage over Jordan; whereas in common marches it was covered with several veils. Calmet observes, that the words, come not near unto it, are not in the Hebrew; and he confines the sense of the words addressed by Joshua to the Israelites to this: "Be cautious of approaching the ark; follow it afar off, without deviating from the way which it will shew you: for it goes before to open you a new and extraordinary road," &c.

Verse 5

Ver. 5. And Joshua said unto the people He also spake to the people the night before their passage over the Jordan; and as the matter was important, it is very evident that he went himself from tribe to tribe to give the orders in question.

Sanctify yourselves Though the sacred historian does not say in what this sanctification was to consist, there is scarcely room to doubt that it was in the same things as God had already required on similar occasions; Genesis 35:2. Exodus 19:10-11. Numbers 9:18. But to these purifications we are to add the purification of the mind and heart, of which the former were but symbols and assistants. The essential point was, to prepare themselves, by recollection and prayer, to behold the marvellous effects of the divine power with becoming respect, fear, gratitude, confidence, and devotion; without which, in vain had the Israelites washed their clothes, and shunned all kinds of corporeal impurities: so that there is no doubt that the purification of the soul was what Joshua principally required of them.

Verse 7

Ver. 7. And the Lord said unto Joshua It was not merely of himself, that Joshua gave to the priests the orders mentioned in the foregoing verse. Immediately on the priests' approaching the sanctuary, a voice issued from it, and spake to Joshua as in this and the subsequent verse. This day, viz. the

10th of the first month, called Nisan, was the day on which the law enjoined the paschal lamb to be set apart from the flock, to be offered four days after.

Will I begin, &c.— "This day, after having raised thee to the rank which Moses occupied, I proceed to signalize the first-fruits of thy ministry by prodigies, which shall convince all Israel that thou art the lawful interpreter of my commands, the respectable executor of my counsels; and that they are to place no less confidence in thee, than they did in Moses." It is remarkable, that from the time of Moses to that of Saul, God always signified to the people by some miracle the choice he had made of the person who was to govern them.

Verse 8

Ver. 8. When ye are come to the brink, &c.— The Hebrew is, so soon as ye are come to the extremity of the water: by which we are certainly to understand the eastern limit of the river, whose waters were now out beyond the banks; just as if Joshua had said to the priests, "Without waiting till you are entered into the common bed of Jordan, as soon as your feet are wetted with its waters, stop, and there rest, till you see what the divine power will effect." Some able interpreters understand here, by the extremity of the water, the western bank of the river; supposing, that the priests had order to cross the river immediately, without stopping till they came to the other side of the land: while others conjecture, that the priests remained upon the eastern bank of the Jordan till all the people were gone over. We prefer, however, the opinion of those, who say, that the priests, having first wetted their feet in the waters of the Jordan, stopped there some time, till, one part of the waters having run off, they advanced into the middle of the channel, and did not go from thence till the whole people had passed over. This explanation seems to be the most simple, and the best adapted to the words of this verse, compared with those of ver. 15.

Verse 9-10

Ver. 9, 10. And Joshua said to the children of Israel, &c.— After giving God's orders to the priests, Joshua communicated them to the Israelites at the door of the tabernacle, making them sensible of their felicity in a dependance upon a Deity who was the living God, in opposition to the idols of the heathen, who were as impotent as lifeless; whereas the LORD, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, did whatever pleased him. He insists on this great God's being among them; that is, that he protected them in a singular manner, and that the miracles which he was about to perform in their sight, to facilitate their passage over the Jordan, would be a sure warrant for the accomplishment of the promises he had given them, of subduing to their arms the seven nations which inhabited the land of Canaan.

Verse 12

Ver. 12. Now, therefore, take ye twelve men, &c.— Whenever the Scripture speaks of the twelve tribes, that of Levi is comprised in them, except in those places which respect the division of the territories of the land of Canaan; in which last case the tribe of Levi is excluded, but that of Joseph makes two, viz. Manasseh and Ephraim. This taking a man out of each tribe was to do what we shall observe afterwards, ch. Joshua 4:2, &c.

Verse 13

Ver. 13. The waters of Jordan shall be cut off, &c.— "The moment that the priests, bearing the ark, shall set foot in the waters of Jordan, that river shall open a wide passage over against the place where they enter on your right, towards the head or springs of the flood: the course of the waters being suspended, they shall accumulate, and form, as it were, a wall, not a drop being suffered to run down; while, on your left, they shall flow on to the Dead Sea, and thus leave dry a considerable extent of the river's channel."

"With respect to the rivers, (says Dr. Shaw, in his Travels,) the Jordan is not only the most considerable in the Holy Land, but, next to the Nile, is by far the largest I have seen either in the Levant or Barbary. I could not, however, compute it to be more than thirty yards broad; but this is made up by its depth, which even at the brink I found to be nine feet. If then we take this, during the whole year, for the mean depth of the stream, which runs about two miles an hour, the Jordan will daily discharge into the Dead Sea about 6,090,000 tuns of water. Such a quantity of water daily received without increasing the limits of that sea or lake, has made some conjecture, that it is absorbed by the burning sands; and others, that it is carried off through subterraneous cavities; or that it has a communication with the Serbonic Lake. But if the Dead Sea is, according to the general computation, 72 miles long, and 18 broad, by allowing, according to Mr. Halley's observation, 6914 tons of vapour for every square mile, there will be daily drawn up in clouds to refresh the earth with rain or dew 8,960,000 tons, which is near one third more than is brought into it by this river."

"As to the bitumen for which this lake has been always remarkable, I was told, that it is raised at certain times from the bottom in large hemispheres, which, on their touching the surface, and being acted on by the external air, burst with great smoke and noise, and disperse themselves in a thousand pieces. This, however, only happens near the shore; for in greater depths the eruptions are supposed to discover themselves only in the columns of smoke that are sometimes observed to arise from the lake. This bitumen is probably accompanied, on its rising, with sulphur; as both are found promiscuously on the shore. The latter exactly resembles common native sulphur; and the former is brittle, yielding, upon friction, or being set on fire, a fetid smell; it is also as black as jet, and exactly of the same shining appearance."

REFLECTIONS.—God, being now about to bring his people into the land of promise under their new general, is pleased,

1. To put a mark of distinguished honour upon him, by speaking to him from the mercy-seat, before the ark was removed; assuring him publicly of his presence with him at the banks of Jordan, as distinguishably as it had been with Moses at the Red Sea; and the priests themselves are to be under his direction, and receive their orders from him. Note; (1.) Those who honour God, he will honour. (2.) It was at Bethabara, the place where Joshua passed, that Jesus was baptized, and entered upon his ministry of bringing God's Israel to their rest in glory. (3.) It is the duty of magistrates to stir up ministers to their work, as it should be their delight to be ready to execute every plan proposed for the good of immortal souls.

2. Joshua communicates to the people God's design of dividing the waters of Jordan, and, from such a miraculous instance of God's favour to them, infers the certain victory which they should gain over all their enemies. He, who went before them down into Jordan, would go up before them utterly to expel the nations of Canaan; and when they had seen with their eyes the waters dried up, they might no more doubt their possessing the land whither they were thus led. Note; The wondrous preservations and the repeated mercies that every believer is daily receiving from God, should be improved as a comfortable ground of confidence in futurity. He who leads us through the dangers of to-day will preserve us amid the trials of to-morrow; and as we have found him our support in life, we shall also find him our strength and comfort in death.

Verses 14-16

Ver. 14-16. And it came to pass, when the people removed from their tents, &c.— This was on Friday the 10th of the first month of Abib, or Nisan, which answers to our 30th of April. On this great day we see the people of Israel, preceded by the priests bearing the ark, begin their march towards Jordan, and every thing that Joshua had foretold accomplished in the most marvellous manner. See Univ. Hist. and Bedford's Scripture Chronology.

Verse 15

Ver. 15. (Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest)— The Jordan overflows at the time of barley harvest, (1 Chronicles 12:15.) at the beginning of the summer, contrary to other rivers, which are never higher than in winter, those rivers in Europe excepted, whose source being in high mountains, covered for a long time with snow, they are never more swelled than in summer. The melting of the snows on Lebanon, at the foot of which are the springs of the Jordan, causes this increase of its waters. It does not, however, always happen at the beginning of the summer. Maundrell, who was upon the banks of the river on the 30th of March 1697, found it no way swelled; but, as he says, perhaps the force of its current, which is very rapid, may have rendered the channel deeper; or the Jordan may now diffuse its streams into some other place than that where this accurate and learned traveller crossed it. See Travels, p. 82. Doubdan, who was there in 1652, about the latter end of April, saw its waters disturbed, and ready to overflow. We can neither contest the fact, therefore, nor elude the consequence of it; viz. that the miracle of the passage through this river dry-shod was so much the greater, as it happened not at a time when its waters were low, and in a narrow channel, but, on the contrary, when, swelled by the melting of the snows, they rose above its banks. Besides, what Maundrell observes of the great rapidity and width of the Jordan, is confirmed by various credible travellers. Its channel is no less than sixty feet wide in the narrowest parts. It is not surprizing, therefore, that the Scripture, and profane authors, speak of it always as of a great river; and though it should be much smaller now than anciently, this is nothing to be wondered at, when we consider how many other changes have happened upon the surface of the globe. We cannot conclude this note without remarking, that what we before said respecting the Jordan, on Genesis 13:11 needs a supplement. The celebrated Reland derives its name from Jadar, which signifies to descend, to flow, and he gives it but one source, namely, the lake Phiala; asserting this to be the opinion of Josephus, Antiq. lib. iii. c. 18. lib. viii. c. 3. though the matter is much disputed; and Mr. Roque, in his Travels to Syria and mount Lebanon, seems to have solidly confuted that opinion, shewing that Josephus commonly speaks of the origin of the Jordan under the name of Fountains, in the plural number; Antiq. lib. v. c. 1, 2. lib. xv. c. 13. and lib. xviii. c. 3. to which he adds the testimony of several modern travellers respecting the two sources of the Jordan. The Arabs, at this time, call the river Arden and Ordonnon; and the Persians Herdum. In the geographical account of Nubia, it goes by the name of Zaccar, which, in Arabic, signifies full and swelled; epithets which perfectly agree with this river.

See commentary on Joshua 3:14

Verse 16

Ver. 16. The waters which came down from above, stood, &c.— Instead of continuing their course, being arrested by the divine hand, they accumulated, and formed as it were a mountain, which is the rendering of the Vulgate. Or else, as we may plainly conceive, being obliged to go back towards their source, they rose up in heaps for a vast way backward, very far, as the text expresses it, from the city of Adam, which is beside Zaretan. This city of Adam is not known; and the situation of Zaretan is in dispute.

Perhaps the most probable account that can be given, is, that Zaretan was placed to the west of the Jordan, a little below Bethsan, or Scythopolis, which stood opposite to Succoth; 1 Kings 4:12; 1 Kings 7:46. Now Succoth lay on the other side of the river, (see Genesis 33:17. Joshua 13:27.) not far from the lake of Gennezareth; consequently, Adam was on the east side, but more northerly than Succoth. Now, as the Israelites crossed the Jordan, as it is supposed, by the borders of Bethabara, where St. John afterwards baptized, (see on ver. 17.) the waters must have gone back the whole computed distance from Bethabara to Zaretan.

And those that came down toward the sea of the plain—failed That is, the waters which were below the place where the Israelites passed, continued to flow, and lose themselves in the sea of the plain, otherwise called the Salt or Dead Sea; thus leaving dry a great part of the river's channel. From the place where the waters stopped, down to the Dead Sea, is reckoned sixteen or eighteen miles. Such, therefore, was the breadth of the passage which opened to the Israelites, opposite to, and in the face of the city of Jericho.

See commentary on Joshua 3:14

Verse 17

Ver. 17. And the priests—stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, &c.— Being come to the middle of the channel, they remained there till the whole of the people were gone over, and waited the orders of Joshua to rejoin the army. We apprehend that the passage was effected thus: The priests, bearing the ark at two thousand cubits distance from the camp, being arrived at the river's side, its waters divided from one shore to the other. While the miracle was performing, they stopped; and then the division of the waters being finished, those above to their right being filled up, and those below having run off, the priests again moved forward, entered the channel of the river, and confidently posted themselves in the midst, at a nearly equal distance from the two shores, where they remained till the tribes, who filed off about two thousand cubits below, had entirely crossed over, and gained the other bank: so that the ark kept between the heaped-up waters, and the people, as if to preserve the latter, and confirm them against the fear of their unexpected return. Some authors represent the whole people as divided into two columns, and so passing on each side the ark, at two thousand cubits distance. But this is entirely without proof. The constancy of the priests, on this occasion, bears very honourable testimony to their faith: for we may suppose that it took up a considerable time for the passage of six hundred thousand fighting men, beside the numerous people that accompanied them, with their baggage and provisions. The place where the Israelites crossed, has since gone by the before-mentioned name of Bethabara, which signifies house of the passage. It is spoken of John 1:28.

Thus then was accomplished that memorable event, the circumstances of which we have endeavoured to explain, and the fame whereof in every respect merited a transmission to posterity. I. The truth of the fact cannot be disputed by those who believe the Scriptures. To deny that the Israelites crossed the Jordan dry-shod, as Joshua relates it, would be to belie the authenticity of the sacred records. Much less, II. can one help remarking in this event divers miraculous circumstances. The waters of the river suspended and forced to go back in part toward their source; its channel instantly dried up, and none of the neighbouring towns appearing to have been immersed by the inundations of the floods; repulsed as they were to so considerable a distance; the time which God chose for the working of this miracle, when, by the melting of the snows, the river was swelled beyond its banks; the prediction of Joshua respecting the event; the supernatural terror which hindered the inhabitants of Jericho from laying the least obstacle in the way of the Israelites' passage through the river, which served them as a bulwark: all these circumstances, and others which concurred, allow us not to overlook the infinite power of the Lord of the whole earth; of that same hand, which, forty years before, had opened to the Israelites a passage through the very depths of the Red Sea. In vain is the attempt to depreciate this miracle, by comparing it with some events recorded in profane history. Who knows not that winds, and other natural causes, have frequently turned rivers backward to their source? But not to mention that history says nothing of any winds stopping the waters of Jordan, what wind could have retained them so long? retained one part, and let the other part flow off; and displayed this power at a fixed time, foreseen and foretold? Have then the worshippers of the true God less reason to believe his power great enough for the performance of such a miracle, than the heathens had to attribute to their gods miracles entirely similar? The latter were mistaken in the facts, and ascribed to their idols a power of which they were incapable: but what difficulty can there be for the God of heaven and earth to suspend the course of those laws of nature whereof he is the author? III. To conclude: It cannot be said, that we here suppose a miracle unnecessarily. On the passage of the Jordan depended, in a great measure, the conquest of the land of Canaan. The people of that country apprehended themselves perfectly secure behind that deep and rapid flood; and the use of pontoons, or bridges of boats, which we now employ for crossing of rivers, being then unknown, there was no probability that three millions of souls should venture to undertake to ford it. This sudden opening of a passage to the Israelites through the channel of the river, therefore, was a decisive stroke; it was to inspire them with courage for every attempt; it was, on the other hand, to throw their enemies into a terror and fright, of which it was easy to foresee the consequences. At the report of the waters of Jordan being miraculously separated, to facilitate the passage of God's people, their hearts melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel; chap. Joshua 5:1. See Scheuchzer, Physique sacree in loc. and Grew's Cosmol. Sacr. lib. iv. c. 5.

REFLECTIONS.—Now was the glorious power of God to be magnified for his Israel. Advancing under his orders, though no way appeared, the priests reached the bank of the river, which was at this time much wider and deeper than usual. But no sooner had their feet touched the waters, than they fled before them; part rolled backward to their source, part ran down into the lake of Sodom, and left a space of sixteen or eighteen miles dry, for the ransomed of the Lord to pass over. Note; (1.) The greatness of our difficulties shall only the more magnify the power of God in overcoming them for us. (2.) When we have an interest in a covenant God, and follow in simplicity the ark Christ, we shall find the passage of death as easy, as to Israel it was to pass through the bed of the river when the waters were dried up. To assure the people of the safety of the passage, God's ark stands in the midst till all are passed over: to encourage them to venture through, God's priests, as they entered first, stay till the last man has gained the opposite shore. Note; God's ministers must be the first to brave danger, and the last to regard their own safety. The place of their passage was opposite to Jericho, and not a man was lost by the way. It could not but strike terror and confusion into their enemies to see such a miracle; it could not fail at the same time to inspire themselves with confidence of success. What city could stand before those to whom the very elements ministered, and whom the omnipotent God led as their captain! Note; Nothing can withstand the faithful believer in his passage to glory: in vain the world, or sin, or death, obstruct the way; God will cleave before him the deep waters, and make him more than conqueror.


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Joshua 3:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.

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Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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