Joshua: Chapter 3 - Crossing the Jordan

Bible Study @ Hurst Gospel Hall

Author: John Whitmarsh
Added: 2007-10-16

Chapter 3 has to be considered along with chapter 4. The title for both chapters 3 were thought out long before the notes were written and perhaps 'fear overcomes faith' may have been more apt for chapter 3 and 'Remember, remember' for chapter 4.

In the introduction to the whole book we noticed that the words ark, Jordan, pass and priests were often used.

'Ark' is mentioned ten times in this chapter alone (and seven times in the next chapter). The ark is extremely important in this chapter and the next.

Jordan is mentioned 11 times in this chapter (and 17 times in the next - 34 of the 70 mentions in the whole book are found in the first four chapters).

The next word is a little more difficult as phrases like 'it shall come to pass' are different from 'clean passed over'. The former phrase occurs three times in this chapter (3.2, 13 and 14) and three times in the next (4.1, 11 and 18). It is the 'passing over' phrase that is important. It occurs eight times in this chapter and thirteen times in the next. This statement needs some qualification as this will not be noticed in the AV. In chapter four the word for 'carry' and 'carried' in verses 3 and 8 is the same as that used for 'pass over' (awbar). This is also true of the phrase 'came over' in 4.22 and 'gone over' in 4.23. This whole idea of passing over or crossing over is impressed upon us in these two chapters. Whilst we are on this subject it is interesting to notice that the same word, awbar, is used in Exodus 12 for 'passing through the land' whilst a different word is used in the phrase I will pass over you.'

'Priests' are mentioned 15 times in the two chapters (eight of them in chapter 4). The priests' involvement in the events of the two chapters is of utmost importance.

What do we learn from Joshua 3 for our lives in the 21st century? Romans 15.4 says that we should learn something, 'For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.' In what sense was Joshua 3 written for my learning today?

Joshua 3 is the story of the triumph of faith over fear that took the children of Israel over Jordan. They had got close in the past but instead of listening to the two spies in Numbers 14 they decided to listen to the ten and, consequently, they wandered for years in the wilderness. The giants that they feared all those years beforehand were surely the same. The apprehension that had caused them to waste time and energy in the wilderness when they could have been in the enjoyment of the land was still there. And yet there is no mention of 'be not afraid' in this chapter. That is the language of chapter 1. It is as if the matter of fear has been raised in chapter 1 and that now is the moment for fear to be defeated. Fear is debilitating and paralysing. Fear of whatever will cause the believer of this age to miss out on the blessing that God has for us now. He wants us to enjoy the blessings of eternal life in this life.

It is not only in spiritual things but in the natural realm that we also fear. Sometimes we face a new situation that we have never experienced before (verse 4). With fear and trepidation we enter into it. It may be the crossing over of a new school or university, the crossing over of leaving home, the crossing over of getting married. There are so many times when life changes for us and we are anxious about what the future holds. The fear of the unknown was what undid the children of Israel when the twelve spies were sent the first time. Now two spies have been sent and the report that has come back is favourable. It was for the people of God to believe the word for without that faith they would have stayed on the other side of Jordan.

Whenever it is that we face a venture or an adventure (both these words imply risk of some kind or other) we always use terms in the English language that are connected with the dangers, fears and uncertainties that are associated with water - taking the plunge, jumping in at the deep end, testing the water, out of one's depth and dipping the toe in. Perhaps it is because we realise that still waters run deep. There are so many natural fears associated with water. So many of these new and fearful situations are such that we do not know what to expect until we try the thing out. It is often said that omelettes cannot be made without eggs being cracked. Someone, John Ortberg by name, has taken this analogy further in his book entitled If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat. Perhaps we could take this further in Joshua 3 - if they wanted to cross over the river Jordan they had to get their feet wet. If we want to receive the blessing and come into the good of the land and the inheritance that God wants us to enjoy now we have to get our feet wet. Joshua 1 puts it this way, 'Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that I have given you.' Before the soles of their feet could touch the promised land the soles of their feet had to rest on the water. The promise is in place but when there is a river between us and the blessing there is a need to cross over. There is a need to get our feet wet. That is why courage was the message in chapter 1. It needs courage and dependence upon God to enjoy the blessings that He affords.

These are the basic principles of the chapter but let's see what the detail of the chapter teaches us:

3:1 And Joshua rose early in the morning; and they removed from Shittim, and came to Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over.

Rising early in the morning is mentioned on a number of other occasions in the first eight chapters of Joshua (3.1; 6.12, 15; 7.16; 8.10, 14) and Joshua is involved in them all. It was his initiative to remove from Shittim to the Jordan. This was a distance of some miles and difficult terrain had to be negotiated. There were many people to move toward the river. The phrase 'they removed to the river' is a simple phrase that describes a complex operation for all the people were involved. There was a need to rise early in the morning. There was a need for all the people to get going quickly. They were to get to the brink of Jordan and rest, lodge there. The idea in the word lodge is to pass the night there. The miracle of crossing over the Jordan was to take place during the day in the sight of all the people within Jericho.

3:2 And it came to pass after three days, that the officers went through the host;

This period of three days may be the same as that already mentioned in chapter 1. This does not appear to be an extra three days that was spent at the water's edge. The officers passing through the host is also common to chapter 1 (verses 10 and 11 - this is where the three days was mentioned as well).

3:3 And they commanded the people, saying, When ye see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it.

The officers were told to command the people in chapter 1 and they did the same here in chapter 3. It was the sight of the ark being borne by the Levites that was to get the people moving. The ark was to move and then the people were to move and follow it. Again the phraseology here is simple but the logistics of moving a large group of people, or, more accurately, the people moving themselves in an orderly fashion behind the ark bearers must have been phenomenal.

But there is a principle here. If, as verse 4 tells us, there is to be a new experience then we must make sure to follow the ark. It does not say that they were to follow the priests who bore the ark but to follow the ark itself ('go after it'). We as priests are to bear the ark and to uphold the Saviour in our ministrations but we must always remember that we are weak and fallible. If we look to our fellow ministers and not to the ark we may well go wrong but if we look off unto Jesus we can never go wrong all the while that we do so. We are to keep our eyes focussed upon the ark to know the way to go. It is the secret of a successful journey through life.

3:4 Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go: for ye have not passed this way heretofore *.

The ark is a picture of the Lord Jesus. We must ever keep that in our minds as we consider the many references to the ark in these next two chapters. We must keep our eyes focussed upon the Lord Jesus. It will save us from making the errors in life that can cause us so much pain and remorse.

But why keep our distance? Surely He wants us to abide in Him. There is no distance involved in that. That is union and not separation. We appreciate His nearness and indwelling. But there is a sense in which we need to keep a certain distance between ourselves and the Lord Jesus. There are things about Him which God has not revealed. Many have tried to delve into that which we are not told of the Lord Jesus. They come up with fanciful theories for things of which we have been told absolutely nothing. In so doing they touch holy things and, in doing so, do that which God has not permitted us to do. It is sad when the world comes up with all sorts of fanciful ideas about the Lord Jesus that are not based on anything in the scriptures but it far worse when this is done by those who profess to love Him.

The distance was to be 2000 cubits or a thousand yards, over half a mile. There came a time when the ark had to be transported by cart. II Sam 6:3, 'And they set the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was in Gibeah: and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drave the new cart.' Verse 6-7, 'And when they came to Nachon's threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.' God guarded that ark jealously and so must we. God guards the person of Christ and has told what we need to know. To add to the revelation, no matter the honesty of the intention, is dangerous and can lead to error. There is enough to occupy us in the scripture and to 'defend the honour of His name, the glory of His cross.' There is something holy about that ark that makes us wary of 'touching the holy thing.' (Numbers 4.15) Uzzah's intentions may well have been wholesome and good but his actions resulted in his death.

There is another aspect to keeping our distance. Crowding in upon the ark would have meant that there would have been fewer people able to see the ark as it was carried as there were a lot of people present. The golden ark would have glistened and shone in the sun and those who took up the rear would have known exactly where to follow. Was it covered as it was carried (see Numbers 4.5-15 where the Kohathites carried the ark)? There is no need for us to crowd Him out so that others see us and not Him. Sadly there are some people who, frankly, want to be seen so much instead of the Saviour being seen that the people who follow do not follow the Saviour but the man.

This was a new experience for these people and they were unequipped for it. The Red Sea may have been crossed in miraculous circumstances but not by the people of this generation. Ahead of them lay a flooded plain and no visible way of crossing the river. Everything looked impossible. Beyond the swelling tide of the Jordan lay the walled city of Jerusalem and they had no military hardware to effect a siege. Experienced they may have been of many things that took place in the wilderness but this was altogether different. As mentioned in the introduction there are many new experiences to face throughout life's journey and in many instances we are unequipped to face the difficulties that come across our pathway. 'Ye have not passed this way heretofore.'

And yet God wants to take us through each new experience. Faith is the key. Faith is the substantiating of things hoped for; the evidence, the proving, of things not seen. Any new experience is, by definition, something that we have not encountered before. We may have heard a person recount what happens as one and another pass through such experiences but they relay another's trials and how they were overcome. It is for each individual to prove God or otherwise in each new trial.

One last thing. There is a sense in which 'heretofore' can mean the day before yesterday or three days ago. It may well be that the officers had in mind the preparations that were made over the previous few days.

3:5 And Joshua said unto the people, Sanctify yourselves: for to morrow the LORD will do wonders among you.

It was Joshua and not the officers who spoke the words in verse 5. If the first principle given by the officers was never to take one's eyes off the ark and allow a distance between oneself and the ark to allow the ark to be seen by others, then the next was to sanctify oneself. The blessing does not come through casual behaviour. If we want to see the wonders then the conditions must be right. The idea in sanctification is setting apart, making holy. There has been no mention of sanctification in the preparations of chapter 1. Often the preparation by way of sanctification was to be a three day event (Exodus 19.10-15).

The wonders were to happen the next day.

3:6 And Joshua spake unto the priests, saying, Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people. And they took up the ark of the covenant, and went before the people.

Joshua spoke these words too. He spoke to the priests this time and presumably on the day after he said the things that he said in verse 5. Now was the time to move and the priests were the ones to move first. They were not to move without that ark. The word of God is clear. They did exactly as they were told. There is yet another principle of faith here. If we wish to see God's hand at work then there must be obedience. Some may say that the word came from Joshua and that it was not God's word. They reason that God did not speak until the next verse and that word was to Joshua alone. But the word that came to Joshua was because he was putting into practice the will of God. Joshua was obedient and he wanted the priests and the people to be obedient as well.

3:7 And the LORD said unto Joshua, This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee.

We have seen this before in chapter 1 - God speaking directly to Joshua. Joshua was about to be magnified in the sight of all Israel. In chapter 1 the promise was given to Joshua for his own assurance - There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of thy life: as I was with Moses so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee. The middle clause of 1.5 is repeated here but with the preface, 'that they (all Israel) may know that...' It was important for Joshua to know that God was to be with him. It was important for him to know that nothing was going to change as far as divine support of the leader was concerned despite there being, of necessity, a change to Joshua himself as leader. But it was also important for Joshua to know that the process was starting whereby he as leader was going to be accepted by the nation of Israel. The fourteenth verse of the next chapter says, '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.'

3:8 And thou shalt command the priests that bear the ark of the covenant, saying, When ye are come to the brink of the water of Jordan, ye shall stand still in Jordan.

Joshua was specifically told to command the priests to do something and that was not to bear the ark but that, when bearing the ark, they were to stand still in Jordan as soon as they reached its brink. Surely we are reminded of an earlier incident. Exodus 14.13, 'And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will show to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever.' But there is one major difference in that there was not such a thing as the priesthood in the early chapters of the book of Exodus and the idea of a priest is only introduced by pattern after chapter 25. The people were not to stand still in the water but on the dry land.

In Joshua 3 the priests act on behalf of the people. They were the ones bearing the ark. They were the ones who led the way. They were the ones who went to the brink of the Jordan and watched as its waters were rolled back as soon as they put their feet into the water. There was no rod as with Moses. It was not just Moses and God as in Exodus 14 but Joshua had to work in cooperation with these priests. In Exodus 14 it is God working without the children of Israel. Exodus 14.14 says, 'The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.' However, Hebrews 11.29 says, 'By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned.' There seems to be little faith on the part of the people in Exodus 14. True they walked in the direction of the water but by that time the path across the water was made clear for the Lord had divided the waters during the night. Could it be that it was the faith of Moses that carried them all across?

But in Joshua there are those who have to stand in the water when all that they could see was water. There was no way across or through the water when they were to stand in the water. They had to stand still in Jordan. They had to take their stand (the literal meaning of the word) in Jordan. Faith has to takes its stand. This was faith as they knew they were on their way to Jericho via the Jordan even though it is interesting to note that Hebrews 11 talks only of the fall of Jericho but not of the passage over Jordan. We would have thought that Hebrews 11 would have credited the children of Israel (or at least the priests) with faith rather than the incident referred to in Exodus 14. It should also be pointed out that Hebrews 11 does not say that it was by their faith that they passed through the Red sea. It took great faith to stand in the water in Joshua 3. We must never belittle the faith that they showed on that occasion.

3:9 And Joshua said unto the children of Israel, Come hither, and hear the words of the LORD your God.

As in chapter 1 it was for Joshua to relay the words to the children of Israel.

3:10 And Joshua said, Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Hivites, and the Perizzites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Jebusites.

By 'hereby' Joshua meant by the passage across the Jordan. God's mighty power demonstrated in this great act would mean that the children of Israel would never need to fear anything again. Certainly there would be no need to fear the 'seven nations'. That's how God described these nations. Deuteronomy 7.1 says, 'When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou.' The order given in Deuteronomy 7 is different from that in Joshua 3.

The Canaanites were merchants, traders. Joshua 5.1 lets us know that these people were 'by the sea' and Joshua 11.3 says that they lived east and west. The Hittites have already been mentioned in Joshua (1.4). This verse indicates that these Hittites occupied the land that we know as Syria and on into Turkey. But there was another group also known as the Hittites and these can be described as the Hittites of Canaan. These were the descendants of someone called Heth (Genesis 10.15) and they lived in the Hebron district in the south of the land. Genesis 23.10 says, 'And Ephron dwelt among the children of Heth: and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the audience of the children of Heth...' The Hivites were descendants of another of Canaan's sons, 'And Canaan begat Sidon his firstborn, and Heth, and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgashite, and the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, and the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad.' Genesis 10.15-18. Joshua 11 lets us know that the Hivite dwelled in Hermon and we know that this mountain is up near modern day Lebanon. The Perizzites are first mentioned in Genesis 13.7 where they are described as fellow dwellers in the land with the Canaanites. The name means 'of the open country' and it is no surprise to learn from Joshua 11.3 again that, along with the Amorites, the Hittites and the Jebusites, they dwelled in the mountains. The Girgashites were descendants of Canaan. The Amorites were also hill dwellers and lived on either side of the Jordan with influence as far as Babylon. The Jebusite were the Canaanitish people who lived in the mountains around Jerusalem. Jebus was a name given to Jerusalem (Joshua 18.16 and 28 give the name as Jebusi).

All these nations were to fall before the Israelites due to the power of God with them and the children of Israel were to know this by what was about to happen. God was taking them a step at a time. Joshua had the crossing of Jordan in his mind as he spoke although God has not, as yet, revealed what was to happen as far as the people were concerned. It was now Joshua's privilege to tell them what was going to take place.

3:11 Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passeth over before you into Jordan.

The words that Joshua spoke were spoken at the time that the move was made toward the Jordan's edge. 'Look,' Joshua said, 'The ark of the covenant is passing over ahead of you into Jordan.'

3:12 Now therefore take you twelve * men out of the tribes of Israel, out of every tribe a man.

Twelve men were to be taken from among the tribes, one per tribe. We are not told until the next chapter what the men were selected to do. 4.2-3 says, 'Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man, 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 places, where ye shall lodge this night.'

3:13 And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off from the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand upon an heap.

There was to be no overnight east wind as in Exodus 14. The waters that swell the Jordan at that time of the year (see verse 15) come from the north as the snows on the peaks of the mountains melt. The waters truly come down from above!! Does this verse mean that there were two sets of waters - one that was the usual river Jordan and the extra waters that came at flood time? The river itself may have been deep and the flood waters would have been shallow according to the geography of the Jordan valley (see separate document). Mr. Darby translates the verse, 'And it shall come to pass, when the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, the lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan, the waters flowing down from above, shall be cut off, and shall stand in a heap.' This translation makes the waters that flow down from above one and the same as the Jordan. Whatever the case, the waters further to the north of the Jordan at Jericho/Shittim were to 'stand upon an heap'. Remember that Exodus 15.8 says, 'And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.'

All this was to take place as soon as the soles of the priests' feet rested in the waters of the Jordan. By the way it says nothing of the priests having to go into the water until they were up to their ankles. As soon as the soles of their feet rested on the surface of the water God was going to act God was going to wait until the expression of faith was manifest in the priests' presence in the water. All this was revealed to the people before they set off for Jericho via the river Jordan that was flooded. But the people had to believe what they told by Joshua. They had to set off and the priests at the head of the line had to dip their toes into the water. Nothing was going to happen until the soles of their feet touched the water.

3:14 And it came to pass, when the people removed from their tents, to pass over Jordan, and the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people;

The camp was broken up. The people pulled up their tents and they started to move. The priests were at the head of the procession. The priests bore the ark of the covenant.

3:15 And as they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water, (for Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest,)

The bearing of the ark is more important than the mention of the priests. The first phrase is 'they that bare the ark'. The second phrase is 'the feet of the priests that bare the ark.' The word for 'brim' is the same as that used in verse 8 and translated as 'brink'. The idea in the word is extremity i.e. to where the floods had spread. The priests dipped their feet into the water. The promise was that as soon as the soles of their feet touched the water it would recede.

3:16 That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed, and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho.

Adam means red. Zaretan means 'their distress'. Adam is 16 miles (26km) upstream from Jericho, where the River Jabbok flows into the Jordan. This is a long way away and that is what is meant by 'very far from Adam, that is beside Zaretan.' The New International Version says, 'It piled up in a heap a great distance away at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan...' The sea of the plain is the sea of Arabah or the Dead Sea. Again the New International Version says, 'while the water flowing down to the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off.'

3:17 And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground, until all the people were passed clean over Jordan.

The priests did not remain at the edge of the water. As it receded so they went with it until they stood right in the centre of what was the Jordan River. What if all the waters that had been there before the river and floodplain dried up returned to their place? How deep would the water be? Enough to be drowned? To stand at the edge and the waters to return to the same dimensions as they were prior to them drying up would have meant that they were safe. But to stand in the centre of the Jordan was something completely different. They were committed. Faith commits. Faith doesn't stand on safe ground. That is not to say that faith equates with foolhardiness but it does mean to say that it is prepared to trust what God has said. Faith just believes that what God says is true. Forsaking All I Trust Him.

We are also told that the stood firm on dry ground. They took their stand (same word as in verse 8) only with an addition here in that they firmly took their stand. They were not prepared to budge.

Dare to be a Daniel

Dare to stand alone

Dare to have a purpose firm,

And dare to make it known

What a sight it must have been for those now trapped within the walls of Jericho. They had heard of the Lord drying up the water of the Red Sea and this had caused them consternation according to Joshua 2.10. But now they must have looked out in amazement as the waters of the Jordan (like some natural moat by their city) now dried up before them. Right the way through chapter 3 the word am has been used to describe the people. In verse 17 the word translated 'people' is different. It is gowy which has more of the idea of a nation.

The people passed over. So often we see illustrations that suggest that the people went over either the Red Sea or the Jordan in single file but that need not be the case.


This was a new experience to these people - we all face new experiences but fear often causes us to balk at anything unknown and new

They were to keep their eyes on the ark - in any new experience (indeed in any experience) we must keep our eyes on the ark, even the Lord Jesus

They were to keep their distance from the ark - we must never crowd out the ark nor get over familiar with it

Faith triumphs over fear - have faith in God

For God to bless them there had to be the right condition of sanctification - so it is with us

A lot of words were said in the chapter and they were to be obeyed - we must obey the word of God as read or relayed to us

Nothing happened until faith was expressed and demonstrated - why dare we expect anything to happen when we have no or little faith?

They had failed in the past. They had spent 38 years wandering around the wilderness when the journey should have taken only a few days but past lack of faith did not mean that the then present situation had to be marked by failure - forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things that are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.