The narratives of the book of Joshua describe the establishment of Israel in the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. The book’s major sections are narratives concerning the entrance into Canaan (Josh 1-5), and the conquest (ch. 6-12) and division of the land (ch. 3-22), followed by Joshua’s challenge to Israel to remain faithful to the covenant after his death (ch. 23-24).
For the most part Joshua is a book of optimism and success. Israel has arrived at a high point in its history. Divine promises given to the patriarchs concerning their descendants’ occupation of the land of Canaan (Abraham: Gen 12:7; 15:18-19; 17:7-8; Isaac: 26:1-5; Jacob: 28:10-15; 35:12) have now been fulfilled. Yahweh has demonstrated his faithfulness to his people.
Primary themes: Divine initiative and divine presence. The above understanding of the structure of the book of Joshua highlights two distinct theological themes. These two themes, divine initiative and divine presence, arising out of the structure of the book, are the integrating theological concepts for the entire book. In some sections of the book one theme is more prominent than the other. In other sections both themes work together in ways that may be distinguished but are difficult to separate.
So Israel is not only at a high point, but also at a crossroads. The challenge is clear. Both Joshua and Moses before him urged the people to remain faithful to the covenant. The unanswered question is how Israel would respond to their appeal.
- THE RIVER JORDAN
The river Jordan has a significant place in the history of Israel and in the revelation of God’s covenant salvation.
1. The Place
The next and final place: “Lord has sent me to Jordon…” [2:6].
§ הַיַּרְדֵּ֔נָה - “Jordan” [2:6], river that runs from Mount Hermon through the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea.
§ Geologically a rift valley, it is the deepest depression on the earth s land surface. Only a few miles from its source, the river is already nearly 200 m (c. 657 ft) below the Mediterranean, while at the N end of the Dead Sea it has plunged to 393 m (c. 1,280 ft) below sea-level.
§ The name ‘Jordan’ (Hebrew yardēn) aptly means ‘the descender’. The river is the largest perennial stream in Palestine, and its length of some 120 km (c. 75 miles) from former Lake Huleh to the Dead Sea is more than doubled by its meanders.
2. A Geographical Boundary
The Jordan River marked the eastern boundary of the land promised to Israel by Yahweh:
§ The marking of the boundaries: “and you shall point out your eastern border from Hazar-enan to Spephan…the border shall go down to Jordan, and the goings of it shall be at the Salt Sea” [Num.34:1-12].
§ The deep rift valley and the river itself provided a natural geographical border.
3. A Theological Boundary
More important than geographical concerns is the theological significance of the Jordan as a boundary.
a. The Promise to Abraham
Yahweh’s initial promise to Abram involved the bestowal of the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring: “unto thy seed will I give this land…” [Gen.12:7].
§ Initially, precise boundaries remain unspecified, but the separation of Abram and Lot [Gen 13] provided important clarification. Abram’s desire to maintain peace and provide adequate pasturage for both his and Lot’s herds resulted in their separation. Lot’s choice of the well-watered plain of the Jordan clearly moved him east, beyond the Jordan, outside the land Yahweh promised to Abram’s descendants: “Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan; and Lot journeyed east…” [Gen.13:10-11].
§ Abram remained in the land of Canaan: “dwelled in the land of Canaan…” [Gen.13:12]. After Lot departed, Yahweh reaffirmed and further clarified his initial promise of the land to Abram: “Look from the place where you are north, and south, and east, and west…” [Gen.13:14-17].
b. The Possession of the Land
It fell to later generations to act on the promises given to Abraham, to cross over the Jordan and possess the Promised Land: “arise, go over this Jordan…unto the land which I do give to them” [Jos.1:2].
§ Clearly, for the Israelites to remain on the east side of the Jordan would be to disobey the command of Yahweh, to defy his plan for his people, and to fail to possess the promises he had given and reiterated throughout past and present generations (e.g., see Num 32:1-15; cf. Gen 15:17-21).
§ The Jordan symbolized the final barrier to God’s covenant promises; to think of not completing the journey was incredible. To cross the Jordan required courage, commitment, and faith. The task was framed in military terminology (see Num 32:5, 21, 29, 32).
§ In fact, neither the crossing nor the subsequent conquest could be accomplished by Israel alone; Yahweh would go ahead, “like a devouring fire” (Deut 9:3, NIV; cf. 31:3). He was the one responsible for cutting off the waters of the raging river (Josh 3:14-17; 4:19-24; cf. S. D. Waterhouse, 621-37) and for leading his people in conquest.
§ Ps 114 celebrates Yahweh’s sovereignty over the Jordan and stamps the crossing with profound theological import: “The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs. What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back?” [Psa.114:3-5].
c. Leadership of Israel
Equally profound is Yahweh’s refusal to allow Moses to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land (see Deut 3:21-29).
§ The river loomed as an unmistakable reminder before Moses of his disobedience. The land on the other side was clearly something to be desired, but the Jordan could only be crossed by those who demonstrated obedience and faithfulness. Rather than being allowed to cross, Moses had to entrust the task of leading Israel over the river to Joshua (Deut 3:28).
§ This became Joshua’s first major task as leader (Josh 1:2) and the means whereby Yahweh established him as the sole successor to Moses (3:7). The crossing of the Jordan thereby signified the “boundary” between the two leaders.
§ The crossing of the Jordan also marked the authentication of Joshua as a fully adequate leader: “this day will I begin to magnify you in the sight of Israel” [Jos.3:7]; “on that day…they feared him, as they feared Moses, all the days of his life” [Jos.4:14].
§ A similar authentication took place at the Jordan in the story of Elijah and Elisha: “Elisha took up also the mantle of Elijah…smote the waters of the Jordan” [2:13].
The river Jordan is the place of baptism in the New Testament:
i. General Comments
The Jordan River figures prominently in the opening scenes of the NT but not elsewhere. It is not mentioned by name in the NT anywhere outside the Gospels (cf. the OT, where the bulk of occurrences come in Num, Deut, and Josh).
ii. John the Baptist
The Jordan provided an appropriate site for the ministry of John the Baptist, a prophet in the mold of Elijah.
§ He announced the coming of a new kingdom and invited all who would enter to submit to the ritual of baptism in the Jordan River (Matt 3:1-12; Luke 3:1-20). The parallel with events in Joshua, with baptism replacing “crossing,” seems too clear to be coincidental (see, e.g., Josh 1:10-11; 3:5).
§ The baptism of Jesus climaxed John’s ministry. Jesus’ baptism resulted, not in the opening of the river, but rather the opening of the heavens, from which the Father spoke, affirming Jesus as his own “beloved son” [Mat.3:17].
§ Something dramatically new was inaugurated in the divine plan. From the waters of the Jordan emerged one greater than Joshua, greater than Moses, to usher in the kingdom of God, a kingdom without boundaries, without geographical limitations, and without ethnic restrictions.
4. The Source of Blessing
The river Jordan is also presented in the Word of God as a source of blessing:
a. Ezekiel’s Vision
The river in Ezekiel’s vision flows from the temple into the Jordan Valley where it carries the power of purification and becomes a source of abundant life: “these waters issue out towards the east country…” [Eze.47:8].
§ The saline waters of the Dead Sea are made fresh by its flow. The river yields swarms of living creatures, produces fish of every kind, and waters trees that bear fruit monthly and whose leaves possess power to heal (47:8-12; cf. TDOT 4:327).
b. Naaman’s Leprosy
This apocalyptic picture of the Jordan as a source of supernatural blessing is foreshadowed by the experience of Naaman.
§ Stricken with leprosy, Naaman journeyed from Aram to Israel seeking healing from the prophet Elisha. Elisha, however, directed Naaman to the river: “Wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed” [2Kgs.5:10]. Despite protests, Naaman finally complied and found his leprosy healed (5:13-14).
§ Any curative power of the Jordan was clearly subject to the word and ministry of the prophet (cf. 2:7-8, 13-14; 6:1-7), but Naaman’s healing intimates its function as a means of blessing. The river’s response to the power of the prophet confirmed Yahweh’s blessing on his ministry and communicates that truth to others (2:7-8; 13-15).
The river Jordan was completely impassable at this time: “Jordan overflowed all its banks…” [3:15].
- THE COMMAND TO GO FORWARD
1. The Preparation
a. The Journey
i. The Provisions
The command issued: “prepare you victuals, for within three days…” [1:11].
§ הָכִ֥ינוּ - “prepare” [1:11], hiphil imperative, root meaning ‘to be firm’; ‘to prepare’; ‘to form, establish’;
§ צֵידָ֑ה - “victuals” [1:11], ‘provisions’; ‘food supplies’;
ii. The Passage
The prospect envisaged: “pass over this Jordan, to go in to possess the land…” [1:11].
§ עֹֽבְרִים֙ - “pass over” [1:11], qal participle, ‘cross over’; ‘travel through’;
§ לָבוֹא֙ - “go in” [1:11], qal infinitive construct, ‘come, go’; ‘make a linear movement of a general kind’;
iii. The Possession
The possession of the inheritance: “possess the land…” [1:11].
§ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת - “possess” [1:11], qal infinitive, ‘gain the possession of an inheritance’; In civil matters the verb means to become an heir; in military matters it means to gain control over a certain area by conquering and expelling the current inhabitants of that area. In such a light the word came to take on the meaning of “dispossess,” “drive out,” “cast out,” and “seize.”
§ הָאָ֔רֶץ - “land” [1:11], ‘the land of promise’: “the land that you see, to you I will give it, and to thy seed for ever” [Gen.13:15].
§ נֹתֵ֥ן - “gives you” [1:11], qal participle, ‘place an object in the possession of another’;
b. The Preparation
The preparation for the passing over: “sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow…” [3:5].
§ הִתְקַדָּ֑שׁוּ - “sanctify yourselves” [3:5], root meaning ‘to cut’ and hence ‘to separate’; hithpael imperative, ‘withheld from ordinary use’; ‘set apart for a sacred used’; ‘a transition to a state of purity’; hiphil ‘to designate as made holy’;
i. The Practice
The verb qādaš in the Qal connotes the state of that which belongs to the sphere of the sacred. Thus it is distinct from the common or profane.
§ In the Piel and Hiphil it connotes the act by which the distinction is effected: “thou shalt take of the blood that is upon the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon the garments of his sons with him: and he shall be hallowed” [Exo.29:21].
§ What was entailed may be seen from passages like Exodus 19: “sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes…” [Exo.19:10-11].
§ It involves separating and defining: “you must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean” [Lev.10:10].
c. The Purpose
The event for which they must prepare: “for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders…” [3:5].
§ יַעֲשֶׂ֧ה - “do” [3:5], qal imperfect, ‘to perform or act’;
§ נִפְלָאֽוֹת - “wonders” [3:5], ‘pertaining to an attitude of great surprise and awe over an event or person’; “Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” [Exo.15:11].
The book of Joshua means to inform its readers of the fulfilment of the ancient promise:
§ The time has come for Israel to convert ownership by promise into actual possession.
§ The emphasis is laid on the fact that this will be God’s gift.
2. The Call to Depart
The people were issued with a clear command: “they commanded the people…” [3:3].
§ וַיְצַוּוּ֮ - “commanded” [3:3], piel imperfect, ‘to direct’; ‘to state with force and authority what a person must do’.
a. Ark of the Covenant
i. The Focus
The focus of attention: “when you see the ark of the covenant…” [3:4].
§ כִּרְאֽוֹתְכֶ֗ם - “see” [3:4], ‘use perception of sight to view objects’;
§ אֲר֤וֹן בְּרִית־יְהוָה֙ - “ark of the covenant” [3:4], ‘an ornate chest containing sacred artefacts of worship’; ‘treaty or pledge’;
ii. The Origin
The origin of the ark is found in God’s instructions to Moses: “they shall make an ark of Shittim wood…” Exo.25:10].
§ The rings for bearing the ark: “thou shalt cast four rings of gold for it…” [25:12].
§ The atonement cover: “thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold…” [25:17].
§ The throne attendants: “thou shalt make two cherubims of gold…” [25:18].
iii. The Significance
The ark was the token of God’s presence with Israel:
§ It was here in the tabernacle above this ark, between the two cherubim, that Yahweh would take up residence among his people and meet with them: “there will I meet with you, and there will I commune with you…” [25:22].
§ The throne of God in Israel: “you that dwell between the cherubim, shine forth” [Psa.80:1].
§ The climax of the book of Exodus is not the deliverance from Egypt, as important as that was, but the coming of Yahweh to the tabernacle to dwell among his people [40:34-36].
§ The ark contained symbols of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel: tables of the covenant; Aaron’s rod; the jar of manna [Heb.9:4].
iv. The Mobile Ark
The ark was carried by the Levites: “the priests, the Levites, bearing it…” [3:4].
§ נֹשְׂאִ֖ים - “bearing it” [3:4], qal participle, ‘to lift up an object to a higher elevation’;
§ The Israelites followed the ark in obedience to God: “they departed from the mount of the LORD three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them” [Num.10:33].
§ The movement of the ark was tantamount to the Lord’s own arising: “when the ark set forward, Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered…” [Num.10:35-36].
b. The Command
The people are to depart as soon as the ark moves: “then you shall remove from your place and go after it” [3:3].
§ תִּסְעוּ֙ - “remove” [3:3], root meaning ‘to tear out tent pegs, i.e., break camp’: “when the tabernacle setteth forward, the Levites shall take it down: and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up” [Num.1:51]; ‘to move on’; ‘to tear loose’;
§ מִמְּק֣וֹמְכֶ֔ם - “your place” [3:3], ‘place where one lives’; ‘focus on the existence in a place’;
§ וַהֲלַכְתֶּ֖ם - “go” [3:3], ‘to travel, make a journey’;
§ אַחֲרָֽיו - “after it” [3:3], a position that is behind’;
The call to be faithful to Yahweh; the call to be New Testament disciples:
§ When the people see Yahweh moving to ‘open up the way of salvation’ they are to ‘un-peg their tents’.
3. The Call to Fear Yahweh
a. The Distance
As a symbol of God’s presence, a healthy distance was to be maintained between it and the people: “yet there shall be space between you and it…” [3:4].
§ רָח֣וֹק - “space” [3:4], ‘distance’; ‘separation between two spatial points’;
§ The “two thousand cubits” [3:4] was approximately that of the outer bank of the Jordan to the inner bed. Thus the people would still be on the outer bank while the feet of the priests touched the water’s edge.
§ This emphasizes the sacredness of the ark and the awesomeness of God’s glory.
b. The Purpose
The distance was for the purpose of the people’s knowing the way they should walk in: “come not near unto it, that you may know the way…” [3:4].
§ אַֽל־תִּקְרְב֣וּ - “come not near” [3:4], ‘to approach’; ‘make linear motion very near’;
§ There must be no rash handling or inadvertent touching of the ark [1Sam.6:19].
§ תֵּֽדְעוּ֙ - “know” [3:4], ‘possess information about’; ‘have intimate knowledge of’;
§ הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ - “way” [3:4], ‘path, route, highway’;
§ תֵּֽלְכוּ־בָ֔הּ - “must go” [3:4], ‘to travel’;
c. The New Way
They had never traveled that way before: “for you have not passed this way before” [3:4].
§ לֹ֧א עֲבַרְתֶּ֛ם - “not passed” [3:4], ‘to cross over, travel through’;
§ בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ - “this way” [3:4], ‘road, way’;
i. The Meaning
The meaning of this statement surely was meant literally and physically: these Israelites had certainly not crossed a river in the way in which they would soon be doing, and they had not been in Canaan before.
§ However, it is very possible that a spiritual meaning is intended here as well. That is because figurative references to walking in God’s way(s) are common in the Old Testament. In the Pentateuch alone, there are some eighteen references to this. In these cases, what is meant is not a literal road or path, but right living.
§ In two cases (Exod 18:20 and Deut 8:2), knowing or remembering the right way to go is stressed. Surely this was an appropriate charge for the Israelites as they entered the unknown land of Canaan with a mandate to do something they had never done before: take the land and exterminate its inhabitants.
§ The Israelites, as they kept a proper, reverent distance from the Ark of the Covenant, would be shown in which way they should walk, both physically and spiritually.
There is a call to obedience in following Yahweh; there is a call to reverence and the fear of Yahweh:
§ Obedience in following; fear in following at the appointed distance:
- THE SALVATION OF YAHWEH
1. The Dramatic Point
a. The Command
i. The Location
The place of theological significance: “when you are come to the brink of the water of Jordan…” [3:8].
§ כְּבֹאֲכֶ֗ם - “come” [3:8], ‘to come, go, arrive’;
§ קְצֵה֙ - “brink” [3:8], ‘end, edge, extremity’;
ii. The Hand of Yahweh
The evidence of Yahweh’s hand: “you shall stand still in the Jordan” [3:8].
§ תַּעֲמֹֽדוּ - “stand still” [3:8], ‘to stand still’; ‘to present, stand up in front of a superior as on offering or for evaluation’: “and went down to Egypt, and stood before Joseph” [Gen.43:15].
b. The Promise
The promise: “as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark…” [3:13].
§ כַּפּ֣וֹת רַגְלֵ֣י - “soles of the feet” [3:13],
§ כְּנ֣וֹחַ - “rest” [3:13], ‘to rest’; ‘to place or put an object in a place’;
§ יִכָּ֣רֵת֔וּן - “cut off” [3:13], niphal imperfect, ‘cut down’; ‘sever an object from its source’;
c. The Promise Fulfilled
The promise fulfilled: “the feet of the priests that bare the ark…” [3:15].
§ נִטְבְּל֖וּ - “dipped” [3:15], niphal perfect, ‘to bathe’; ‘place a solid object in a liquid mass’;
§ בִּקְצֵ֣ה - “brim” [3:15], ‘edge, extremity’;
§ וַיַּעַמְד֡וּ - “stood” [3:15], ‘to stand still’; ‘to be in a position that is vertical and straight’;
§ קָ֣מוּ - “rose up” [3:15], ‘to arise’; ‘to stand up’;
§ נֵד - “heap” [3:15], ‘barrier’; ‘dam wall’;
2. The Salvation in Possession
The people pass through on dry land: “the people passed over right against Jericho…” [3:16].
§ וְהָעָ֥ם - “people” [3:16], ‘nation’; ‘large group of people, related biologically as well as language and other cultural features’;
§ עָבְר֖וּ - “passed over” [3:16], qal perfect, ‘to go through’;
- THE BLESSING OF OBEDIENCE
1. Authentication of Joshua
a. The Promise
The promise given to Joshua: “this day I will begin to magnify you in the sight of…” [3:7].
§ אָחֵל֙ – “begin” [3:7], hiphil imperfect, ‘initiate a process’;
§ גַּדֶּלְךָ֔ - “magnify” [3:7], piel infinitive construct’; ‘make great’; ‘exalt, honour’;
§ בְּעֵינֵ֖י - “in the sight of” [3:7], ‘in the eyes of’;
b. The Experience
The promise realised: “the Lord magnified Joshua in the sight of all Israel…” [4:14].
§ גִּדַּ֤ל - “magnified” [4:14], piel perfect, ‘make great’; ‘exalt, honour’;
§ בְּעֵינֵ֖י כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל - “sight” [4:14], ‘in the eyes of’;
§ יָרְא֥וּ - “feared” [4:14], ‘to revere’; ‘to show profound respect for’;
c. The Personal Knowledge
The coming miracle will make people know that the Lord is among them: “hereby you shall know that the living God is among you” [3:10].
§ תֵּֽדְע֔וּן - “know” [3:10], ‘to know personally and intimately’;
§ בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם - “among you” [3:10], ‘midst’; ‘inner part’;
The continuity of leadership which God had arranged: “Joshua the son of Nun, who stand before thee, shall go in thither” [Deu.1:38].
§ Joshua will know that “as the Lord was with Moses so I will be with you” [1:5].
§ Israel will know that the Lord has sent Joshua.
2. The Memorial
a. The Stones
The twelve stones: “these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel…” [4:7].
§ לְזִכָּר֛וֹן - “memorial” [4:7], ‘commemoration’; ‘place or object to remind one of something’; ‘implies loving reflection and, where called for, a corresponding degree of action.
§ לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל - “unto the children” [4:7], ‘the nation of Israel’; ‘the covenant people of Yahweh’;
§ The stones are to be taken up specifically from the place of the miracle: “take you up every man a stone…where the ark of the Lord was” [4:5].
b. The Place of Yahweh’s Salvation
The twelve stones in the midst of Jordan: “Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan…” [4:9].
§ הֵקִ֣ים - “set up” [4:9], hiphil perfect, ‘to raise up’; ‘to construct’;
§ בְּת֣וֹךְ - “midst” [4:9], ‘middle, centre’;
§ הַיַּרְדֵּן֒ - “Jordan” [4:9], ‘the river passed over’;
§ The stones marked the very spot where the priests stood; the memorial recorded here was probably visible when the Jordan ran low.
c. Memorial of Public Commitment
The twelve stones at Gilgal: “those twelve stones, which they took out of Jordan, did Joshua pitch at Gilgal” [4:20].
§ לָקְח֖וּ - “took out” [4:20], ‘to grasp, obtain’; ‘to take possession of’;
§ הֵקִ֥ים - “pitch” [4:20], hiphil perfect, ‘to raise up’; ‘to construct’;
§ בַּגִּלְגָּֽל - “Gilgal” [4:20], ‘first stop east of the border of Jericho’;
§ ‘to roll some object on, upon, away, in, against, from, together, unto, or down’;
3. The New Age
The day of passing over the Jordan marked the beginning of a new age:
a. The Past
The past is rolled away: “their children Joshua circumcised…” [5:7].
§ Joshua used gālal symbolically when he said, after the circumcision of the Israelites, “This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt” [Jos.5:19] and the place was named Gilgal—a word play on gālal.
§ Israel’s bondage, which at the Exodus had been broken in principle, was finally and definitely removed now that the people were safely on Canaan’s side.
b. The Fellowship with God
A new age of fellowship with God begins: “the children of Israel encamped at Gilgal, and kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month” [5:10].
§ The significance: “when I see the blood, I will pas over…this shall be unto you for a memorial” [Exo.12:13-15].
§ The new beginning is thus marked by three significant developments: the celebration of the passover; the eating of Canaan’s produce, and the stopping of the manna.
God’s acts of salvation are to be perpetuated in the memory of the coming generations.
§ The full light falls on the redemptive significance of the event: “the waters of Jordan were cut off by the ark…” [4:7].
§ Occasions for teaching and impressing on the next generation Yahweh’s mighty act at the Jordan: “a sign among you that when your children ask…” [4:6].