Conquest of Canaan: Crossing the Jordan
A nation is defined as a community of people possessing their own territory and government. However, the Israelite nation did not have its own territory until they conquered Canaan. But before the Israelites conquered the Promised Land, they had to cross the Jordan River. This crossing—done right at the beginning of the conquest—was critical in strengthening the people’s faith for the battles ahead.
Before crossing the Jordan, the Israelites had encamped east of the river. Led by Moses, they had defeated two kings, Sihon and Og. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh received their share of land on the east side of the Jordan under the condition that their men would still cross the Jordan to help their brethren conquer Canaan. Soon afterwards, Moses died and Joshua became the leader. Joshua then sent two spies to the city of Jericho, who returned with the favorable report that the Lord would deliver the land to them (Josh 2:24).
The good news motivated Joshua and his men to cross the Jordan. However, coming to the river, they were greeted by the sight of overflowing banks, for it was the time of harvest (Josh 3:15). So they stayed by the Jordan and waited for three days, before the officers (directed by Joshua) gave instructions to the people (Josh 3:2).
PLACE THE ARK IN FRONT AND IN PLAIN SIGHT
[A]nd they commanded the people, saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests, the Levites, bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you must go, for you have not passed this way before.” (Josh 3:3–4)
Carrying out Joshua’s instruction, the officers then commanded the people to set out when they saw the Levites carrying the ark of the covenant towards the Jordan. They were to follow at a distance of about 2,000 cubits, which would allow them to see where the ark was going. This was critical because the people had never passed that way before.
In our daily life, we may face a seemingly impossible task, just like the Israelites who had to cross an overflowing river. Such a task may be a bad habit that we have not been able to shake off or a grudge that we have been harboring. Although we know that we have to change, it is very difficult to overcome these weaknesses.
There is only one way to complete this “mission impossible”—place the ark in front where we can see it. The ark represents God’s presence. With Him in front of us, we will be able to see where He is leading. Unfortunately, we often put God behind us. We may not realize that we are doing this. But whenever we fail to exercise self-control and give in to our desire to sin, or we deliberately shut our minds to God’s prompting, we have put God far behind us.
Putting God in front of us should be done not just in difficult times but every day. We can do this in various ways such as praying first to start off the day, reflecting on God and God’s words through the day, using His teachings to guide us in what we do and so on. When we do this, we are looking to and following the ark of the covenant in front of us. We can proceed confidently because God is guiding us, even if we did not know where we are going.
I don’t know about tomorrow, … But His presence goes before me, … And I know who holds my hand. (I Know Who Holds Tomorrow by Ira F. Stanphill)
And Joshua said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” (Josh 3:5)
An ancient general would have told his troops to ensure that their weapons were sharpened and their shields ready before sending them into battle. Joshua, however, told the people to sanctify themselves, because God would do wonders for them. His instruction shows that victory is not achieved through military might or the brilliance of the commander but through faith, obedience, and consecration to God. This is a common theme that runs through all the battles recorded in the book of Joshua.
UNDERSTAND GOD’S PURPOSE
Then Joshua spoke to the priests, saying, “Take up the ark of the covenant and cross over before the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people. And the Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. You shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, saying, ‘When you have come to the edge of the water of the Jordan, you shall stand in the Jordan.’” So Joshua said to the children of Israel, “Come here, and hear the words of the Lord your God.” And Joshua said, “By this you 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.”
The people of Israel were about to see a great miracle and experience God’s great power. However, Joshua, ever the educator, first pointed out the purpose of this miracle. He wanted the people to realize that God abided with them and that He would surely drive out all the inhabitants of Canaan before them. Joshua wanted the people to understand that God was using this miracle to strengthen Israel’s faith in Him.
Likewise, when God performs miracles in a person’s life, His main purpose is to increase the faith of the person and those around him or her. This is why He promised that miracles, signs, and wonders would follow those who preach the gospel. This is to confirm the message preached and to prompt people to believe in Jesus so that their souls would be saved.
CROSSING JORDAN RIVER: FAITH AND MIRACLE
Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is crossing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore, take for yourselves twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one man from every tribe. And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, the waters that come down from upstream, and they shall stand as a heap.
This was Joshua’s final set of instructions to the people. At that point, the people had yet to cross the Jordan River, and the priests had yet to dip a single toe into the river. However, Joshua had utter faith in what would happen next. Indeed, the water from upstream stopped as soon as the feet of the priests who bore the ark came into contact with the water edge of the Jordan River! The priests then stood firm on the dry ground right in the middle of the river until all Israel had crossed the river (Josh 3:14–17).
Imagine being in the shoes of one of the priests, bearing the ark and marching in unison with the other priests toward the Jordan. What would we be thinking? What would we be feeling? The ark is upon our shoulders; God’s presence is with us. Will we continue to move forward with absolute trust? Or will we start to harbor doubts, wondering whether the waters will really part? Our God is the Lord of creation. Nothing is impossible for Him. We know this cognitively, but when put to the test, will we step forward with faith, believing that God’s presence is enough, or will we start to shrink back? The priests with their resolute faith continued forward and grew in faith with each step. They were rewarded with being part of a great miracle.
THE PURPOSE OF THE STONES
To Remember God’s Deliverance
The account of this miracle does not end with the successful crossing of the river. There were two more tasks:
And it came to pass, when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan, that the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, “Take for yourselves twelve stones from here, out of the midst of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood firm. You shall carry them over with you and leave them in the lodging place where you lodge tonight.” (Josh 4:1–3)
And the children of Israel did so, just as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones from the midst of the Jordan, as the Lord had spoken to Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them to the place where they lodged, and laid them down there. Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the 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. (Josh 4:8–9)
One set of stones was taken from the riverbed to dry land, while the second set of stones was placed in the riverbed. What was the purpose of undertaking these two activities?
The first set of stones was set up in Gilgal as a monument to remind the people that God had led them across the Jordan River by drying up the river’s water (Josh 4:19–24). Gilgal was Israel’s base camp. When the men went forth to fight their enemies, the women and children remained in Gilgal. The twelve stones would be seen by the men each time they set out. Any worries about the battle ahead or about the wives and children left behind could be dispelled by the sight of the twelve stones. After all, the Almighty God who can dam an overflowing river had already promised them victory over their enemies. They had nothing to fear. Then, if they returned victorious, the twelve stones would remind them that the battle had not been won with their own hands, but through the hand of God. This would thus keep pride from them.
There was a second set of stones placed in the Jordan River. What purpose were these stones meant to serve? Once the people of Israel had crossed the Jordan River and the priests stepped out of the river, the river would immediately resume its flow. These twelve stones would be just quickly submerged. How would these stones act as memory aid to the people of Israel?
One possibility is that these stones’ strategic location ensured that they would only resurface during a drought, when the waters of the Jordan receded. On such an occasion, seeing the stones would bring back to mind God’s almightiness—if He is able to “turn” the river into dry land, He can also transform arid land into an overflowing river. It would be a solid reassurance to the people of Israel that in their most dire state, God would continue to take care of them.
As spiritual Israelites, we too must set up these memorial stones. How do we do this?
First, we must remember God’s grace. When things are going well for us in life, we must not forget God and His blessings (cf. Ps 103:2). We must also tell our children all the good things that God has done for us (cf. Ps 105:2, 5–6).
Second, we must remember that it is God who gives us the power to accomplish everything. Since God will strengthen our hand, we need not fear difficult tasks ahead (2 Thess 3:3). He may not pluck us out of the dire situation, but He will be there with us and enable us to come through that safely. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are literally living proof of this (cf. Dan 3).
Third, we must never be puffed up over our spiritual accomplishments. Some of us may plant brilliantly, and others water assiduously, but ultimately it is God who gives the growth. We are only God’s humble instruments (cf. Gal 6:14) who must always remember the words of Jesus, perfect exemplar of meekness, “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'”
To Bury the Old Self
There is another signification to the location of the second set of stones. Rocks in a river are eroded over time, yet God wanted one male representative from each tribe to place a stone in the riverbed. Each stone represented one tribe of Israel. After all Israel had crossed the river and the river resumed its flow, the stones would be “buried” underwater.
The crossing of the Jordan River signifies that we put to death our carnal self and truly become a renewed person.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col 3:1–3)
The submerged stones reinforce Paul’s exhortation. Through water baptism, we have died and have been raised, so we should no longer set our mind on secular things. Instead, we ought to focus on things above.
LEADING A NEW LIFE
After Israel had crossed the Jordan, they were a new people. It was quite a contrast to the time when Israel crossed the Red Sea. After the crossing of the Red Sea, the people’s spiritual immaturity was clearly evident. They had just witnessed an unprecedented event—God’s miraculous parting of the Red Sea. But within a few days, they already started grumbling about the lack of water. When that problem had been resolved, they complained that they did not have any meat to eat. Their wilderness journey was characterized by repeated disobedience to and lack of faith in God (Heb 3:15–19).
In contrast, after crossing the Jordan River, the Israelites obediently submitted to the commandment of God (Josh 5). When God commanded them to circumcise themselves, instead of complaining, they obeyed. This was quite risky for them because they had crossed into enemy territory and were coming to Jericho, a well-fortified enemy city. Circumcision would put them in a vulnerable position because they would not be able to fight during the healing process. Despite this risk, they still obeyed God.
Crossing the Red Sea symbolizes baptism. But a Christian who behaves like the immature Israel is one who, although reborn through water baptism, continues to lead his own life, disobey God, sin, and fall. We must take a leaf from the book of the Israelites who crossed the Jordan River. We must enter a new and obedient phase of life.
A second contrast can be seen in how they obtained their food.
Now the children of Israel camped in Gilgal, and kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight on the plains of Jericho. And they ate of the produce of the land on the day after the Passover, unleavened bread and parched grain, on the very same day. Then the manna ceased on the day after they had eaten the produce of the land; and the children of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate the food of the land of Canaan that year.
When the people of Israel were in the wilderness, God sent manna to feed them. But after crossing the Jordan River, the provision of manna from heaven stopped. Although God provides the sunshine and rain that allow crops to grow, or herds and flocks to survive, the people now had to put in more effort to plant, reap, and tend. This represents a more mature stage of a Christian’s life. God is always there to help us, but we must ourselves strive to the utmost to overcome our weaknesses or temptations.
Third, after crossing the Jordan, the Israelites began and completed their successful conquest of Canaan, the Promised Land (Josh 6–13). By obeying God’s instructions given through Joshua, they achieved many victories. As Christians, we must always have a “crossing” mindset. In other words, we must be resolved to not continue falling (and falling back) into sin. We must make a concerted effort to cross over to the next phase and focus on the things above instead of worldly matters. Then, the “new man” would truly be expressed in our lives.
God uses adverse scenarios to do great things in a Christian’s life. When Israel wanted to cross the Jordan, it was the worst time to cross the river because it was overflowing. Yet God chose that specific time for the people to cross. The miracle that God performed during the crossing strengthened the people’s faith, enabling them to follow Joshua wholeheartedly.
Safely crossing the rivers in our life of faith requires us to place God in front of us—just as Israel placed the ark of the covenant in front of them—so that we can always see and follow God. Having crossed safely, we should then set up stones of remembrance, always reminding ourselves of God’s grace and power.
Have we crossed the Jordan River? If we truly have, we will lead victorious lives.