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
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
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
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”
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
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
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.