IT WAS THE END of an era, and yet it was an exciting beginning. The Israelites would never forget Moses’ long parting speech, and the moving ceremony in which he handed over command to Joshua the son of Nun. ‘Be strong and courageous,’ he had said, ‘for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it’ (Deuteronomy 31:7).
Crossing the Jordan
Only the River Jordan now lay between the people and their goal. The Jordan was a considerable obstacle. The river derives its water largely from the rain that falls on Mount Hermon, over one hundred miles away to the north. In winter a thick snow cap builds up on Hermon’s peaks. The summer sun melts this snow into swirling torrents that swell the Jordan into a mighty flood. For most of the year the river can be forded or crossed with a simple bridge. But at barley harvest in March, the very time when the Israelites needed to cross, it was far too wide for their children, cattle and baggage to go over.
Perhaps Joshua was wondering how he was going to solve this problem. Perhaps he was feeling depressed and lonely without Moses to turn to for advice. At any rate, God came along with a message of counsel and good cheer that runs down through the centuries. ‘As I was with Moses, so I will be with you,’ he promised (Joshua 1:5). The apostle, writing centuries later to the First Century Christians, spotlighted those words to Joshua, and applied them to us. He coupled with them another comforting verse from the Psalms: ‘Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5–6). Looking back on the record of Joshua’s life, we know that God never did forsake him, or let him down. Nor did he fail the Psalmist, David. So we may have the confidence that God is there to guard and protect us, if we humbly listen to Him.
There was another part to the advice He gave Joshua. ‘This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success’ (Joshua 1:8). God promised to be with Joshua, and give him His support. But it was still essential for him to study God’s word by day and night. God’s help was not a magic influence, dissolving all obstacles, or an inner voice telling him just what to do in every situation. He still needed to base his decisions on the commandments written down ln the Law of Moses. So it is for us. ‘All Scripture,’ says Paul, ‘is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
The Law of Moses contains no instructions for crossing rivers, but this was not to be a test of Joshua’s organisational skill. God was going to make this historic event an object lesson that would last for all time. First, He set a date for the crossing. It would take place in three days. The people should have their possessions packed ready in good time. When the hour arrived, the ark from the Tabernacle should go on ahead: ‘There shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length… in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before’ (Joshua 3:4).
The great morning came. The people assembled in marching order on the plain before the river. Slowly the ark set off, carried by priests, straight towards the brown, swollen waters. The people watched in silence. They held their breath as the feet of the bearers covered the last few yards and entered the water. Then a gasp arose. The moment the Levites wet their sandals in the brink of the river, ‘the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down towards the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off’ (verse 16).
Walking Through the River
Before their very eyes, the water level sank like a bath when the plug is pulled out, and soon they were able to stumble across the stony bed to the safety of the other side. The ark with its brave bearers stood there in the midst of the river bed while the people passed in front of it, hour after hour. As soon as the last family was across, Joshua ordered the priests to follow him on to the western bank. No sooner had they scrambled up the side, than the water swirling away as if nothing had happened.
It was a stupendous miracle, as great as the crossing of the Red Sea 40 years before. Sometimes critics have tried to explain it away as a natural phenomenon. The area is prone to earthquakes, the whole valley of the Jordan being a huge geological fault. Researchers have claimed an earthquake of magnitude 6 to 7 occurs on average every 200 years along the line of the fault. In ten out of 30 quakes for which there are historical records, the latest as recent as 1927, the Jordan stopped flowing for one to two days.
However, suggestions as to the mechanics of the miracle in no way reduce its power. If God chose to dam the river at the city of Adam, 15 miles north, by a tactical earthquake, this would not be at all out of character. He frequently employed natural events such as hailstones, floods and earthquakes to turn the balance of a battle (for example Joshua 10:11). An earthquake opened the prison doors for the Apostle Paul (Acts 16:26). A sea of mud defeated the chariots of Sisera in the time of the judges (Judges 5:21). The miracle lay not in the agency, but in the timing. Imagine Joshua promising the people they would be across the river in three days, and keeping his fingers crossed that an earthquake which happens about once every 200 years would turn up just at the right time. Or even his assuming the water would stay held back just long enough for a whole nation of people to get across.
Clearly God was behind it all, earning the respect of the Canaanites, who heard of the incident and trembled in their shoes. For Israel, delivered from Egypt, were now fair and square in the Promised Land. As they danced and feasted, they knew that their God is a God who keeps His promises, and there is none like Him in all the earth.
A Parable of Salvation
What are we to make of this thrilling climax to the wilderness journey? Is there a lesson here, under the surface, that can give us hope? Certainly there is. Put together the three days, the 2000 cubits, the names of the places and the role of the ark, and you have the ingredients of a most impressive allegory. Let us begin with the River Jordan itself. It rolls down from a place called Adam and flows into the Dead Sea. It becomes the symbol for human life, which started with a man called Adam and ends inevitably in death. The ark, that holy chest containing the commandments of God and where God’s glory dwelt, is a symbol of the Lord Jesus Christ. After an interval of three days, it was able to hold back the swirling waters so that a faithful, dedicated band could cross over. That fits too. Exactly three days after his crucifixion, Jesus conquered death for his followers by stepping out of the tomb. The 2000 cubits (it was ‘about’ two thousand) if you allow a year for a cubit, is the time he has been away in heaven.
When he comes back, the first thing Jesus will do is to raise his followers from the dead. ‘For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command,’ wrote the Apostle Paul, ‘with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Passing before him in judgement, as the people passed in front of the ark, he will give the faithful ones the tremendous honour of immortality in the Kingdom of God. ‘He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury’ (Romans 2:6–8). Once we are across, standing in the land God swore to give to Abraham and his descendants, we shall have an inheritance, writes Peter, that will outshine the brightest rewards that this world can ever offer. It will be ‘an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading… the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:4, 9).
Jesus (or Joshua, for that is his name in Hebrew,) is due to return. We stand on the borders of the Kingdom of God. Now is your chance to follow him through the wilderness way, so that you can go with him into his everlasting rest (Hebrews 4:1). Get out your Bible, and find out those vital commandments of God. Be of good courage, and put your hand in His. But hurry. The time is nearly up.
David M Pearce