This week we turn to the book of Joshua, which picks up in chapter 1 where we finished last week - with the death of Moses. The promise of a land that God reiterated in Deuteronomy 34:4 now begins to come into effect. We assume that the 30-day mourning period for Moses has finished, and straight away it seems that God speaks to Joshua.
This week we turn to the book of Joshua, which picks up in chapter 1 where we finished last week - with the death of Moses. The promise of a land that God reiterated in Deuteronomy 34:4 now begins to come into effect. We assume that the 30-day mourning period for Moses has finished, and straight away it seems that God speaks to Joshua. God emphasises the need to be strong and courageous and to continue to follow the law that had been given through Moses, and the people have three days to get ready to cross over the River Jordan. In chapter 2 the scouts go ahead and see what’s there, and we read about their encounter with Rahab, who hides them and protects them because she knows that God is with them, and she has heard about their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. In gratitude the scouts promise not to harm her or her family when the whole nation of Israel comes into Jericho.
The reading this week, along with last week’s reading from Deuteronomy 34, marks the ending of one epic period in Israel’s life and the beginning of another. So here we are today on the wilderness side of the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into the land of promise. You may have noticed that it sounds as though we have been here before! There are strong similarities with the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, the story that Rahab has reminded us of in chapter 2. In both of these stories, God works through the divinely chosen leader of the people, and Moses and Joshua both have an important part to play. In both of these stories the water is miraculously held back until God’s people have crossed over and got onto dry land, escaping from danger into the safety of the land where God wants them to be.
It’s clear that Joshua is called to the same (or at least an equivalent) position as Moses. In verse 7 God says, “I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.” From our human perspective, a change in leadership is often problematic, particularly when the previous leader has been so influential and decisive. It would be no small task to fulfil the role that was left empty by the death of Moses, even with God’s approval and blessing. So one of the purposes of this reading is to offer an assurance that Israel will not suffer because of a leadership vacuum - God has commissioned and raised up a new leader (you can compare this with Deuteronomy 31:23). The action that follows is designed to signal and endorse this to the people. In verse 10 Joshua tells the people, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God” - we get the impression that in the following events it’s not just Joshua’s reputation that will be on the line but God’s reputation too. The priests are to walk into the riverbed carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred object in all Israel and the thing that represents the actual presence of God with them. We hold our breath, wondering if the water will acknowledge the presence of God, or if we’ll be left with a bunch of people with rather wet feet! It’s not clear what the twelve representatives of the tribes are to do at this point. They’re not allowed to carry the Ark as only the priests could do that, and it doesn’t seem that they’re going to provide some kind of guard of honour as anyone who isn’t a priest has to keep well back. In verse 4 we read that nobody else should come within 2000 cubits of the Ark. We don’t find out what the role of these 12 representatives is until 4:3.
Just to emphasise the magnitude of the miracle that is about to happen, the writer points to the spring floods that are in effect. The harvest referred to in verse 15 is not the autumn harvest at the end of the dry season, but the spring harts which happens when the rain first stops. The water would be unusually high, and the geographical location near Jericho is also significant. One commentator wrote, “All the force of the accumulated waters, some of which had begun to course their way down the slopes of Mount Hermon in the far north, now bear down on the mouth of the Jordan - and on the path that the tribes are to take.” The writer really wants us to know that the people enter the promised land through a river in full flood, and not because they simply had to jump over a small trickle. God holds back a huge torrent!
It’s funny to think of a pile of water, but twice we read about the waters standing in a “single heap.” In verse 13 Joshua assures the people in advance that the flowing water will be cut off and will stand in a single heap, and then in verse 16 when the crossing actually takes place we read that the waters rise in a single heap further upstream. In order to protect the people, the priests who are carrying the Ark stand in the middle of the riverbed which is now dry. When the last of the Israelites cross to the other side the priests follow and step into the promised land, carrying the symbol of the presence of God with them, and making sacred the land on which they stand.
The goal of 40 years in the wilderness has at last been achieved. God, who called Israel out of Egypt so long ago, has been faithful. God has kept God’s promises. We wait to see whether or not the people will keep theirs!
For further reflection…