Humble Faith Follows – 3:1-17

The previous entry can be found here.

As a writer, there are lots of things to keep in mind as a story progresses. Characters, plot, setting. The longer the story the more characters and settings there will be, and they somehow have to tie into the plot in a smooth way. However, that’s not all: theme and symbolism also play a huge role. These are ultimately what makes the story more than just another story; they are what keep a story around for several generations, or ultimately what constitute a classic. However, though there are many other things that go into a good story, pace is what I want to focus on today. The speed at which the story is told is important. It can be used to build suspense, or it can be used to mitigate suspense. It causes the reader to say, “Hurry up already and get to the point,” which keeps them turning the page until they reach a conclusion. Or it can cause a reader to say, “I just didn’t really get into it, because it was all over too quickly.” In the same way, our historian is a master of pacing, as our text today will prove.

Our historian writes, “Joshua started early the next morning and left the Acacia Grove with all the Israelites. They went as far as the Jordan and stayed there before crossing.  After three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the people: ‘When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God carried by the Levitical priests, you must break camp and follow it.  But keep a distance of about 1,000 yards between yourselves and the ark. Don’t go near it, so that you can see the way to go, for you haven’t traveled this way before.’  Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, because the LORD will do wonders among you tomorrow.’  Then he said to the priests, ‘Take the ark of the covenant and go on ahead of the people.’ So they carried the ark of the covenant and went ahead of them.  The LORD spoke to Joshua: ‘Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so they will know that I will be with you just as I was with Moses.  Command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant: When you reach the edge of the waters, stand in the Jordan.’  Then Joshua told the Israelites, ‘Come closer and listen to the words of the LORD your God.’  He said: ‘You will know that the living God is among you and that He will certainly dispossess before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites  when the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth goes ahead of you into the Jordan.  Now choose 12 men from the tribes of Israel, one man for each tribe.  When the feet of the priests who carry the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, come to rest in the Jordan’s waters, its waters will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand up ⌊in⌋ a mass.’  When the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carried the ark of the covenant ahead of the people.  Now the Jordan overflows its banks throughout the harvest season. But as soon as the priests carrying the ark reached the Jordan, their feet touched the water at its edge and the water flowing downstream stood still, rising up ⌊in⌋ a mass that extended as far as Adam, a city next to Zarethan. The water flowing downstream into the Sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea) was completely cut off, and the people crossed opposite Jericho.  The priests carrying the ark of the LORD’s covenant stood firmly on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel crossed on dry ground until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan.”

So by this point the spies have just returned to Joshua. They had spent three days in the mountains after speaking with Rahab. Joshua had told Israel in chapter 1:11 that they would be moving in three days. With that knowledge, it is time for the people to move again. After a focus on the spies for three days, it is now time to zoom out and look at the whole nation again. Through the use of expert narrative pacing, our historian wants to show us that God is faithful to keep His promises, and that He is present with His people. He shows us this through the use of multiple speeches.

But before getting to the first speech, we read in verses 1-2, “Joshua started early the next morning and left the Acacia Grove with all the Israelites. They went as far as the Jordan and stayed there before crossing.  After three days the officers went through the camp.”

For convenience sake, let’s say that the spies entered Jericho on Sunday. They would have returned to Joshua on Tuesday night. Wednesday morning they all left the Acacia Grove and set up a new camp on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. After three more days, action happens.

The first speech is given by the officers to the people in verses 3-4, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God carried by the Levitical priests, you must break camp and follow it.  But keep a distance of about 1,000 yards between yourselves and the ark. Don’t go near it, so that you can see the way to go, for you haven’t traveled this way before.”

So, to keep the convenient time scale going, the officers go throughout the camp three days after the Wednesday march. Sometime on Friday the officers go throughout the camp and tell the people what they need to be watching for. They tell the people that the ark of the covenant of Yahweh their God being moved by the Levitical priests is their sign to move out. However, in telling them this, they also give a boundary. They say that the people must not come within 1,000 yards—literally 2,000 cubits—of the ark because the ark is their guide. One commentator says, “The distance of 2000 cubits was approximately that of the outer bank of the Jordan to the inner bed.”[1] The people were to have faith and follow the ark, and they were not to pridefully think that they were wiser than God; their faith was to be shown in humble following at a distance of more than half a mile.

So, before moving on, I must ask us, do we trust God humbly? Or are we insistent on always saying, “God, I know what’s best for me, and You need to do it for me”? Do we follow too closely in a prideful—God can’t lead me best—mindset? Of course God wants us to follow Him, and to follow Him closely—possible only through Jesus—but we must be humble in our following and not insist that we know better than God. If we act in that way, we really aren’t following God, we’re telling God to follow us, which is the height of sinful pride.

There is another, very real sense in which the people were told to follow at that great distance simply for their own safety. Second Samuel 6 tells the story of a man being struck dead for touching the ark. God wants us to follow Him because He knows best and because He wants to protect us. When we say, “God, You’d better do what I want You to do,” we’re ultimately saying, “I want pain and sorrow to come to me, because I know better than the one who works everything out for my good.” This is why many times our prayers seem like they are not answered. God does not want to harm us, so we need to humbly trust and follow Him like the Israelites were called to do on the shores of the Jordan.

The second speech is given by Joshua to the people in verses 5, “Consecrate yourselves, because the LORD will do wonders among you tomorrow.” Joshua tells the people to consecrate themselves for the next day: Saturday (for our convenient calendar of events). He says that the reason they need to consecrate themselves is because God would do wonders among them the next day. This makes me think: how often do we miss the wonders of God that He is doing in our own lives because we are not consecrated? How often do we expect His wonders to look like a parted body of water, when His greatest wonder of all occurred on a bloody cross? The greatest wonders of God occur in everyday moments when our hearts are prepared to experience them. This is why we should never pridefully tell God that we know better than Him, but rather humbly follow Him even when it looks like the odds are totally against us.

The third speech is given by Joshua to the priests in verse 6, “Take the ark of the covenant and go on ahead of the people.” This looks like it takes place the next day. Joshua orders the priests to move out ahead of the people so as to get the 2,000 cubit separation in place. The priests response is recorded at the end of verse 6: “So they carried the ark of the covenant and went ahead of them.” The priests obey immediately, showing respect for their new leader. As of this point there has been no disrespect shown to Joshua. The tribes all agreed on moving out after three days, including the ones who would eventually move back east of the Jordan after the conquest. The spies did their job and returned with a positive report. The people all set out from the Acacia Grove and were now camped at the edge of the Jordan. This fact leads well into the next speech.

The fourth speech is given by Yahweh to Joshua in verses 7-8, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so they will know that I will be with you just as I was with Moses.  Command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant: When you reach the edge of the waters, stand in the Jordan.”

Yahweh wants Joshua to know that He chose him. He wants Joshua to know that He will be with him. He tells him that today Joshua will begin to see explicit proof of it. He tells Joshua more that Joshua relays to the people in verses 9-13, which ultimately form the main point today, but God primarily wants Joshua to know that He is with him. God wants Joshua to know that he can trust Him, so that Joshua can be a godly leader who exemplifies trust in God. If Joshua follows God like the people were commanded to follow God, then the people would be much more likely to follow God, especially if God could be visibly seen to be with their leader.

Before Joshua speaks God’s words to the people, God gives him some words for the priests, which likely means that this conversation occurred before the priests left in verse 6. Not only were they to go ahead of the people, but they were to stand in the water when they got there. The priests obeyed, as verse 6 demonstrates.

As the priests march towards the Jordan, Joshua gives the final speech of our passage to the people in verses 9-13, “‘Come closer and listen to the words of the LORD your God.’  He said: ‘You will know that the living God is among you and that He will certainly dispossess before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites  when the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth goes ahead of you into the Jordan.  Now choose 12 men from the tribes of Israel, one man for each tribe.  When the feet of the priests who carry the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, come to rest in the Jordan’s waters, its waters will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand up ⌊in⌋ a mass.’”

He tells the people to listen up to God’s Word. God had a message for His people. This God—their God—is named Yahweh in verse 9, and in verse 13 He is described as the “master of all the earth.” The God who is in a personal covenant with Israel is the God who rules the whole earth. This is mind-blowing. What’s even more mind-blowing is what He says next: Israel would know that God was present with them, and they would know that God was going to give them victory over the inhabitants of the land when “the ark of the covenant, the Lord of all the earth,”[2] went into the Jordan. Howard writes, “If the Hebrew is correct as it stands, then the ark is identified all that much more closely with God himself, that is, the ark (or the covenant) is equated with the Lord himself.”[3] God’s presence is located in the ark. This was why the people were called to humbly respect the ark by keeping a certain distance from it. (Verse 12, about twelve men, is a parenthesis that heightens suspense, but since it isn’t mentioned again until chapter 4, I will bring it up next time.) God explains, through Joshua, the sign that would prove that He was with them and giving them the land would occur when the priests went into the water: “When the feet of the priests who carry the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, come to rest in the Jordan’s waters, its waters will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand up ⌊in⌋ a mass.”

Finally, we see played out in detail in verses 14-17 what was previewed through the speeches in 3-13, “When the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carried the ark of the covenant ahead of the people.  Now the Jordan overflows its banks throughout the harvest season. But as soon as the priests carrying the ark reached the Jordan, their feet touched the water at its edge and the water flowing downstream stood still, rising up ⌊in⌋ a mass that extended as far as Adam, a city next to Zarethan. The water flowing downstream into the Sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea) was completely cut off, and the people crossed opposite Jericho.  The priests carrying the ark of the LORD’s covenant stood firmly on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel crossed on dry ground until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan.”

Before explaining in detail, let’s read a more literal translation. Howard translates verses 14-16,

And it happened—when the people set out from their tents to cross the Jordan, with the priests carrying the ark of the covenant before them, and when those carrying the ark came as far as the Jordan, and [when] the feet of the priests carrying the ark were dipped into the edge of the waters (now the Jordan overflows all its banks all the days of the harvest)— that the waters coming down from above stood! They rose up [in] one heap, a very far distance away, at Adam, the city that is opposite Zarethan, and the [waters] coming down upon the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea,were completely cut off. And the people crossed opposite Jericho.[4]

It’s quite a mouthful. The author wants to draw out the suspense as long as possible. Starting with, “and it happened,” the author proves that God’s word came true. “The people set out” is a loaded phrase. This was not a small band of friends. According to Numbers 26, there were 601,730 men over twenty years old. Assuming for a moment that every man twenty years old has a wife (which is a semi-safe assumption back then) and at least one child, we’re easily looking at a number of 1,805,190 people—male and female—of all different ages. We must also keep in mind that this count does not include any of the Levites, of whom it is safe to assume that there were at least 20,000 men over twenty years old, which means at least 60,000 more people, bringing the total to at least 1,865,190 people about to cross a flooded river (cf. 3:15).

When this crowd saw the ark set out, they broke camp, which must have been a sight to see. Think about the noise from this throng of people. It’s no wonder the people of Jericho were shaking in their boots at the thought. The priests were in the front with the ark. When the ark reached the flooded bank of the Jordan it happened: the water stopped. When they crossed the Red Sea forty years earlier, it was a still body of water, the parting of which was described as, “the waters ⌊like⌋ a wall to them on their right and their left” (Exodus 14:22). Here, they are crossing a river which flows south. It is described as, “the water flowing downstream stood still, rising up ⌊in⌋ a mass that extended as far as Adam, a city next to Zarethan. The water flowing downstream into the Sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea) was completely cut off.” Our historian tells us that the waters stood up at Adam, which is next to Zerathan. “Adam . . . on the eastern shore of the Jordan . . . about sixteen miles north of Jericho.”[5] I point this out because verse 16 says that the people crossed opposite Jericho. The water stood up sixteen miles north of them, and then south of them flowed into the Dead Sea until there was nothing left to flow into the Dead Sea. This was quite the miracle! God could have done anything, such as parted the water so two or three people could cross at a time, but instead He dried up the whole southern section of the river, including sixteen miles north of them, and said, “Cross!”

Verse 17 is huge! “The priests carrying the ark of the LORD’s covenant stood firmly on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel crossed on dry ground until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan.” The ark stayed in the middle of the river while the people crossed. The 2,000 cubit distance was kept, because they had multiple miles of dry ground on each side of the ark. But the point is that not only does God lead His people, but He goes with His people and stands in the midst of their trouble until the last one of His people is through. We must humbly follow our God because He humbly leads us, even though He could powerfully smash any of us at any moment, and be perfectly just to do so.

You see, not one of us deserves to have God in our midst. And at the same time, since God is the Master of all the Earth, He is everywhere and thus always in our midst. For this reason every breath we take is grace. God could have denied you that last breath because you’re sinful. You’ve lied, stolen, cheated, idolized something, etc. However, not only is God the Master of all the Earth, but Jesus Christ is too. Instead of clinging to that title though, He shed it and lived amongst us and our trouble 2,000 years ago. He was unjustly condemned and nailed to a cross even though He did nothing wrong, and He hung there on the cross for 6 hours until every last sin of every person who would ever place their faith in Him was paid for. Then He died. The wrath of God covered Him like the Jordan River refilled its valley after the people were safely across. However, after three days in the tomb, Jesus rose from the grave, emerging from the River victorious to show that death had no hold over Him.

Just like God didn’t cross the river immediately, but stayed in it until His people came through safely, Jesus didn’t think about Himself first either. He gave His life for each and every one of His people. He enables us to do the same for those in our lives. And He urges us to trust Him fully and follow Him even when nothing makes sense because He is with us.

If you’ve never trusted Jesus before, please do so today!!

So the Bible has suspenseful sections contained in its pages. In fact, while the book of Genesis covers 2,000 years and the book of Exodus covers 400 years, the book of Leviticus maybe covers thirty days. The time focus alone in that example shows us that Leviticus is a key focus from the Bible’s point of view since the pace almost slows to a stop. However, in much the same way that we often stop reading when we get to Leviticus, when the pace slows anywhere in the Bible we decide its boring, instead of doing what we do in other reading, where we say, “I gotta get through this so I can get answers.” The “boring” parts are part of the story too—a necessary part. Let’s repent of our judgment of them and follow God humbly, accepting all of His Word as worthwhile, rather than pridefully just enjoying the parts that interest us.

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus

The next post can be found here.

[1] Marten H Woudstra, The Book of Joshua, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981), 81.
[2] David M. Howard, New American Commentary – Volume 5: Joshua, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 127.
[3] Ibid. Rather than translating it, “the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth.”
[4] Ibid., 129.
[5] Trent C. Butler, Joshua, WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 48.

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