Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Passage Through the Jordan - Joshua 3-4
The following morning, after the return of the spies into the camp, Joshua proceeded with the people from Shittim to the bank of the Jordan, to complete the necessary preparations there, and then cross the river and enter Canaan (Jos 3:1). The crossing of this boundary river of Canaan, or rather the passage through the bed of the river, which had been dried up by a miracle of divine omnipotence at the place of crossing, is narrated in these two chapters in the following manner: first (Jos 3:1-6), the final preparations for crossing; and then the passage through the bed of the river and the erection of stones as a permanent memorial of this miracle. This is arranged in three parts: viz., Jos 3:7-17, the commencement of the crossing; Jos 4:1-14, its further progress; and Jos 4:15-24, its close. The account is also arranged upon the following plan: in every one of these three sections the command of God to Joshua is mentioned first (cf. Jos 3:7-8; Jos 4:2-3, Jos 4:15-16); then the communication of this command to the people by Joshua; and finally its execution (Jos 3:9-17; Jos 4:4-13, Jos 4:17-20). This arrangement was adopted by the author for the purpose of bringing distinctly out to view, not only the miracle itself, but also the means with which God associated the performance of the miracle, and also of impressing deeply upon the memory of the people both the divine act and the end secured. In doing this, however, some repetitions were inevitable, in consequence of the endeavour, so peculiar to the Hebrew mode of writing history to mark and round off the several points in the occurrences described, by such comprehensive statements as anticipate the actual course of events. It is to this arrangement and dovetailing of the differing points that we must attribute the distribution of the revelation and commands which Joshua received from God, over the several portions of the history; and consequently we are not to suppose, that at each separate point during the passage God revealed to Joshua what he was to do, but must rather assume that He actually revealed and commanded whatever was requisite all at once, on the day before the miraculous passage.
(Note: The assertion made by Paulus, Eichhorn, Bleek, Knobel, and others, that the account is compounded from two different document, is founded upon nothing else than a total oversight of the arrangement explained above and doctrinal objections to its miraculous contents. The supposed contradictions, which are cited as proofs, have been introduced into the text, as even Hauff acknowledges (Offenbarungsgl. pp. 209, 210).)
"Arrangements for the Passage through the Jordan. - When they reached the Jordan, the Israelites rested till they passed over. לוּן, to pass the night; then in a wider sense to tarry, Pro 15:31; here it means to rest. According to Jos 3:2, they stayed there three days. "At the end (after the expiration) of three days" cannot refer to the three days mentioned in Jos 1:11, if only because of the omission of the article, apart from the reasons given in the note upon Jos 1:11, which preclude the supposition that the two are identical. The reasons why the Israelites stayed three days by the side of the Jordan, after leaving Shittim, are not given, but they are not difficult to guess; for, in the first place, before it could be possible to pass into an enemy's country, not only with an army, but with all the people, including wives, children, and all their possessions, and especially when the river had first of all to be crossed, it must have been necessary to make many preparations, which would easily occupy two or three days. Besides this, the Jordan at that time was so high as to overflow its banks, so that it was impossible to cross the fords, and they were obliged to wait till this obstruction was removed. But as soon as Joshua was assured that the Lord would make a way for His people, he issued the following instructions through the proper officers to all the people in the camp: "When ye see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and (see) the Levitical priests bear it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it: yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it; that ye may know the way by which ye must go: for ye have not passed this way yesterday and the day before." On the expression "the Levitical priests," see at Deu 31:25, as compared with Jos 3:9 and Jos 17:9. בּינו, both here and in Jos 8:11, should probably be pointed בּינו (vid., Ewald, 266, a.). This command referred simply to the march from the last resting-place by the Jordan into the river itself, and not to the passage through the river, during which the priests remained standing with the ark in the bed of the river until the people had all passed through (Jos 3:8 and Jos 3:17).
(Note: Knobel maintains that this statement, according to which the Israelites were more than 2000 cubits from the place of crossing, is not in harmony with Jos 3:1, where they are said to have been by the Jordan already; but he can only show this supposed discrepancy in the text by so pressing the expression, they "came to Jordan," as to make it mean that the whole nation was encamped so close to the edge of the river, that at the very first step the people took their feet would touch the water.)
The people were to keep about 2000 cubits away from the ark. This was not done, however, to prevent their going wrong in the unknown way, and so missing the ford, for that was impossible under the circumstances; but the ark was carried in front of the people, not so much to show the road as to make a road by dividing the waters of the Jordan, and the people were to keep at a distance from it, that they might not lose sight of the ark, but keep their eyes fixed upon it, and know the road by looking at the ark of the covenant by which the road had been made, i.e., might know and observe how the Lord, through the medium of the ark, was leading them to Canaan by a way which they had never traversed before, i.e., by a miraculous way.
Joshua then issued instructions (a) to the people to sanctify themselves, because on the morrow the Lord would do wonders among them; and (b) to the priests, to carry the ark of the covenant in front of the people. The issuing of these commands with the prediction of the miracle presupposes that the Lord had already made known His will to Joshua, and serves to confirm our conclusions as to the arrangement of the materials. The sanctification of the people did not consist in the washing of their clothes, which is mentioned in Exo 19:10, Exo 19:14, in connection with the act of sanctification, for there was no time for this; nor did it consist in merely changing their clothes, which might be a substitute for washing, according to Gen 35:2, or in abstinence from connubial intercourse (Exo 19:15), for this was only the outward side of sanctification. It consisted in spiritual purification also, i.e., in turning the heart to God, in faith and trust in His promise, and in willing obedience to His commandments, that they should lay to heart in a proper way the miracle of grace which the Lord was about to work in the midst of them and on their behalf on the following day. "Wonders:" those miraculous displays of the omnipotence of God for the realization of His covenant of grace, which He had already promised in connection with the conquest of Canaan (Exo 34:10). In Jos 3:6, where the command to the priests is given, the fulfilment of the command is also mentioned, and the course of events anticipated in consequence.
Commencement of the Crossing. - First of all (in Jos 3:7 and Jos 3:8), the revelation made by God to Joshua, that He would begin this day to make him great, i.e., to glorify him before the Israelites, and the command to the priests who bore the ark of the covenant to stand still in the river, when they came to the water of the Jordan; then (Jos 3:9-13) the publication of this promise and command to the people; and lastly (Jos 3:14-17), the carrying out of the command. אחל, I will begin to make thee great. The miraculous guidance of the people through the Jordan was only the beginning of the whole series of miracles by which the Lord put His people in possession of the promised land, and glorifies Joshua in the sight of Israel in the fulfilment of his office, as He had glorified Moses before. Just as Moses was accredited in the sight of the people, as the servant of the Lord in whom they could trust, by the miraculous division of the Red Sea (Exo 14:31), so Joshua was accredited as the leader of Israel, whom the Almighty God acknowledged as He had His servant Moses, by the similar miracle, the division of the waters of Jordan. Only the most important points in the command of God to the priests are given in v. 8. The command itself is communicated more fully afterwards in the address to the people, in v. 13. When they came with the ark to the end of the waters of Jordan-i.e., not to the opposite side, but to the nearest bank; that is to say, as soon as they reached the water in the bed of the river-they were to stand still (vid., v. 15, and Jos 4:11), in order, as we see from what follows, to form a dam as it were against the force of the water, which was miraculously arrested in its course, and piled up in a heap. Moses divided the waters of the Red Sea with his rod; Joshua was to do the same to the Jordan with the ark of the covenant, the appointed symbol and vehicle of the presence of the Almighty God since the conclusion of the covenant. Wherever the ordinary means of grace are at hand, God attaches the operations of His grace to them; for He is a God of order, who does not act in an arbitrary manner in the selection of His means.
The summons to the children of Israel, i.e., to the whole nation in the persons of its representatives, to draw near (גּשׁוּ for גּשׁוּ, as in Sa1 14:38; Rut 2:14) to hear the words of the Lord its God, points to the importance of the following announcement by which Israel was to learn that there was a living God in the midst of it, who had the power to fulfil His word. Jehovah is called a "living God," in contrast with the dead gods of the heathen, as a God who proved himself to be living, with special reference to those "divine operations by which God had shown that He was living and watchful on behalf of His people; just as His being in the midst of the people did not denote a naked presence, but a striking degree of presence on the part of God in relation to the performance of extraordinary operations, or the manifestation of peculiar care" (Seb. Schmidt). The God of Israel would now manifest himself as a living God by the extermination of the Canaanites, seven tribes of whom are enumerated, as in Deu 7:1 (see the remarks on this passage). Joshua mentions the destruction of these nations as the purpose which God had in view in the miraculous guidance of Israel through the Jordan, to fill the Israelites with confidence for their entrance into the promised land.
(Note: "He extends the force of the miracle beyond their entrance into the land, and properly so, since the mere opening of a way into a hostile country from which there would be no retreat, would be nothing but exposure to death. For they would either easily fall, through being entangled in difficulties and in an unknown region, or they would perish through want. Joshua therefore foretold, that when God drove back the river it would be as if He had stretched out His hand to strike all the inhabitants of the land, and that the proof which He gave of His power in their crossing the Jordan would be a certain presage of victory, to be gained over all the tribes.")
After this inspiriting promise, Joshua informed the people what the Lord intended to do first: "Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of the whole earth will go before you into Jordan." כּל־הארץ 'adown is a genitive dependent upon הברית ארון, the strict subordination of the construct state being loosened in this case by the article before the nomen regens. The punctuators have therefore separated it from the latter by sakeph-katon, without thereby explaining it as in opposition or giving any support to the mistaken exposition of Buxtorff and Drusius, that "the ark of the covenant is called the ruler of the whole earth." The description of Jehovah as "Lord of the whole earth," which is repeated in Jos 3:13, is very appropriately chosen for the purpose of strengthening confidence in the omnipotence of the Lord. This epithet "exalted the government of God over all the elements of the world, that the Israelites might have no doubt that as seas and rivers are under His control, the waters, although liquid by nature, would become stable at His nod" (Calvin). The expression, "passeth over before you into Jordan," is more precisely explained in the course of the narrative: the ark of the covenant went (was carried) before the people into the river, and then stood still, as the bulwark of the people, till the passage was completed; so that the word "before" indicates the protection which it would afford.
"And take to you (i.e., appoint) twelve men out of the tribes of Israel, one for each tribe." For what purpose is not stated here, but is apparent from what follows (Jos 4:2.). The choice or appointment of these men was necessarily commanded before the crossing commenced, as they were to stand by the side of Joshua, or near the bearers of the ark of the covenant, so as to be at hand to perform the duty to be entrusted to them (Jos 4:3.). Joshua then concludes by foretelling the miracle itself: "It will come to pass, that when the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord shall settle down in the water of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off; namely, the waters flowing down from above, and shall stand still as one heap." "Shall be cut off," so as to disappear; namely, at the place where the priests stand with the ark of the covenant. This took place through the waters standing still as a heap, or being heaped up, at some distance above the standing-place. אחד נד is an accusative of more precise definition. The expression is taken from the song of Moses (Exo 15:8).
The event corresponded to the announcement. - Jos 3:14-16. When the people left their tents to go over the Jordan, and the priests, going before the ark of the covenant, dipped their feet in the water ("the brim of the water," Jos 3:15, as in Jos 3:8), although the Jordan was filled over all its banks throughout the whole time of harvest, the waters stood still: the waters flowing down from above stood as a heap at a very great distance off, by the town of Adam, on the side of Zarthan; and the waters flowing down to the salt sea were entirely cut off, so that the people went through the dried bed of the river opposite to Jericho. Jos 3:14-16 form one large period, consisting of three protases (Jos 3:14, Jos 3:15), the first and third of which are each of them more precisely defined by a circumstantial clause, and also of three apodoses (Jos 3:16). In the protases the construction passes from the infinitive (בּנסע and כּבוא) into the finite verb (נטבּלוּ), - a thing of frequent occurrence (see Ewald, 350). The circumstantial clause (Jos 3:15), "and the Jordan was filled over all its banks all the days of harvest," brings out in all its fulness the miracle of the stoppage of the water by the omnipotence of God. Every attempt to explain the miracle as a natural occurrence is thereby prevented; so that Eichhorn pronounces the clause a gloss, and endeavours in this manner to get rid of it altogether. על־כּל־גּבותיו might mean full against all its banks, flowing with its banks full, or "full to the brim" (Robinson, Pal. ii. p. 262, according to the lxx and Vulg.); but if we compare Jos 4:18, "the waters of Jordan returned to their place, and went over all its banks as before," with the parallel passage in Isa 8:7, "the river comes up over all its channels and goes over all its banks," there can be no doubt that the words refer to an overflowing of the banks, and not merely to their being filled to the brim, so that the words must be rendered "go over the banks." But we must not therefore understand them as meaning that the whole of the Ghor was flooded. The Jordan flows through the Ghor, which is two hours' journey broad at Beisan, and even broader to the south of that (see at Deu 1:1), in a valley about a quarter of an hour in breadth which lies forty or fifty feet lower, and, being covered with trees and reeds, presents a striking contrast to the sandy slopes which bound it on both sides. In many places this strip of vegetation occupies a still deeper portion of the lower valley, which is enclosed by shallow banks not more than two or three feet high, so that, strictly speaking, we might distinguish three different banks at the places referred to: namely, the upper or outer banks, which form the first slope of the great valley; the lower or middle banks, embracing that strip of land which is covered with vegetation; and then the true banks of the river's bed (see Burckhardt, Syr. pp. 593ff., and Robinson, Pal. ii. pp. 254ff., and Bibl. Researches, pp. 333ff.). The flood never reaches beyond the lower line of the Ghor, which is covered with vegetation, but even in modern times this line has sometimes been overflowed. For example, Robinson (Pal. ii. p. 255, compared with p. 263) found the river so swollen when he visited it in 1838, that it filled its bed to the very brim, and in some places flowed over and covered the ground where the bushes grew. This rise of the water still takes place at the time of harvest in April and at the beginning of May (see at Lev 23:9.), and therefore really at the close of the rainy reason, and after the snow has been long melted upon Hermon, as it is then that the lake of Tiberias reaches its greatest height, in consequence of the rainy season and the melting of the snow, so that it is only then that the Jordan flows with its full stream into the Dead Sea (Robinson, ii. p. 263). At this time of the year the river cannot of course be waded through even at its shallowest fords, whereas this is possible in the summer season, when the water is low. It is only by swimming that it can possibly be crossed, and even that cannot be accomplished without great danger, as it is ten or twelve feet deep in the neighbourhood of Jericho, and the current is very strong (vid., Seetzen, R. ii. pp. 301, 320-1; Rob. ii. p. 256). Crossing at this season was regarded as a very extraordinary feat in ancient times, so that it is mentioned in Ch1 12:15 as a heroic act on the part of the brave Gadites. It may possibly have been in this way that the spies crossed and recrossed the river a few days before. But that was altogether impossible for the people of Israel with their wives and children.
It was necessary, therefore, that the Lord of the whole earth should make a road by a miracle of His omnipotence, which arrested the descending waters in their course, so that they stood still as a heap "very far," sc., from the place of crossing, "by the town of Adam" (בּאדם must not be altered into מאדם, from Adam, according to the Keri), "which is by the side of Zarthan." The city of Adam, which is not mentioned anywhere else (and which Luther has erroneously understood as an appellative, according to the Arabic, "people of the city"), is not to be confounded with Adamah, in the tribe of Naphtali (Jos 19:36). The town of Zarthan, by the side of which Adam is situated, has also vanished. Van de Velde and Knobel imagine that the name Zarthan has been preserved in the modern Kurn (Horn) Sartabeh, a long towering rocky ridge on the south-west of the ford of Damieh, upon which there are said to be the ruins of a castle. This conjecture is not favoured by any similarity in the names so much as by its situation. For, on the one hand, the mountain slopes off from the end of this rocky ridge, or from the loftiest part of the horn, into a broad shoulder, from which a lower rocky ridge reaches to the Jordan, and seems to join the mountains on the east, so that the Jordan valley is contracted to its narrowest dimensions at this point, and divided into the upper and lower Ghor by the hills of Kurn Sartabeh; and consequently this was apparently the most suitable point for the damming up of the waters of the Jordan (see Robinson, Bibl. Researches, pp. 293-4). On the other hand, this site tallies very well with all the notices in the Bible respecting the situation of the town of Zarthan, or Zeredetha (Kg1 7:46, compared with Ch2 4:17): viz., at Kg1 4:12, where Zarthan is said to have been by the side of the territory of Bethshean; also at Kg1 7:46, where Zarthan and Succoth are opposed to one another; and at Jdg 7:22, where the reading should be צרדתה, according to the Arabic and Syriac versions. Hence Knobel supposes that Adam was situated in the neighbourhood of the present ford Damieh, near to which the remains of a bridge belonging to the Roman era are still to be found (Lynch, Expedition). The distance of Kurn Sartabeh from Jericho is a little more than fifteen miles, which tallies very well with the expression "very far." Through this heaping up of the waters coming down from above, those which flowed away into the Dead Sea (the sea of the plain, see Deu 4:49) were completely cut off (נכרתוּ תּמּוּ are to be taken together, so that תּמּוּ merely expresses the adverbial idea wholly, completely), and the people went over, probably in a straight line from Wady Hesbn to Jericho.
But the priests stood with the ark of the covenant "in the midst of Jordan," i.e., in the bed of the river, not merely by the river, "upon dry ground, הכן," lit., firmando, i.e., with a firm foot, whilst all Israel went over upon dry ground, "till all the people were passed over." This could easily have been accomplished in half a day, if the people formed a procession of a mile or upwards in breadth.