Print this page

Joshua 3:7-17

Joshua 3:7-17

Background to the Book of Joshua
Historical Situation:

The history within the texts tells about the journey of the people of Israel as they pass from the wilderness and begin to infiltrate the land of Canaan. Joshua has become the leader who was designated as such before Moses died and has been commissioned by God in Joshua 1. He is to lead the people across the Jordon and begin the invasion and appropriation of the land as has been promised by God. It is difficult in our time to read this book without some abhorrence about what is deemed to be done under God's guidance and blessing. It is well to remember this story reflects what has been the norm in history for centuries and it is only in recent time that we are realising that the invasion of land and killing of its inhabitants is no longer acceptable.

After several battles in the West, North and South, Joshua distributes the land among the tribes (Joshua 14-19). Some towns are designated as towns for refuge and special towns with pasture are given to the Levites. The final chapters of the book are similar to those in Deuteronomy in which Joshua has farewell speeches with further warnings about possible loss of land, a renewal of the covenant followed by his death and burial.

We talk about history within the text because when we examine the names of the places in the Book we find that many of them would not have been there in the time before the monarchy according to archaeological evidence. This suggests a gradual composition which took place over time and began with oral tradition before any commitment to writing. Many of the features reflect a time within the Davidic monarchy (Coote: 556-7).
Literary Comments:
The book contains many different genres: set speeches, folk tales, aetiological saga, lists and excerpts from ancient sources (Coote: 556). This suggests that it has had a long oral tradition before its final composition as a written document. The book separates into two main parts plus a transcript (1-12, 13-21, 22-24): the conquest on the west side of the Jordon (the East side had been conquered under Moses), the distribution of the land to the twelve tribes and the last days of Joshua (Curtis:12).

Certain features demonstrate a design by the final author; for example, the first and last chapters are hortatory (teaching) in tone. The burials of Joshua, Joseph and Eleazer all come in the conclusion and serve to underlie a major purpose of the book which is the fulfilment of the promise. There are connections between the promise of 1:3,6 and the summary in 11:16ff (Woudstra:15). A number of other examples are listed by Woudstra.

Although the story reads as though the whole of Canaan was defeated we find a concentration of material on Gilgal, Jericho and Ai which is related to the territory of Benjamin. So it could be, that we what we have in Joshua are mainly traditions from the tribe of Benjamin. We tend to ignore the lists which follow in chapters 13-21 because they are boring to read. However, they perform a very important theological point as mentioned below in the Purpose of the Book. The lists appear to be a mixture of boundary lists, city lists and some notes on Canaanites who remained in the land.

Joshua 23 and 24 are two versions of the same event. Many scholars suggest Joshua 23 and 24 are later Deuteronomistic additions with no certainty about dating (Curtis: 28). Joshua 24 has an interest in Schechem and may represent a group or author who wanted to add their focus to the story of Joshua.
PURPOSE of the Book:
A major purpose is to confirm that the promises made to Abram about land and many descendants has indeed come true (Genesis 12:1-3). The Book of Joshua is the practical outcome, the reality that this is the land promised to their ancestors. The book demonstrates that obedience to God's commands brings victory and if the people are unfaithful to God it brings punishment. Indeed, Joshua is the ideal model of obedience because he acts only after receiving instructions from Yahweh, unlike David who acts after his initial anointing quite independently at times.

This book gives authority for the designation of lands to the various tribes. If there are claims outside of the these boundaries in later times this book provides the basis for or against any claimants. It establishes the Levites and priests in their designated areas. In response to the fulfilment of God's promises the people are expected to remain faithful and obedient to God. Later in the books of the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy - 11 Kings) the writer will demonstrate that it is because the people and kings have failed to be obedient is spite of all that God gave them that they have ended up in exile (587 BCE). One can see how important the book is within the structure of the Deuteronomic History.

A brief note on the Deuteronomic History:
Martin Noth's publication of his book (1943) in which he proposed that the body of material from Deuteronomy to the end of Second Kings was called the Deuteronomic History has been accepted, in some form, by most people. He suggested that early in exile an author/group created this history using many different sources and traditions to compose this body of work in order to explain to the people in exile why that were there. It begins with the laws given to Moses (Deuteronomy) and demonstrates in the stories following the Book of Deuteronomy how the people, priests and especially kings disobeyed the law with the consequence that they lost the land and ended up in Babylon. They gained the land (Joshua & Judges) because it was given by Yahweh and lost it because they went after other gods and were generally disobedient in their religious and ethical practices.

Context of Joshua 3:7-17
After Joshua receives his commission and begins his command in chapter 1 there is a section which encloses the reading set for Pentecost 24. Joshua 2:1-6:27 describes the events surrounding the defeat of Jericho and the Passover (Joshua 5:9-12) is celebrated in camp at Gilgal before they take the city itself. When the spies are sent out in Joshua 2 to reconnoiter they are helped by the foreigner and whore, Rahab, who saves them from capture. They return and report about the state of the people and of the help given to them. Chapters 3 & 4 describe the passage through the Jordan (I thought from this description it was a large flowing river, but it was tiny when I saw it) and the role of the Ark in leading the people. The event is described in similar fashion to the crossing of the Red Sea in which the river is halted and the people pass across on dry land. This is one of several instances which are parallel to the events of Moses. We are left in no doubt that Joshua is the true successor of Moses and chosen of Yahweh.

After crossing the Jordan a memorial of 12 stones taken from the river bed were set up to act as a reminder of the crossing from East Jordan into the West. It is interesting to note that in Joshua 4:19 it talks about setting up camp on the east border which assumes the person writing is further west and the the river bank is to his east. This miracle already warns the Amorites and Canaanites that these people are going to cause them trouble (Joshua 5:1-2).

The need for the ritual of circumcision described in vv. 2-8 is explained by the fact that all the original generation which came out of Egypt, who had been circumcised, were dead now and the new generation needed to be circumcised. No explanation is given why this generation had not been circumcised as children. In the rest period after this we are told the Passover is celebrated on the 14th day. Following this Joshua meets the Lord's commander of the army and is told to take off his shoes because he is on holy ground. Another incident which parallels the experience of Moses. Chapter 6 is the famous one in which the army and priests have marched around, the Ark is carried and the trumpets are sounded. On the seventh day after a great shout the walls of Jericho fall down. Joshua remembers to fulfil the promise of the spies to keep Rahab and her family safe. Rahab is one of four women from the Old Testament mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

Insights/Message of Joshua 3:7-17

Josh 3 and 4 go together with their emphasis on crossing the Jordan, but each has
a slightly different focus. Josh 3 has details about the actual crossing and Josh 4 has details about the erection of a memorial. Josh 3:1-6 sets the scene for the crossing with instructions to the people by the officers who inform them to follow the ark, but make sure there is a proper space between it and them. Joshua tells the people to sanctify themselves and the priests are to take the ark up to the front of the people. Whether it is a literary technique (Woudstra:78) or different traditions coming together but we have the people passing over twice - Josh 3:17 and Josh 4:10b-11 (Butler: 41, has other examples of doublets: Josh 3:16b//4:10, 4:11//4:18, 3:12//4:2). One can see an emphasis in one tradition on the role of Joshua as charismatic leader and is a forerunner of the Holy War theme in which the Ark plays a crucial role in winning battles. The other tradition in this chapter is the emphasis on the cult and the role of the priests (Butler: 42-43). The repetition of the verb "to cross" (22x) makes it abundantly clear what these chapters are about. Also, the verb "to stand" reinforces the command by Joshua to the priests to stand in the middle of the Jordan. Joshua spoke his own words in vv.1-6 but now we come to the words of God spoken through Joshua. The first words confirm that Joshua really is God's chosen leader to follow Moses (Josh 3:7). Two assurances are given by God: the first that the living God is among them and the second is the reiteration of the promise to drive out the inhabitants of the land. After the instructions have been given to the priests and tribes we then have a description of the action. This literary manner of writing occurs many times in Old Testament narrative as a way of building suspense. When the action finally begins it has a further delaying action in v.15 at the point the priests dip their toes in the water there is now a description of how strong and high the flow is (vv.15b-16). This amplifies the miracle which is about to occur, that the people pass over safely treading on dry ground. The city of Adam is associated with Damiyeh 19 miles from Jericho, but there is no known location for Zarethan although it is mentioned in 1 Kgs 7:46.

Message:The role of the ark in this narrative is very important. It symbolizes the real presence of God which assures them of God's protection and maintains that what they are about to do has God's blessing. This particular event is alluded to in many places in the Bible and especially focused in Mic 6:4-5, but fails to mention Joshua (Coote: 599). This is a surprise omission in light of the special authority conveyed by God in Josh 3:7. The many parallels to the crossing of the Red Sea tell us that God is in control of creation and the redemptive purposes for Israel on earth will be achieved. This event fulfils the promise to Abram in Gen 12:1-3 - the people have begun their journey into the promised land many hundreds of years after the pintail promise. God is a "living" God, unlike the images of idols made by human hands which are inert - a living God is one with whom a relationship is formed and developed. We note that the priests have an elevated role within this important event as indeed does Joshua. This could explain the different traditions referred to above. We have been aware as we go through the Lectionary readings that the crucial events in the life of Israel have a number of traditions associated with them, for example, the Passover, giving of the Law et al. This is paralleled in the Christian tradition in which we find four different gospel accounts/traditions of the resurrection.

The promise about driving out those people who are already living in the land is not a pleasant one for us. Yet we have to remember it is a very recent phenomenon which no longer believes in the forceful seizure of land and killing those people who are the inhabitants. This way of life has been part of most cultures for thousands of years. However, it makes it difficult to understand God's role even back there. I find that only by accepting that it was the world view of the time and we humans are constrained by our humanity to interpret God's word within that culture that I can accept it. As indeed, Jesus was constrained by his humanity to refrain from any condemnation of slavery. We believe that all the earth belongs to God and all humanity is expected to treat the earth and each other with care and respect. This brings us to a very different place when we stand on the edge of the Jordan ready to pass over. For the slaves it was the way out of slavery and was only achieved after death. If we follow the prophets and the call of Jesus the symbolic passing through the Jordan can remind us of our baptism and willingness to follow the dictates of Christ whose gospel message was for all people. In reference to leaders, I remember a talk by the Rev Dorothy Mcrae McMahon in which she noted how leaders need to be in the waters crossing the Jordan with the people. Leaders may need to be in front at times, but at other times leadership is in the midst of people. The" ark of the covenant of the Lord" ( the only time this phrase is used in the OT) stood on the dry ground in the midst of the Jordan. God is in their midst as they cross the Jordan. As indeed, we believe Christ is present with us in whatever situation we find ourselves in life.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mth 23:1-12: there are no direct allusions or quotes in these sections from the Old Testament.

Resources/Worship for Joshua 3:7-17
The ark symbolised the presence of God with the Israelites as they moved around the wilderness and later when it was brought into Jerusalem by David. It could be interesting to talk with members of the congregation about how the presence of God is symbolised in their lives.
If it fits with the rest of the service it could be an opportunity to talk about ritual in the church and people's lives. You could share how important it was for the Israelites to have rituals which were important celebratory occasions.If the Joshua reading is to make any sense to people it needs to be put in context and share with the people role of the Passover in the way it represents the release from slavery and the feast of Unleavened Bread is the celebration and acknowledgement that they can live of the fruits of the land and are no longer dependent on manna to survive.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Joshua (A.H.W.Curtis)

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Boling R.G. Joshua. AB. Garden City, NY,: Doubleday, 1982.
Butler, Trent. Joshua, WBC. Waco: Word Books, 1983.
Coote, Robert B. The Book of Joshua. NIB 11. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.Creach, Jerome. Joshua. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2003.

Curtis, Adrian H.W. Joshua. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield ACademic Press, 1994.
Gray, John. Joshua, Judges and Ruth. NCB. London: Nelson, 1967.

Pressner, Carolyn. Joshua, Judges & Ruth. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002.
Soggin, J.A. Joshua. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1972.
Woudstra, M.W. The Book of Joshua. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: These links were updated 30/12/11

Previous page: Joshua 5:9-12
Next page: Joshua 5:9-12