Joshua 3: Crossing the Jordan
It will be a good introduction to our lesson, to get a little acquainted with the Jordan by maps and pictures. It is the important river of Palestine. It has its beginning chiefly from three sources under Mount Hermon: the Hasbany River which comes from the west side of Hermon, and the two great springs at Banias and at Dan out in the open valley. The stream passes through Lake Merom and enters the deeply sunken valley, down which it flows swiftly. Jordan means "descender." The surface of the Sea of Galilee is about 682 feet below the ocean level, and the surface of the Dead Sea about 1300 feet below the ocean, making the plain at the head of the Dead Sea perhaps the deepest depression on the earth's surface which is not filled by water. It is about another 1300 feet to the bottom of the Dead Sea at its greatest depth. The meadows of the Jordan spread out to a width of some eight miles north of the Dead Sea, and the climate is very hot. The Jordan, as wide as a wide street, runs in a channel cut below the level of the meadow and filled with trees. The course of the river as shown in pictures from airplanes is extremely winding. That Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest, means that in the spring after the winter rains and with the melting snow of Hermon the river is full, running among the trees in its sunken channel but not rising to the level of the broad meadows. This was the condition, near to the Passover time, when at the command of Joshua the people of Israel made ready to pass over.
From our pictures and our talk about the river Jordan, we come to our story. Shittim, meaning "the acacia trees," was in the plain where the people had been for a good while camping. They came close to the river. The ark was to go first. Do you remember the ark, the precious chest made of wood and covered with gold, and with the cherubim on the cover, which held the tables of the commandments? It was kept in the most holy chamber of the tabernacle, and on the march it was carried by its poles on the shoulders of priests, covered by the veil which hung before it in the tabernacle, a covering of skins, and a blue cloth over all. (Num. 4:5-6) The ark was to go first, about two thousand cubits (three thousand feet) before them, and the people should reverently follow.
Now came a great sign of the Lord's power, which made the people of Israel sure that the Lord was with them and Joshua, and brought fear to the people of Canaan. Listen to Joshua's words, and to the story of what happened. (Joshua 3:9-17) It was a sign of the Lord's power in His ark, which gave promise to the people that the Lord would be with them and give them power to conquer the land.
We also must learn what we can about the Jordan River. Read above. I would like to go with you across the hot meadows and look with you at the interesting river, sweeping the branches of its overhanging trees. Perhaps we could swim in its water. And while there we should no doubt think of John the Baptist's baptizing in the Jordan, and the Lord's coming to be baptized. Then we might sit on the bank near the river and read the story of how the river was opened like a gate by the Lord's power, to let the people of Israel into the promised land. "Right against Jericho," where was that? As we stop reading someone asks, "Did the Lord use any natural means to stop the Jordan and to make its bed dry, as He used the east wind at the Red Sea?" (Exod. 14:21) We are not told. Adam and Zaretan were some miles to the north, near where the brook Jabbok comes into the Jordan. It might be that at this season of high water the Lord would cause a landslide or some other means to dam the stream. It might be that the Lord's power in the ark worked directly to check the stream and hold it back while the people passed over. We are not told what means the Lord used, but only the important fact that it was done by the Lord's power, as a sign of His presence with the people and a promise of success in conquering the land. Notice the effect of the miracle upon the native people. (Joshua 5:1) It is a grand lesson of the Divine power in the Ten Commandments, a power which we may feel when evil feelings and thoughts come as a flood to bar our way, and we resist them with the Divine words, "Thou shalt not." It was the Lord's way of answering the tempter (Matt. 4:1-11); and that was in the wilderness near the place where the power of the ark was shown. The miracle at the Jordan in the days of Joshua told in its deeper meaning this secret of the Lord's strength in His life in the world, and of our strength to overcome every false and evil thing which would keep us out of heaven; for our Holy Land is heaven. Compare Rev. 22:14: "Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city."
Someone goes back to the long names in the tenth verse. They are the names of native peoples of the land, whom the Lord would give them power to drive out. The Hittites were heard of in our last lesson. These and the Hivites (whom we shall learn more of presently) were remnants of ancient peoples, living in several towns. The Perizzites were villagers of the middle part of Canaan. See Gen. 13:7. Of the Girgashites nothing is surely known. The Amorites were the highlanders of the country, and the Jebusites lived on the hills where Jerusalem afterward stood.
Someone else has a question about verse 12. What were these twelve men for? What have they to do with the story? We are not told in this chapter, but we learn when we look on to chapter 4:1-10. But that takes us into our next lesson.
1. Who led the children of Israel to the border of the promised land? Who led them into the land? In what book of the Bible do we read this part of the story?
2. Where were the children of Israel when Moses died? What was between them and the promised land? Where does the Jordan rise? Where does it empty? At what season of the year did the children of Israel enter the land?
3. How was the way opened for the children of Israel through the Jordan? Why did the ark have power? How can we know the power of the commandments in our own experience?
You will enjoy no less than the children learning all that you can of the wonderful Jordan River. See airplane pictures of the river and valley if you can; they are very interesting. But you are already thinking about the spiritual meaning of this river of the Holy Land which opened like a gate to give the people entrance. A river of the Holy Land must in a good sense represent truth of the heavenly life; and the Jordan, which formed the boundary of the land, must in a good sense represent the simple literal truth of the Lord's commandments. How plainly that was its meaning when John the Baptist baptized in Jordan, and taught the duty of repentance in obedience to the literal Divine commandments. That the Jordan represents the Divine commandments which have cleansing power beyond all laws and standards of the world is beautifully shown in the story of Naaman. (2 Kings 5:12-14) The entrance of the people of Israel by the Jordan, at the lowest point of the land, to climb from there into the hills, has much the same meaning as John's preaching of repentance and baptism in the Jordan, as introduction to the Christian life. (A. 1585-1590)
But wait, there seems to be a difficulty from the fact that the Jordan opposed the entrance of the people into the land, and this opposition was overcome by the Lord's power in the ark and the commandments. The land was then occupied by wicked nations, the enemies of Israel, and as the border of their country the Jordan represents the false reasonings and excuses which justify and lead into evil life. The ark stands in the Jordan and divides the stream when such reasonings are met by the power of the commandments: "It is written, Thou shalt not." When the river flowed again it was as the boundary of the home of Israel, and it represented the Lord's commandments introducing to and protecting a heavenly life - the proper meaning of the Jordan. (A. 1585, 4255; E. 700)
See a beautiful lesson in verse 4. The ark must lead, and we must follow reverently, "for ye have not passed this way heretofore." Our life in this world, and every day of our life, is an untried way, in which we need this guidance and protection. "Ye have not passed this way heretofore."
This lesson of the Divine power in the ark and the commandments is followed by others, as before the walls of Jericho. Put these with the wonderful teaching of our doctrines about the power of the Word and the commandments in their letter, before which evil has no power. Put them also with the little experience which we have had of their power when we have remembered them for help in some moment of temptation.