Thursday of week 19 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Josh 3:7-11, 13-17

We move on now to the next phase in the history of Israel. We begin reading the book of Joshuah. It is the first of the so-called historical books which include Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. They are also known as the ‘Early Prophets’.

The book of Joshua falls into three parts:

the conquest of the promised land, chaps. 1-12;

the partition of the territory between the tribes, chaps. 13-21;

the last days of Joshua, especially his last discourse and the assembly at Shechem, chaps. 22-24.

Joshua is the link with the previous five books and takes up where Deuteronomy left off. He was the leader, chosen by Moses and accepted by the people, to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Today’s reading comes from chap 3 which describes the miraculous crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. It is reminiscent of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds when the Israelites escaped from Egypt. Then it was the command of Moses which drove back the sea. Here it is the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant in which were the tables of the Law, representing the presence and power of God, which stop the river in its flow and allowed all the Israelites to cross in safety. (cf. fuller note below)

As the reading opens we hear Yahweh speak to Joshua: On this very day he will make Joshua great in the eyes of the people so that they will know that, as with Moses in the past, he is with Joshua now. A major purpose for God intervening wondrously in the crossing of the Jordan was to validate the leadership of Joshua. With a miraculous event so much like that of the Sea of Reeds crossing, Joshua’s position as the Lord’s servant would be shown to be comparable to that of Moses.

Joshua is then told to give an order to the priests who were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. When they reached the banks of the Jordan, they were to stop in the river itself. Speaking to the Israelites, he told them to gather together and listen to the words of Yahweh their God. There was going to be a sign by which they would know that the living God was with them and that he was going to drive out the Canaanites [as well as the Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites] before them.

The manner by which God is about to bring Israel across the Jordan River, the watery boundary of the Promised Land, will bring assurance that the one true God is with them and that he will surely dislodge the present inhabitants of Canaan. Two fundamental issues are at stake:

1, Who is the true and mighty God – the God of Israel or the god on whom the Canaanites depend (Baal, who was believed to reign as king among the gods because he had triumphed over the sea-god)? By opening the way through the flooded Jordan the Lord would show both Israel and the Canaanites that he is Lord over the waters (as he was at the “Red Sea”, at the Flood and at Creation) and that he is able to establish his own order in the world.

2, Who has the rightful claim to the land – the Lord or the Canaanites? By passing safely through the Jordan at the head of his army the Lord showed the rightness of his claim on the land. In the ancient Near East a common way for obtaining the judicial verdict of the gods was by compelling the accused to submit to trial by water ordeal. Usually this involved casting him into a river (if the accused drowned, the gods had found him guilty; if not, the gods had declared him innocent).

In Israel, however, another form of water ordeal was practiced. Significantly, the Lord would enter the Jordan first [in the Ark with the priests] and then remain there until his whole army had crossed safely over. Thus his claim to the land was vindicated before the eyes of all who heard about it. And it was Yahweh’s claim, not Israel’s; she came through the Jordan only with him and as his army, “baptised” to his service.

It was a message intended not only for the Israelites but for the residents of Canaan as well and they would understand the symbols very well.

Now Joshua tells the people: “Look! The ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is about to move into the Jordan at your head.” As soon as the priests carrying the ark put their feet into the waters of the Jordan, he says, the river’s waters will suddenly be cut off, the upper waters will suddenly stand up in a heap and stop flowing.

What Joshua foretold immediately took place. As the people left their tents to cross the river, the priests with the ark went ahead of them. As soon as the priests stepped into the river, the upper waters piled in a heap and stopped flowing at Adam, a town near Zarethan. It also near the entrance of the River Jabbok, which flows into the Jordan on its east bank.

And this happened even though at that time of the year, the harvest season, the river was in spate. The harvest season in the lower Jordan valley was towards the end of March and the beginning of April, when the grain and other crops that grew during the rainy season of winter were reaped. The crossing took place “on the 10th day of the first month” of the Hebrew year, which began with the first new moon after the spring equinox. At this time of the year the Jordan would be swollen as a result of the winter rains and the melting snow from Mount Hermon.

The Hebrew for ‘heap’ twice used here can also be found in the poetic accounts of the Sea of Reeds crossing. The sudden damming of the river could have been caused by a landslide, as has happened on other occasions. According to an Arab historian, something similar happened in AD 1267; landslides dammed the river in this area (Adama-Damieh) for several hours. And, as recently as 1927 a blockage of the water in this area was recorded that lasted over 20 hours.

Nevertheless, the miraculous element of the event is not diminished, because God, who foretold it (Jos 3:13), also caused it to take place at precisely the right moment (Jos 3:15), whether or not he used natural forces to accomplish his will. (Similarly, the drying up of the Sea of Reeds has been attributed to the effects of an earthquake in the Mediterranean, perhaps accompanied by a tsunami.)

Meanwhile, the lower reaches of the river flowing into the Sea of Arabah, the Salt Sea, the Dead Sea were completely cut off from the upper waters.

The people now crossed the river near to Jericho. As they did so, the priests carrying the ark stood on dry ground in the middle of the river bed, while the whole of Israel crossed on dry ground until every single person had completed the crossing. The priests stood firm on dry land: signifying that the Lord himself remained in the place of danger until all Israel had crossed the Jordan.

This whole operation has the approval and protection of Yahweh. It is the fulfilment of the solemn promise he made to provide a home for a wandering people.

It brings to closure the epic saga which began with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the Hebrew people escaping to freedom and now ends with another water crossing and the entry into the long-awaited Promised Land.

The Jerusalem Bible shows the links between the two events:

There is a deliberate parallelism between the narratives of the crossing of the Jordan and entry into Canaan and the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt. The editor himself calls attention to it (3:7): Yahweh halts the Jordan just as he dried up the Sea of Reeds; the Ark of Yahweh leads the Israelites as did the pillar of cloud or of fire; Joshua plays the part that Moses played in the Exodus; and just as the adults of the Exodus period were circumcised, so in their turn are their desert-born children; the manna that had served Israel in the desert ceases as soon as the Israelites enter Canaan and the Passover is celebrated in Gilgal after the second ‘crossing’ as it had been celebrated in Egypt before the first. The parallelism between the events at the beginning and the end of the Exodus produces at the departure from Egypt a water miracle analogous to the water miracles at the crossing of the Jordan. As the Passion and Resurrection of Christ spiritually renew the events of the Exodus, so Joshua, who gave the events of the Exodus their physical fulfilment, was regarded by some Fathers as an ante-type of Jesus, who has the same name. (Joshua is another form of the name Jesus and means ‘God saves’.) (edited)

In the liturgy of the Catholic and other Christian churches, these water crossings are seen as anticipatory symbols of the saving waters of Baptism. They are recalled especially during the liturgy of the Easter Vigil when the Baptismal water is blessed.

Let us remember today our own Baptism and how its meaning is symbolised in my daily life as a follower of Christ.

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