Likely itching at the sandals, the Israelites finally move out from Shittim and camp on the banks of the Jordan River to wait out the final three days before the conquest is officially slated to begin.

At Joshua’s request, the officers tell the soldiers to keep an eye out for the ark; when Aslan – I mean the ark – is on the move, they must follow. But they must also practice good road safety and travel a minimum of 2,000 cubits behind, just in case the ark needs to hit the brakes.

While they wait, they must sanctify themselves. It’s quite clear that this is to be a holy war, not just an invasion.

Crossing the Jordan River, by Christoph Unterberger, 1780s.

Crossing the Jordan River, by Christoph Unterberger, 1780s.

Meanwhile, God hands Joshua the keys, telling him that he has the authority to tell the priests where to go. It feels like this points to monarchic involvement (perhaps commissioning or patronizing) in the composition of Joshua. It’s like for all that the Deuteronomic History we’ve read so far as consolidated power in Levitical hands and warned the future monarchy against getting grabby, we’ve also seen little reminders like these that the king is still king.

Because God just can’t see a river without seeing an opportunity for a little peacocking, he makes the Israelites stand on the shores of the Jordan and watch while the Levites step into the river with the ark. The river’s flow miraculously stops, and “the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap” (Josh. 3:16). Downriver, the flow was cut off entirely (yet another of Joshua’s lovely narrative details – I’m really enjoying this book much more than the slog we’ve been having since Genesis ended!).

This is clearly a repetition of the Red Sea parting, linking Joshua to Moses and indicating a continuity of leadership. Numbers had mentions of Joshua continuing after Moses, but I get the impression that Deuteronomy and Joshua have really been thumping the point, making me wonder if perhaps there was an alternative successor that the Deuteronomic History authors were competing against. Anyone know if there’s something to this?

It would never have occurred to me to look into the actual depth of the Jordan, but David Plotz mentioned it in his post: “I know what those of you who have been to Israel are thinking: The Jordan “river” is about as deep my bathtub, and not much wider! But the book specifies that the crossing was at flood stage, when the river is somewhat more intimidating.”

Tim Bulkeley also commented on how unimpressive the Jordan River is today, and warns his listeners against using today’s river to imagine what Joshua’s army would have encountered. It would have had a very variable flow in ancient times. And, “even today the Jordan valley has (in places) dense bush, making it a strange and dangerous place for people more used to dry pastureland.”

Joshua’s stones

40,000 soldiers cross with the ark.

At some point during this time, something happens involving twelve stones. Unfortunately for literalists, what happens is a little fuzzy.

Joshua calls for one representative from each tribe to collect one rock each from the river bed (while it’s still exposed) and bring them to their first camp-site in the Promised Land – in Gilgal. Joshua also places twelve stones into the riverbed (replacing the ones taken?) which the book’s author(s) claim are still there to their day. But then Joshua brings the twelve stones to Gilgal and sets them up there, so that they clearly can’t still be in the river.

It seems that two, or possibly three, separate narratives got shoved in together.

J.R. Porter writes:

The character of the Gilgal legend indicates that it was a pre-Israelite holy place, probably the site of a Canaanite festival, which re-enacted the victory of a deity over the forces of chaos, as in the stories of the gods Baal and Marduk. The events at the Jordan and at Gilgal may well be the real source of the tradition of Israel’s crossing of the sea. (The new Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.63)

In other words, it’s possible that this episode wasn’t added to link Joshua onto Moses’s authority, but rather that Moses was given his crossing to link him to this holy site.

I wrote in What’s the deal with Joshua that his appearances in Exodus and Numbers feel very forced, like he was stitched in to lend legitimacy to his future appearance as Moses’ successor. Now, I wonder if he wasn’t at one time a competing Moses figure (which would explain his presence on the mountain in Exodus 24 while Moses is receiving the commandments, his presence with Moses again during a revelation in Exodus 32, and his association with the tent of meeting in Exodus 33).

Pure conjecture on my part, but I wonder if Joshua wasn’t at one time a competing forefather figure who lost out to the far larger Moses camp. Yet, he had achieved enough of a following to remain in the oral narrative canon, eventually becoming a successor rather than competitor.