Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Waters Part Again

Posted by foryourfaith on January 3, 2010


The story told in the Book of Joshua is one of a promise fulfilled, the promise made by the Lord to Abraham in Genesis 17:8, that his descendants would inherit “all the land of Canaan.”  Threaded from Genesis through the rest of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is the account of how the children of Israel made their way to the redemption of that pledge, over long years of bondage, exodus, and wandering in the Wilderness.  By the end of the Pentateuch, the Israelites were camped on the Plains of Moab, looking toward Canaan from the east bank of the Jordan River.  The fifth book, Deuteronomy, ends with the death of Moses and the emergence of his successor, Joshua, as leader of the Israelites.  It fell to Joshua to wage the battles that finally brought the descendants of Abraham into the Promised Land.

Picking up where Deuteronomy leaves off, the Book of Joshua describes the conquest of Canaan.  In spite of the fact that the book does not name its author and indeed describes the death of Joshua, tradition has often ascribed the writing of the book to Joshua himself.  Close study of the text has convinced most scholars, however, that the Book of Joshua was composed in stages over a period of ranging from 300 to 700 years after the time of the conquest.

The book opens with Joshua preparing the invasion of Canaan, receiving orders and advice from the Lord himself, who plays a very active role in all the ensuing events.  Biblical commentators have noted that the Lord and his works are so omni-present in the Book of Joshua that its authors must have viewed the conquest of Canaan as a miracle rather than a series of military events.  But Joshua’s capability as a commander can also clearly be seen from the Bible’s account of his planning and execution of the invasion.

Joshua first set his sights on the city of Jericho, whose walls and battlements seemed to represent a formidable challenge.  To gauge his prospects, he sent spies into the city, where they were aided by a prostitute named Rahab.  She told them the inhabitants were already afraid of the Israelites, having heard of the miraculous parting of the Red Sea and of their ferocity as warriors.

On receiving this report, Joshua moved quickly.  At God’s command, he instructed the priests to lead the way across the Jordan, bearing the Ark of the Covenant.  Although spring floods were swelling the Jordan, when the priests’ feet touched the river, “the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off.”  Thus the Israelites were able to pass into Canaan on dry ground, while the priests – holding the Ark – stood in the middle of the channel.  Once they reached the other side, “the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before.”

Seeking a naturalistic explanation for the biblical narrative, some have suggested that an earthquake may have occurred that allowed the Israelites to cross the Jordan on foot.  This theory was researched by a team from Stanford University in the United States and the Weizmann Institute in Israel.  Relying on historical, archaeological, and biblical documents, the scholars obtained evidence that the region has experienced earthquakes for 2,000 years.  During 10 of the 30 earthquakes recorded in the documents, the Jordan did indeed stop flowing for a day or two because of mud slides.

Whatever the event that underlies the story of this extraordinary crossing, stopping the waters was the Lord’s way of demonstrating his support for Joshua, for he said:  “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Joshua 3:7).  The narrative emphasizes that it was the Ark of the Covenant that was the particular instrument of this mighty miracle.  The crossing of the Jordan is not described as a military invasion but as a priestly procession:  the Lord opens the gate of the Promised Land to his sanctified people.

In order that the divine meaning of the crossing be handed down from generation to generation, Joshua left two mounds of rocks so that children might ask, “What do these stones mean?”  One mound was in the middle of the Jordan, where the Ark had stood; the other was at Gilgal, the first Israelite camp in the Promised Land.

It was at Gilgal that Joshua carried out the Lord’s command to renew the covenant with Abraham.  The Lord said:  “Make flint knives and circumcise the people of Israel again the second time.”  With this injunction, the Lord ushered in what has been described as a “new era,” for god was ordering the circumcision of a later generation of Hebrews, the sons of the people who had participated in the Exodus from Egypt.  Their fathers had been circumcised before leaving Egypt, but as the much later talmudic commentary suggests, newborn males were not circumcised in the Wilderness for fear of weakening them when they had hardships to endure.

Because it takes time for such wounds to heal, the Israelites were vulnerable to attack by the Canaanites.  But according to Joshua 5:1, when the Canaanites “heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their heart melted, and there was no longer any spirit in them.”  So they people of Israel, camped at Gilgal on the eve of the invasion of Jericho, were able to enjoy their Passover celebration in peace.


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