Joshua 3: "Do you Believe the Old Stories?"
If someone asked you, what are the most amazing wonders God has ever done, how would you answer? Maybe, when God freed Israel from their slavery to Egypt? When God parted the Red Sea? When God raised Jesus from the dead? If you were an Israelite answering this question, one of the first things you would say, is when Israel crossed the Jordan River in Joshua 3-4. This story is a big deal. One of the clues that helps us see how important this story is, is the amount of space and time AJ (=Author of Joshua) gives to it. He takes two full chapters to describe these events, and their significance. When we tell stories, one of the things we do, maybe without fully realizing it, is decide the pace that we tell them at-- how fast or slow. When you get home from work, and your spouse asks you how your day was, some of you can summarize your day in a single (incomplete) sentence. "Pretty good." "Okay." My dad, classically, would say, "It was productive." Nothing very important or exciting happened, so you keep it short. Once in a while, though, something will happen in your life that's really significant. Maybe it marks a turning point in your life--your life was turned completely upside down, for good or bad. If you're telling the story of where you met your spouse, or of when you decided to submit to Jesus as King, these are big deals. Or, negatively, if you lost a very good friend because of a huge fight, and you're telling someone about it, it's going to be a long story. When something really important happens, for good or bad, you want to help people understand the significance of it. You do this in part by slowing down the pace. You maybe give more background information. You maybe quote what people said to each other. When biblical authors, especially in the OT, tell stories, they tell them the same way. Story telling is an art, and OT authors are very good at what they do. Sometimes, decades of Israel's life can be summed up in a single sentence. Nothing happened that was very important. Other times, it takes 2 chapters to cross a river. When AJ thinks about the crossing of the Jordan, he knows that this story is a big deal. And so he stretches out the way he tells this story, mostly by telling us what people said. What people say in these chapters--and what Yahweh says-- is just as important as what people, and Yahweh, do. The other thing AJ does to help us see how important this is, is build suspense. A good story will often keep important details from you. The goal is to suck you into the story, and make you wonder what's coming. But the important thing to know, up front, is that if it takes 2 chapters to cross the Jordan River, this story is a big deal. There is something going on here that AJ is determined to make his readers to understand. What is this? What do we absolutely need to know? We'll just have to read to find out. (vs. 1-3) (1) And Joshua rose early in the morning, And they went out from Shittim, And they came to the Jordan-- he, and all the sons of Israel, And they spent the night there before they were crossing over. (2) And then after three days, the officers crossed over in the midst of the camp, (3) And they commanded the people, saying, "As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of Yahweh your God, while the Levitical priests are carrying it, you shall set out from your place, and you shall walk after it. In chapter 1, Joshua had told the officers to walk in the midst of the people, and tell them that in three days, it would be time to get up, and cross over the Jordan. Three days have passed, and the officers are commanding the people to be ready. But there is something new here-- the ark of the covenant of Yahweh your God. (WHAT I SHOULD DO HERE IS USE POWERPOINT IF UP FRONT; OR COLORING PICTURE IF SOMEWHERE ELSE). If I showed you a picture, of 4 priests carrying an ark, where do you focus your attention? You might find yourselves looking at the priests, and their clothing. Or maybe, you look at the ark. You're not sure where to focus, right? Verse 3 is deliberately worded in a way that puts the focus on the ark. When the ark moves, it's not through levitation. Priests are carrying it. But the people are supposed to be looking for the ark. When you see the ark, you have to leave your place, and walk after.... walk after what? Walk after "it." It'd be natural here to think that the Israelites are supposed to follow the priests. They're the ones walking. But it's the ark that's the focus. Everyone needs to look at the ark, and follow the ark. The Israelites know all about the ark at this point in their history. But for most of us, everything we know about the ark of the covenant, we learned from Indiana Jones. Which, surprisingly, doesn't quite get it right. Probably the best verses for helping us to think about the ark are in Numbers 10:33-36. 33 So they set out from the mount of the Lord three days' journey. And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting place for them. 34 And the cloud of the Lord was over them by day, whenever they set out from the camp. 35 And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.”36 And when it rested, he said, “Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” So the ark goes before the people. Why? The ark is seeking out a resting place for them. How is this possible? How can a box seek out a resting place? And then, in verse 35, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, "Arise, O Yahweh." And whenever it rested, he would say, "Return, O Yahweh." The ark, and Yahweh's presence, are tied together. It almost sounds like the ark is Yahweh. What's going on here? Now let's turn to Psalm 132:7-8. “Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!” 8 Arise, O Lord, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Yahweh has a throne on earth. And the footstool for his throne, is the ark. Some of us maybe think the ark is a symbol of Yahweh's presence. But if we say this, we are watering down the biblical language. Yahweh has chosen to be present, in a special, powerful way, with his ark. It's not that he's in the ark-- Indiana Jones isn't right. The ark is the footstool to Yahweh's heavenly throne. When the ark is moving, it means Yahweh has risen from his throne, and is leading the people. When the ark stops, it means Yahweh is sitting on his throne. But either way, when you as an Israelite see the ark, you know that Yahweh is powerfully in your midst. So the Israelites are supposed to be all ready to go. The signal for them to get up, is the ark. They are supposed to look for the ark, and follow the ark. Verse 4: (4) Only, it shall be a distance between you and between it (of) about two thousand cubits by measure. You shall not draw near to it, in order that you may know the way that you must go on it. because you haven't crossed on the way from three days ago. So the people are supposed to follow the ark. But they have to make sure not to get too close-- they have to stay about 3,000 feet behind. We hear this, and we maybe assume that we know why they have to keep their distance. Yahweh is present with the ark, and his holiness is dangerous (2 Sam. 6). But the officers actually tell them why they need to keep their distance, and it has nothing to do with holiness. The reason you have to keep your distance, is that you Israelites don't know where you're going. And Yahweh does. So, if you don't know where you're going in life, follow Yahweh. But, it's important that you stay back and maintain the proper following distance. If you stay back, you have smooth stops and turns, and following will go much better for you. Follow the ark, but don't tailgate it. Verse 5 (5) And Joshua said to the people, "Consecrate yourselves, because tomorrow Yahweh will do/make wonders in your midst. The people are supposed to "consecrate" themselves. You could also translate it, "cause yourselves to be holy." But what does this mean? Holiness, and consecration, are usually explained in terms of purity, and separation. When we say that Yahweh is holy, we usually mean he isn't like us, and he is pure. What I've learned in the past few weeks is that this really isn't right. Holiness isn't one of God's attributes. This is based more in systematic theology than biblical thought. Holiness is how God acts; it's a commitment he makes. Is this confusing? It should be (sorry). I'm going to need at least a week separately to explain this right, (and there's still another journal article I need to read first), but the idea of Israel consecrating themselves here has to do with dedicating themselves to Yahweh. Holiness is about dedication. Joshua is commanding them to fully commit to Yahweh alone. When the Bible says Yahweh is holy, what it means is that he is fully dedicated to his people. Because Yahweh is completely dedicated to his people--holy-- people have to be completely dedicated to him. And actually, the Bible doesn't just say Yahweh is holy. Yahweh makes himself holy-- He consecrates himself. He deliberately chooses to dedicate himself to his people. And because Yahweh has dedicated himself to Israel, Israel needs to reciprocate. You have to match Yahweh's commitment to you. You have to dedicate yourself completely to Yahweh. The reason Israel has to dedicate itself here, right now, in Joshua 3 is that Israel is about to find itself meeting Yahweh. And if/when you are meeting Yahweh, you need to prepare for that by dedicating yourself completely to him (Exodus 19:22; 2 Chr. 30:3, 15, 17, 24; Goldingay, OT Theology vol. 1, 497). Verse 6: (6) And Joshua said to the priests, saying, "Take up the ark of the covenant, and cross over before the people," And they took up the ark of the covenant, And they walked before the people. Yahweh is about to do something amazing. We still haven't been told what it is. But it's going to be awesome. He will do wonders in their midst. Even though we don't know what Yahweh's planning, it's becoming really obvious that the ark is going to be involved. And that doesn't surprise us at all. The ark is Yahweh's footstool. And we know that wherever the ark is, Yahweh is powerfully present. We should notice, again, how AJ is stressing the priests' obedience here. Everyone does exactly as Joshua commands. Joshua commands the priests to go before all the people, and the priests go before all the people. (Verses 7-8) (7) And Yahweh said to Joshua, "Today I will begin to make you great in the eyes of all Israel, that they may know that just as I was with Moses, I will be with you, (8) while you will command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, saying, "As soon as you come up to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, in the Jordan you shall stand." Yahweh is about to do something amazing. We still don't know what it is. But here, Yahweh tells Joshua why he is going to do this. Yahweh wants to make Joshua great in the eyes of all Israel, and show the people that He is with Joshua, just as He was with Moses. The people need this reassurance (1:17)-- this was one of their big "onlys"-- and Yahweh plans on proving this to them today. We then get a hint of what the wonder will be at the end. It has something to do with the ark, and the Jordan River. But we still don't know what it is. The suspense just keeps building. (Verses 9-10) (9) And Joshua said to the sons of Israel, "Draw near here, and hear the words of Yahweh your God." (10) And Joshua said, "By this you shall know that the living God (El) [is] in your midst, and he shall certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Jebusites." Yahweh had just told Joshua the point of this wonder was to make Joshua's name great, and help the people trust that Yahweh was with Joshua as he'd been with Moses. But Joshua, in verse 10, in humility, instead explains the meaning of the wonder in terms of Yahweh. Joshua says that what Israel will learn from this wonder is that the living God is in their midst. This will prove to them that Yahweh is here, with them. And when they see what's about to happen, this wonder is going to be so amazing, they will know, for sure, that Yahweh will drive out the nations before them. Because, right now, no one is sure that this will actually all happen. It's certainly also true, that the Israelites will realize that Yahweh is with Joshua, just as he was with Moses. But Joshua leaves that to the people to figure out on their own. Verse 11: (11) LOOK! The ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is crossing over before you in the Jordan, Verse 11 begins with an attention getter, and then a strong focus on the ark. In case you've somehow missed it, you should be watching the ark. Verse 12: (12) and, and so then, take for yourselves twelve men from the tribes of Israel, a man from each tribe. Verse 12 isn't supposed to make sense to us. Joshua doesn't give an explanation here. Just... grab 12 men, one from each tribe. You'll need them for something. Verse 13: (13) And then, as soon as the sole of the feet of the priests carrying the ark of Yahweh the Lord of all the world are immersed in the waters in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off-- the water coming down from above-- and they shall stand in one heap. Here, we are finally told what the wonder will be, after building suspense for 10 verses. When you see that ark, you should know that Yahweh, the Lord of all the earth, is powerfully, fully, in your midst. The ark is crossing over before you, and as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the ark hit the river, the waters of the Jordan will be completely cut off. They'll stand in one heap. This is the exact same word, heap, that is used to describe the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 15:8: At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea (ESV). Why did Yahweh say he'd give Israel a wonder? Yahweh wanted to make Joshua's name great, and show the people that he was with Joshua, just as he had been with Moses. What better way to show this, than to do the same wonder for Joshua that he did for Moses. What we are about to see is a deliberate echo of Exodus 14. The next verses are complicated. The author builds anticipation/suspense one last time, as we finally come to Yahweh doing the wonder he has promised. (14) And then, when/as the people were setting out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, while the priests carrying the ark of the covenant [were] before the people, and as soon as the ones carrying the ark came upon the Jordan, (15) while the feet of the ones carrying the ark were immersed in the edge of the waters, while the Jordan was filled up over all its banks all the days of harvest, (16) (then) the waters coming down from above stood completely still in one heap very far (away) at Adam--the city that is from the side of Zarethan. while the descending (waters) to the Sea of Arabah the Sea of the Salt were completely cut off, while the people crossed over opposite Jericho. (17) while the priests carrying the ark of the covenant stood firmly on the dry land in the midst of the Jordan river, while all Israel was crossing over on the dry land, until all (of) the nation finished crossing the Jordan. AJ works very hard in these verses to paint a picture of what Yahweh's wonder looked like. We see the ark being carried by the priests, in the middle of the river. We see the people crossing over, passing by the ark. We see the waters piled up, and backed up for miles. And when we look downstream, there's not even a trickle. This is Yahweh's wonder. I fear that our thinking is so messed up from Hollywood that we can't appreciate this story. Rivers don't just stop. The waters don't just pile up, and back up for miles. This is a wonder. It's a ridiculous miracle. We like to think that we are the most intelligent, sophisticated people who ever lived. We are scientific; we are skeptical. What if the truth is actually that we are arrogant? If you were an Israelite following Joshua, you grew up hearing amazing stories about what Yahweh used to do. You heard stories about what Moses used to do. But what if these stories are just fairy tales? What if they are basically just bedtime stories for your kids? What if you have some doubts? What if the ark is just a fancy box? What if the priests are con artists? What if Joshua is going to get you killed? As you pass through the Jordan River, and see the ark of the covenant in the river, any doubts you had should disappear. This defies logic. This defies your scientific understanding of the world. And as you pass by the ark, you know that Yahweh is with you. You can see the ark, right there. If Yahweh is with you, you can drive out the nations. You can trust Joshua. You don't need to fear anything, or anyone. When Yahweh piled up the waters of the Jordan River, he did this as a kindness to Israel. He's making it as easy as possible for them to trust him. What's the coolest, most amazing wonder Yahweh did for Moses? Without question, it was parting the Red Sea. This is THE act of deliverance in the OT. This is as important to an Israelite, as the cross is to us. And here we have Yahweh, in kindness, echoing this wonder. So every Israelite now knows that Yahweh is with Joshua, just as he was with Moses. And if Yahweh can stop the waters of the Jordan River-- especially at flood stage--he can certainly drive out the nations before them. People are easier to defeat than flood stage rivers. Yahweh can be trusted. My question for you this morning is this: Do you believe the old stories? Many of you have grown up hearing these stories. They're great stories, right? AJ is a gifted story teller. But the point of these stories is not to entertain you, or give you something to tell your kids at bedtime. Yahweh did this wonder to make it as easy as possible for the people to trust him, and trust Joshua. They knew the old stories, but did they believe them? When they saw the ark, and the manna, and God's glory in the tabernacle, did they really trust God? They have to, because what Yahweh is going to ask of them is nearly overwhelming. How can you be brave, and strong, and take the land? You have to trust Yahweh. And you have to trust Joshua. We are in the same situation as the Israelites of Joshua's generation. But God hasn't given most of us a wonder as obviously amazing as the Jordan River. We have to decide whether or not we will read this stories in faith, and trust them, and trust God (John 20:24-31). I read this story, and I hear it as encouragement. I believe our God is still the living God. I believe these aren't just fairy tales, or bedtime stories for my kids. I believe we serve the God who still lives, the God of wonders. And I give my life to him. What will you do?