By chapter 3 we find Joshua preparing his people to cross the Jordan River, entering into the outmost edge of the Promised Land. Knowing the might and majesty of his Lord, Joshua declared to the people “Sanctify yourselves: for to morrow the Lord will do wonders among you. (Joshua 3:5b)”
Joshua and his people did indeed see the Lord work a wonder before them that day. In verse 7, God speaks to Joshua, declaring:
“This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee. And thou shalt command the priests that bear the ark of the covenant, saying, When ye are come to the brink of the water of Jordan, ye shall stand still in Jordan. (verses 7b-8)”
That is precisely what they did. In the sight of them all, the priest that bore the Ark of the Covenant approached the flooded banks of the Jordan, stepping into the shallows there, and as they did the mighty waters ceased and parted, just as the Red Sea had done some forty years prior for Moses! Verse 17 says:
“And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground, until all the people were passed clean over Jordan.”
The account continued in Chapter 4, as we read of how the Lord commanded Joshua to have twelve men, one from each of the tribes, take up a stone from the midst of the Jordan, from where the priests yet stood, directing them to lay these stones as a memorial upon the far shore, at Gilgal, at the site where they were to lodge for the night. This was to be a memorial, a physical remembrance for their children and their children’s children, whereby they could recount the day that the Lord held the waters of the Jordan at bay so the children of Israel could enter the Promised Land on dry ground!
Joshua himself built a second memorial in that moment, taking twelve stones and stacking them at the feet of the ark-bearing priests who yet stood on dry land in the midst of the Jordan. Only when all had passed through did those waters resume their flow. Intriguingly, much later, in Matthew 3:19, we find that John the Baptist, performing his ministry at this very site, at Bethabara or the House of Passage (see John 1:8), references these stone memorials while challenging the religious leaders of his day!
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