Joshua – Week 4: Israel crosses the Jordan

Chapters 3 – 4 – Israel crosses the Jordan (focus passage is the whole story)

Literary context

What is the general outline of this story?

  1. Israel prepares to cross the river (leaving the camp and arriving at the river, instructions to people;
    1. Purification of the people and specific instructions by God.
      1. Joshua relays God’s commands to the people.
        1. Joshua instructs them to choose 12 men, one from each tribe.
          1. The crossing of the river.
        2. The erection of the memorial by the 12 men.
      2. Obedience to Joshua’s instructions
    2. Instructions by God regarding the Ark
  2. Reflection after the crossing

It is clear that the focus point of this story is the crossing of the river. Given the confession of Rahab in the previous chapter (focus was God’s hand in the feats of Israel), this is yet another miracle performed by God for the people of Israel.

The symbolism here is also very obvious. The Exodus from Egypt was marked by a crossing over (or through) water and now the possession of the Promised Land is marked by the crossing over water. Interestingly, in line with the obvious parallels, the two crossings occurred during the same time of the year.

Historical context

We have already spoken about the author of the book, the audience, looked at maps and discussed where this part of the history of Israel fits into the Ancient Israelite history. We can now sharpen our focus. Since the crossing of the Jordan appears to be (at this stage at least) to be the central point of this story, let us look at the river itself.

For geographical background, refer to pp 605-607 of The New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed), IVP, 1996

For historical background on the actual crossing, refer to pp 240 -242 of The New Bible Commentary, IVP, 1994. Of specific interest are the references to the timing of the crossing – God waited until early spring when the river was in flood before the crossing took place; where the crossing took place; the recording of three relatively recent events when the river was dammed up (1267, 1906, and 1927)

Analysing narrative

The narrative is a drama, analysed according to the following guidelines:

  1. Setting the stage

The setting establishes the mood of the story and tells us where it took place in space and time.

Which verses deal with this initial stage in the drama development? (3:1-4)

Ask the “where, what, who, why, when and how” questions.

  1. Understand the characters

List all the characters in the narrative. Always remember that God is always, at least as a minimum, a background character in the story. Characters may be individuals or groups (e.g. Philistines or Pharisees and so on).

Always look for at least one believer (usually the hero), one unbeliever (usually the villain) and one undecided individual or group (often the character around which the main point of the story is illustrated).

Which verses deal with the introduction of the characters? Classify them into believer, unbeliever and undecided – if possible/relevant in this drama

Joshua, All the Israelites, Israelite officers, The Levitical priests, God

All these characters can be classified as believers. This may lead one to conclude that any teaching from this passage may be for the edification of believers and as testimony for those who are undecided and the unbelievers. Remember that the Canaanites in general and the citizens of Jericho are background characters in this drama – not explicitly mentioned, but as we have seen in the previous chapter, certainly aware of what is happening.

  1. The conflict

The conflict usually has one of three types of focal points: a test, a quest, or a choice. A test try or probe the mental, moral, or spiritual character of a story’s hero; in a quest, the character pursues a goal, which he usually obtains despite obstacles in the path; in a choice, the main character must decide between two courses of action.

In a sense, all three types of focal points are present, but the “quest” is the most dominant type of focal point. The quest is the crossing of the River Jordan.

  1. Crisis or climax

The climax is the moment of greatest tension – there where you hold your breath and wonder what will happen next. Who will succeed or fail?

The climax of this story is obvious. It was the harvest season, with the river overflowing its banks. Yet, the priests are walking towards the river, fully expecting it to stop flowing and “stand up like a wall” as soon as their feet touch the water. The point of tension is: will they succeed or fail?

  1. Resolution

Here is where we find out what happened. When you find the crisis and resolution of a drama, you usually find the main point as well.

The moment the feet of the priests touched the waters, the water stopped flowing, just as God has promised. Remember, this is probably the main point of the story. Also refer to the chiastic structure of the whole story as outlined above.

  1. Following actions

The action following the resolution of the drama often interprets the story. It may indicate the main lesson or show how the story fits into the meta-narrative of redemptive history.

In this case, the “following actions” consist mainly of the erection of the memorial so that the children of the Israelites may know what God has done that day. This makes up the whole of chapter 4. What are the lessons to be learned from the following actions?


What is the topic of the text?

What does the passage teach about this topic?

What is the main point of the teaching (topic and what is says about topic)?

How does this main point apply to me or my audience? (One has to be very specific here)

What is the redemptive focus, i.e. how does the text surpass a list of things to do, avoid or believe, and point to Christ?


What was the original meaning of this passage?

What is the principle?

How can we apply the principle in a situation today?

What can we learn from the characters in the story? How did they deal with the “quest”?

Verify the application to other passages in Scripture.

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