Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And Joshua rose early in the morning; and they removed from Shittim, and came to Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over.III.
THE PASSAGE OF JORDAN(Joshua 3:1 to Joshua 4:18, inclusive).
(1) They removed from Shittim.—See Note on Joshua 2:1. Shittim may be called the last stage of the Exodus of Israel, “their journeyings according to their goings out” (Numbers 33:2). The march from Shittim to Jordan is their first march under Joshua—the first stage of their Eisodus or coming in.
And it came to pass after three days, that the officers went through the host;(2) After three days.—See Joshua 1:2.
(2-6) PRELIMINARY ORDERS.—The priests are to bear the ark. This was usually the duty of the Levites of the family of Kohath; but both at the passage of Jordan and the taking of Jericho, the priests were employed as bearers. The people must be sanctified, as they were in preparation for the giving of the law at Sinai (in Exodus 19). And the ark itself takes, in some sense, a fresh position. The space of 2,000 cubits was left between the head of the column of Israelites and the ark, in order that they might all see it. Up to this time, during the whole of the Exodus, they had been led by the pillar of cloud and fire. The ark had led the van ever since they left Sinai (Numbers 10:33-34). But as the cloud had moved above the ark, where all the people could see it, the head of the column might follow the ark as closely as possible, without any inconvenience. Now the cloud was no longer with them. It was a visible token of God’s presence especially granted to Moses, and with him it disappeared. The ark was now to be the only leader, and therefore it must be placed in a somewhat more conspicuous position. This difference of arrangement appears to be indicated by the words in Joshua 3:4, “Ye have not passed this way heretofore.” The words may mean, “You are marching over untrodden ground;” but if so, they are not more applicable to this march than to many previous marches. They may also mean, “You have not marched in this manner heretofore,” and this interpretation seems more to the purpose.
It may be of use to consider here, what was the actual significance of the position assigned to the ark in Joshua. What was the ark? It was a chest containing the ten commandments, written with the finger of God on two tables of stone prepared by Moses (Deuteronomy 10:1-5; Exodus 34:1; Exodus 34:28). But the ark was made for the law, not the law for the ark. The mercy-seat above was the covering of the law—the shield between that law and the people. Between the cherubim that formed the mercy-seat, was the throne of Jehovah. But the central thing, the only thing not of human workmanship, that remained in the ark, was “the law written with the finger of God.” If we would exactly describe the position before us, we must say that the Israelites marched into Jordan led by the written law of God. The same written law, borne round the walls of Jericho, was the minister of vengeance to the Canaanites, as indeed it became afterwards to Israel when incautiously handled or invoked, as at Eben-ezer (1 Samuel 4), and as at Beth-shemesh (1 Samuel 6; comp. 2 Samuel 6), and also to the Philistines (1 Samuel 5). As soon as the army of Joshua reached the centre of Canaan, this same law was written on great stones in the heart of the country and became the law of the land. It is consistent with what we have already noted (Joshua 1:1) as to the difference between Moses and Joshua, that under Moses the people should follow the cloudy pillar, and under Joshua, the written law of God. But it is a strange picture, and one that may well call up our reverent wonder, that the Israelites should pass over Jordan and assail the Canaanites, with the ten commandments carried before them, and as it were leading the way. Was not this the direct object of the conquest of Canaan, that God’s law should not only have a people to obey it, but a country in which its working might be exhibited to the nations, as the law of the land?
And the LORD said unto Joshua, 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.(7) The Lord said unto Joshua, This day will I begin to magnify thee . . .—Compare Joshua 4:14, “on that day the Lord magnified Joshua.” These words mark the beginning and end of the section. The details that follow in Joshua 4:15, &c., seem to be added by way of appendix. The passage of Jordan, being the principal event, is exhibited by itself; and other particulars of attendant circumstances are given separately. A somewhat similar plan appears to be adopted in Joshua 10, but the arrangement of both narratives is at first sight somewhat complex, and not quite clear.
It is here stated that the passage of Jordan was to be to Joshua what the giving of the law at Sinai was to Moses, “that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever” (Exodus 19:9). But the power which establishes Joshua is the work of the written instead of the spoken word.
Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passeth over before you into Jordan.(11) The ark of the covenant.—The ten commandments are presented throughout this narrative as a covenant. So Exodus 34:28, “the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” It must be remembered that a promise precedes all the commandments. “I am Jehovah thy God.” The “ten words” that follow are the testimony to His character who commanded the covenant. (See Silver Sockets, p. 28.) The thing signified by the dividing of Jordan does indeed exhibit the law as a covenant in a way that those who followed Joshua can hardly have conceived. But history must come before prophecy, if prophecy is to be understood.
Now therefore take you twelve men out of the tribes of Israel, out of every tribe a man.(12) Take you twelve men.—These were selected beforehand and kept in readiness, that there might be no delay in the work which they had to do (Joshua 4:3).
And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off from the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand upon an heap.(13) The soles of the feet of the priests.—Observe that the priests, the ark-bearers, did not stand in the middle of the bed of the river, but at the edge of the flood. They had no need to advance further. As soon as their feet “rested” in the overflow, “Jordan was driven back.” The waters descending from the north as it were recoiled and shrank away, and stood up in “one heap.”
That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed, and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho.(16) Very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan.—The written text is “in Adam,” but the Masorites read it “from Adam.” The reading makes no difference to the literal fact. The two prepositions, in and from, express the same thought. The heap of water stood up as it were in Adam. From Adam to the place where Israel crossed, the river-bed was dry—the heap was as far away as Adam, but as it was not actually in the city, the word in was most likely altered to from. The more difficult reading, in, may very possibly be the best. For Zaretan see 1Kings 4:12; 1Kings 7:46. Adam, as the name of a city, does not occur elsewhere. The meaning of the fact has been well pointed out by Bishop Wordsworth on this place. Zaretan was beneath Jezreel, but has not been identified. Adam has been thought to be at the ford Damieh, thirty miles away.