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Crossing the Jordan River (3:1-5:1)
Israel’s conquest of Jericho was more than just a military exercise. It had religious meaning. The Israelites were to cleanse themselves before God, because he was the one who would lead them against their enemies. His presence was symbolized in the ark of the covenant (GNB: covenant box), which the priests carried ahead of the procession in full view of the people (3:1-6).
As God had worked through Moses, so he would work through Joshua. Just as the waters of the Red Sea had miraculously dried up to allow the former generation to escape from Egypt, so the waters of the Jordan would miraculously dry up to allow the new generation to enter Canaan (7-13).
It seems that the way God stopped the Jordan was by a collapse of its banks at the town of Adam (twenty-five kilometres upstream) that dammed the river. God was controlling events according to his perfectly timed plan, so that the waters at the river crossing dried up just as the priests arrived there. The priests then stood in the middle of the dry river bed until all the people crossed over (14-17).
Twelve men, one from each tribe, were then sent back to take twelve stones from the river bed, to be set up at the place where the people camped that night as a memorial of the great event (4:1-8). Joshua set up another memorial of twelve stones in the middle of the river itself, before the river broke through the earth dam upstream and returned to its normal flow. These remarkable events caused the people to give Joshua the same honour and respect as previously they had given Moses (9-18; cf. 3:7).
Once the people had established their camp at Gilgal, Joshua took the twelve stones that the men had brought from the river and set up the memorial (19-24). When the Canaanites heard about the Israelites’ miraculous crossing of the Jordan, they were filled with fear (5:1).
Camp at Gilgal (5:2-15)
Israel’s camp at Gilgal became the centre for the battle campaign that was to follow. But before the people could receive the land God promised them in the covenant, they had to renew their covenant relation with him.
During the previous forty years, the people of Israel had brought shame upon themselves through consistently being disobedient and unbelieving. They had even neglected the first requirement of the covenant, which was the circumcision of all newborn male children. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant. Therefore, just as there had been a general circumcision for all males in Abraham’s household when the covenant was sealed (see Genesis 17:9-14), so again there was a general circumcision in Joshua’s time for all who were still uncircumcised. The ceremony sealed them as God’s people who were to inherit the land promised to Abraham in the covenant (2-9; see Genesis 17:5-8).
With the completion of the circumcision, the people could celebrate the Passover (something that an uncircumcised person was not allowed to do; see Exodus 12:47-49). The journey from Egypt to Canaan was now officially over, and therefore the miraculous daily supply of manna ceased (10-12; cf. Exodus 16:35).
God’s special messenger appeared to Joshua to remind him that God was the commander of Israel’s army. This messenger was so closely identified with God that Joshua fell at his feet and worshipped. To him it appeared that God had temporarily taken human form (13-15).
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Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Joshua 5". "Fleming's Bridgeway Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany