Joshua 3–4 is about Israel crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land, which is to say it is about a baptism into and with Joshua. Seeing that “baptism,” however, will take a little cross-referencing. To get to that interpretation, here are 10 things about Joshua 3–4.
1. The literary structure puts the center of the story in the middle of the Jordan River.
Chapters 3–4 should be read together. If we organize chapter 3 around the crossing and chapter 4 around the memorial of twelve stones, we may miss the fact that the priests are still standing in the river bed from Joshua 3:15 until Joshua 4:18. For this reason, it is better to organize the chapters around the actual events of the crossing, and read the chapters together.
Joshua 3:15 watches the priests step into the water; Joshua 4:18 watches them step out of the water. In between, all the people of Israel cross the Jordan River in haste (4:10). And standing at the center of this story is the collection of twelve stones, which will be a sign and memorial for future generations (4:6–7). Indeed, the memorial is presented at the center of the story, and thus we should see how the whole river crossing hangs together.
For starters, Dale Ralph Davis (Joshua, 32) organizes Joshua 3–4 around the simple movement of crossing the Jordan River.
Crossing Over (3:14–17)
Twelve Stones (4:1–10a)
Crossing Over (4:10b–14)
Widening our vision, we see that Joshua 3:1–5 begins and Joshua 4:19–24 ends with the people lodging on one side of the river (3:1) and then encamped on the other (4:19). In the center, we also find the intricate organization of the twelve stones, serving as the center of the whole story. As Richard Hess (Joshua, 119) outlines Joshua 4:6–7,
A. to serve as a sign among you. In the future [lit. tomorrow], when your children ask you,
B. ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that
C. the flow of the Jordan was cut off
D. before the ark of the covenant of the LORD
D’ When it cross the Jordan,
C’ the waters of the Jordan were cut off
B’ These stones are to be
A’ a memorial to the people of Israel for ever.
With these pieces in place, we can observe a chiastic structure for the two chapters (cf. David Dorsey, Literary Structure of the Old Testament, 94),
A. The People East of the Jordan (3:1–5)
B1. Yahweh Promises to Exalt Joshua (3:6)
B2. Joshua Commands the Priests to Enter the Jordan (3:7–8)
C. The Jordan Piles Up for the People (3:9–17)
D. THE TWELVE MEMORIAL STONES (4:1:1–10)
C. The People Come Through the Jordan (4:11–13)
B1. Yahweh Exalts Joshua (4:14)
B2. Joshua Commands the Priests to Come Out of the Water (4:15–18)
A. The People West of Jordan (4:19–24)
2. The ark of the covenant is visible throughout the two chapters.
If Joshua 3–4 center on the river crossing and twelve stones, the content of these two chapters also focuses on the ark of the covenant. Starting with Joshua 3:2, the reader is called to watch for this piece of tabernacle furniture to go before the people.
Described in Exodus 25:10–22, this wooden box—rectangular in shape, plated with gold, and covered with God’s mercy seat—represents the place where God dwells. Later in the Old Testament, it will be called God’s “footstool” (1 Chron. 28:2). And here attention is given to the ark because it was the symbol of God’s presence leading the nation into the Promised Land.
Significantly, the people of Israel are called to “see” the ark being carried before them (3:2). From this verse forward the ark will be mentioned another 13 times. For the reader, like the Israelites waiting to cross the Jordan, paying careful attention to the ark will help us understand what is happening in these two chapters. Here’s a short survey of what the chapters say about the ark.
- The Ark of the covenant (of the Lord) (3:3, 6 [2x], 8, 11, 14, 17; 4:7, 9, 18) represents the special covenant relationship with Israel. Cf. “The ark” in 3:15 (2x); 4:10 and “the ark of the Lord” (3:13; 4:5, 11).
- The ark of the testimony (4:16) recalls the testimony God put inside the ark (Exod. 25:16). Could this testimony be the memorial written by God about Joshua in Exodus 17:14?
- The Lord of the ark is the Lord of all the earth (3:11)—i.e., he has authority to displace the Canaanites and give the land to Israel
- The ark will be carried by the Levitical priests. (3:3, 6, 13, etc.)
- The ark will lead the people and when it enters the water (carried by the priests), it will cause the waters to stop (3:8, 14–17).
- When Israel sees the ark, they are to set out from their place and follow it. (3:3)
- All the people will walk before the Ark as they went through the waters (4:5). In this way, they were in the Jordan with the Lord as they walked across the riverbed.
- Joshua set up a memorial in the place where the ark of the covenant stood (carried by the priests) in the Jordan River (4:9).
All in all, the ark plays a critical role in this story. And importantly, it stands in for the presence of God. In other words, we should not miss the symbolic connection between this piece of furniture and the covenant Lord whom it represents. To say that the ark was in the riverbed with Israel is to say God was with them. And thus, the miracle of the parted river comes not from some “secret power” in the ark, but in the presence of the God whom the ark symbolized.
3. The point of Joshua 3–4 is to know Yahweh and his power.
Joshua 3–4 also indicates that all the actions of God (and Joshua, the priests, and the twelve men) are for the purpose of knowing God and making him known. This is first stated in Joshua 3:10,
Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites.
In this verse, Yahweh tells Joshua that Israel will know God is with them and for them in the upcoming battles in the land because of the way God brings Israel into the land. As Dale Ralph Davis observes,
The object of this text (“You shall know that the living God is among you”) then is to impress us with the adequacy of God, to grill into us that God is not merely a three-letter word of our Christian jargon, not merely the honorary leader of our club, but is the living God who works and intervenes and comes and saves and rescues and counsels his people in all their perplexities. He is indeed ‘the Lord of all the earth’ (vv. 11, 13), not a mere Little League deity. So we must renounce our tendency to ‘punify’ God, to carve him down to our stature and limit him to our possibilities. (Joshua, 36)
Indeed, the goal of these two chapters is not merely to get Israel into the land, but also to give them confidence in God for what they will do in the land—namely, go to war with more than 30 armies (see ch. 12).
Joshua 4 ends with a similar statement,
For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, 24 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.
This verse concludes the Jordan crossing narrative, connects God’s actions at the Jordan to his actions at the Red Sea, and reminds us all that God’s actions for Israel are meant to reveal his power and glory to all the earth. More specifically, his actions are meant to invoke fear in his name and to establish the fact that God is a warrior for his covenant people (cf. Exod 15:3).
In fact, one more verse is worth noting. In Joshua 3:7, Yahweh reiterates his promise to Joshua, “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.'”
God had already told Joshua he would be with him like he had been with Moses (1:5), but now we hear God’s promise to exalt Joshua in the very same “river crossing” that God will exalt himself. If this sounds strange—that God would glorify himself and Joshua—it’s not! God does not exalt Joshua in the same way he exalts himself; he glorifies Joshua in the way appropriate to God’s chosen leader.
These differing glories (think: 1 Corinthians 15:40–41) resolve the immediate tension. However, that God and Joshua are both exalted in the same action also forecasts the way that God will glorify himself in the faithful service of Jesus, and the way Jesus will glorify his father in heaven (cf. John 17). In this way, as we begin to wade into the waters of Joshua 3–4, we are going to see a bevy of ways Joshua’s actions are repeated by Christ.
4. Tension builds as we move to the center of the story and the action in the Jordan River.
As we observed in the story of Rahab, the author of Joshua is a masterful story teller. Not only does he organize his story to center on the most important point; he also builds tension in his telling. In fact, one pattern of his story-telling is to introduce an idea, leave it, and describe it more fully later.
For instance, in Joshua 3:8 the idea of priests standing in the river is introduced. But immediately, he drops the idea. The passage doesn’t explain why these priests will stand there. But shortly, we learn that when the priests enter the water, the water will stop. However, as soon as we learn that fact (in vv. 14–15), we also discover the water is at flood stage. Hence, the drama builds as the author slowly divulges various details.
Recognizing this pattern, Dale Davis (Joshua, 37) helps us to see how the author strategically inserts a river flood report to increase the tension. Here’s Davis’s outline of Joshua 3:14–15
‘When the people set out from their tents to cross…’
Clauses building to climax, 14b–15b
First clause, 14b
‘and the priests, the bearers of the ark, were before the people’
Second clause, 15a
‘and when the bearers of the ark came to the Jordan’
Third clause, 15b
‘and the feet of the priests, the bearers of the ark, were dipped in the edge of the water’
Parenthesis delaying climax, 15c
‘(now the Jordan overflows its banks all the days of harvest)’
‘The waters coming down from above stopped flowing…’
By adding this parenthesis in Joshua 3:15, the author increases the tension of the text. At the same time, he also amplifies the magnitude of God’s actions to bring Israel across the river.
5. The dimensions of the Jordan Valley amplify the “size” of God’s miracle.
To fully appreciate the magnitude of God’s intervention to stop the waters and bring Israel across the Jordan River, we need to know something of Jordan Valley near Jericho. Here are a few geographical facts.
- Joshua 3:16 says the waters stopped “very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan.” This detail lets us know the distance of the river blockage is at least 18 miles. For Adam is located 18 miles from Jericho.
- At Jericho, the Jordan Valley is at its widest spot. From one side of the Jordan Valley to the other is 11 miles.
- When floods were not raging, the river would stand 90–100 feet across and would be anywhere between 3–10 feet deep. When floods came the river could swell to a mile in width.
- Likewise, due to the sharp fall in elevation, these flood waters would be moving quickly.
- Also, surrounding the river was vegetative growth that is sometimes referred to as a jungle. As H. L. Ellison observed, “it was not the river so much as the jungle that was difficult to cross, the fords of the Jordan being as much ways through jungle as through the river.” (cited in Davis, 38; from Scripture Union Bible Study Books: Joshua–2 Samuel, 5).
All in all, the picture presented in Joshua 3–4 is one of utter impossibility. Unless the Lord stops the water, the flood could not be traversed by human strength or ingenuity. Moreover, the flood waters strengthen the parallel between this water crossing and the Exodus. The flood imagery of Joshua 3–4 also strengthens the connection to Genesis 6–9 and the flood story with Noah, which we will consider below.
6. God caused the water to pile up.
Cutting off the water is one of three miracles in the book of Joshua. The other two are the Jericho walls falling down (ch. 6) and the sun standing still (ch. 10). In each case, God does something “miraculous” on behalf of his people in order to bring them into the land. However, we need to consider more carefully what we mean by miracle.
Many who hold an anti-supernatural view of the world deny miracles outright. They either account these events to be fabrications of the people of Israel or the result of some natural occurrence. In opposition, those who believe (rightly!) that God works in the world, argue for the supernatural intervention of God in piling up the water, knocking down the walls, and making the sun stand still.
Focusing only on the Jordan River incident, we can affirm the fact that because the waters ceased at the exact moment that the priests entered the river, that the event is truly supernatural. God said he would part the waters by means of the priests, and he did. The timing and effect of the piling up the water, especially at the flood stage of the river, make it clear—we are supposed to see God’s personal agency in leading Israel across the river.
Still, this affirmation of God’s supernatural activity does not deny him the right to use natural means to accomplish supernatural ends. In other words, the contrast between supernatural and natural may not be as clear as we sometimes make it. As Ken Mathews frames it, our “scientific era” divides events as either natural or supernatural. However,
Ancients did not think of reality in these terms, although they certainly knew the difference between the “normal” and the extraordinary. Both were explained by the power of the deity. The God of Israel, however, transcends nature and therefore is of a completely different order than pagan deities. There is a place to consider natural explanations for miracles, such as rock slides that dam up the Jordan, but this does not satisfy the biblical requirement of a miracle. Biblical understanding of miracles requires divine control of the so-called natural elements, especially since the timing of the event is not a mere “coincidence” but involves specifically divine causation.’ Christians acknowledge all reality, including the existence and involvement of the transcendent God. Limiting reality to “natural law,” as is the case with empiricism, excludes the possibility of a personal Creator. (Joshua, 37)
Mathews is on the right track when he places miracles in the category of divine causation. And clearly, this is how we should read Joshua 3–4—God caused the water to stop at the exact moment that Joshua, the priests, and Israel obeyed and stepped into the water.
7. Twelve Stones mark the event for future generations.
At the center of this story is the peculiar collection of twelve stones to memorialize this event. This takes up the center section of the two chapters (4:1–10) and should receive our greatest attention. Here are three things to consider about these twelve stones.
First, the the twelve stones, collected by one man from each tribe, represents the unity and cohesion of the whole nation. As we saw in Joshua 1:10–18, the unity of the people crossing over the Jordan was a key purpose to the crossing. Indeed, Joshua 4:12 mentions the Eastern tribes to indicate that all Israel went across the Jordan. Likewise, “all” Israel is mentioned repeatedly throughout (see 3:1, 7, 17 [2x]; 4:1, 11, 14, 24). Thus, the twelve stones signifies the unity and cohesion of the whole nation that cross the Jordan together with Joshua.
Second, these twelve stones are for future generations. Like stopping a water rescue to take a picture of the rescue party, this mid-stream, mid-story memorial stands out. It reminds us God is not simply bringing this generation into the land; he is also marking out this event so that future generations will know and trust to God who brought Israel into the land.
In fact, twice Joshua 4:6 and 4:21 consider a day in the future (lit. tomorrow) “when your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?” This forward-looking focus teaches us how the word of God works (cf. Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11)—it is written down for future generations. Simultaneously, it highlights the ritual nature of this event. In other words, these two chapters are not just written to record history. Rather, like the Passover, which also included memorial instructions mid-rescue, this story is meant to explain how future generations will remember God.
Third, there may actually be two memorials formed here. In Joshua 4:2–4, we find Joshua’s command to the twelve men to pick up stones from the river and place on the edge. But in Joshua 4:9, we read, “And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.”
Some commentators seek to harmonize Joshua’s stone setting in the midst of the river with the other twelve stones (Hess). But it seems better to see two memorials—one constructed in the middle of the riverbed by Joshua and another on the side by the twelve men. As Martin Woudstra notes, “The LXX uses Gk. állous [another] here to indicate that these stones were indeed different from those already mentioned” (Joshua, 92n5).
It is a mystery why there would be two memorials—one in plain sight on the river bank and one hidden in the river bed. Some observe that the stones set by Joshua “were probably visible when the Jordan ran low” (Woudstra, Joshua, 92). This seems plausible as it would give an extra source of encouragement in times of drought. However, with what we will see below, there may be a theological reason too. For as Joshua and the twelve erect stone memorials in and alongside the Jordan River, there may be something here that signifies the later baptisms of Christ and his disciples.
Indeed, Christ’s baptism in the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12–13) is hidden from plain sight, but it is the necessary precursor to believer’s baptism which is seen by all. Water baptism is given to Jesus’s disciples so that they would memorialize with water what Jesus has done for his people—namely, he has baptized them in the Spirit (i.e., spiritual baptism) so that dying and rising with him in baptism (Rom. 6:3–6), they would demonstrate that new life by faith and repentance. Could the two memorials symbolize these two correlated baptisms?
Perhaps this reads too much into Joshua 3–4, but there are clear textual connections between Joshua and Jesus, as well as, the long-line of baptisms that run from Noah and Moses to Jesus. Clearly, the events of Joshua 3–4 contribute to the story of baptism in the Bible, as we will now consider.
8. Joshua is a New Moses and a New Noah.
As with Rahab, the story of Joshua leading Israel to cross the Jordan River (at flood stage) is one that is filled with symbolism. At its center is the command to take twelve stones from the water (4;3), make them a sign (4:6), so that future generations might have a memorial (4:7) to remember what God did in this place. This forward-looking purpose reminds us God’s actions in history are always done with future generations in mind.
However, the events of Joshua 3–4 are also meant to build upon previous events in redemptive history—namely, the salvation of God’s people through the flood waters of Genesis 6–9 and the salvation of God’s people through waters “piled up” in the Red Sea. Significantly, both of these events (with Noah and Moses) are later described as baptisms, and as I will try to show—Joshua 3–4 is also meant to be read as a passage that pictures “baptism”—a fact that will prove important when we consider who is baptized in this location in the times of John the Baptist.
Still, before connecting Joshua 3–4 with Jesus, lets see how these two chapters pick up the events of Genesis 6–9 and Exodus 14–15.
Joshua 3–4 as a New Exodus
The most evident connection between Joshua and Israel’s history is found in Joshua 4:23–24
For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, 24 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.
In this summary statement, we find that the author of Joshua intends his audience to see the Jordan River crossing as a repetition of God’s mighty acts at the Red Sea. This makes plain the many connections we found earlier in Joshua between the Red Sea and the Jordan River.
For instance, when Joshua 3:13 and 16 say that the waters shall “stand in one heap” and “rose up in a heap,” respectively, the word used for “heap” is only used of the Red Sea in Exodus 15:8, Psalm 33:7, and Psalm 78:13.
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. (Exod. 15:8)
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses. (Ps. 33:7)
He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. (Ps. 78:13)
In this way, we see a linguistic connection between God’s action at the Red Sea and God’s action in the Jordan River. Additionally, when Yahweh says that he will exalt Joshua like he did Moses (3:7), it makes sense he would do it with the same kind of action that convinced the people of Israel to follow Moses. In Exodus 14, the people grumbled against Moses until they crossed the Red Sea. The end result, as in Joshua’s case, was fear of the Lord (v. 31). In other words, just as God produced fear in the hearts of Israel by his actions through Moses at the Red Sea, so he was doing through and through Joshua at the Jordan River.
Finally, because of this connection between Joshua and Moses, there is a credible connection between Moses’s baptism and Joshua’s. As 1 Corinthians 10:2 identifies the Red Sea as the place where God “baptized” the people into Moses, so the Jordan River is the place where God gave Joshua the hearts of Israel. As Joshua 4:14 says, “On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life.”
In this way, we might say that God baptized the people of Israel into Joshua at the Jordan River, like he did with the people of Israel at, or rather in, the Red Sea. We will come back to this with Jesus in a moment.
Joshua 3–4 as a New Flood
In Exodus, there is also a connection between Moses and Noah. In Exodus 2 when Moses was put into the “basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch” (v. 3), the word is actually “ark,” which in Genesis 6:14 was also covered with pitch. In other words, just as Noah was saved with his family by entering the ark and escaping the flood waters, so Moses was saved by his family when he was placed into the “ark” and escaped the waters of the Nile.
As with the connection between Joshua and Moses, there is an intentional connection between Moses and Noah. And like Paul names the Red Sea a “baptism,” so Peter recalls Noah and says that baptism corresponds (antitypos) to his salvation through water (1 Peter 3:20–21). Thus, there seems to be longitudinal theme of baptism that connects Noah and Moses and runs all the way to the New Testament.
In Joshua we find another step in this story, and importantly, we can also see way the flood waters of the Jordan harken back to Genesis 6–9. In fact, the peculiar grammar of Joshua 3–4 adds to this connection. As Richard Hess (Joshua, 114–15) notes, citing Winther-Nielson, Joshua uses a type of story-telling (“miraculous grammar”) that echoes the Flood narrative. He writes,
Several temporal clauses (14a-15a) culminate in a slow-motion portrayal of the waters stopping (16a), just as the feet of the priests touch the water (15b), but after a comment on the flooded Jordan…. The ‘miraculous’ syntax Of 3:14-17 and 4:18 grammatically twists the action into descriptive events. It lends depictive force to the situation, creating a dramatic pause of the sort that often occurs at peak climaxes.and resolutions. All dialogue is faded out … This is quite similar to the Flood Story…
So conceptually and grammatically, we find associations between Noah and Joshua. Additionally, the role of savior—by action in Noah’s case and by action and name in Joshua’s case—fits both characters. Hence, with Moses as a middle man, so to speak, we have another reason for seeing in Joshua a type of baptism—where the people of Israel are brought into the land by Joshua and “united” to him through this water crossing.
With the full scope of Scripture, we will come to learn how passing through water forms a bond between God’s people and their appointed leader. It also forms a bond between the people themselves. In this way, we can see further how Joshua’s “baptism” plays a part in the story of salvation that centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—but we need to make another observation in Joshua 3–4 to truly see how Joshua’s actions at the Jordan River anticipate that of Christ and his followers.
9. The timing of the Jordan River crossing is also symbolic.
Adding to the Baptism Typology of Joshua 3–4 is the timing of the crossing. In fact, there are three elements of time that emerge in text. And all of them contribute to seeing these two chapters as anticipatory of Jesus’s greater baptism.
First, the crossing of the Jordan occurred on the third day. Beginning in Joshua 1, Joshua has the commanders direct the people to take three days to prepare themselves for the crossing. Verses 10–11 read
10 And Joshua commanded the officers of the people, 11 “Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, ‘Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.’ ”
Now in Joshua 3:2, the three days have come to an end (“at the end of three days”), and the people are ready to move out. Incidentally (but not accidentally), the spies are also given three days to hide in the hills (2:16, 22). If the spies hiding under the flax (2:6) functions as a picture of burial—flax was often used for burial clothes (cf. Warren Gage, Gospel Typology in Joshua and Revelation)—then these three days also anticipate a theme that runs throughout the Bible and one that will emerge in Joshua 3–4—namely, resurrection on the third day.
Second, the crossing not only occurred on the third day, it also took three days to occur. This is somewhat veiled to the English reader, but it is still evident in the text. In Joshua 3:1–4 we come to the third day, but immediately verse 5 speaks of tomorrow: “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” In this time stamp, we find two days—the day Israel stands on the Eastern side of the Jordan and the day that Israel crosses the Jordan.
However, there is a third day that the text also describes. When Israel crosses the Jordan and memorializes the event with the Twelve Stones, twice the text speaks of tomorrow. The ESV translates the word “”in time(s) to come,” but it could be rendered more literally as “tomorrow.”
6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come [lit. tomorrow], ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ (4:6)
21 And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come [lit. tomorrow], ‘What do these stones mean?’ (4:21)
In effect, this question that will be asked by the children “tomorrow,” indicates a third day. On the day, after the crossing day, when Israel stands firmly in the land, Israel is to remember what happened on the second day—the day God brought them into the land. Great stress is put on this middle day, as it separates two different locations—namely, the wilderness which saw the death of Israel and the Promised Land which will enjoy the life of God. In short, the three days of crossing the Jordan can be associated with three places
East of the Jordan (3:1–4)
The Jordan River (3:5–4:18)
The Promised Land (4:19–24)
All the stress of the chapter is placed on this middle day, because this is where the action is. However, the point of the “second day” is the “third day”—namely, life in the land. As we will see shortly, this three day journey from Wilderness to Promised Land reflects the movement of God’s people from death to life. In fact, the immediate stoppage of manna and the enjoyment of food in the land signifies the fact that their crossover means more than a new mailing address (Joshua 5:10–12). A new stage in redemption has come through Joshua and baptism with him. Still, there is one more “day” we need to see.
The third reference to time is found in Joshua 4:19, which reads, “The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho.” Importantly, the “tenth day of the first month” has a great significance in Israel’s history. Namely, it is the day when Israel left Egypt on the night of the Passover. As Exodus 12:1–3 records,
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.
In Exodus, this date marks Israel’s release from slavery and the Passover, which Israel remembered to recall what God had done for them and who they were because of that act of salvation. Now, instead of adding another date to the calendar, God has added another layer to the story. Not only does Passover recall the escape from Egypt; now—and this is especially true with the twelve stones—it would also recalls Israel’s entrance into the land.
Therefore, Joshua’s “baptism” overlays the events of the Passover, even as the Passover—with its themes of substitution and sacrifice—informs the Jordan River crossing. In short, with both of these events occurring on this day, we get closer to seeing how Jesus Christ fulfills both the long history of baptisms and the Passover. In fact, it hardly seems accidental to see John 1:29–34 as uniting Jesus as the (Passover) Lamb on the day he is baptized on the other side of the Jordan River (John 1:28).
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
10. The events of Joshua 3–4 repeat in the life of Jesus Christ and the Church.
Finally, when we move to the New Testament we discover that just as Joshua was exalted and given a people to lead at the Jordan River, so Jesus is exalted (or recognized) at the Jordan River in his baptism. Already, we have seen how Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan stood in concert with the baptisms of Noah and Moses. Now, in Jesus Christ, we need to see how Christ’s entrance into the water signified his position in Israel.
In each Gospel, we see that Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. Significantly, John was son of a priest and a descendent of Aaron (Luke 1:5). Hence, standing in the water of the Jordan he was taking the same place as the Levitical priests in Joshua 3–4. Further, when he baptized Jesus, he had in his hands the very son of God—the one on whom the Spirit descended.
Keeping in mind that the priests carried the ark of the covenant, we see in John’s action as a repetition of the priests carrying the presence of God. This puts it too crudely, of course, but the ark of the covenant symbolized the place where God was placing his feet (another anthropomorphism). The ark did not restrict God to the Jordan, but it did signify that God was with Israel and leading them into the land.
When John baptized Jesus, therefore, Jesus was both the person/place where God dwelt bodily (John 1:14)—a place of presence far greater than the ark. At the same time, Jesus was also the human leader appointed by God to bring Israel into a new exodus. Indeed, when John 1:28 reports that John baptized “across the Jordan,” it signifies Jesus entered the water on the same side that his namesake did, thus suggesting he was reenacting Joshua’s entry into the land.
If this reading is correct, Jesus’s baptism is meant to signify the beginning of his entry into the land, where he would go to war and subdue the nations. Indeed, Jesus actions were not militaristic in a literal sense, but they were certainly warfare in a spiritual sense. Jesus was opposed and oppressed and at every turn, and he fought and won battles not with a sword of steel, but with the sword of God, the word of the Spirit. In fact, some scholars even suggest the places Jesus went in the land followed the directions of Joshua. We will consider this in the weeks ahead.
For now, it is worth noting that at the beginning of Joshua’s ministry and Jesus’s ministry, they both went through the Jordan River. Importantly, God exalted Joshua before the people in Israel and he appointed twelve men to lay twelve stones as a remembrance for what God did in the Jordan. Incredibly, Jesus too is honored in his baptism—this is where the Father says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Likewise, he too selects twelve men who will in time become the foundation stones of his living temple.
By remembering them and their words, the church is built up and the work for which Christ came was completed. In addition, it is these twelve men who would go into the world and baptize the nations (Matt. 28:16–20)—or at least, they would begin this work. Interestingly, it would be Jesus would baptize the nations with his Spirit and it would be spirit-baptized disciples who would immerse new believers in the water, reminding Jesus of all that he did and taught. Is this the fulfillment of Joshua 3–4 and the two memorials? It sure seems likely.
Indeed, the historical events of Joshua 3–4 are necessary for understanding the book of Joshua. However, as they build upon the storyline of baptism in Noah and Moses, they also anticipate the baptism of Jesus and all the ministry he would do through his life, death, and resurrection. For that reason, as we read Joshua 3–4, we must not miss the biblical connections to Jesus, the greater Joshua, as well as the connections to the church of Jesus Christ.
To that end, let us read and ponder what God has done, so that our heart’s affection would grow and his glory would be magnified!
Soli Deo Gloria, ds