Joshua 3-5 – The Crossing of the Jordan River and the End of Wilderness Wandering


Joshua 3-5


Just as at the Red Sea, God parts the waters of the Jordan River for the Israelites, so that they cross over on dry ground into the land of promise. This crossing marks the end of the wilderness period for Israel.


Joshua is Moses’ successor, and, just like Moses, he presides over the miraculous parting of a body of water so that the Israelites can cross on dry ground. This time, the waters are not those of the Red Sea (Exodus 14), but of the Jordan River, a connection made explicit in Joshua 4:23. The Red Sea marked the beginning of Israel’s journey in the wilderness of Sinai. The Jordan River marks the last boundary between the wilderness–where the Israelites have been wandering for forty years–and the land God has promised to Israel. As such, the crossing of the river is a momentous occasion, the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.

To mark the occasion, God instructs Joshua to build a memorial out of twelve stones taken from the riverbed and set up at Gilgal, where the Israelites camp after crossing the Jordan. In time to come, the stones are to serve as a teaching tool for the Israelites; that is, when children ask about the stones, their parents are to tell them the story of the river crossing (4:5-7; 20-24).

Joshua 4:9 states that Joshua set up a pile of twelve stones in the middle of the river, as well, to mark the place where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant stood. The ark of the covenant led the people across the Jordan. The verse is something of a parenthetical remark, as the stones at Gilgal command more attention in the passage.

The end of the wilderness wanderings is marked by two other significant events in Joshua 5. The male Israelites are circumcised at Gilgal, in obedience to God’s commands. The text states that this generation of Israelites, all born in the wilderness, was never circumcised. Then the community celebrates Passover, the commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. They eat the produce of the land of Canaan for the first time, and immediately the supply of manna–the food that sustained them in the wilderness for forty years–ceases. The time in the wilderness has ended, and their new life as a people of God in the land of promise has begun.