Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan. They camped there before crossing over. At the end of three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the people, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God being carried by the levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place. Follow it, so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before.”
In today’s text the Israelites are “crossing over” the Jordan into the Promised Land. Just like the Israelites we go through many “crossing overs” in life. There are many transitions, many changes. There is going off to school, losing a job, getting married, getting divorced, getting promoted, saying a final goodbye, or losing our way. We too come to places where we “have not passed this way before”.
The time has come for which the Israelites have waited so long. But the crossing over into the Promised Land will not come without its challenges. A swollen Jordan River at flood stage will have to be crossed over. Fortified cities stand on the other side. Just as the Israelites’ hopes are the highest so there are many problems to be faced. The crossing over from the Wilderness into the Promised Land will not be easy. God’s miracle of daily manna from heaven will stop as they cross over (Joshua 5:12). The pillar of cloud and fire that had guided for 40 years has been taken away.
Most of the Israelites who will cross over the Jordan were not alive to have witnessed the miracle of crossing over the Red Sea. The oldest of them (except for Joshua and Caleb) would have been no more than 60 years of age. No one over the age of 20 at the time of the Exodus from Egypt was allowed by God to enter the Promised Land because of the people’s unbelief in the Wilderness (Deuteronomy 1:34-36). So here is a whole generation only accustomed to life in the Wilderness standing on the banks of the raging Jordan.
The people of God are truly in a moment of transition, or crossing over. The crossing over nature of their existence is emphasized in the use of the words “cross over” (Hebrew: eber) 22 times in the 41 verses of Joshua 3-4 (Hebrew verse numbering). Significantly, the word “Hebrew” comes from the same verb eber and means “one who crossed over”. The Father of the Hebrew people, Abraham, was a descendent of Eber (Genesis 10:21, 25), or “one who had crossed over”. And Scripture identifies Abraham as one who crossed over the River Euphrates (Joshua 24:15).
The Hebrew people standing on the banks of the Jordan are literally and symbolically descendants of Eber and Abraham who by faith crossed over. Even when they will possess the Promised Land, they will be reminded that they are Hebrews; they are people who cross over from one place to another. They endure change, disruption, dislocation, and coming to places where “they have not passed this way before”. Even when the manna doesn’t come any more, and even when God doesn’t lead by pillar of cloud and fire any more, they cross over because they believe God goes with them. Whether in Egypt, the Wilderness, or the Promised Land, they believe they are living into God’s grand story of redemption and grace.
Perhaps you are faced today with a crossing over from financial security into insecurity, from marriage into divorce, from ‘manna’ to no ‘manna’, from certainty of direction to uncertainty. God goes with you, and will take you safely across the river of impossibility.
- Take some time to imagine what it must have been like for the Israelites to finally be crossing over from the Wilderness to the Promised Land. What must they have felt? What must they have thought?
- What crossing over or transition are you facing? What are your feelings as you face it? What are your thoughts? Talk with God about this.
- We might consider Abraham to be the patron saint of all who cross over. Take a few moments to reflect on this New Testament account of Abraham’s crossing-over-faith: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).