Once more, dear friends, into the water! - Reflections on Joshua 3:7-17
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, October 30, 2023
Once more, dear friends, into the water!
It is hardly surprising that water comprises one of the central themes of the Bible. From creation to the victory at the Sea of Reeds to New Testament baptism, water appears again and again in crucial tales of both biblical testaments. Those who wrote our scriptures, of course, lived in a primarily desert land. In Jerusalem and the south it generally rains barely 1/2 inch per year, so water is much on the minds of those who live there. Indeed, in modern Israel, water, or more often the lack of it, serves now and in the future as a flash-point of contention between many Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors. I well remember during one of my several trips to Israel that we drove on a highway built exclusively for Israeli citizens, and passed through a tunneled mountain. Our guide told us that at the top of that mountain was a Palestinian village whose water cistern was cracked and rendered useless by the tunnel drillers. Since then, the village had been forced to haul water into the town from some distance at considerable inconvenience and expense. Year after year, the inevitable decrease of water resources in that arid land will inevitably lead to conflict.
Water and dry land form a powerful and memorable leitmotif in the Bible. Before we look at the text for today from Joshua, let us look again at the water/dry land passages that proceed with this tale of the entry into the land of promise. We begin at the beginning, as Genesis 1-2 recounts the world’s creation in two quite distinct stories. In the first, Elohim creates the known world by dividing the water, which covered everything at the beginning, from the dry land by “gathering the water into one place,” in order that “the dry land appear” (Gen.1:9). This gathering of waters, their heaping up in one spot in order to expose the dry land that existed underneath all along, forms the mode of God’s actions in the world throughout Israel’s history. Even in chapter 2’s very different account, in which no rain has yet fallen on the dry land, there is that “dew” or “mist” (NRSV “stream” which appears to be a translation a bit stretched) “that waters the whole surface of the ground” (Gen.2:6). From that moistened dust, YHWH “forms the ‘adam,” the “earth creature” that is in this tale the first of YHWH Elohim’s creations. Water and land once again are at the heart of the narrative.
In the central “resurrection story” wherein the Israelite slaves escape from their Egyptian captors by the power of YHWH and the servant Moses, again sea and land are at the center of the story. The terrified Israelites find themselves trapped between the sea and the 600 chariots of the pharaoh, but after Moses promises them a miraculous victory, for which they must do precisely nothing, the sea “at dawn returns to its normal flow” (Ex.14:27), and the Egyptians “flee into it.” That, at least, is the alternative telling to the more famous “walls of water” tale. Once again, as at creation, the waters are gathered into one place so that the dry land may appear, upon which the Israelites walk, watching their Egyptian enemies drown in the water.
With those two unforgettable stories ringing in the ears of Israelite believers, how else would they tell the tale of their entry into the land of promise than that found in Joshua 3? After traveling those long and painful 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites are at last on the verge of Jordan. Surely, they may now cross over and possess the land so long promised by YHWH. But the story increases the drama, when it announces that the people have come to the river when “the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest” (Josh.3:15). Without the power of their God, acting now through Joshua and the priests, there is no way that they can enter these surging waters lest they suffer tragedy and huge loss of life. Fortunately, they have brought the Ark of the Covenant with them, that sacred chest that contains the Mosaic tablets of the commandments from YHWH. The priests dutifully lift the Ark, step into the torrent of the Jordan, and as they dip their feet into the river, once again YHWH acts: “The waters flowing from above (that is surging down from the Sea of Galilee) stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, a city beside Zarethan, so that the waters flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off” (Josh.3:15-16). This familiar miracle enabled the people to cross the river, on dry ground, “opposite Jericho.” The priests stayed fixed in the river on dry land until all of Israel made its way into the new land.
In these three pivotal stories, creation, the Sea of Reeds, and the crossing of the Jordan, the life of Israel is protected and preserved by YHWH’s control of water and use of dry land. Even in the New Testament book of Revelation, though the “sea is no more,” (Rev.21:1), that place from which the terrible beasts arose, there is still “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit” (Rev.22:1-2). We hear echoes of Gen.3 and Ezekiel 47 here with their references to fruit and rivers in this ultimate portrait of the end of the age. Just as in the beginning, there is water, and God’s manipulation of it for the betterment of the world God has made. On our heating planet, where water is desperately needed for continued life, we would do well to recall these ancient stories, recounting for us the vital need for water, and God’s continued desire to supply water and land for all God’s creatures.