Joshua 4 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Joshua 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over Jordan, that the LORD spake unto Joshua, saying,
Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man,
And command ye them, saying, Take you hence out of the midst of Jordan, out of the place where the priests' feet stood firm, twelve stones, and ye shall carry them over with you, and leave them in the lodging place, where ye shall lodge this night.

(3) Out of the midst of Jordan . . . twelve stones—(9) Twelve stones in the midst of Jordan.—It would seem that we are to understand two cairns to have been set up, one on either side the river, to mark the place where the Israelites crossed. The western cairn was in Gilgal, the other on the opposite side, at the edge of the overflow, where the priests had stopped. The only difficulty lies in the words above cited, in the midst of Jordan. The phrase, like many other Hebrew phrases, is used in a different way from that in which we should use it. The words “in the middle of the Jordan” to an English reader appear to mean half-way between the banks. But if the river were divided, and half of it had recoiled many miles towards the north, and the rest flowed away to the south, any one standing between these two parts of the river might be said to stand in the midst of Jordan, the two parts being on either side; and he would be equally in the midst, as regards them, whether he were at the edge of the stream or not. It is contrary to common-sense, as well as to the words of the text, to suppose that a cairn was set up in the midst of the river’s bed. “They are there unto this day,” the writer adds in Joshua 4:9. It is perfectly clear from Joshua 3:8 that the priests stood at the brim of the overflow. That spot and no other would be the particular spot which it would be most interesting to mark, the place from which Jordan, in full flood, was driven back.

Further, the words “in the midst” (Hebrew, Vthôlc) do not necessarily mean more than within. In Joshua 19:1, it is said the inheritance of Simeon was within (b’thôk) the inheritance of the children of Judah. Yet it was entirely on one edge of it. May not the ark standing in the midst of Jordan represent that suspension of the power of death which is effected by the interposition of our Saviour, and fills the interval between the reign of death “from Adam to Moses,” and the “second death” that is to come?

Then Joshua called the twelve men, whom he had prepared of the children of Israel, out of every tribe a man:
And Joshua said unto them, Pass over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of Jordan, and take ye up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel:
That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones?
Then ye shall answer them, That the waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it passed over Jordan, the waters of Jordan were cut off: and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.
(7) The waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant.—Observe that the act is indirectly ascribed to the ark of the covenant:

And the children of Israel did so as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones out of the midst of Jordan, as the LORD spake unto Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them unto the place where they lodged, and laid them down there.
(8-9) According to the number of the tribes. . . .—Every tribe was represented by a stone on either side Jordan. The two cairns represent a complete Israel in the wilderness, and a complete Israel in the promised land. “Thou shalt remember all the way that the Lord thy God led thee.” “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests which bare the ark of the covenant stood: and they are there unto this day.
For the priests which bare the ark stood in the midst of Jordan, until every thing was finished that the LORD commanded Joshua to speak unto the people, according to all that Moses commanded Joshua: and the people hasted and passed over.
(10) According to all that Moses commanded Joshua.—It would seem that the passage of Jordan had been made the subject of some directions by Moses, though nothing is written concerning the manner of it in the Pentateuch. It is noticeable that if Israel had gone into the land when Moses brought them to the frontier at Kadesh-barnea, in the second year of the Exodus, they would have had no occasion to pass the Jordan at all. When the route was changed we cannot say, unless the compassing of the land of Edom (Numbers 21), when they left Kadesh the second time, because they were not permitted to cross that territory, marks the decision. If so, the fact suggests some interesting reflections.

And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over, that the ark of the LORD passed over, and the priests, in the presence of the people.
And the children of Reuben, and the children of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh, passed over armed before the children of Israel, as Moses spake unto them:
About forty thousand prepared for war passed over before the LORD unto battle, to the plains of Jericho.
(13) About forty thousand.—The totals of these three tribes at the last census (Numbers 26) were:—Reuben (Numbers 26:7), 43,730; Gad (Numbers 26:18), 40,500; Manasseh (Numbers 26:34), 52,700, or for the exact half, 26, 350. Thus the entire force of the two and a half tribes might amount to 110,580. They therefore left more than half their number to protect their families and their dwellings. This does not seem inconsistent with the spirit of their agreement with Moses, or with the interpretation of that agreement by Joshua and their fellow-Israelites. (See Numbers 32:16-17; Numbers 32:24; Numbers 32:26.) The permission to build cities implies the right to fortify and defend them.

Reuben, Gad, and Simeon formed the second division on the march in the wilderness (Numbers 10:18-20). Why Reuben and Gad discarded Simeon, and associated themselves with part of Manasseh, is not explained. (See Names on the Gates of Pearl.—Simeon.)

On that day the LORD magnified Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared Moses, all the days of his life.
(14) All the days of his life.—This ends the section, as appears by comparison with Joshua 3:7. Observe that Joshua’s position, as equal to Moses in the respect of the people, dates from the passage of Jordan, a fact not to be forgotten in considering his Antitype.

And the LORD spake unto Joshua, saying,
Command the priests that bear the ark of the testimony, that they come up out of Jordan.
(16) Command the priests . . . that they come up out of Jordan.—Observe that the removal of the priests and the ark of the covenant from their station in Jordan is made the subject of a distinct section, and treated as a distinct event. It need not have been so for the purpose of the mere historical narrative. We might have taken it for granted. But the significance of the event is so marked as to receive a separate notice. We are not suffered to forget by what means Jordan was driven back, and held in check; and the check was not meant to be perpetual. We are reminded that the suspension of the power of death for men has its limits. When the day of grace is over, the waters will “return unto their place and flow over all the banks as before.” (Comp. Isaiah 28:16-18; Isaiah 28:20.)

Joshua therefore commanded the priests, saying, Come ye up out of Jordan.
And it came to pass, when the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD were come up out of the midst of Jordan, and the soles of the priests' feet were lifted up unto the dry land, that the waters of Jordan returned unto their place, and flowed over all his banks, as they did before.
And the people came up out of Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped in Gilgal, in the east border of Jericho.
EVENTS AT GILGAL (Joshua 4:19 to Joshua 5:12, inclusive).

(19) On the tenth day of the first month.—Of the forty-first year after they left Egypt. Exactly forty years before, on the tenth day of the first month, (Exodus 12:5), they had been commanded to take them “a lamb for an house,” that they might keep the Passover. The forty years of the Exodus were now complete, and on the self-same day they passed over the last barrier, and entered the Promised Land.

And those twelve stones, which they took out of Jordan, did Joshua pitch in Gilgal.
(20—5:9) It would seem that these verses all belong to one section. The use of the first person in Joshua 5:1, “until we were passed over,” is most naturally explained by taking the verse as part of what the Israelites were to say to their children by the command of Joshua. The difficulty has been met in the Hebrew Bible by a Masoretic reading, in which “they” is substituted for “we.” But the more difficult reading is to be preferred. There is nothing else in the section that creates any difficulty. The twenty-third verse authorises a comparison between the passage of Jordan and the passage of the Red Sea. As the one is called a “baptising unto Moses,” in the New Testament, we may call the other a baptising unto Joshua. (Comp. the “us” in Joshua 4:23, with the “we” of Joshua 5:1.) The first person also appears in Joshua 4:6, “that he would give us.” It would appear that, besides explaining the erection of the stones, the Israelites were also to explain to their children the meaning of Gilgal, the place where the stones were, and this explanation is not completed until the end of Joshua 4:9.

And he spake unto the children of Israel, saying, When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones?
Then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land.
For the LORD your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over:
That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the LORD your God for ever.
Courtesy of Open Bible