Chapter 3


This is the third chapter in which I plan to present 24 thought-provoking essays on the biblical book Joshua, one for each of its 24 chapters.


In chapter 1, God appoints Joshua to succeed Moses, tells him to cross the Jordan into Canaan and conquer the land, and assures him that he would succeed in his conquest. In chapter 2, Joshua sends two men to spy out the city of Jericho, and they report that the Israelites will be able to defeat the Canaanites in this city. Chapter three reports the first miracle of the conquest.


The crossing of the Jordan

Joshua tells the Israelites “hitkadshu because God will perform wonders among you tomorrow.”[1] The Hebrew word could mean “make you self holy” or, as the Aramaic translation Targum Jonathan understands it, “get ready.” Since it is impossible to magically make one self holy and since scholars understand the root of hitkadshu k-d-sh, “holy,” as “separate,”[2] the Targum’s understanding is most likely correct.

The Israelites are told to follow the “ark of the covenant” that will lead them across the Jordan,[3] but they should stay 2,000 amot behind it.[4] This requirement is problematical. If the ark was supposed to impress the people, why was it placed so far away from them; most of the Israelites couldn’t see it. Additionally, the priests carrying the ark were to stop either on the east or west bank of the Jordan or in the middle of it – the text is not clear – and wherever it was placed the Israelites must have passed very close to it; so why begin the march with it being so distant from the people?


The ark

The ark is called here “ark of the covenant” because it contained the Decalogue,[5] which is part of the covenant between God and people: if you obey these laws, all will go well with you. The ark is also called “ark of the testimony,” as in 4:16, for the same reason.[6]

Moses broke the first Decalogue when he descended Mount Sinai and saw the people worshipping the golden calf. God told Moses to keep the shattered pieces and place them in an ark. Rabbis differ whether the shattered pieces were placed in the same ark as the second unbroken Decalogue or a separate ark was made for it.[7] Those who feel there were two arks differ on which one was used to lead the people across the Jordan.[8]

It is unclear why the people needed to be led by the ark. Perhaps it symbolized that God, who would be protecting them, was leading them. Conversely, if we understand that God was not involved in the conquest, Joshua may have used the ark to encourage the people and strengthen their resolve. Rashi notes that during Moses’s time the people were led by a cloud during the day and fire at night, but this miracle ceased when he died; now it was necessary for the ark to lead the people.


Levitical priests

Joshua tells the “levitical priest” to carry the ark in verse 3. The priests are called Levites forty-eight times in the Hebrew Bible (Rashi[9]). Later in Joshua, beginning in verse 6, they are called “priests.” What is the meaning of “levitical priests”? We do not know. Some interpret the phrase to mean “priest who are descendant from the tribe of Levi,” others say the term “levitical” differentiates them from the first-borns who had the tabernacle service before it was given over to the Levites, still others recognize that in the early Israelite history people who were not from Aaron’s family, not Levites, functioned as priests, this verse states they were not allowed to carry the ark.

The priests were instructed to carry the ark to the bank of the Jordan and stop.[10] Some commentators understand the command to mean stop before crossing and others, such as Radak, stop on the western bank after you cross. In any event, it seems from verse 17 that the priests ignored this command and inexplicably stopped “in the middle of the dried Jordan.”[11]


Selecting twelve men

In verse 12, Joshua orders the selection of twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes, reminiscent of Moses doing the same when he sent them to spy out Canaan some forty-years earlier, but chapter 3 does not tell us why Joshua did so. This is not revealed until chapter 4 and is another example of the dramatic somewhat suspenseful method Scripture uses in telling its tales that I discussed in the essay in chapter 2.


Splitting of the Jordan

God tells Joshua that the people will recognize that he is a true successor to Moses when God splits the Jordan for him just as was done for Moses at the Red Sea.

With Joshua the water flowed from the north and did not stop flowing. Since it could go no further it piled up and became a single wall, higher and higher until all Israelites crossed.[12] With Moses, there were two walls and the Israelites went between them. The book’s author emphasizes the miracle of the splitting of the Jordan by saying “the Jordan overflows all of its banks during the harvest time.” Since this was the harvest time and the Jordan was flooded, the Israelite crossing on dry land was not a natural phenomenon. However the Torah is filled with hyperbolic statements which we do not have to take literally.


Biblical hyperbole

The Bible is filled with many hyperbolic statements, Abraham ibn Ezra[13] explains that the Bible has these exaggerations, which should not be taken literally, to draw readers’ attention, highlight an event, and, as it does with other figurative language, to add color to the story. The following are some examples:

  • Deuteronomy 1:28 and 9:1 have spies report that the Canaanite “cities are great and fortified up to heaven” meaning they are quite tall.
  • Similarly, the people in Genesis 11:4 want to build a tower “with its top in heaven.”
  • In Genesis 46:30, Scripture describes Jacob reacting with an exaggerated exclamation “I will dies at this time” to show he was very upset.
  • According to the biblical commentator Joseph ibn Caspi (1279-1340) the flood rains were a natural event: the rain came and went, but appeared to Noah as if it did not cease for forty days (Genesis 7:17).
  • I Kings 12:1 reports that “All Israel (came to Shechem to make him (Solomon’s son Rehobaom) king,” where, as pointed out by Saadiah Gaon (882-942), “all” means “many.”
  • Also Joshua 5:5’s “all” means “many” when it states that all the Israelites who had been in the desert did not circumcise their children. Rabbis state that many did circumcise their boys, including the entire tribe of Levi.
  • Likewise it is impossible for “all” several million Israelites to march around Jericho as stated in Joshua 6.
  • Moses and Joshua frequently are described as talking to “all” the people when it means to the tribal leaders who were expected to pass on their leader’s message to their tribe.
  • Numbers 31 states that “all” the male Midianites were killed in the battle with the Israelites and 32,000 Midianite virgins were captured, but Joshua 6-8 reveals that many Midianites were still alive.
  • “All” the Egyptians were not afflicted with the plagues in Exodus, when the Torah states “all” it means the plagues were widespread.
  • There are many other uses of “all” to indicate “many,” such as King Ahab did not assemble “all” Israelites in I Kings 18:20 despite the literal reading of the text saying so.
  • When Scripture orders the Israelites in Numbers 33 to “drive out the land’s inhabitants” it is saying don’t mix with them and absorb their culture. We know that the Israelites never understood to command literally for they made peace with some Canaanite groups.
  • The repeated prophecy that the Israelites will number as many as the stars in heaven and the sand on beaches, as in Deuteronomy 1:10, is a figurative way of promising that the Israelites will endure and have many children.
  • When the Torah states in Genesis 24:64 that Rebecca “fell from the camel” this is a dramatic hyperbole for “she alighted in haste.”
  • The description in Daniel 10:17 of Daniel saying he was left with no strength whatsoever is what many people say when they feel very tired.


Possible Hyperbole

Once we realize that the Bible uses extravagant language very frequently, many of which are obvious overstatements such as the frequent use of “all” for “many,” we can see that there are most likely other embellishments that are not certain, for example:

  • King Ahab did not arrange for 450 priests of Baal to contest with Elijah to determine who is the true God in I Kings 18:22. This round number is suspect on its face. Add to this the unlikeliness of so many people offering a sacrifice.
  • The description of the revelation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 may be filled with figurative overstatements: thunder, lightning, a thick cloud, voice of a horn exceedingly loud not blown by a human, “all” the people trembling, smoke, fire, and God descending to the mountain.
  • Moses entering a cloud on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24:18 for forty days and forty nights to obtain the Decalogue, without food or drink. Beside the unnaturalness of abstaining from food and drink, the philosophically untenable notion that Moses could have a meeting with God, and the number forty which Scripture uses frequently to indicate an unspecified long time.

[1] The same word is used in Exodus 19 where the people are told to prepare for the revelation of the Decalogue.

[2] An object that is “holy” does not have any intrinsic difference from other objects of its kind. A holy scroll is still a scroll. If there were a “holiness Geiger counter” a holy scroll would not register any difference with any other scroll. “Holy” means “separate” or “distinct.” “Holiness” depends on human behavior. The Sabbath, for example, is only “holy” if Jews treat it differently than other days of the week.

[3] Jordan in Hebrew is yardein from the root y-r-d, meaning flow, as verse 15 states, the water flows south from the north.

[4] Rashi, who appears to believe that objects can change and become holy, writes: Because of the ark’s holiness. The 2,000 amots equal 1,200 meters, and is the distance that the rabbis later prohibited Jews from traveling beyond a city’s walls on the Shabbat. Rashi anachronistically supposes that Joshua kept the ark within the distance that Jews can travel on the Sabbath so that the Israelites could walk to the ark and pray before it on the Sabbath, because he knew that the siege of Jericho would occur on the Sabbath. This is unlikely. The distance was only mandated for the crossing of the Jordan and the law of Sabbath distances is a rabbinical enactment long after the days of Joshua.

If we reject the idea that the ark was literally holy, why did Joshua command the people to act as if it was holy? Even if Joshua felt that the ark was not holy, he knew that the people thought so, he was using it to bolster the people’s courage, which was heightened when the people thought that the ark was so holy they could not even approach it. Later we will see an episode where a man not only approaches the ark but touches it.

[5] Decalogue means “Ten statements,” the name the Torah uses for what people call the Ten Commandments, because within the ten statements there are more than ten commands. Some see eleven, some twelve, and some thirteen.

[6] It is called Mikdash in Numbers 10:21 and Hakodesh in Numbers 4:20 and elsewhere – from the root k-d-sh, “holy,” because of its importance.

[7] Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim 4.

[8] Tradition states there was a third ark that carried Joseph’s bones, which Moses took from Egypt for burial in Shechem in Canaan.

[9] This may be an error in Rashi. There is no source for this figure. The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 86b has the number twenty-four.

[10] Maimonides states that only the priests were allowed to carry the ark, although a dispensation was given during the forty-year desert travels for the Levites to do so (Book of Commandments 3:34). Nachmanides had a contrary view: both priests and Levites could carry the ark, except in those instances, as here, where the priests were told to do so.

[11] This phrase is followed in the Hebrew by the word hakhein. There are many obscure biblical words; we do not know their meaning; and this is one of them. Not knowing its meaning, the third century BCE Greek translation, the Septuagint, deleted it. The Aramaic Targum Jonathan renders it “(stood) firmly.”

[12] A third splitting of water allowing a crossing, the second time the Jordan split, occurred for the prophets Elijah and Elisha in II Kings 2:8. It “split apart,” but there is no mention of a wall. The Babylonian Talmud Chullin 7a has the legend that the sage Phinehas ben Jair was also able to miraculously split a river for himself and others.

[13] In his commentary to Exodus 20:1.