“So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off.” Joshua 3:14-16
You and I know the story already.
Just as God parted the Red Sea to free his people from the Egyptians, he parted the Jordan River for them so that they could cross into the promised land.
I don't know about you, but I have a tendency to read this story (and most of the other Old Testament stories) with a sense of hum drum normalcy. Maybe it's because reading it isn't as exciting as watching Charlton Heston act it out on the movie screen? Maybe it's because I have (thankfully) grown up in the church and can still hear my grandmother singing about the Jordan or the Promised Land from an old Baptist hymnal. Maybe I've heard it so much, that I'm almost numb to the idea of God's signs and wonders.
This is what I have recently discovered in my own heart, and refer to as the “handicap of hindsight.”
If you take a moment to think about the reality the Israelites were facing in the moment -- forgetting that you know what's going to happen -- the emotion, the wonder, and the parallels to your own heart become astonishingly clear.
If you're reading this passage with the handicap of hindsight, you probably don't understand why the Jordan River was such a big deal to the Israelites. After all, God had already parted a body of water almost 1,000 times bigger than that so that they could escape Egypt!
But here's the thing: this group of Israelites couldn't remember that.
Those Israelites that crossed the Red Sea while fleeing Egypt were their parents' generation.
Joshua 5:6 says tells us,
“For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord; the Lord swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Joshua, however, had actually been here before.
He was among a group of spies decades earlier who, under Moses' direction, crossed over to survey the promised land before they entered it. Everyone agreed that the land was all that God had promised – flowing with milk and honey. But, of the twelve spies that went over, Joshua and Caleb were the only ones who wanted to go in and take the land. The others were scared.
So the people of Israel were swayed by the other ten spies who insisted there was no way they could conquer the people – they were too big and their cities were too fortified. The Israelites became angry asking why God brought them all the way out there just to die. They demanded that to elect a new leader and make their way back to Egypt.
Not only did God eliminate these ten spies with plagues, he told the people that they would surely NOT see the promised land. Because of they did not trust God, the Israelites would wander for 40 more years in the desert until every adult from that generation that escaped Egypt died off. The only two who would enter the promised land would be Caleb and Joshua. The ones who had trusted the Lord to give it to them all along.
So, fast forward now (if you can) 40 years later, and Joshua has been made the leader of the Israelite people. He has been commanded by God to take the promised land, and the first step is to cross the Jordan River.
Sure, these people had heard their parents or grandparents tell them how marvelous it was when God split the Red Sea and they walked across on dry ground to the other side, but it wasn't necessarily a first hand account for them.
They probably to some extent believed that God could do it.
After all, they had been lead by a column of fire and a pillar of smoke (Exodus 13:21) for most of their lives...but would He do it for them now?
If we really think about this, how often do our own hearts feel this way?
We know that God is all powerful.
We believe Scripture to be true – and so believe that he really did all these signs and wonders – but when it comes to our own lives, will he do it for us?
When we pray for healing, we believe he can do it, but do we believe he will do it?
When we pray for guidance, we believe he knows all things, but will he impart wisdom to us?
I must sadly confess that this is the problem of my own heart most of the time.
As if wandering in the desert for 40 years and now being called out of nomadic living wasn't challenge enough, God wanted them to do it by crossing a river.
I'm sure at some point these people had seen a larger body of water before, but bear in mind that most of the time they were grumbling about having no water at all – in fact, that was the first big test of God found in Exodus 17.
The people quarreled with Moses because their camp had no water.
“But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?'” Exodus 17:3
God instructed Moses to take his staff and strike a rock, and water would come out of the rock.
Moses did as he was instructed and God supplied water in completely mind boggling way.
So, water was probably something the Israelites prayed for and were thankful for but rarely (if ever) got the chance to swim in!
And now God was asking them to face an unfamiliar challenge, trusting only on what they had heard to be true of him, not their ability.
This is what we as modern day believers also face.
We may not be physically crossing a river or conquering a nation, but we face difficult situations beyond our ability because we live in a broken world.
Not only was the prospect of crossing the Jordan River a scary one for a group of people who most likely didn't know how to swim, but scripture tells us God handles this scenario much differently than when he parted the Red Sea for their parents.
In Exodus 14, we see that God tells Moses to hold his staff over the water and the waters would begin to part so that the Israelites could cross over on dry land.
The details about how this happened, though, are a bit different than Hollywood portrays (shocker).
After Moses assures the people that the Lord will fight for them, he raises his staff towards the water as instructed by God. The pillar of cloud and fire that had been leading the Israelites out of Egypt, circled back behind the people, blocking the Egyptian army's ability to see or advance on the Israelites. Meanwhile, behind the pillar of cloud and fire, a strong wind began to push the waters of the Red Sea apart – all night long – until there was dry ground for the people to cross over.
Imagine seeing all this happen, not in a matter of minutes, but hours.
If you were unsure of your God's ability before, watching God work for hours to provide a way for you to cross over a body of water on dry land would certainly buoy your confidence in him.
Joshua's situation looked much different.
There was no staff or great show of power.
Instead, God ordered the priests to lead the crossing while carrying the Ark of the Covenant with them. The waters did not part before them to offer a clear, dry path for crossing.
In fact, the waters didn't part until the priests' feet were IN the water.
They had to walk into a massive river at a time when its water was the highest and
PUT THEIR FEET IN THE WATER before God would act.
The rest of the passage tells us that when the priests' feet were dipped in the water, God stopped the waters from flowing, and made a pathway for the Israelites to cross over.
Chances are that you, like myself, already knew the end of the story.
But perhaps you didn't realize how much your heart is like those of the Israelites during the story.
Before we assume that we're better.
That we would surely believe anything God said if WE were lead by a pillar of fire, ate bread from heaven, and saw water ushered forth from a rock...
...consider your own life.
We, like the Israelites, know the stories of a powerful God yet doubt his willingness to act for us.
We, like the Israelites, have been dismayed when we face challenges beyond our ability.
We, like the Israelites, have doubted God's goodness when our needs aren't immediately met.
But we, unlike the Israelites, know the end of the story.
We know that the Law has been fulfilled forever.
We know that one, perfect sacrifice has been offered as final atonement.
We know that, because of this, one day the world will be made new.
And yet, we still doubt.
Don't let your hindsight handicap your ability to experience truth.
Before you assume you're better than the Old Testament Israelites, assume you're just like them.
And Moses' words are still relevant and true for us today:
“The Lord will fight for you, all you have to do is keep still.” Exodus 14:14