Joshua 4:1-5:1 – OT Polemical Theology and A Memorial

The Text:

At first glance, our text today seems simple enough.

  • The priests walk into the Jordan River with the Ark.
  • The water stops flowing.
  • The Israelites pass through the flooded Jordan River basin on dry land.
  • And then to remember the event, they erect a memorial of 12 stones at Gilgal.

 

The Memorial:

The author of Joshua tells us twice that the memorial should be used to teach the children about God’s work on Israel’s behalf.

  • When the children ask, “tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord” – Joshua 4:7.
  • And then again, when the children ask, “then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground” – Joshua 4:22.

 

Clearly, on par with the crossing of the Red Sea under Moses, the Jordan River miracle represented a significant milestone in the life of faith of Israel.

  • The Psalmist remembers its significance:
  • Psalm 114:3–7 (ESV) — 3 The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. 4 The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. 5 What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? 6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? 7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob,

 

Because of this significance, in Joshua 4:7 we are told that the stones are to be “to the people of Israel a memorial forever”.

  • It is important to point out that the idea of memorial here is far more than just “a calling to mind” – Woudstra.
  • In addition to a remembering and “loving reflection”, it importantly calls for “action” – Woudstra.
  • Remembering the work of God = Call to Action
    • Like submission of the will, for example

 

Significance of Chapter 4 and the Jordan Crossing:

The significance of the crossing is also fairly obvious.

  • (1) EXALTATION – Joshua is “exalted in the sight of all Israel” – verse 14
  • (2) COVENANT FAITHFULLNESS – God’s covenant faithfulness is demonstrated with Israel’s entry into the Promised Land.
    • In fact, the cutting off of the Jordan and the passing through is a direct parallel to God’s covenant activity.
    • And the completeness of this covenant faithfulness is seen in both that:
      • God via the Ark passed through but also
      • all the nation” (vs. 4) – 12 tribes – 12 men – 12 stones passed through
  • (3) POWER OF GOD – So the world may know that “the hand of the LORD is mighty” (verse 24).
  • (4) FEAR OF GOD – So Israel “may fear the LORD your God forever” (verse 24).

 

Read it – Read it:

Joshua 4, however, is one of those chapters that can be confusing.

  • It requires a lot of readings to begin to make sense of its repetitions from different perspectives.
  • But as it is read over and over one discovers that there is a lot more going on.
  • I want to touch on just a couple of those things and then take a massive and important rabbit trail.

 

(1) How many stone memorials were erected?

  • Joshua 4:8–9 (NLT) — 8 So the men did as Joshua had commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan River, one for each tribe, just as the Lord had told Joshua. They carried them to the place where they camped for the night and constructed the memorial there. 9 Joshua also set up another pile of twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, at the place where the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant were standing. And they are there to this day.
  • Joshua 4:8–9 (NIV) — 8 So the Israelites did as Joshua commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord had told Joshua; and they carried them over with them to their camp, where they put them down. 9 Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.

 

I point this out to highlight once again the importance of reading more than one translation.

  • And as for the answer to our question –
  • Of the three most well-regarded scholarly commentators on Joshua – Hess, Howard and Woudstra – two think there is but one stone memorial.

 

Additionally, we have to consider the context.

  • We saw last week that the Jordan was in flood stage.
  • This means it could have been as much as a mile wide and 30 feet deep.
  • We can only surmise that it was even deeper as the water piled up behind the Ark.
  • Now it seems unlikely that 12 rocks light enough for Joshua to carry would have survived the surge of the Jordan as it was released.
  • The memorial would have been wiped out.

 

It appears then, that Joshua set up the 12 stones where the priests stood with the Ark in the river bed.

  • And once everyone had crossed, Joshua sent the 12 representatives to collect the 12 stones from the river bed, “from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly (vs. 3)” and erect the memorial at Gigal.
  • This makes sense of the words both in verse 3 above and at the end of verse 9 – “they are there to this day”.

 

(2) “To this day” – Author’s Aetiological Intent:

An aetiology is when an author seeks to explain “the name of a place or some notable feature of a region” – Hess.

  • The author of Joshua employs this technique more than any other Biblical author.
  • The consensus is that at the time Joshua was written, the author sought to explain some peculiar or anomalous conditions.

 

Our text is one such example – what is this river stone memorial at Gilgal.

  • Joshua 4:9 (ESV) — 9 And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.

 

Rahab is another example – what is this pagan doing living among us.

  • Joshua 6:25 (ESV) — 25 But Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive. And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.

 

This approach is important.

  • It once again demonstrates that the God of Israel does things.
  • And we know He does things because He leaves a mark on history.

 

The Jordan Event should be no less real to us than as if it happened yesterday at the Nansemond River.

  • Proximity in time is not the issue, God’s identity, His work and their significance are timeless.
  • Once again – this is not an emotionally grounded relationship!!!!!

 

Having said that, however, what are some evidences of God’s overt, objective work in history that are here “to this day”?

  • The most obvious would be the Bible.
    • And –
  • 1 Peter 2:4–5 (ESV) — 4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
    • Christians are a memorial to the work of Christ!

 

The Massive Rabbit Trail:

Joshua 5:1 (ESV) — 1 As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.

 

This text echoes the words of Rahab in Joshua 2.

  • Joshua 2:9–10 (ESV) — 9 …, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt…
  • Now add to that the Jordan River event from 5:1 and again “their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them

 

God’s actions and proclamations were not done in an Israelite vacuum.

  • They were in context of a complex ANE (Ancient Near East) religious culture.
  • And this context provides a fascinating backdrop and insight in to understanding why “their hearts melted”.

 

Polemic Theology:

“Polemical theology is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning” – John Currid.

 

“The primary purpose of polemical theology is to demonstrate emphatically and graphically the distinctions between the worldview of the Hebrews and the beliefs and practices of the rest of the ancient Near East” – John Currid.

 

Water:

Water was one such ANE “thought form and story”.

  • It played “an important role in the cosmogony [how the world came to be] of the ancient Near East” – John Currid.
  • “Water [was] the stuff and material of creation” in just about all the major ANE cultures – John Currid.
  • Specifically, at the beginning of creation the waters were seen “as chaotic” in ANE cosmogony.
  • In fact, “the waters, in ancient Near Eastern thought, represented a hostile power” – Joseph Lam.
  • Creation was therefore the act of the gods overcoming the “hostile power” of water and bringing order to its chaos – John Currid.

 

The importance of the water/God relationship is prevalent even in Hebrew ANE culture.

  • Genesis 1:2 reads, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters”.
  • The Psalmist also speaks to the significance of water in Psalm 74.
  • Psalm 74:12–17 (ESV) — 12 Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. 13 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. 14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. 15 You split open springs and brooks; you dried up ever-flowing streams. 16 Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. 17 You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you have made summer and winter.
  • Even in the NT we read – Matthew 8:27 (ESV) — 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?
    • Answer – He is Yahweh

 

The point is this – the Canaanites’ supreme gods were El and Baal.

  • El was the head of the Canaanite pantheon of Gods; the “father of the gods” – Currid.
  • El’s home was “on the top of a mountain from which two rivers proceed that provide all the water on earth” – John Currid.

 

This means that – the Jordan River as presented in our text has the following Canaanite context.

  • (1) It was part of the water that ultimately originated from El and his mountain home.
  • (2) And in flood stage it would have been in disorder and chaos.

 

So what?

So given –

  • (1) The significance of water in ANE generally
    • AND
  • (2) El’s relationship to it

 

We see the following Yahweh Polemic aimed at El:

  • Along comes Yahweh on behalf of the Israelites.
  • He proceeds to exercise complete and utter authority over the Canaanite waters of the Jordan River.
  • Yahweh took the chaotic, flooding Jordan River and cut it off!
    • Just as He had exercised power over the Red Sea.

 

Hearts Melted:

So it is no wonder the Canaanite’s hearts melted and “there was no longer any spirit in them”.

  • Yahweh demonstrated His might and power over El (in the minds of the Canaanites).
  • El was powerless against Yahweh.

 

But Wait – There is More:

There are numerous other examples of this Polemical Theology at work – John Currid.

  • Some quite subtle and some quite obvious.
  • We will look at one of each.

 

Cloud Rider:

  • Baal, the god of storms and seasons, was the other prominent God of the Canaanites.
  • Long before the Israelites came on the scene, Ugarit texts of the Canaanites referred to Baal as the rider of the clouds.
  • For example –
    • “Seven years Baal will fail Eight years the rider of the clouds, no dew, no rain” – John Currid.

 

The OT, written after the Ugarit texts, began to challenge this notion.

  • Isaiah 19:1 (ESV) — 1 An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
  • Daniel 7:13 (ESV) — 13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

 

Any worshiper of Baal would have recognized the challenge.

  • “Baal does not ride on the clouds; only Yahweh does!” – John Currid.

 

Challenge of the Staffs:

Exodus 7:8–13 (ESV) — 8 Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 9 “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’ ” 10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. 11 Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. 12 For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. 13 Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.

 

In Egypt, the staff was extremely significant.

  • “Pharaohs carried the shepherd’s crook…as emblems of their identification with Osiris and their having received his authority and power” – John Currid
  • The staff, “…simply signified all of Osiris’s power, authority, and sovereignty” – John Currid.
  • They believed that the staff, “was imbued with magic and the power of the gods” – John Currid.
  • In fact, Egyptian history specifically attests to the practice of turning staffs into snakes.
  • There are numerous, “scenes of magicians holding rods in their hands that could instantly be turned into snakes” – John Currid.

 

So along comes Aaron, a mere Hebrew slave, and his staff.

  • He proceeded to use, “the very physical symbol that rendered glory to Egypt, authority to Egypt, power to Egypt” as the very thing that demonstrated the authority and power of Yahweh over Osiris and Pharaoh – John Currid.
  • His rod ate theirs; Yahweh’s omnipotence overpowered Egypt’s magic.

 

BTW – It is interesting to note the following:

  • God, through the Ark of the Covenant, stopped the Jordan River.
  • We already saw how this demonstrated Yahweh’s power over El.
  • It is interesting that the Ark contained the Aaron’s rod.
  • The thing that Yahweh used to demonstrate His power of Osiris.

 

Numerous other examples of OT and even NT polemical theology exist.

  • I think we get the idea.
  • But, it is worth mentioning the Son of God polemic.
  • Caesar was, for Rome, the Son of God.
  • Then along comes Jesus and the assertion that He was the Son of God.
  • His resurrection in fact vindicated His claim to be the real Son of God – sorry Caesar.