3:1 Moving Forward
The verse does not say which morning they moved. I think this chapter picks back up after chapter 1, and chapter 2 is a parenthesis. In chapter 1, Joshua told the people they would cross the river in 3 days (verse 11). The spies were gone 3 days, but I do not think Joshua waited and added 3 more days in verse 2. So, I think they moved out immediately from Shittim to the edge of the Jordan, then prepared to cross. However, some scholars think it did take 6 days. So, the chronology is hard to follow in the chapter here, and does not seem to be as important to the writer as the theology of the story.
3:2-4 Instructions To Follow God
The people were told to follow the ark. The ark was the symbol of God’s presence. It had traveled with them everywhere in their travels through the desert. In the tabernacle, it was where God’s glory resided. In Exodus 25:22, God said “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.” It contained the law, the manna, and the rod that budded. Here it is called the ark of the “covenant” to emphasize God’s covenant with Israel.
When they moved it, the took down the shielding curtain and covered the ark with it so no one could see it (Numbers 4:4-6), then covered that with the hides of sea cows, then cover all that with a cloth of solid blue. They did this to preserve its holiness.
In further recognition that the ark was holy, the people were instructed to stay behind it one thousand yards. That is over one half mile. (3000 feet out of 5280 feet). The people would see the ark and know that God lead them. They would also see the priests and Levites with the ark, so they knew that their spiritual leaders believed God was leading them. They lead the people to see God’s leading.
3:5 Consecrate Yourselves
Joshua instructed the people to consecrate (or sanctify per the NKJV) themselves because God would do great things and, thereby manifest Himself to them. They were to be holy and prepared to see God’s hand at work and to obey God. This normally included washing themselves and their clothes and abstaining from sexual relations. See Exodus 19:5-10.
3:6 Moving Out
There seems to be a day passing between verses 5 and 6. Joshua sent the priests with the ark ahead of the people.
3:7-8 God Exalts Joshua
God also spoke to Joshua directly and told him he would exalt him in the eyes of the Israelites so they would know God was with Joshua and he was with Moses. God had promised this to Joshua in chapter 1. It was important that the people follow Joshua as they had Moses, so God intends to demonstrate his presence with Joshua to affirm his leadership and his anointed position. As Moses parted the Red Sea in God’s power, so would Joshua part the Jordan in God’s power.
When God calls you to do something, he empowers you to do it.
The story telling we get in this chapter is different that you would write it today. We get God’s instructions bit by bit rather than all at once. In verse 8 we see that God instructs the priests to not only go first, but to actually go and stand in the river. The writer is slowing down the narrative to emphasize the great work of God here. Chapter 4 will be a reflection on the significance of this event.
3:9-13 Joshua Prophesies
Joshua preaches a short sermon to the Israelites, both reminding them of God’s previous promises and prophesying to them what will happen when the cross the Jordan River. He reminds them God is among them, as they see with the ark, and that he has promised to drive out the people of the land before them.
Joshua also prophesies that the waters will pile up as they did at the Red Sea. In fact the word “heap” is the same as used to describe what happened at the Red Sea.
He also has them choose a man from each tribe, so 12 in all. We are not told until chapter 4 what these men are to do.
In verse 10, Joshua tells them that God is doing this great thing not just so they can cross the river, but so they will know God is among them and will do what he has promised in giving them the land. He gave them a demonstration of his power to increase their faith.
3:14-17 The Crossing
The people obeyed by breaking camp and moving to the river with the priests in the lead. Their faith was tested by the fact that the Jordan was at flood stage, rising high on the banks. Their faith was tested in that God did not roll back the waters until the priests put their feet in the water. But when the priests stepped foot in the water, it piled up and allowed them to cross. The entire nation crossed on dry ground, while the priests stood there in the river bank.
The purpose of this miracle was not just so the Israelites could cross the river, but so that God would reveal his power and greatness and faithfulness, to stimulate worship of him. The focus here is on the miracle as opposed to the crossing.