[An audio version of this is available here.]
Contemporary visitors to Palestine rarely, if ever, find the Jordan River imposing. It seems relatively shallow, not very wide, and quite calm. Wading across does not seem like much of a problem–except that it would take one from the modern state of Israel into the modern state of Jordan or vice versa. The ramifications of that move might not be very pleasant. Today, the Jordan River itself poses no threat and prompts no fear.
So, why did Israel linger three days at Jordan’s shore? Why were they intimidated by this river? And why is crossing the river such a big deal in the book of Joshua? In Joshua 3-4, the crossing is referenced twenty-one times! The Jordan River is mentioned seventy times in Joshua with twenty-eight of them in Joshua 3-4. It functions as a critical and significant moment in the story of Joshua.
Further, the songs and prophets of Israel regarded it as one of Yahweh’s great redemptive feats. In Micah 6:5, the movement from Shittim (east side of the Jordan) to Gilgal (west side of the Jordan) is one of the mighty acts of God! This moment in the history of Israel parallels the crossing of the Sea itself.
For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:23-24.)
The ancient river was very different from the one we now see. Today, the river runs low because its water is used as a resource by the states of Israel and Jordan for drinking and crop irrigation. The flow of water has become so limited that the Dead Sea is drying up.
However, in the ancient world the Jordan River was intimidating. John Beck has assembled an impressive collection of evidence to demonstrate this (JETS 48.4  689-99). Since there were no bridges until the Roman era, people crossed the Jordan in the dry season when they could wade across at points where tributaries flowed into the river because silt builds up there or they floated across on animal skins or bundles of reeds. Israel, on the plains of Moab, probably crossed where the Wadi Qilt meets the river near the head of the Dead Sea.
However, when Joshua stood at the Jordan River, it was at flood stage. It was Spring (March-April) towards the end of the rainy season (Joshua 4:19). Coupled with the melting snows of Mount Hermon, the Jordan River became a formidable obstacle. Beck estimates that the water would have been 10-12 feet deep and as much as one hundred and forty feet wide. In those conditions, the Jordan’s “violent current” endangered lives. In fact, ancient Christian travelogues warned pilgrims that the current was strong, and occasionally pilgrims drowned in the Jordan. A thirteenth century letter complained that the Jordan was practically impassable. One nineteenth century explorer, William Lynch, related his harrowing experience on a riverboat where he feared for his life.
The crossing was so difficult and treacherous that the Greek general Bacchides refused to pursue the Jewish leader Jonathan across the river (1 Maccabees 9:48) while the Pereans decided to battle the Romans on the west bank of the river rather than cross it (Josephus, Wars, IV.7.5). Jonathan escaped but the Pereans were slaughtered.
Just as Assyrian generals listed river crossings as “renowned acts” in their reports, this crossing secures Joshua’s position as the successor of Moses. “That day,” Joshua 4:14 says, “the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel.” More importantly, like at the Red Sea, Yahweh defeated the waters and redeemed Israel, and as a result Israel learned to “fear” the Lord (Exodus 14:31; Joshua 4:24).
But this is not the whole story. The imposing physical character of the Jordan creates a dramatic moment, like at the Sea, where Yahweh rescues Israel, but there is more.
J. Michael Thigpen points to the contest between Yahweh and Baal at the river (Trinity Journal 27ns [Fall 2006] 245-254). The Jordan River crossing demonstrates that Yahweh is a “living God” who is the “Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:10, 13). This is a polemic against Baal.
The Baal Epic was discovered in the 1930s at Ugarit. It dates from some time in the 1300s B.C (roughly the same era the Joshua account portrays). It tells the story of the god Baal, the Canaanite storm god, who was responsible for the fertility of the land and the seasons of rain. At one point in the story, Baal battles the god Yamm (sea) who is also called Nahar (river). Baal defeats Yamm (who represents both sea and river) and is hailed as king. He is given the title “Lord of all the earth.”
As Yahweh’s people approach the Jordan River at flood stage, they face the might of Canaan’s god. Baal, after all, brings the rains, ensures the harvest, and the flood is a sign of Baal’s mighty power. The river Jordan was not only intimidating because of its natural obstructions, but more importantly it terrorized Israel because it was associated with the reign of Baal. It is a sign that, as the Baal Epic describes Baal, that “mightiest Baal lives.” Baal rules Canaan.
When Yahweh creates dry land for the crossing, Yahweh defeats Baal. Just as he defeated the waters of chaos and the gods of Egypt at the Red Sea, so here Yahweh defeats “mighty Baal” so that “all the peoples of the earth” might know that Yahweh is the “Lord of all the earth.”
Israel steps into the water and experiences the power of Yahweh who holds back the waters so that they might cross into a new land, their inheritance. The crossing of the Jordan, then, is not only a defeat of chaotic waters (as in creation itself) but also the defeat of a competing power (Baal). At the Jordan, Yahweh exercises power over both chaos and other powers. God redeems Israel from the powers and secures their safe passage into their inheritance.
Israel crosses the Jordan to become a nation that will light up the world for other nations. They are to become a new Eden in God’s creation. They are to model life with God and how people live together in peace, joy, and righteousness. They enter Canaan commissioned by God to realize God’s kingdom on the earth. But, as we know (and as we well know in our own lives), they failed to fully realize that mission.
The biblical story invites us to see Israel’s Jordan River crossing as our own. This is not simply the history of Israel, it is the story into which we plunge as well. It is the story of Jesus.
We remember how Jesus passed through these waters in his own baptism. John the Baptizer immersed in these same waters–probably even in the same vicinity–where Israel crossed into the new land. For Jesus to step into those waters was to step toward the cross; the shadow of the cross hung over the waters of Jesus’s baptism. It was the moment when he embraced his future suffering for the sake of the future of the world.
Jesus, through his own baptism, experienced God’s redemptive love and heralded a new Exodus and a new inheritance for the whole world. We follow Jesus into that same water. We, too, have stepped into the water in order to proclaim the one true, living God who defeats the powers that enslave and oppose us. Through our baptism we become God’s new creation and herald the coming of the new heavens and new earth, our own inheritance. Entering the waters of baptism is to take up our own cross, and consequently we must count the cost.
Jesus, through Jordan’s waters, entered into a new world, the world of the kingdom of God. Jesus embraced the ministry of the kingdom in order to bring the reign of God into the world so that the will of God might be done on earth as it is in heaven. We who have followed Jesus into the water also embrace this new world, the kingdom of God. We become the instruments of that kingdom. We, like Israel, embrace the mission of God in the world. We follow Jesus into the ministry of the kingdom for the renewal of God’s good creation and the transformation of the world. We are people who have stepped into the water with Israel, with Jesus, to embrace the newness of the Kingdom of God
The Jordan also represents something else in the story of God. It is where the people of God receive their inheritance. Israel inherited the land by promise, and we who are also Abraham’s children share in that promise. God appointed Abraham the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).
Like Israel, we stand on the Jordan’s stormy banks. We crossed the Sea in our baptism and we have journeyed through the wilderness of life nourished by the bread and wine. We now face those stormy banks; we face death itself. Like the Jordan in front of Israel, it is imposing and threatening. But we step into the water with confidence and boldness. We pass through the waters of death in order to embrace the promised inheritance. We pass through the waters where we rest from our labors (Hebrews 4:1-13).
When Israel looked across that water, they saw an imposing current and the walled city of Jericho. It looked inhospitable. It engendered terror, uncertainty, and anxiety. There was no one on the other side to assure them or quiet their fears.
However, this is not true with us. We look across the Jordan and we see the resurrected Jesus enthroned at the right hand of God and holding the keys to Death and Hades. We step into God’s future and trust that God reigns in the world.
We no longer fear. We are not afraid to step into the water. We look forward to the new heavens and new earth (1 Peter 3:13). Neither the depths of its waters nor the gods that claim its power hinder our approach.
We step into the water because of the one who beckons us from the other side. We step into the water because of the one who has cleared a path for us. We step into the water because it has become dry ground. Death (water) has become life (a dry path to our inheritance).
***This is the substance of a keynote address at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration on June 30, 2014 in Nashville, TN***