The sea is before you, and you don’t have a boat. Enemies are pursuing from behind. You have no escape. Then Moses stretches out his hand. A strong wind suddenly begins to blow. And miraculously, God parts the sea, opening a corridor flanked by towering walls of water (Exod 14:21-22). What do you do?
You don’t think. You don’t stop to admire the scenery. You run. The celebration can wait until you get to the other side.
Many years later, God opened a way through the waters again:
When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan. (Josh 3:14-17, NRSV)
Moses is dead; the people are under Joshua’s leadership now. They are ready to cross the River Jordan into the land God had promised to their ancestors. But there’s one problem. The mighty Jordan is at flood stage, its waters overflowing its banks.
The people no doubt remember the story of the Exodus; it’s part of their imaginative DNA. Will God part the waters again?
Well, yes. And no.
This time, the people don’t wait for the miracle before venturing forth. The priests, representing the twelve tribes and gingerly carrying the ark of the covenant, have to take a step of faith first, putting their feet into the swollen river. And even then, instead of parting the waters before them as they might have expected, God dams the river far upstream. It would have taken some time, in other words, for the waters to recede enough for the people to pass on dry ground. Strange. Why would God do it that way?
Because the situation is not one of escaping from enemies, but preparing to engage them. Listen to what Joshua tells the people before the crossing:
By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap. (Josh 3:10-13, NRSV)
The people aren’t sneaking into the Promised Land through the back door. They are crossing the Jordan near Jericho. And they will need to know that God is going before them. The miracle will give them confidence in their God.
The story makes me wonder about the twelve men tapped for the job. On the one hand, they carry the ark, representing God going before Israel. On the other hand, they also represent the people, the twelve tribes.
There’s something oddly incongruous about this image of priesthood. They bear the very symbol of the presence of the Almighty. But they’re human beings with sometimes unsteady feet, taking that first step onto uncertain ground. And waiting for something to happen.
We together, as a church, are all priests (e.g., Exod 19:6; 1 Pet 2:5).
And sometimes, we may be called to take a step of faith, a step that will represent to others how God goes before his people.