The two Israelite scouts sent to the city of Jericho were eating at Rahab’s inn when officers banged loudly on the door.
“Two officers have come from the king of Jericho to arrest you!” Rahab whispered to them. “They’re impatient and I must go to the door at once. I know who you are, and I have my reason to help you. Hurry up this back stairway and hide yourselves under the flax you’ll find drying on the roof” (Joshua 2:1-4)!
The Israelites didn’t waste time asking questions or waiting for more explanation. They dashed for the stairway, and Rahab turned to go to the officers.
“If you’re stalling us, woman, we’ll have to take you along, too!” one of them snapped.
“I hurried back there to the dining booth to find out if any of my lodgers noticed which way the two men went,” Rahab explained. “They were here, but they left just before the wall gates of the city were closed for the night. If they are Israelites, probably they’re on their way back to the camp, and the soldiers could overtake them before they reach the river.”
Rahab lied about these things, but God makes use of all kinds of people to bring about His purpose. In this matter He was using a Canaanite woman, who had never been taught God’s commandments
The king’s officers didn’t spend any more time talking. They struck out of the inn and barked orders to nearby solders. Within a very few minutes, the gates swung open, and a searching party of soldiers scurried off into the darkness in the direction of the river (vs. 5-7).
As soon as the soldiers had left, Rahab went up to the flat roof of the inn to talk to the Israelites. She expected to find them well hidden under the flax on the roof. Instead, she found they were not yet fully covered.
“You’re safe for now,” Rahab whispered. “They won’t be back for awhile. We Canaanites are well aware of your intention to take over our country. I know that your powerful God will give you this land. Our whole city is frightened because you have so swiftly overcome nations to the east and southeast. We have been dreading the day when your soldiers come over the Jordan. Our terror is so great that no one has any courage left.”
“If you believe that Israel is going to take over your land, why are you trying to protect us?” one of the Israelites asked.
“Because I believe your God is the true God. Long ago we heard of the great miracles he performed, especially in causing the Red Sea to part so that your people could pass through it” (vs. 8-11). “I want to be spared by your soldiers,” Rahab continued. “I have showed you kindness. Now promise me that your people will spare me and my close relatives – the households of my father and all my brothers and sisters – when this city is attacked.”
“We promise to do as you ask,” the Israelites told her, “if you will agree not to mention to anyone what has taken place here tonight.”
Rahab solemnly assured them that she would keep the matter to herself. The Israelites then instructed her that she should tie a red cord, which one of the men gave her, in the window of her establishment, and that all her relatives should take refuge there when the soldiers of Israel reached Jericho.
“Our soldiers will be told to spare the place where the red cord is,” Rahab was told, “but if any of your family is outside your doors when we attack, we won’t be responsible for them. On the other hand, if any of your family within your inn is harmed, we shall be responsible before God for that harm.”
“So be it,” the other Israelite muttered, “but these promises can’t mean much if we don’t get out of here tonight”. We don’t dare wait until daylight, and the gates will be barred all night.”
Rahab motioned for them to follower her. They went downstairs to an open window facing outward from the wall. Rahab gave the men a bag of food and a long rope, and the scouts knew what to do. They tied one end of the rope to a ceiling beam and let the rest of it drop out the window.
“Don’t try to return to your camp now,” Rahab warned. “The area between here and the river will be swarming with our soldiers for many hours. Hurry to the hills west of here and hide there for three days. By that time it should be much safer for you to go back.”
One at a time the Israelites slid down the rope, which more than reached all the way down the high wall. Rahab pulled the rope back up and waved to the men as they melted into the darkness (vs. 12-21).
It wasn’t easy to travel over strange terrain at night, but the darkness wasn’t intense enough to prevent the scouts from keeping on the move. The two fleeing men shortly reached the white limestone hills, where they found a number of caves. They chose one next to a small water spring, and for the next three days it was their hideout home.
At the end of three days the two men set out eastward during darkness to successfully reach the Jordan. There they waited for daylight, and again managed to swim the river. From there it was only a short distance to the Israelite camp and safety.
Joshua was pleased at the report of the scouts, especially because is showed the shattered morale of the Canaanites. As for Rahab and her family, Joshua readily agreed to the promise that this one Canaanite family would be spared (vs. 22-24). Joshua knew that God’s death sentence upon Canaanites did not apply to those who willingly forsook their heathen gods and put their faith in Him. After all, one reason God had condemned the Canaanites was because they were the worst sort of idol worshippers.
As soon as Joshua had finished hearing the report, he told his officers to take word to the people that they should prepare to break camp next day.
Great activity followed. Flocks and herds grazing outside the camp had to be rounded up. Families packed their possessions except what was needed for meals and a night’s rest.
Early next morning Israel finished breaking camp. The tabernacle tent, fence and all that went with the tabernacle were packed for moving, and the Israelites set out on a march toward the river. The trip took almost all day, and took them away from the acacia groves near Mt. Nebo, but into more groves of palm trees. They stopped just before arriving at the river, and set up camp again on the east slopes leading down to the Jordan.
Although the Jordan wasn’t a large river such as the Nile, those Israelites who were curious enough to go on down to it were greatly impressed by it because it was the largest river the new generation had ever seen. At that time of year, due to spring rains and the melting of the snow in the high mountains to the north, the Jordan was swift and swollen to overflowing by the silty waters.
Those who saw the river returned to tell their neighbors what it was like. Only the very strong swimmers could hope to make it across the Jordan, and building rafts or a bridge would require so much time that all the armies of Canaan could concentrate at the spot and easily ruin such a project! However, this was to be no problem for Israel, because God had already given private instructions to Joshua so the people would realize God was with Joshua as He had been with Moses.
Next morning Joshua told the priests they should personally take up the ark of the covenant and bear it to the river ahead of the Israelites (Joshua 3:1-7). Ordinarily the ark was carried in the center of the mass of people, and was borne by Levities who were the sons of Kohath (Num. 2:1-31; Num. 4:15).
As God commanded, Joshua then told the priests that they should wade into the edge of the overflow water only a foot or so with the ark and then stand still while God intervened in the flow of the river.
Meanwhile, the evening before, Joshua asked the people to gather together to listen to what he had to say.
“All of you should make yourselves and your garments clean for what will happen tomorrow,” he told them. “Before us there is a swift and swollen river to cross. I have already heard that some of you may not think that it’s possible to cross it. Have some of you lost faith in your God, who brought you out of many situations far worse than this one? Now be assured that God will again prove to us His power by taking us safely over the river. The Ark of the Covenant will be carried to the river before you by almost a mile. When those who carry the ark walk into the Jordan, the stream shall cease to flow past the ark! That part of the water to the south shall drain away, leaving a waterless river bed over which we shall cross to the west bank! This should show you that God possesses all the strength and means to get us safely over the river, to drive out our enemies before us and deliver Canaan into our hands!” God made sure that no one entered the Promised Land with doubts and misgivings.
Joshua then instructed the twelve tribal leaders that each should select a husky man from his tribe and send him to Joshua for a special task. Every man selected, when he passed over the river bed, was to pick up a good sized stone from the rocky river bottom and carry it to the west bank for building a monument (Joshua 3:8-13).
Early that morning the priests started out with the ark. None of the Israelites followed until the priests were almost a mile away, which put them at the edge of the river. They probably hesitated for a minute or so on the east bank, then walked boldly into the swift, muddy water. Every man realized that unless God acted within seconds, men and the ark would be swept away downstream.
Before they could wade in up to their knees, the water flowed away to their left. At the same time the water to their right abruptly ceased flowing. In fact, its direction of movement was actually reversed! As the priests continued to march into the midst of the Jordan, it gradually grew higher and spread farther out on its flooded banks to the north.
This, with water receding in both directions, a growing expanse of empty river bed was exposed to the view of the marveling priests and those of the waiting Israelites who could see the miracle from a distance.
The bearers of the ark went in to the middle of the river bed and then obediently stood where they were. They felt deep gratitude for being allowed to have a part in such a great miracle. When Joshua had made certain that all was ready, he signaled the Israelites to move on to the river.
It required a long time for close to two million people and their tremendous flocks to pass any given point, the specific number of hours depending on how wide their ranks were. In this event, though the river bed was emptied for such a great distance, and gave the people plenty of room to spread out, probably the people were pouring over the Jordan for several hours (vs. 14-17).
Whatever the time needed, the priests, who were rugged outdoor men, patiently remained standing where they had walked into the water. They didn’t move out of the river bed until the last of the Israelites had passed over, including the lead group of 40,000 soldiers sent by the two and a half tribes already settled east of the Jordan to help take Canaan.
One probably would wonder how men could remain standing so long, especially while holding the ark. Perhaps God gave them special strength to stand for such a long period while bearing a weight.
Except for the priests, the last to pass over the river bed were Joshua, his aides and the twelve men who had been picked to obtain stones from the middle of the river bed for a monument on the west side of the river. Before they picked the stones for that purpose, Joshua had them erect a twelve-stone memorial in the Jordan where the priests had stood so long with the ark. To make this possible, the priests naturally had to move forward a short distance while the men worked.
After the monument in the river was finished (it was still visible in the river many years later when Bible account was written), each of the twelve men took up from the river bed a stone as large as he could carry and walked out to the west bank.
Behind them came the priests, and as soon as they had carried the ark well up on the west bank, a peculiar murmuring sound came from the north. Within seconds the murmur grew into an alarming roar. The waters that had been held back for so long had abruptly been freed, and came rushing and boiling down the river channel with a thunderous swishing noise (Joshua 4:1-18)!
This mighty miracle of God, plainly foretold by Joshua, had a deep effect on the Israelites. They realized now that Joshua, like Moses, had been chosen by the Creator as an outstanding leader. Their respect for him was very great from that day on (v. 14). The Israelites also realized that God had now completely fulfilled His promise to take all of this new generation over the Jordan into the Promised Land.
Again the congregation fell into moving order, this time with the ark carried by Levites in the center of the column. The people traveled straight west a few miles and stopped to make camp. It was there that the twelve stones carried from the Jordan were stacked up into a monument. Joshua then came before the crowd to speak to as many as could hear him.
“This heap of stones is to be a reminder of God’s great miracle in bringing us across the river,” he announced. “Tell your children in time to come what it means. Remind them that God also brought Israel across a much greater body of water – the Red Sea. This monument is also to remind all people who see it or learn of it that our God is to be greatly feared and respected.”
Regardless of Joshua’s reference to God’s strength, there were some people who stared fearfully toward the west as night came on. They felt uneasy because the western edge of Israel’s camp was only a little over a mile away from the forbidding walls of the strongly fortified city of Jericho!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible. The Israelites take Jericho!