The Israelites deeply mourned for their departed leader, and thirty days were devoted to special services in honor of his memory. Never, till he was taken from them, had they so keenly felt the value of his wise counsels, his parental tenderness, and his unwavering faith. They knew then that his ripe judgment and self-sacrificing devotion, could never be replaced on earth. Yet while their hearts were filled with grief at their great loss, they knew that they were not left alone. The pillar of cloud still rested over the tabernacle by day, the pillar of fire by night, an assurance that God would be with them still, if they would be true to him.
Joshua was now the acknowledged leader of Israel. He had been prime-minister to Moses during the greater part of the sojourn in the wilderness. He had seen the wonderful works of God wrought by Moses, and well understood the disposition of the people. He was one of the twelve spies sent out to search the promised land, and one of the two who gave a faithful account of its attractiveness, and who encouraged the people to go up and possess it in the strength of God. He was well qualified for his important office. The Lord had promised to be with him as he had been with Moses, and to give him the conquest of Canaan, if he would faithfully observe the divine requirements. Joshua realized the magnitude and importance of the trust committed to him, and he had looked forward to the work before him with great anxiety; but the assurance of divine guidance and support removed his fears.
A few miles beyond the Jordan, just opposite the place where the Israelites lay encamped, was the large and strongly fortified city of Jericho. It could present a serious obstacle to the Hebrews, and Joshua now sent two spies to visit this city and learn something concerning its population and the strength of its fortifications. These men narrowly escaped death in their perilous mission; for the inhabitants, terrified and suspicious, were constantly on the alert. But the spies finally returned safely, bringing encouraging tidings,—“Truly, the Lord hath delivered into our hands all the land; for even all the inhabitants of the country do faint because of us.” It had been privately declared to them in Jericho: “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. And as soon as we had heard these things our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man because of you; for the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above and in earth beneath.”
Arrangements were now made for crossing the Jordan. The people prepared a three days’ supply of food, and the men of war made ready for battle. All heartily acquiesced in the plans of their leader, and assured him of their confidence and support.” All that thou commandest us we will do, and whithersoever thou sendest us, we will go. According as we hearkened unto Moses in all things, so will we hearken unto thee; only the Lord thy God be with thee, as he was with Moses. Whosoever he be that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death; only be strong and of a good courage.”
But all well knew that without divine aid they could not hope to make the passage. At this time of the year,—in their spring season,—the melting snows of the mountains had so raised the Jordan that the river overflowed its banks, making it impossible to cross at the usual fording-places. God willed that the passage of the Israelites over Jordan should be miraculous. Joshua commanded the people to sanctify themselves, for upon the morrow the Lord would do wonders among them. At the appointed time, he directed the priests to take up the ark containing the law of God, and bear it before the people. “And the Lord said unto Joshua, this day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee.”
The priests obeyed the commands of their leader, and went before the people carrying the ark of the covenant. Orders had been given for the multitude to fall back, so that there was a vacant space of three-fourths of a mile about the ark. The immense hosts watched with deep interest as the priests advanced down the bank of the Jordan. They saw them with the sacred ark move steadily forward, toward the angry, surging stream, till the feet of the bearers seemed to be dipping into the waters. Then suddenly the current was borne back, while the tide below swept on, and the deep bed of the Jordan was laid bare. At the divine command the priests descended to the middle of the channel, and stood there, while the great multitudes advanced, and crossed to the farther side. Thus was impressed upon the minds of all Israel the fact that the power which stayed the waters of Jordan was the same that opened the Red Sea before their fathers forty years before.
The priests and the ark still remained in their position in the middle of the river-bed. At the Lord’s command, twelve men, one out of each tribe, were directed to take each man a stone from the channel, and to carry it to the dry land, as a memorial for all future generations. “that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it passed over Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.”
When this had been done, the priests themselves were directed to come up, bearing the ark on their shoulders. They did so, and when their feet had reached the western shore, the waters rushed down, a resistless flood, in the natural channel of the stream.
When the kings of the Amorites and the kings of the Canaanites heard that the Lord had stayed the waters of the Jordan before the children of Israel, their hearts melted with fear. The Israelites had slain two of the kings of Moab, and now this miraculous passage over the swollen and impetuous Jordan filled all the surrounding nations with great terror.
The long years of wandering were ended; the Hebrew hosts had at last reached the promised land. In the midst of the general rejoicing, Joshua did not forget the commandments of the Lord. In accordance with the divine instruction he now performed the rite of circumcision upon all the people who had been born in the wilderness. After this ceremony, the hosts of Israel kept the passover in the plain of Jericho.
“And the Lord said unto Joshua, This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” Heathen nations had reproached the Lord and his people because the Hebrews had failed to possess the land of Canaan, which they expected to inherit soon after leaving Egypt. Their enemies had triumphed because Israel had wandered so long in the wilderness, and they proudly lifted themselves up against God, declaring that he was not able to lead them into the land of Canaan. The Lord had now signally manifested his power and favor, in leading his people over Jordan on dry land, and their enemies could no longer reproach them.