Joshua 4 Analysis


Joshua ch 4, which describes Israelites crossing the Jordan after their exodus from Egypt, does not provide the story according to the natural flow of time. The narrative, instead, goes back and forth, making the storyline complex. And when the narrator retells previously revealed events, the events sound different. This post divides Joshua Ch 4 into four sections to compare/contrast one another.


Joshua chapter 4 tells us about Israelites’ crossing the Jordan River. The story is simple, but the flow of the story is not as simple as it should be. Let’s see how it is.

Jordan river
Jordan River By Jean Housen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Section 1: Josh 4:1-9

At the outset, chapter 4 follows the storyline of ch 3. According to ch 3, the priests, bearing the ark of the covenant, went in front of the people and stepped on the edge of the water. Then the water stood in a single heap, and the flow was cut off. So Israelites could cross the river on dry ground. After then, chapter 4 begins with the statement that “when the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan.” Below is a summary of chapter 4’s first section.

• Everyone crossed the river.

• Twelve men from each tribe were selected; the men went back to the spot where the priests stood, took twelve stones, and laid them down near the place where Israelites encamped.

• Joshua explains the meaning of the stones.
-(v. 7) the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD…… So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.

• The stones are still there “to this day”: “to this day” implies that the passage was written much later than the actual event.

a map of Palestine, centering around the Jordan
Jordan River by Own work, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Section 2: Josh 4:10-14

In the previous section, Israelites crossed the river, and they piled twelve stones, which they brought from the opposite side of the river, and Joshua explained the meaning of the stones. Now, the reader, of course, expects the next story, but the narrator goes back to where the priests wait for the people crossing the river. The summary is as follows:

• The priests stood in the middle of the Jordan (or perhaps near the edge of the river), and the people crossed the river in haste.

• When the people finished crossing, the priests started crossing.
-In front of the people, about 40000 armed people of the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh went ahead.

• On the day, YHWH exalted Joshua.

So the time frame of section 2 story overlaps with ch. 3 and ch 4’s first section, but the details do not.

Section 3: Josh 4:15-18

This section tells the account of the priests’ move, which section 2 already revealed. Moreover, section 1 also told us the people finished crossing the river. So the section once again goes back to the past event, where the people just finished crossing. Here is the summary.

• YHWH commanded Joshua: let the priests come up out of the Jordan

• Joshua commanded the priests: come up out of the Jordan

• The priests came upon the dry ground, and the water started flowing back again.

The section describes the moment the priests cross the river and come upon the dry ground. So proper location of the passage is between the end of ch 3, and the first verse of ch 4.

Jordan river aerial view
Photo by W. Robert Moore, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Section 4: Josh 4:19-24

Section 4 begins by describing the situation in which everyone crossed the river. It was “the tenth day of the first month,” and the place was Gilgal. So the time frame of section 4 overlaps with Josh 4:1, the first section. So fourth section also mentions the twelve stones and explains their meaning. Here is the comparison.

6 so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”

21 saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ 23 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, 24 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.”

The meaning of the twelve stones explained in section 1 is relatively simpler than section 4. And the details are also different, though not too dramatically different. The first section says the water was “cut off,” and the stones were for the memorial of the event. But section 4 says the water was “dried up” just like YHWH dried the water of the Red Sea and explains that the stones are for letting the people know how mighty YHWH is and fear God forever.

No big difference! But still, they are different. First of all, section 1 describes the water was “cut off,” but section 4 says “dried up.” These expressions, perhaps, indicate the same thing with different words, but I think such an understanding is not probable. Here is why.

In Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea is also described in two different ways: 1: the water formed a wall (vv. 22, 29–traditionally considered to be P material); 2: a strong east wind drove the water all night (v. 21–traditionally considered to be J material).

According to the documentary hypothesis, these descriptions stemmed from different sources that illustrate different phenomena. A strong east wind, that is, the wind coming from only one direction, cannot make the water form walls on both sides. 

If the wind made a “water-wall,” no human could possibly stand still by such a strong wind. So the description about the strong wind, which drove the water back, and the description about the wall of water are incompatible.

The event of Jordan crossing is the same in terms of the text’s incompatible descriptions. On the one hand, it says the water was cut off and piled up in a single heap. This is comparable with the wall of the water in Exodus, the P story. On the other hand, section 4 says the water was dried up like the Red Sea, the J story of Exodus!

Another difference between the two sections is the meaning of the stones. Section 1 only briefly mentions that the stones are for the memorial of the event. In general, brief and simple explanations are the style of P source

Section 4, however, gives a much more detailed and longer report: 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.” 

Here, we should pay attention to the mention of God’s mighty hand, and the concept of the fear of the LORD, because such are also J’s features in Ex 14: Israel saw the great work (“mighty hand” in Hebrew) that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses (v. 31). Section 4 of Josh 4 is surprisingly close to the J story of Exodus.

Closing words

Joshua chapter 4 can be outlined as follows:

• Section 2 summarizes how Israelites crossed the river. So the time frame of section two overlaps with Josh ch. 3. In other words, the section should come before section 1. Special features of the section are its mention of the armed eastern tribes crossing in front of the people and its emphasis on Joshua’s leadership instead of God’s power.

• Section 3 should come before section 1 too, as it deals with the movement of the priests after the people finished crossing.

Section 4’s time frame overlaps with section 1’s, so is its contents. But each section has different emphases as J and P stories of parting the sea in Exodus emphasize different aspects of the event.

So what? According to Martin Noth, Joshua is the first book of the Deuteronomistic History that has Deuteronomy as its preface. That means Joshua as a part of the Deuteronomistic History is a work independent from the Tetrateuch. 

But as mentioned above, Josh 4 contains some pieces of material that can be related to the sources, such as J and P, in the Tetrateuch. That is, the book of Joshua shares its sources with the Tetrateuch, not just Deuteronomy. 

The Deuteronomistic History is not a work completely independent from the Tetrateuch or a work of an author called “the Deuteronomist,” but a work of a much more complex process. This is only an instance of such an argument, but if you can find more evidence like this, then you can argue more seriously for the theory of Hexateuch.

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