And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Tell the priests who carry the ark of the covenant: ‘When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.’” Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God. This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you. Now then, choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.” So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground. – Joshua 3:7-17
This passage is the “opening act” of God’s interactions with the Israelites through their new leader Joshua. It is quite an opening. God wants to answer the question the Israelites are constantly asking “is God among us or not?” God’s presence in cloud and fire has been replaced by the ark of the covenant being carried by the priests.
God is doing a thing he has done before for the Israelites when they were being chased by the Egyptians at the Red Sea. He is parting the River Jordan in a dramatic and miraculous way. When the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched the water of the river the flow of the river “piled up in a heap”. The river was in flood making this feat even more miraculous. This miracle would be considered a relational miracle in that it is an important part of the relationship between God and the Israelites as they pass into the Promised Land.
From a scientific point of view the events described would require the suspension of the natural function of Jordan River. Could God do this? I am confident that God could if he chose to do so. This suspension of natural laws would have occured in a limited area for specific purpose — to let the Israelites know that God was among them as they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
This account is somewhat different than the parting of the Red Sea. In the case of the Red Sea the parting seems to have been accomplished over a span of time and with the help of a dry wind. The parting of the Jordan River seems to have been pretty much instantaneous. The priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant entered the river and it stopped flowing. Flash floods are relatively common in the desert, flash droughts not so much.
There are only three natural mechanisms I know about that can stop a river in its tracks: landslides; ice jams; and log jams. None of these would seems to be at play in this case. So one is left with a temporary suspension of natural laws. Interestingly, the description of the event is consistent with the hydraulics of rivers to an extent. The water piled up in a heap is an apt description of what is referred to as a “standing wave” in a river. Standing waves are basically the hydraulic equivalent of the sonic boom that an airplane makes when it exceeds the speed of sound. When water flows fast enough it reaches a point where it cannot deform fast enough and it “piles up” to form a standing wave.
Standing waves can be a rafters delight or doom depending on the size of the standing wave and the skill of the rafter. The dangerous thing about standing waves is that they can create a water surface that actually tilts back upstream. If one gets caught in the wave, which is not actually moving relative to the river, rafts can be flipped and passengers can find themselves stuck in a virtual washing machine with little hope of escape. The water itself continues to move downstream, but the disturbance of the standing wave keeps the rafters firmly in it’s grip.
Is there such a thing as a spiritual “standing wave”? Can there be interruptions to the spiritual flow of our lives in which we can get stuck? What, or who, is responsible for these spiritual disturbances? One of the most interesting explorations of spiritual disturbances and obstructions is a book by C.S. Lewis called the Great Divorce. It is a fictional exploration of the spiritual standing waves in people’s lives in which they have become stuck and how they can get out. In most cases it involves: 1) admitting God loves us no matter what we, or others, have done; 2) knowing and accepting that God wants all of us; and 3) Having a posture and perspective that allows us to see and experience the Kingdom of God.
Prayer: God help us to avoid spiritual standing waves that can grab a hold of our lives and keep us from experiencing your love.