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Cover image: Painting by John Martin.
Old Testament Lesson 18, Joshua 1-6; 23-24
To the prophet Joshua came this promise: “The Lord your God hath given you rest, and hath given you this land.” 1 Since then, the story of the entry of Israel into the Promised Land has always represented the entry of the faithful into the rest of the Lord, “which rest is the fullness of his glory” or eternal life in the celestial kingdom.2,” As we study the book of Joshua, we learn about the challenges we face in order to qualify for an inheritance in that kingdom.
Like Joshua and ancient Israel, we too must pay a price to enter into the rest of the Lord. We must face and overcome challenges in order to qualify for a place in that kingdom. These challenges are not punishments-actually, they are blessings without which we could not grow spiritually and learn the lessons we need to become like our Father in Heaven.
Additionally, it is interesting to point out that the name “Jesus” is simply the Greek version of the name “Joshua.” Both names mean “the salvation of Jehovah.” Many students of scripture have seen in Joshua, the great general who swept wickedness from the Promised Land and led Israel into its rest, a foreshadowing of the great Savior who would come to cleanse the world of the effects of sin and bring the faithful into a heavenly Promised Land.
Overcoming the “Lure of False Gods”
The conquest and settlement of Canaan must have seemed an overwhelming challenge to the children of Israel. The land was occupied by an idolatrous people who would not simply surrender their fortified cities to Israel. In spiritual terms, Israel faced the necessity to overcome Babylon, the great competitor for the loyalty of our Father’s children, in order to take possession of the land of promise.
Of course, we face the same challenge today. Canaan is all around us. We are here to demonstrate our faithfulness and obedience to the Lord as Canaan, like spiritual Babylon, tempts us to surrender ourselves to idolatry. “Come not among these nations,” the Lord commanded Israel, “neither make mention of the name of their gods, nor cause to swear by them, neither serve them, nor bow yourselves unto them: but cleave unto the Lord your God.”3
We too confront the lure of “false gods.” As President Spencer W. Kimball taught, a little study will show us the “many parallels between the ancient worship of graven images and behavioral patterns in our very own experience.”4 Those ensnared in the worship of the things of this world rather than the living God will come to grief. The fall of Jericho as recounted in the book of Joshua shows us the consequences of this kind of idolatry.
Being Strong and Courageous in the Lord
In this mighty undertaking of conquering the land of promise, Joshua was not left alone. The Lord assured Joshua, “I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” Then the Lord provided the formula for success in his undertaking:
“Be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest. . . . Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”5
Joshua was promised that if he would give strict heed to the commandments, he would succeed and always have the Lord’s guidance with him. He was encouraged to study scripture and “meditate therein day and night” in order to understand more clearly what to do to “make [his] way prosperous.” Clearly, the Lord would give him success, but only if he paid the price of careful study and exact obedience.
Of course, the same formula applies to us in conquering ourselves and succeeding at our challenges. By giving strict obedience to the Lord’s counsel, we too can experience peace of mind in this world and “enter into his rest” in the eternities.
A key part of this formula is careful scripture study. In speaking of the charge given to Joshua, President Ezra Taft Benson taught: “Studying and searching the scriptures is not a burden . . . but a marvelous blessing and opportunity. Note what the Lord Himself has said about the benefits of studying His word. To the great prophet-leader Joshua, He said:
“This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.” [Josh. 1:8; italics added.]
“The Lord was not promising Joshua material wealth and fame, but that his life would prosper in righteousness and that he would have success in that which matters most in life, namely the quest to find true joy.”6
Note that God exhorted Joshua many times to “be strong and very courageous” in facing the tests before him.7 It was only natural for Joshua to fear the power of his enemies and the monumental task before him. But as President Gordon B. Hinckley taught, “We can so live that we can call upon the Lord for his protection and guidance. This is a first priority. We cannot expect his help if we are unwilling to keep his commandments.
“8 Again, the key to overcoming fear is obedience-the obedient can be strong and of good courage because the Lord is their strength, and their courage derives from the promises of the Lord.
Trusting the Lord to Clear our Pathways
As a demonstration that he can clear any path before the faithful, the Lord commanded Joshua to bring the people to the banks of the river Jordan, which was overflowing at the time. As the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant entered the river, “the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap. . . and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground.”9 This miracle reproduced the crossing of the Red Sea under the leadership of Moses and showed the people that Joshua had truly inherited the mantle of Moses. In another sense, the crossing of Jordan shows us today that God can break through even what appear to be impassable barriers if we will have faith in his promises.
According to scholars, an earthquake might have facilitated the river crossing. Today, the Damiyeh Bridge crosses the Jordan 17 miles north of the site of the events recounted in Joshua. “It has been reported several times as the place where the course of the river was blocked when perpendicular banks of soft soil caved in as a result of earth tremors. In AD 1267, when the lower river temporarily dried up as a consequence of a similar blockage, the Mameluk sultan was able to exploit sixteen hours to lay the foundation of the predecessor of the present bridge.”10
Sanctifying Ourselves through the Covenants of the Lord
Once Israel had crossed Jordan, Joshua commanded the people to remove from the riverbed twelve stones “according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel” and set them in a circle at the crossing. “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones? Then ye shall answer them, That the waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, when it passed over Jordan. . . these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.”11 The stones were to remind Israel that “the Lord your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over.”12 The monument thus memorialized both crossings.
They called the stone circle “Gilgal,” which means “circle or “wheel” in Hebrew.” It signified all Israel gathered in prayer in a great circle to thank God for his blessings.
Joshua then commanded the Israelites to be circumcised. Those who had been born in the wilderness had never been circumcised, but as they entered the Promised Land, the ordinance was required as a token of a renewed covenant. “This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you,” said the Lord. The “reproach of Egypt” refers to the sinful, idolatrous life of the world; the Savior takes the reproach of our sins from us through his Atonement, thus “rolling away” from us the effects of sin: “Wherefore the name of the place is called Gilgal unto this day.”13.
According to scholars, the name Gilgal might also be a play on the Hebrew word gallothi, which means “I have removed,” in reference to the Lord’s expression: “This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.”14 Here at Gilgal they kept the Passover on “the fourteenth day of the month”-the day tradition tells us was the first Easter.15
The circumcising, the passing through the waters of Jordan, the keeping of the Passover, and the “rolling away” of the reproach of sin-all these things remind us inevitably of the ordinance of baptism and the atoning sacrifice of the Savior. The Apostle Paul made this connection: “All our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”16 Crossing Jordan represented the new life of the baptized made possible through the Atonement. (It’s interesting to note that the first Mormon pioneers to enter the Great Salt Lake Valley were similarly re-baptized to renew their covenants with God at the end of their exodus and the start of a new life in a land of promise.17)
The ancients saw great significance in the circle of stones at Gilgal. According to Josephus, Gilgal meant “liberty, for since now they had passed over Jordan, they looked on themselves as freed from the miseries which they had undergone.”18 As with the twelve stones in the high priest’s breastplate, Josephus wrote, “We understand by them the months. . . the like number of the signs of that circle which the Greeks call the zodiac.”19 Stone circles throughout the ancient world symbolized the heavens and the “eternal round” of God’s plan and purpose.
Modern scholars see Gilgal as a site for the performance of sacred ordinances. 20 Hugh Nibley wrote that these “rites were in the form of a circumambulation,” or a moving prayer circle represented by the twelve stones. 21 Elijah was taken up into heaven here. Finally, some suggest that John baptized Jesus at the place where Israel crossed the Jordan, adding to the rich symbolism of Gilgal.22
Here Joshua was instructed by an angel, the “captain of the Lord’s host,” and was commanded to “loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy.”23 The Lord spoke these words to Moses on Sinai; thus, like Sinai, Gilgal was a sacred place where heaven communicated with prophets on earth.
In summary, Gilgal functioned much like a temple-it was a place of prayer, baptisms, sacrifices, and covenants.
It was a place of coming and going between heaven and earth. It was a memorial of the atonement of the Savior. For the Lord’s prophet, it was a place of revelation. It was a sanctuary from the wicked world that surrounded the house of Israel. Gilgal met the criteria of a temple: a place for baptisms, for “solemn assemblies, and your memorials for your sacrifices by the sons of Levi, and for your oracles in your most holy places wherein you receive conversations, and your statutes and judgments, for the beginning of the revelations and foundation of Zion, and for the glory, honor, and endowment of all her municipals, are ordained by the ordinance of my holy house, which my people are always commanded to build unto my holy name.”24
Claiming the Promises of the Lord
Having sanctified themselves, the people of Israel now turned to the task of claiming the land of promise. The Lord had promised Abraham and his family possession of this land, but Israel would have to pay a price for it. That price was a generation of warfare with the wicked inhabitants of the land.
As in the great flood of Noah, as in the incident of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord had determined to remove the corrupt occupiers of the land so a new start could be made. According to the scriptures, it was the evil practices of the Canaanites that led to their downfall at the hand of Israel: “For the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, that he may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers.”25 In the end, Jericho and the other cities of Canaan were the victims of self destruction.
So the Lord commanded Joshua to utterly destroy Jericho, the Canaanite fortress that stood near Gilgal and defended the ford over Jordan. Historians tell us that Jericho was probably not a large city but a military outpost defended by a wall that was ancient even then. It guarded trade routes both north-south and east-west crossing through the Jordan valley. Joshua had to control this strategic point.26
Though the commandment was to utterly destroy, the Lord was willing to spare those who would turn to him. This is the significance of the story of Rahab of Jericho. When Joshua sent spies into the fort, they found shelter with Rahab, who is called a “harlot” but was probably only the hostess of an inn. Josephus referred to her as an innkeeper, and the Hebrew word translated as “harlot” could just as easily refer to one who feeds and lodges travelers.27 She testified to the spies that she knew the Lord had given Israel the land and pleaded for salvation for her family.28In the end, Joshua showed mercy to her (and may even have married her, according to Jewish legends 29).
The story in Joshua 6 of Jericho’s downfall is well known. God gave the plan of battle to Joshua. The army of Israel marched around the stronghold once a day for six days, blowing trumpets each time, and then seven times on the seventh day-a Sabbath. When the priests blew trumpets for the seventh time, the Israelites gave a great shout and the walls collapsed before them.
Some have seen in the Lord’s battle plan a representation of the seven dispensations of the Gospel. In each dispensation a prophet (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Joseph Smith) announces the gospel message as with the sound of a trumpet. Just as the army of Israel marched around the city seven times on the seventh day, so on the last day seven angels will sound forth seven trumpets and then the judgments of God will be poured out upon the whole earth.30 Babylon, like Jericho, will fall. This is the Lord’s promise. Just as Jericho’s walls collapsed, the kingdom of the devil is destined to fail.
Bringing down the walls in our hearts and minds
We are today engaged in a spiritual struggle to bring down the stronghold of Babylon in our own hearts and in the hearts of others. President Howard W. Hunter compared the walls of Jericho to the walls we build up in our hearts and minds against the Lord and his commandments. These are walls of selfishness:
“Perhaps some of us . . . need to take stock to determine whether walls’ that we have built in our own minds need to come down.
“For example, how about the comfort wall’ that seems to prevent many couples and singles from going on a mission? How about the financial wall’ of debt that interferes with some members’ ability to go, or the grandchildren wall,’ or the health wall,’ or the lack of self-confidence wall,’ or the self-satisfied wall,’ or the transgression wall,’ or the walls of fear, doubt, or complacency? Does anyone really doubt for a minute that with the help of the Lord he or she could bring those walls crashing down?
“Knowing full well of our weaknesses and of our reservations as we stand before the huge gate of our self-made wall, he reassures us that divine help to overcome all obstacles will be forthcoming if we will only do our part.”31
As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down.”32
The prophet Joshua spent his life wresting control of the land of promise from the wicked. In some cases, as with Rahab, Canaanites turned to the Lord and were spared. We know that many “strangers” joined Israel in studying the scriptures and worshiping the Lord.33 Others hardened their hearts and would not make peace with Jehovah-they were utterly destroyed.
Ultimately, with God’s help, Joshua prevailed and allotted inheritances to each tribe of Israel-and the land rested from war.
Toward the end of his life, Joshua gathered the people and urged them to recommit to God, as he and his family had done all their lives: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve; … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”34 (Joshua 24:15).
President Hunter taught that this “great statement of full commitment to God” is the formula for spiritual success. “[Joshua] was telling the Israelites that regardless of how they decided, he would do what he knew was right. He was saying that his decision to serve the Lord was independent of whatever they decided, that their actions would not affect his, that his commitment to do the Lord’s will would not be altered by anything they or anyone else would do. Joshua was firmly in control of his actions and had his eyes fixed on the commandments of the Lord. He was committed to obedience.”35
Too many people base their commitments on the attitudes or actions of others. Because a Church member offends them, they abandon their own commitments. Because family members opt out of Church activity, they do the same. But in the end, we take our covenants as individuals. Joshua teaches us that the actions of others have no bearing on our own choices.
To conclude, the great story of Joshua and his conquest of the Promised Land shows the price we must pay to enter into the “rest of the Lord.” Institute teacher Christopher J. Morgan puts it well: “Symbolically, the land promised to Israel could represent the divine inheritance promised to all the faithful who keep their covenants with God. In keeping with this idea, Joshua’s bringing Israel through the Jordan River and into the land of Canaan serves as a powerful image for our own return to the presence of the Father and the Son. We must become free of impurities so that we do not risk forfeiting our divine birthright. Let us move forward to eternal life by securing the blessings of the Atonement through faith in Him by willing, humble, and forthright repentance.”36
1 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 5:11.
2 Josephus, Book 3:7.
3 J. Alberto Soggin, Israel in the Biblical Period, Continuum, 2002, 94.
4 Hugh W. Nibley, “The Circle and the Square,” Provo UT: Maxwell Institute.
5 Jan Majernik et al., The Synoptics: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Emmaus Road Publishing, 2005, 29.
6 Josh. 5:14-15.
7 D&C 124:39.
8 Deut. 9:5.
9 Barry J. Beitzel, Biblica: The Bible Atlas, Barron’s Educational Series, 2007, 172.
10 Josephus, Book 5:2; Herzog and Gichon, 48.
11 Josh. 2:1-17.
12 See “Rahab,” Jewish Encyclopedia.
13 See Revelation 8-11.
14 Howard W. Hunter, “Walls of the Mind,” Ensign, Sep 1990, 9.
15 Heb. 11:30.
16 See Josh. 8:35.
17 Josh. 24:15.
18 Howard W. Hunter, “Commitment to God,” Ensign, Sep 2006, 44-47.
19 Christopher J. Morgan, “The Sin of Achan,” Ensign, Apr 2002, 43.
20 Josh. 3:15-17.
21 Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, Battles of the Bible: A Military History of Ancient Israel, Greenhill Books, 1997, 48.
22 Josh. 4:5-7.
23 Josh. 4:23.
24 Josh. 5:9.
25 “Gilgal Across the Jordan River,” Near Eastern Institute, Jan. 1, 2010.
26 Josh. 5:10.
27 1 Cor.
28 William G.Hartley, “Gathering the Dispersed Nauvoo Saints, 1847-1852,” Ensign, Jul. 1997, 12.
30 D&C 84:24.
31 Josh. 23:6-7.
32 Spencer W. Kimball, “The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, Jun 1976, 3
33 Josh. 1:5-9.
34 Ezra Taft Benson, “The Power of the Word,” Ensign, May 1986, 79.
35 Josh. 1:6, 7, 9; 23:6.
36 Gordon B. Hinckley, “If Ye Are Prepared Ye Shall Not Fear,” Ensign, Nov 2005, 60.