There are two occasions in the Bible when God miraculously parted the waters: the more famous Exodus account (Exodus 14:21ff), and the lesser known Joshua account (Joshua 3:7ff).
The Exodus account gets all the acclaim, primarily because it was none other than Charlton Heston standing at the banks of the Red Sea majestically holding his staff over the water. Thus far, the best we have come up with to portray Joshua is a cucumber from Veggietales.
Still, both miracles fall into the category of “something that doesn’t happen every day.” Both go against the laws of physics, Both defy explanation. And both result in making a way for God’s people, sending them from the old into the new.
The Exodus account is dramatic, precariously sticking Moses and the Hebrews between the raging Red Sea and an approaching enemy superpower (Egypt) bent on revenge. So God places a fiery pillar between the two groups, holding the Egyptians at bay. Pretty amazing, but God is not yet finished. God then instructs Moses to lift his staff toward the sea, and amazingly the chaotic ocean separates into a path for the Hebrews to safely pass through.
In the Joshua account, while waiting at the banks of the flooded Jordan River, Joshua reminds the people that God is about to do great things on their behalf in the Promised Land. However, unlike Moses, Joshua does not raise his staff over the water. Instead, the priests are instructed carry the ark of the covenant directly into the river.
Imagine being one of the priests who hears that bit of information: Wait—you want us to do what?
But the command is clear. The priests’ feet are to get wet. They are to traverse the slippery rocks beneath a swift and swirling river. Only then, after getting their feet wet, do the waters part to make a way into the Promised Land.
I prefer the Exodus method whenever God wants to move me. It’s less ambiguous and more straightforward, an uber hardcore miracle—something we can definitely talk about during praise time on Sunday morning. Epic movies with big budgets would be made to tell our story. Even pompous scientists and militant atheists with no sense of awe or enchantment would attempt to insert themselves into the narrative by writing lengthy tomes hoping to invalidate it.
In contrast, no one writes about the Joshua account. Many Christians give it little more than a cursory glance. You won’t find a lot people sharing about how God tossed them into the water before anything happened. It’s not dramatic. It’s not cool.
Besides, Joshua’s account involves a river—a much smaller body of water than the Red Sea.
Yet in many ways, the Joshua method is scarier. The path forward doesn’t appear until you make the first move. In other words, with absolutely no guarantees, you must run the risk of getting swept away by the current before there is any sign that God is about to do something.
All you have to cling to is your faith that God is somehow present—and, you hope, a still, small voice telling you to go. The action could kill you instead of providing a way forward.
Why didn’t God simply part the waters and make a way for Joshua, as he did for Moses?
It’s a question we all ask at one time or another.
I think the answer is found in another tiny but important distinction: In Exodus the Hebrews were running from something—a vengeful army, a life of slavery, possibly even annihilation itself; in Joshua they were going to something—the land promised by God to the generations before them.
Recently I’ve felt forced to go through the Joshua method, asking myself whether I am running from something or to something. I am writing this from a hotel lobby, my temporary home until our prospective house closes. My wife and I are in a transition from Portland, Oregon to Helena, Montana—a transition that’s been bumpy, rough, and uncertain. In the past months, we have deliberated about this move. For over twenty years I have lived in Portland while eagerly hoping to return home to Montana. In Portland I felt on the outside of the culture, never fitting in and complaining ad nauseum, ad infinitum about my life in the city and about the city itself.
When I got a job offer in Montana, I had to ask myself: was this my chance to finally flee city life and return to a less stressful smaller town? Brush the dust from my shoes and leave Portland in my wake? Sayonara, Portland! I’m outta here.
A Moses-style “parting of the waters” would have been the perfect way to do that. All I needed God to do was to part the waters and let me pass.
But what if this move is not about fleeing from something as Moses did, but going toward something as Joshua did? What if this move is for my growth?
I suspect that a “parting of the waters” enabling me to flee Portland would not have been spiritually healthy for me, but would have allowed me to run away from the city with a hard heart and a suitcase full of bitterness.
Instead, I am beginning to believe that God wants me to see this transition as going toward something, a new chapter in the journey. I am going because God wants me to.
The Joshua-style river parting forced me to put my feet in the water before it parted, forced me to remember and appreciate this chapter closing in my life. I thought about the friends I have made in Portland, the people I grew to love there. I celebrated and memorialized the good moments (getting married, buying a house, publishing a book, and being a part of a wonderful church community) as well as my deepest heartaches (the loss of my teaching job and the doctoral degree, the deaths of my father- and mother-in-law, and years of spiritual darkness).
Portland has been a significant part of my story, and if I had left it by fleeing through a parted sea, I never would have grasped the good.
I believe God wants me to remember those years—the good, bad, and ugly—as years that he was working in my life. And to rejoice in what he has done there.
God forced me, like Joshua, to step into the water first, before it would part.
So, with feet clumsily planted on the slippery rocks, I move to a new chapter of my life—in Helena, Montana.
My feet are wet.
The rest of the adventure is up to God.
 Technically, there are three “partings of the water” if we count the third day of Creation when God separated the waters to make “land” (Genesis 1:9)—but I omitted this account since no one was around to see it except God.