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If only the Levites could carry the Ark of the Covenant, why did Joshua in Joshua 3:12 tell the children of Israel something different? He told them to pick a member from each tribe.

Joshua 3:12–13 (NLT)

12 Now choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13 The priests will carry the Ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth. As soon as their feet touch the water, the flow of water will be cut off upstream, and the river will stand up like a wall.

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    Nowhere in the text does the narrative or Joshua's command state that the twelve chosen men are to bear the ark. Each time, specifically, it is the priests who bare the ark. It is far more likely that they were to bare the twelve stones spoken of. (Or, rather, that they, figuratively, are to be seen as representative of those twelve stones in a spiritual figure.) Welcome to SE-BH, please see the Tour and the Help (below, bottom left) as to the purpose and the functioning of the site.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 20:26
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    @NigelJ this comment would probably be better as an answer, if you have time to write it up with a few citations. Commented May 30, 2023 at 20:45
  • Most translators clarify that "their feet" means the feet of the priests not of the Israelites from each tribe. Pesky dangling modifiers. Commented May 30, 2023 at 23:48

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We have the following explicit commands in Josh 3:

  • V3 - When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God being carried by the Levitical priests, you are to set out from your positions and follow it.
  • V6 - And he said to the priests, “Take the ark of the covenant and go on ahead of the people.”
  • V8 - Command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant ...
  • V13 - Command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant ...
  • V14 - So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carried the ark of the covenant ahead of them.
  • V15 - But as soon as the priests carrying the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge,
  • V17 - The priests carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel crossed over the dry ground, until the entire nation had crossed the Jordan.

Let there be no doubt that it was the priests, Levitical priests, that carried the Ark of the Covenant.

So, what were the 12 men (V12) chosen for? The answer is given in Josh 4 -

1 When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, 2 “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, 3 and command them: ‘Take up for yourselves twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan where the priests were standing, carry them with you, and set them down in the place where you spend the night.’ ”

4 So Joshua summoned the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, 5 and said to them, “Cross over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of Israel, 6 to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ 7 you are to tell them, ‘The waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters were cut off.’ Therefore these stones will be a memorial to the Israelites forever.”

8 Thus the Israelites did as Joshua had commanded them. They took up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, one for each tribe of Israel, just as the LORD had told Joshua; and they carried them to the camp, where they set them down.

The twelve men elected from each tribe were to collect a rock from the floor of the Jordon river to create a memorial of the miracle of crossing of the Jordon river. They did NOT touch the Ark of the Covenant.

Appendix - a little extra

There is a marked contrast here:

  • the priests (representing Jesus) carried the golden Ark
  • the twelve men (representing humans) carried stones
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  • Good except that I don't see a textual basis for the conclusion that the priests represented Jesus. Commented May 30, 2023 at 23:51
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    @DanFefferman - that is not part of the question but added for completeness only
    – Dottard
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 1:11

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