What or how exactly did all Israel purify/consecrate themselves according to Joshua 3:5?

"And Joshua said to the people, 'sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.'"

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The operative word in Josh 3:5, variously translated as, "sanctify", "consecrate", etc, is, קָדַשׁ (qadash) = to set apart or consecrate.

The idea was used repeatedly in Ex 19 when God asked the people to consecrate or sanctify themselves, that is, set themselves apart as dedicated to God alone, V10, 14, 22, 23. As a symbol of this, they were to continue to honor the Sabbath day, as per Ex 20:8, 11.

In Josh 3, we have the preparation for crossing the Jordan and because "the LORD will do wonders among you" (V5), they were to prepare by consecrating themselves to God. As quoted above this involved (from Ex 19):

  • washing their clothes Ex 19:10, 14
  • setting a boundary around the holy mountain, Ex 19:23. [In Josh 3 the equivalent requirement was setting a distance of 2000 cubits between the people and the Ark of the covenant, Josh 3:4.]

Joshua 3:5 harkens back to a previous moment when God did wonders among the people: his appearance at Mt. Sinai:

Ex. 19

The Lord also said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; 11 and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.

So we may expect that at a minimum, they washed their clothing. However if we look at the idea of consecration in the Levitical code we get a more specific picture. Leviticus 14-15 many times requires bathing in water as well as washing one's clothes to consecrate oneself after becoming ritually unclean.

Conclusion: in this case consecration or sanctification involved washing one's clothes, at a minimum. Since the scene takes place just before they crossed the Jordan, bathing in water was also probably a part of the rite. Later Jewish tradition involved an elaborate process to ensure the purifying bath was done properly, especially for women, but we cannot tell whether this custom was practiced in those days.

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