1 And it came to pass, when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan, that the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying: 2 “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from every tribe, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take for yourselves twelve stones from here, out of the midst of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood firm. You shall carry them over with you and leave them in the lodging place where you lodge tonight.’”4 Then Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the children of Israel, one man from every tribe; 5 and Joshua said to them: “Cross over before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ 7 Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.”8 And the children of Israel did so, just as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones from the midst of the Jordan, as the Lord had spoken to Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them to the place where they lodged, and laid them down there. 9 Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the ark of the covenant stood; and they are there to this day.10 So the priests who bore the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the Lord had commanded Joshua to speak to the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua; and the people hurried and crossed over. 11 Then it came to pass, when all the people had completely crossed over, that the ark of the Lord and the priests crossed over in the presence of the people. 12 And the men of Reuben, the men of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh crossed over armed before the children of Israel, as Moses had spoken to them. 13 About forty thousand prepared for war crossed over before the Lord for battle, to the plains of Jericho. 14 On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they had feared Moses, all the days of his life.15 Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, 16 “Command the priests who bear the ark of the Testimony to come up from the Jordan.” 17 Joshua therefore commanded the priests, saying, “Come up from the Jordan.” 18 And it came to pass, when the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord had come from the midst of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests’ feet touched the dry land, that the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks as before.19 Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. 20 And those twelve stones which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal. 21 Then he spoke to the children of Israel, saying: “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, saying, ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land’; 23 for the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed over, 24 that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”—Joshua 4:1-24
Shara and I used to live in the Washington, D.C., area. I worked downtown on 17th Street NW, a block from Lafayette Park. In that park are five large statues: President Andrew Jackson, plus statues of four foreign Revolutionary War heroes: the Marquis de Lafayette, Comte de Rochambeau, Tadeusz Kościuszko of Poland, and Baron von Steuben of Prussia. The statues are there are memorials, placed there to remind us of some of the key people in our history who helped us become the nation we are today.
Of course, there are other memorials in the area, too—the Washington Monument; Jefferson, Linkoln, and Roosevelt memorials; the WWII and Vietnam War memorials, and, across the Patomac River, the memorial to the flag-raisers of Iwo Jima.
Several years ago, we were in Honolulu and went to Pearl Harbor, where we saw the memorial to the heroes of the sunken ship, the Arizona. It was a very moving experience to be taken out to the memorial built above the sunken ship and quietly contemplate the events that led to its destruction and the death of so many crew members. We were both very moved, and to this day the memorial, and the events it represents, remain in our minds.
We can sometimes forget events of the past. To help His people remember the works He has done for them, the Lord commanded that certain memorials be erected to remind the people throughout the future generations of His miracles and His special care for them.
The Lord knows how important it is for the people to remember His works. For example, in Deuteronomy 6:10-12, He tells the Israelites: “10 ‘So it shall be, when the LORD your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, 11 houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant—when you have eaten and are full— 12 then beware, lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.’”
We find in the Old Testament histories, in fact, that many times the people of Israel are told not to forget all God had done for them, by the Lord Himself, as well as by Moses, Joshua, and the prophets.
Look at Joshua 4:7 for a moment. The meaning of the Hebrew word for" memorial" in verse 7 is literally “to remember” or “rememberance.” Memorials have frequently played an important role in biblical history—memorials like this pile of stones, altars, the ark of the covenant—and memorials consisting of special holy days and celebrations or rituals recalling an act of God, such as the Passover celebration. In Exodus 12, for example, we read that at the foot of Mt. Sinai Moses built an altar of stones to commemorate God’s covenant with Israel (Exodus 12:14). Now in Joshua 4 we see God command his people to erect a memorial so they and their children would remember that God brought the people of Israel into the land promised to them over the dry Jordan River bed.
Notice that according to verse one, “when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan,” that the Lord gave more specific instructions. According to these verses, twelve men (chosen earlier; see Joshua 3:12) were to go back to where the priests were standing in the middle of the river, holding the ark. Each man was to pick up a large rock or stone from the middle of the Jordan and carry it to the side of the river where Israel would camp in the land of Canaan.
Notice there are four reasons that are given for this:
It is to be a time of remembering what God has done
“And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever” (v. 7). First, the memorial stones were to be a reminder of their own personal experience. Notice that in verse 6 that this memorial will cause the children to ask; “What do these stones mean to you?” These stones are first of all to be a reminder those who were present of their personal experience, what they saw, heard and felt. To paraphrase, “Tell your story, Keep a clear memory of what God did for you. Keep on telling your stories so that you never lose your own sense of awe and wonder of what God has done in your life.”
I want you to consider with me: What kind of memorials do we have in our lives? We all have memorials in our lives, no not a monument of stones, but one built of memories. There are memories of places, places that trigger memories just as the memorial stones in Gilgal. There are some significant places in your life that bring back memories. One of my memories is the dedication of the church we grew in as young Christians in Roanoke, Virginia. In the early days of that congregation, they met in a renovated open-air a pavilion. They enclosed the sides and end walls, added electricity and plumbing, and then filled the auditorium not with fancy pews, but with metal chairs (about 800 of them purchased on sale at Kmart!). The congregation gave heavily to missions and did not spend major funds on a building, until they could do so and keep giving heavily to missions.
I will always remember those metal chairs. When I picture them, to me they are a reminder of the church’s devotion to missions giving above all else.
We also have other memorials in our memories. There are memories of people God has used in our lives. For me, many of these are the people who encouraged me when I was wrestling with giving up a career and going to seminary. There are memories of experiences, of God’s answers to prayer and of God’s marvelous hand of provision. I remember in seminary how God always provided for our needs. We learned some valuable lessons about faith. Most lessons in faith are not something you can be taught, it is something that you must experience to truly understand. Those days in seminary and God’s constant provision for our family are memorials in my memory of His faithfulness and love.
There are also mementos of the past. If you were to come into my office and look around you would see miscellaneous objects that are reminders to me of life experiences—a picture of the family, a picture of our daughter Alicia making her first parachute jump, photos from places we visit, pieces of artwork by a friend who teaches in the art department at Grace College, a picture of the one of the major building campus buildings, which consumed a lot of my work time for the two years it was under construction.
No doubt when you look around your home, you find similar memorials. Each of those objects triggers memories of what happened then, of the things that God did, and of things you experienced; some are experiences that have changed your life; others are memorials to warm memories you always want to remember.
The point is that God knows how we think and that is the reason that he instructs Joshua to build a memorial. So that each time the Israelites saw it they would be reminded that they had not crossed the Jordan on their own ability, their own strength but because of God.
To understand what God was trying to teach His children Israel, spend some time thinking through your memorial stones, let them draw you closer to God and remind you of His faithfulness.
The Memorial stones were to serve as a basis of sharing faith with their children (vv. 6-7)
In two places in this chapter, parents are reminded of their responsibility for the communication of God’s Word and his calling on their children, generation to generation. First in verses 6-7, the Lord tells Joshua to tell the people “that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’” And we find it again in verses 21-23: “Then he spoke to the children of Israel, saying: ‘When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, “What are these stones?” 22 then you shall let your children know, saying, “Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land”; 23 for the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed over.’”
As with other memorials in the Old Testament, the intention of the memorial was to provoke questioning especially from future generations.
We need to remember that our faith is never more than one generation away from extinction. Just think about our own country. We have drifted away from our Christian foundation in just the last couple of generations. We need to tell each generation about the eternal life God offers to anyone who believes and the great things God has done for us and the rest of His people.
Many of the memorials in the Old Testament served a specific purpose. God warned Israel not to let the environment of the pagan society that surrounded them dictate their values. This pile of stones was a memorial to that; a reminder of God the father, the caregiver, and the performer of miracles, had provided for His people the way to enter the land He had promised to them.
The memorial stones were to be a signpost to a lost world (24)
“. . . 24 that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”
It has always been God’s plan that the whole world should “know” that He is the only living God. Not only was the crossing of the Jordan a stirring event for Israel, but it was also a terrifying event for all the people living in the land of Canaan.
It was not only a time for remembering an act that God had performed, but also:
It was a time of renewal of personal commitments (8)
They obeyed the word of God; they picked up the stones and carried them to their place of encampment on the western bank of the Jordan River.
Note that the meaning of verse 9 is widely debated among biblical commentators: “Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the ark of the covenant stood; and they are there to this day.” It seems that while the men were carrying their stones back to the shore that Joshua personally picked up another twelve stones and built a memorial in the very center of the riverbed, as a personal act of worship. For Joshua this was a very private act and also representative of a pivotal point in his walk with God.
Once the twelve men have carried twelve stones to the shore of Canaan, and after Joshua has built his altar in the middle of the river, Joshua commanded the priests to finished crossing the river with the Ark of the Covenant. The moment that the feet of the priests touched the other side, the wall of water that had piled up 15 miles back up the river came crashing back into place.
Not only was it a time of renewing personal commitment but also:
It also was a time of a new beginning (19-20)
It is significant that this happened on the tenth day of the first month; this is exactly 40 years to the day since Israel marched out of Egypt. They had completed their journey back from slavery to a new beginning . . settling in the land that God had singled out to give them.
Leaving the edge of the river, the Israelites went to a place called Gilgal to make their camp. Gilgal was “on the eastern border of Jericho (verse 19), and the name means “the reproach has been rolled away.” Forty years of spiritual defeat and failure have been rolled away—the past is behind them, and God has been faithful to His promise It was the dawn of a great new beginning in a new land. The days of sullen refusal to respond to God under Moses were gone, complaining was ended, hopeless wandering in the wilderness was behind them.
They were now a people with a powerful new sense of purpose, determined to take new territory with God.
We should be able to look back and see those monumental occasions which standout as times in which God has changed our directions and give us new hope and a new sense of purpose.
The monument built with those twelve stones was to serve as a visible reminder of the faithfulness of God. It was also a silent monument to the special day on which the people of God boldly placed their feet in the surging, rushing current of the Jordan, confident that God would see them to safety on the other side.
Perhaps we, too, can remember a monument, a pile of stones, a memorial to a time when we by an act of bold faith we decided to abandon ourselves to God and step out into the unknown to take new territory for Him—to step into the waters of the flooding river in faith that God will take us across.