Joshua 4 – Memorial Stones
A. The completion of the crossing of the Jordan River.
1. (1-3) The command to select twelve men and twelve stones.
And it came to pass, when all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan, that the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying: “Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from every tribe, 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.’”
a. When all the people had completely crossed over the Jordan: The people of Israel waited some 40 years for this moment. Having come out of Egypt 40 years before, they now had crossed the final geographical barrier to the land of Canaan. They had come this far by faith and were now called to even greater faith to possess and live in the Promised Land.
i. Israel had camped on the eastern side of the Jordan River for many months, since Numbers 22:1. Now they were on the plains of Jericho, near to the city (Joshua 4:13). Yet there was not an immediate rush to attack Jericho. By God’s direction, Israel dealt with important spiritual matters before beginning the conquest of Canaan.
b. Take for yourselves twelve stones from here, out of the midst of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood firm: Each tribe was to send a representative to take a stone – undoubtedly a large stone – from the dry riverbed where Israel had crossed over and specifically where the priests held the ark of the covenant. These stones would be used for a memorial.
i. “The raising of stones as a memorial is common in the OT (cf. Joshua 7:26; 24:26–27; Genesis 28:18–22; 31:45–47; 1 Samuel 7:12). These memorials were intended to provoke questioning so that the story of God’s miraculous interventions might be told over and over.” (Madvig)
c. In the lodging place: This was the place later named Gilgal (Joshua 4:19).
2. (4-7) The purpose of the twelve stones.
Then Joshua called the twelve men whom he had appointed from the children of Israel, one man from every tribe; 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, that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ 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.”
a. Joshua called the twelve men: The twelve men and twelve stones were obvious representations of the twelve tribes of Israel. Joshua wanted all Israel to take part in this ceremony and the memorial that would remain afterwards.
b. That this may be a sign: The stones would be a sign and a memorial for Israel, reminding them of the remarkable miracle of the dry riverbed crossing of the Jordan River. This was the final miracle of the exodus journey. Israel left Egypt through miraculously parted waters (Exodus 14), and they entered Canaan through miraculously parted waters. This was worth remembering.
i. It was a sign because of where the stones came from: the dry riverbed of the Jordan, making them unique markers of a work that could no longer be seen. It was a memorial, establishing a lasting testimony remembering God’s great work.
c. When your children ask in time to come: This memorial looked forward to future generations that did not personally experience the miracle of the Jordan crossing. God did not want His work to be forgotten among the generations.
i. God’s people often fail in their trust in God because they forget the great things He has done. The faith of future generations is often weak because they have never been told how great and real God is.
·Memorials are necessary because God’s people forget what they should remember.
·Memorials are necessary because the truth of what God has done does not diminish with time.
·Memorials are helpful in teaching the children of believers.
·Memorials may be visible or unseen.
·Memorials are especially helpful in times of crisis.
ii. “This crossing of the Jordan by all the Israelites is not just an experience of the present generation. Future generations of Israelites will also acknowledge it. They will ‘participate’ in it through observing the sign and through hearing the explanation.” (Hess)
3. (8-9) The building of the memorial.
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. 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.
a. The children of Israel did so: Israel had received Joshua as their leader, replacing Moses. Directed by God, Joshua commanded Israel to build the memorial, and they did. This respect for God’s appointed leaders would be an important part of their success in conquering Canaan.
b. Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan: In addition to the memorial on the western bank of the Jordan, Joshua also set up a memorial on the riverbed of the Jordan, where the priests stood holding the ark of the covenant. These stones would be visible in drought seasons when the level of the Jordan was low.
i. “Occasionally, the Jordan gets very low, and the Israelites were able from time to time to see these twelve stones and to recall the great things God had done for them.” (Schaeffer)
c. They are there to this day: At the time the book of Joshua was written, these stones in the midst of the Jordan remained. They were an enduring testimony to the faithfulness of God, visible in times of drought.
4. (10-14) A summary of Israel’s crossing of the Jordan.
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. 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. 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. About forty thousand prepared for war crossed over before the Lord for battle, to the plains of Jericho. 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.
a. So the priests who bore the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished: The priests stood with the ark of the covenant for the entire time it took the nation to cross over. The ark, as the visible representation of the presence of God, remained in the river as Israel hurried across the Jordan.
i. The people hurried and crossed over: Israel was excited to come into the land promised to them and their ancestors some 500 years before, finally finishing the journey from Egypt. They may also have been in a hurry, wondering when the waters of the Jordan would resume their flow. “The circumstance itself thus marked is a proof that the relater was an eyewitness of this miraculous passage.” (Clarke)
b. And the men of Reuben, the men of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh crossed over armed before the children of Israel: The people content to settle on the east side of the Jordan stayed on their side of the Jordan but sent their armies over to fight on behalf of the rest of the nation, just as they had promised (Joshua 1:12-16).
c. On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel: God fulfilled His promise to Joshua (Joshua 3:7), raising him up as a great leader for Israel, even as the Lord had done for Moses.
i. “Joshua is now, in effect, the ‘new Moses.’ After the great crossing of the Red Sea, “the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (Exodus 14:31b). Here, now, Joshua found himself in a remarkably similar position after a remarkably similar miracle. He was growing into Moses’ job as Israel’s leader.” (Howard)
5. (15-18) The Jordan River returns to its normal flow.
Then the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, “Command the priests who bear the ark of the Testimony to come up from the Jordan.” Joshua therefore commanded the priests, saying, “Come up from the Jordan.” 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.
a. Command the priests who bear the ark of the Testimony to come up: The priests carrying the ark of the covenant had a long, difficult day. They entered the waters of the Jordan first, stood in the middle through the entire crossing, and only came up out of the riverbed when Joshua commanded. Their great privilege of bearing the ark was matched by the great responsibility.
b. The waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks as before: As soon as the priests came out of the riverbed, the Jordan resumed its normal flood-stage flow. The manner and timing with which the Jordan returned to its natural flow show that this event was supernaturally arranged by God.
i. “Retreat was impossible now. A new page in their history was turned. The desert was as unreachable as Egypt.” (Maclaren)
B. The first work at Gilgal: memorial stones set up.
1. (19-20) The stones are set up as a memorial in Gilgal.
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. And those twelve stones which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal.
a. On the tenth day of the first month: According to Exodus 12:2-3, Israel was to begin their celebration of Passover on this day. This was the day lambs were selected for sacrifice and kept with the household until the fourteenth day of the first month (Exodus 12:3-6). Passover celebrated Israel’s exit from Egypt, and they entered Canaan on the anniversary of that event.
b. They camped in Gilgal: Gilgal would become Israel’s base of operations for the conquest of Canaan. Therefore, it was appropriate that the first work at Gilgal was to set up a memorial to God’s great works.
2. (21-24) The purpose of the memorial stones.
Then he spoke to the children of Israel, saying: “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall let your children know, saying, ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land’; “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, 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.”
a. What are these stones? It’s easy to imagine the scene suggested by this passage. A future generation of Israelite children see the curious pile of stones near Gilgal, on the western bank of the Jordan River. The children ask their fathers what the stones mean or signify.
i. The purpose of remembering God’s great works is not so that God’s people can live in a dreamland of the past, thinking that the best days of one’s life with God are in the past. God’s great works should be memorialized and remembered to provide a point of faith, so believers can trust God for greater and greater works in the future. This trust is based on what has been seen, experienced, and memorialized of God’s past power and faithfulness.
ii. We tend to remember our pains more than our joys, our losses more than our victories. Great athletes will often think more about the championships they lost than the ones they won. This is why it is good to make deliberate memorials for the great things God has done.
b. Then you shall let your children know: The memorial had an important purpose for their children, giving them a point of contact with God’s work in the past. They would understand that God’s work did not begin with them and their time.
i. “None of the lessons of the present must be lost. They must be perpetuated in memory throughout the coming days. In order that this may be so, Jehovah deliberately arranged for such things as would appeal to the natural curiosity of a child.” (Morgan)
c. That all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord: The memorial also had a purpose beyond Israel. It was so that all the peoples of the earth would know that there was a God in heaven who could work miracles, a God they should seek with all their heart.
i. “This is an ancient and commendable practice, by lasting monuments to propagate and perpetuate the memory of special mercies and signal deliverances; to set up some marks and mementoes upon them, that they grow not stale or moth-eaten.” (Trapp)