The second great crossing of a body of water (The First was the Red Sea) by the Israelites is found in Joshua 4.
It probably was a little bit frightening to walk back into the Jordan, what if the waters would come crashing back on them? But there was comfort for those twelve men, each representing a tribe of Israel, because their leader Joshua walked with them and they went to the middle of the river, not the shore line, not a knee deep area, but the middle. They chose 12 large stones from the middle of the Jordan right where the priests stood. God wanted to make everyone aware that this was in fact a God thing. God dried up the Jordan. It was not some freak of nature. This was why the stones are taken next to the priest who facilitated the connection between the people of Israel and God.
While the 12 men are digging out the stones, Joshua, perhaps in spontaneous worship of God, builds his own alter of 12 stones in the middle of the river in verse 9. It is personal testimony of what God has done. After they dig out the stones, they leave the river and in verse 18 we see the priests coming out of the river. As soon as they hit dry ground the waters returned. What a sight that would have been as the water covered Joshua’s memorial and they turned toward this new land. After this awe-inspiring event there were shouts of praise, but as soon as it started the waters turned back to normal. Almost like a dream, this miracle was over. Have you ever had something like that happen to you? God moves in your life in a powerful way, perhaps an incredible retreat, time alone with God, a mountaintop experience, and as quickly as it happened it is gone and the normality of life creeps back into place making the event seem like a dream.
God knows us so well. He is our creator. The Bible says he knows every hair on our head. No medical doctor, no sociologist, psychologist, or best friend understands us as well as God. He knows we are people of the habitual forget. I can’t remember what I ate a week ago; I struggle to remember my eighth-grade graduation. Even some of my most impact filled times in the past with God seem so long ago, a faint memory. We constantly forget the past, especially how God has worked in history and our lives. The Israelites are the classic picture of forgetfulness. Like with us, God was faithful over and over again, and over and over again they forgot and needed to be reminded. That is why God told them to commemorate this event with the 12 stones so that they would not forget and, more specifically, so that the next generation would not forget. We are people of today, trying to accomplish our tasks for the day, often just struggling to make it to bed each night at a decent hour. The past is something we look at for a couple semesters so that we can pass our history test, but it does not seem to have any real value or impact. Yet a neglect of the past, especially regarding how God has worked, always creates hardship for the future. Hear that again: a neglect of the past, especially in regard to how God has worked, always creates hardship for the future.
The Stones are set up in Gilgal, which means circle of stones, and it is the first camp that Israel sets up in after crossing the Jordan. They are now 10 miles away from the Jordan and 2 miles away from the walled city of Jericho in Gilgal setting up this memorial. Very clearly Joshua tells them, when the future generation asks you what these stones are for you can say that God dried up the Jordan and the people crossed over. Having a memorial like this to pass on how God has worked in their lives was nothing new. The Passover feast and celebrations were given to them to remember. God is not some deceiver. God is doing everything he can so that we won’t forget him.
Joshua specifically tells them why they are to remember and pass on this God given miracle. It is to show the people of the earth the Lord’s power and so that they might fear the Lord. Did you catch that? It is to show the people of the world the power of God. These stones are given not only for themselves, not only for the future generations of Israelites, but for all those nations in the land who knew they were coming. Look at Joshua 5:1, the hearts of the kings melted when they heard about what God had done. Unfortunately, it did not lead to repentance for these sinful nations. They could have repented and submitted their life to God. Think about the story of Jonah, who God sent to the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was a huge city that repented when they heard that God was going to pour out his wrath upon them and God gave them relief from his wrath for almost two hundred years. Even as they were about to conquer the land, I believe he was giving the nations another opportunity to turn to him. They didn’t turn like Nineveh and the Israelites conquered most of the land. The future generations did not remember the power of God and fear him. The message of the 12 stones was lost, because parents and leaders did not pass on the truth and the powerful story of God’s faithfulness. It only took one generation, and the people left the God who brought them out of the wilderness and over the Jordan. They became materialistic, they committed idolatry worshipping other Gods, and immorality was pervasive. They became no different than the nations they conquered.
The memorial alter of stones was set up to remind the people of God’s work in their lives but became a pagan shrine that Hosea and Amos warned the people about. God gave the people a memorial as a concrete reminder, but the memorial itself isn’t enough. It is a device that must take us back to God’s faithfulness. In order for a memorial to have full power, it must be accompanied with obedience to the message it represents. The parents and leaders did not take the message of the stones and impart it to the next generation. Unfortunately, many of the great cathedrals in Europe are a memorial to the God who broke through time and became a man walking the earth and dying on a cross, rising again so that we could have life. Yet they stand now as empty buildings for tourists to purchase souvenirs in and take a picture of. Why? Because the message of the memorial was not lived and passed on. The stones were set up so that future generations and the world would know of the God of Israel and turn themselves fully over to Him.
So, you don’t have 12 stones. That’s okay, it’s not about the stones. Build into your lives concrete “memorials” that remind you of God’s faithfulness, challenging us to live out our relationship with Jesus Christ, and pass it on to the next generation.