Chapter 4


Israel Erects Memorial Stones

    • When all the Israelites had crossed over the Jordan, the Lord told Joshua, “Select 12 men, one from each tribe, and tell them to take 12 stones from the middle of the Jordan River where the priests are standing. Carry these stones with you and lay them down where you camp tonight.”

    • The issue of how the tribes are counted will surface occasionally. The NLT Illustrated Study Bible makes this note regarding this particular passage, “The twelve men represented Jacob’s twelve sons. The tribe of Levi was not counted because the Levites settled designated cities among the other tribes (Genesis 49:5-7; Numbers 1:49-52; 18:20.) However, the number of tribes remained twelve because Joseph’s two sons (Ephraim and Manasseh) were accounted as separate tribes (Genesis 48:5).”

    • So, Joshua called together the 12 men he had chosen, one from each tribe, and gave them the following instructions: “Go across to the ark of the Lord your God in the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to pick up one stone and carry it on your shoulder- twelve stones in all, one for each of the tribes of Israel. These stones will be a memorial for the Israelites forever. They will be a sign among you so that, in the future, when your children ask you what these stones mean to you, you will tell them that the waters of the Jordan River stopped flowing in front of the ark of the covenant when it crossed the river.”

      • This is a great place to point out a fallacious teaching perpetrated by some legalistic Christian groups (or groups that identify as Christian) that is actually based on a grain of truth and can therefore cause confusion. It is unequivocally true that the Israelites were called out to be separate from the other nations, and that several of the laws in the Mosaic Covenant are for the express purpose of prohibiting specific practices that were associated with the worship of pagan gods, etc. However, it is patently false to claim that all practices that could be associated with pagan worship were prohibited to God’s chosen people. Therefore, asserting that Christians participating in various modern Christian traditions are unknowingly engaging in sin, simply because it is possible to identify a potential connection ( I say “potential” because some of these alleged connections are extremely tenuous) to a practice that may or may not have been associated with pagan groups, has no Biblical foundation. The command to erect this stone monument is a prime refutation of this logic. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible provides the following historical/archaeological information:

        • The use of uncarved standing stones for various cultic purposes is well attested in the West Semitic world. Like Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28) and Moses at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24), these stones could be erected as a memorial to a vow or for another dedicatory purpose. More often, however, standing stones have been ascribed religious significance either in the sense of some representation of deity or as a symbol of a sacred spot for veneration. Their association with the worship of other gods is condemned in the Bible (Leviticus 26:1; Deuteronomy 7:5; 16:21-22; 1 Kings 14:22-23). In the Negev and Eastern Sinai, some 142 independent sites of standing stones have been found, most with origins dating thousands of years before Israel’s appearance. They are generally thought to represent deities and were venerated by libations and other offerings…Here in Joshua, they symbolize the unity of the people rather than gods, but they resemble other usages insofar as they are associated with a religious center (Gilgal), with a divine act (crossing the Jordan River) and with a memorial for every generation.”

      • For additional reading on the topic of these standing stones (Hebrew masseboth), the interested reader may refer to the Biblical Archaeological Society article, Does the Bible Disapprove of Masseboth? One citation:

        • The word massebah and its variants appear 34 times in the Bible; additional references to synonyms such as ‘stone’ (even) or ‘pillar’ (‘amud) also abound. As might be expected, most of the time the Bible condemns masseboth. A surprising 13 references, however, are neutral or even positive. Eight occur in the Book of Genesis alone. Remarkably, Isaiah contains one of the most positive references to masseboth.”

Example of masseboth- image from BAS article cited above.
        • So, if you are ever in the position of having to defend yourself against a legalistic claim that you are engaging in pagan worship because you may, for example, decorate with a wreath or evergreens, put up/decorate a tree at Christmas, or involve rabbits/painted eggs in your celebration of the resurrection with your kids, you may lovingly remind the individual (or group) that pagans don’t hold a “patent” on any of those things. None of them are inherently pagan, and there is no Biblical basis to exclude them from being used in a way that honors God. Now, if one were trying to justify making a human sacrifice to honor God, we would have an issue…

    • The men did just as Joshua had commanded, each taking a stone just as the Lord had instructed Joshua. They brought the stones to the camp and laid them down there. Joshua also set up 12 stones in the middle of the Jordan where the priests carrying the ark of the covenant were standing, and those stones are still there to this day.

        • Also notice that Joshua built an identical memorial in the middle of the Jordan that he was not commanded by God to build. This is directly in opposition to a favorite legalistic tenet that absolutely no form of worship other than what is specifically commanded by God may be offered. Now a legalist may counter that just because Joshua constructed a memorial he was not commanded to construct, does not mean that the Lord approved of it. However, this argument is insufficient. The Lord did not reprimand Joshua at all for his action. Was it so minor that God decided He’d let it slide? There is no basis to consider this a reasonable answer. Moses himself was seriously reprimanded for what also appeared to be a very minor deviation from God’s instructions at Meribah. In fact, this was the sole reason given for Moses’ inability to enter into the promised land (Numbers 20:6-13).

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “A second memorial of twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan was submerged as soon as the river resumed its flow. The monument’s top would be visible in the dry summer seasons. Their existence to this day indicates that the memorials stood for generations, until the final editing of the book.”

      • HCSB adds, “’The stones are there to this day’ is the first instance of aetiology, or the explanation of origins, in the book of Joshua. Etiologies often contain the phrase ‘to this day,’ referring to the time when the biblical writer was composing or compiling the narrative. Many critical scholars reject the authenticity of these etiologies, assuming that later editors inserted them. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that these etiologies should be taken seriously as preserving authentic reasons for the existence of particular situations, customs, place-names, settlement arrangements and the like. The aetiologial use of the phrase ‘to this day’ is found elsewhere in the book of Joshua at 5:9; 6:25; 7:26 (twice); 8:28-29; 9:27; 10:27: 13:13; 14:14; 15:63; 16:10.”

    • The priests carrying the ark remained standing in the middle of the Jordan until the people had done everything that the Lord had told Joshua to tell them to do, in keeping with everything Moses had commanded Joshua. All the people hurried to cross the river and after everyone had made it across, the people watched the priests with the ark of the covenant cross over.

    • The armed men from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh in battle formation lead the Israelites, just as Moses had commanded. These numbered about 40,000, prepared for war, crossing over into the plains of Jericho in the Lord’s presence.

      • The ESV Archaeology Study Bible notes, “The plains of Jericho are the region between the Jordan River and the city of Jericho, which is about 5 miles west of the river…”

    • That day, the Lord exalted Joshua in the eyes of all Israel, and they revered him for the rest of his life, just as they had revered Moses. Then the Lord told Joshua, “Tell the priests carrying the ark of the covenant to come up out of the Jordan.” Joshua gave the command. As soon as the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the Lord’s covenant stepped outside the riverbed, the waters of the Jordan returned, overflowing the banks just as they had been before.

    • The Israelites crossed the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month and camped at Gilgal just east of Jericho’s boundary. There at Gilgal, Joshua set up the 12 stones they had taken from the Jordan and he told the Israelites, “In the future when your children ask what these stones mean you should tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground.’ The Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan River until you crossed over, just as He dried up the Red Sea until you had crossed over it. He did this so that all the people on earth may know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”

      • ESV Archaeology Study Bible writes, “The tenth day of the first month was the day for selecting Passover lambs to be sacrificed on the fourteenth day of the month. Gilgal was a base camp on the west side of the Jordan, on the east border of Jericho…Several sites have been proposed for Gilgal, but none is certain.”

      • On the modern time frame that corresponds to the tenth day of the first month in Hebrew, NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “This day in the ancient Hebrew lunar calendar occurred in late March, April, or early May.”