1 When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” 4 Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5 And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.”
8 And the people of Israel did just as Joshua commanded and took up twelve stones out of the midst of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, just as the Lord told Joshua. And they carried them over with them to the place where they lodged and laid them down there. 9 And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day. 10 For the priests bearing the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua.
The people passed over in haste. 11 And when all the people had finished passing over, the ark of the Lord and the priests passed over before the people. 12 The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh passed over armed before the people of Israel, as Moses had told them. 13 About 40,000 ready for war passed 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 stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life. – Joshua 4:1-14 ESV
God’s people have a tendency to forget, and nobody seems to know that better than God Himself. Their collective ability to recall and rejoice in His wondrous acts was spotty, at best. So, God was constantly reminding His people to remember. He knew their particular tendency toward forgetfulness and the human proclivity to take credit for their own accomplishments.
Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. – Deuteronomy 4:23 ESV
10 “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12 then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. – Deuteronomy 6:10-12 ESV
11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… – Deuteronomy 8:11-14 ESV
Their entrance into the land of promise was a memorable experience. As soon as the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the covenant entered the Jordan River, the water ceased to flow. Somewhere up river, a wall of water formed, preventing any further water from reaching the spot where the Israelites would pass over. One minute the river was there. The next, it was gone. And the priests found themselves standing on dry ground. Joshua commanded the 12 men he had chosen earlier to each take one stone from the river bed and carry it to the other side. Those 12 stones would become a memorial, a permanent reminder for the people of Israel, recalling the miraculous provision of God. The stones were to provide a visual history lesson, prompting their children, yet born, to ask for an explanation as to the meaning behind the stones. And the answer was simple: “you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off” (Joshua 4:7 ESV). Notice that the answer doesn’t mention God. It’s almost as if the question elicits a response which is intended to create even greater curiosity on the part of the child asking the question. “How were the waters cut off?” “What made this happen?” And the answer to those questions was, “God.” The miracle had a source. The action had an agent behind it.
But remembering can be difficult work, and forgetfulness comes easy. As amazing as this particular event was, the day would come when the people would fail to remember what God had done for them. The stones would be neglected. The memory of crossing over the Jordan would be replaced by the more pressing concerns of taking over the land. The attitude of that-was-then, this-is-now would take over. The people of Israel would learn to live in the moment, rather than in the memory. But failing to look back and recall what God has done, will dramatically weaken our ability to look ahead and trust God for what He can do. Our recollection of God’s past provision is the fuel for our future faithfulness. When we fail to remember what He has done, we tend to doubt what it is He can do. He becomes out of sight, out of mind. And that is exactly what eventually happened to the people of Israel. If we fast forward to the book of Judges, it opens up with the news of the death of Joshua. It also tells us that the people were still trying to possess the land God had given them. But they had been less-than-successful because they had been far from obedient. They had failed to do things God’s way. And then, we read these sad words:
10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.
11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. – Judges 2:10-12 ESV
Not only had they forgotten what God had done for them, they forgot God. They abandoned Him. The one who had delivered them from captivity in Egypt, who had led them through the wilderness and who had miraculously made a way for them to cross the Jordan River on dry ground, had been forgotten and forsaken. How in the world do you forget God? You simply fail to remember what He has done for you. Memorials are memory pegs that provide a solid foundation for our faith. One of the reasons we take the Lord’s Table is to remind us of what God has done for us. It is to stir in us the memory of Christ’s sacrificial death and atoning work on our behalf.
He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.” – Luke 22:19 NLT
When we remember what He has done, we are far better prepared to trust Him for what we need Him to do. But time has a way of fogging our memories and causing us to forget God’s past acts of mercy. Immediately after crossing the Jordan, the people of Israel were enthusiastic and filled with faith. They even afforded Joshua the same respect they had shown to Moses.
On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life. – Joshua 4:14 ESV
But would it last? Would their excitement linger and their faith hold? The stones of remembrance would still be wet from the waters of the Jordan. The memory of crossing over on dry ground would be fresh. But in time, that memory would fade, the stones would be forgotten, and the goodness of God would become overshadowed by the next pressing issue of the day.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson