Question: "What is the significance of the stones of remembrance in Joshua 4:9?"
Answer: After the people of Israel supernaturally crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, God commanded Joshua to “choose twelve men, one from each tribe. Tell them, ‘Take twelve stones from the very place where the priests are standing in the middle of the Jordan. Carry them out and pile them up at the place where you will camp tonight’” (Joshua 4:2–3, NLT). These stones of remembrance would serve as a permanent national reminder and a memorial to future generations of the miraculous river crossing.
Joshua’s stones of remembrance are just one monument in a series of memorials commemorating the mighty acts of God on behalf of the people of Israel (Exodus 13:3–6; 24:4; Deuteronomy 27:1–8; Joshua 22:9–12; 24:24–28; 1 Samuel 7:12). To everyone else, the stones were just a heap of rubble, but to the people of God, they were a constant reminder that Yahweh was a personal and powerful God, working wonders on behalf of His people.
When the people following Joshua arrived at the Jordan, the river was at flood stage, transforming it from its typical 100-foot width to a daunting mile-wide, raging river. Israel’s entrance into Canaan was completely blocked. But as soon as the priests dipped their feet in the river’s edge, God stopped the flow of water, and the people crossed on dry ground. The priests carrying the ark of the covenant stood in the middle of the riverbed until the whole nation had passed over (Joshua 3:14–17).
Then God gave Joshua instructions to appoint twelve men, one from each tribe. The men were each to retrieve one stone from where the priests had stood in the riverbed bearing the ark of the covenant. The stones of remembrance were not to come from the shores of the Jordan but the center, spotlighting the fact that Israel had crossed over on dry land.
Each of the stones of remembrance represented one of the tribes of Israel. The number twelve is repeated five times in Joshua 4:1–8, emphasizing the unity of the tribes as one nation under Joshua’s leadership.
The twelve stones of remembrance would now serve as a perpetual sign and memorial. Joshua piled them up in Gilgal, where the Israelites set up camp. “Then Joshua said to the Israelites, ‘In the future your children will ask, “What do these stones mean?” Then you can tell them, “This is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.” For the LORD your God dried up the river right before your eyes, and he kept it dry until you were all across, just as he did at the Red Sea when he dried it up until we had all crossed over. He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the LORD’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the LORD your God forever’” (Joshua 4:21–24, NLT)
Remembering the past plays a vital role in the identity of any nation. Sociologists claim that a society aspiring to endure must become “a community of memory and hope” (Waltke, B. K., “Joshua,” New Bible Commentary: 21st-century Edition, ed. by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, p. 241). God repeatedly directed ancient Israel to set up monuments and enact rituals such as the Passover (Exodus 13—14). Each tribute marked a significant historical memory that would offer future hope for the nation that God had claimed as His own.
Crossing the Jordan represented a major change for the nation of Israel. Their wilderness wanderings were over. No longer would Israel be fed with manna provided by the hand of God (Joshua 5:12). From now on, the people would need to walk by faith in God’s promise to give them a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8).
God sent the ark ahead of the people into the overflowing waters to encourage their faith. The ark represented God’s presence, His very self, going before them and opening the way for them in their new walk of faith. Just as God had parted the Red Sea to deliver Israel from bondage in Egypt, so also would He spread open the Jordan to lead them into the Promised Land. Remembering God’s miraculous provision and presence gave the children of Israel the courage to follow Him into this new territory fraught with conflict and enemies to conquer.
With stones of remembrance, the Israelites built a monument to commemorate their crossing over from the old way of life into the new in the Promised Land. The pile of twelve stones reminded Israel of what God had done for them—that He cared for His people, kept His promises, and went before them in victory to conquer the land of their inheritance. This is the message the stones declared to Israel, and this is what they say to us today.
God is faithful. His promises never fail (1 Kings 8:56). With the assurance of His presence and the reminder of His mighty power, the Lord bolsters our faith whenever He asks us to follow Him into new areas of battle and conquest. We can let these stones remind us, too, that unless we step out in faith and get our feet wet as the priests did, we’ll never fully experience the new life of faith and freedom that Christ has opened up for us as our inheritance in Him (Galatians 5:1; 1 Peter 2:16).