5 September 2013

Joshua 4:1 – 5:1

“When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground’. For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over… so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God for ever.” (vv. 21-24)


Whilst the chapter is clearly about the setting up of a monument consisting of twelve memorial stones, one representing each of the tribes of Israel, it looks as if several accounts have been woven together. Verses 1-8 and 19-24 describe the same set of stones and with the same expectation of future generations of children asking about them, whilst verse 9 apparently refers to a second set of stones placed in the middle of the river to honour the priests who stood there.

The development from verses 1-8 to verses 19-24 is the second account expands the act of remembering to reach back to the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-31), and anticipates not just Israel but the wider world taking note of what the memorial symbolises. The concluding verse (5:1) suggests that the event of crossing the Jordan was indeed already making such an impact.

 During the crossing of the Jordan itself the priests standing upstream in its middle holding the ark of the covenant provided a strong sign of God's presence. The memorial stones now set up provide a permanent reminder of what God did, and with the intention that the people should deduce the continuing presence of God among them.

The reference to "the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh" (v.12) refers to the fact that these tribes had asked permission of Moses (in Numbers 32) to settle on the east side of the Jordan, the side from which the people approached the promised land. They had been granted permission on the basis that they would help the rest of tribes take possession of the rest of Canaan before settling in their own territory. Joshua had reminded them of this agreement in Joshua 1:12-18, and the confirmation here that they fulfilled it is part of an intention that runs through these chapters demonstrating the sense of unity between the tribes; note the reference to "all Israel" in verse 14 (cf Joshua 3:1, 7, 17).

To Ponder

  • How important do you consider formal liturgy and ritual to be in preserving the story of salvation?
  • What are the similarities and differences between this memorial at Gilgal and the symbols of bread and wine used in Christian worship?
  • The people of God are here presented as united in their mission. How is the unity of the Church appropriately expressed and celebrated today despite being comprised of many 'tribes'?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

Stephen Mosedale is a recently retired Methodist minister now living in Devon. He is enjoying the freedom that gives, whenever mood and weather dictsate, to walk on Dartmoor, photograph varied and ever-changing seascapes, or grow vegetables in the garden.