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Piling up stones was often a covenant ritual in the ancient Near East. [Note: G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment, p. 157.] It was a common method of preserving the memory of important events (cf. Genesis 8:20; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 35:7; et al.).
There were apparently two piles of 12 stones each, one at Gilgal (Joshua 4:3-8; Joshua 4:20) and one in the Jordan River bed (Joshua 4:9). Some scholars believe there was only one pile of stones, which the NIV translation also suggests. [Note: E.g., Hess, p. 109.] The Israelites probably constructed two memorials because the crossing was so miraculous that God wanted to be sure their children and the Canaanites believed it really happened. The monument at Gilgal probably consisted of large stones that people could not normally remove from the riverbed. Building a monument in the river was impossible under normal circumstances due to the volume and current of the water there. Thus the Israelite children and the Canaanites had a double proof, two witnesses, of God’s faithfulness and power. God specified 12 stones for each monument to represent the 12 tribes.
"No certain identification exists for the site of ’the Gilgal’. It is not necessary or even likely that all the occurrences of Gilgal in the Bible refer to the same location. The name means ’circle’, and is a good description for a fortified camp such as must have been present in Joshua’s time." [Note: Ibid., p. 115.]
"It is doubtful whether there was either city or town in that place before the arrival of the Israelites." [Note: Bush, p. 52.]
The memorial of the crossing ch. 4
The main point in the story of the crossing recorded in this chapter is the removal of the stones from the riverbed. They served as a memorial of this event for generations to come (Joshua 4:6-7). [Note: For a discussion of the supposed contradictions in chapters 3 and 4 and a solution based on literary analysis, see Brian Peckham, "The Composition of Joshua 3-4," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46:3 (July 1984):413-31.]
The text carefully clarifies that it was the presence of God, which the ark symbolized, that held back the waters of the Jordan. When the priests removed the ark from the riverbed, the waters resumed their flow (Joshua 4:18).
"The ark is the very symbol of the covenant of the Lord. Thus the full light falls on the redemptive significance of the event. No mere recalling of a miracle is envisaged. The miracle is to be viewed as an expression of covenant fidelity." [Note: Woudstra, p. 91.]
There are many references to the fact that all Israel crossed over the Jordan in this chapter (Joshua 4:1-5; Joshua 4:8-9; Joshua 4:12; Joshua 4:14; Joshua 4:20; Joshua 4:24). This, too, highlights the faithfulness of God to His promises to bring the whole nation into the Promised Land.
The notation that the crossing took place on the tenth day of the first month (Joshua 4:19) is significant. It was exactly 40 years earlier, to the day, that God instructed Israel to prepare to depart from Egypt by setting apart the paschal lambs (Exodus 12:3).
"God had said in his wrath that they should wander forty years in the wilderness, and at last he brought them into Canaan five days before the forty years were ended, to show how little pleasure God takes in punishing, how swift he is to show mercy. God ordered it so that they should enter Canaan four days before the annual solemnity of the passover, and on the very day when the preparation for it was to begin (Exod. xii. 3), because he would have them then to be reminded of their deliverance out of Egypt." [Note: Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, p. 216.]
The purposes of the memorial stones were the same as the purposes of the miracle at the Red Sea. They manifested the power of Yahweh to all people (Joshua 4:24; cf. Exodus 14:4; Exodus 14:18), and they caused God’s people to fear Him (Joshua 4:24; cf. Exodus 14:31). "Fear the Lord" is the most common expression calling for faith in God in the Old Testament.
It is a good custom to memorialize God’s great acts for us so that we will remember them and so that our children will learn that God is powerful and faithful. Baptism is one such memorial for the Christian, and the Lord’s Supper is another.
"In the history of Dallas Seminary, there are just such ’memorial stones.’ More than 40 years ago, Mrs. Howard Taylor told one such story in a pamphlet entitled, ’Empty Racks and How to Fill Them.’
"In the spring of 1924, plans were being laid for a new seminary to be organized in Dallas, to emphasize above all else the teaching of the Bible itself. Lewis Sperry Chafer, president-elect, had gone to Dundee, Scotland to hold evangelistic meetings at the invitation of a leading manufacturer of that city, in whose home he was a guest. Related Dr. Chafer:
"At four o’clock on a never-to-be-forgotten morning, I wakened with a sense of deep foreboding with regard to the agreement reached in Dallas. It seemed as if an unbearable burden had been thrust upon me. Failure, probable if not certain, was the only thing I could see, and all the forebodings the powers of darkness could devise came rolling like billows over me.
"In great agony of spirit, I cried to God, saying I could not go through the day without some very definite indication of His will in the matter. If such indication were not given, I should have to cable to Dallas requesting them to discontinue the whole project.
"Following that prayer I fell asleep, and later, seated by my host at the breakfast table, was surprised by his asking whether we had any provision in view for the library which would be needed for the new seminary. I told him that we had not, but that since Dr. Griffith Thomas had just died-whose loss we were mourning on both sides of the Atlantic-I had written to our constituency in Dallas asking them to pray definitely that his valuable reference library might be secured for the college.
"’I am interested in what you have told me,’ he replied, ’and would like you to purchase these books and send the bill to me. And do not drive too close a bargain; I wish to pay whatever the library is worth.’
"A little later that same morning, I had retired to the study when my host came in and said, ’Speaking of the College, what about your salary as President?’ I at once told him that I had not expected to draw any salary; that nothing was further from my thoughts.
"’You will need some financial help,’ he replied, ’and though I cannot give all that would be expected for one in such a position in the United States, I wish to send you personally two thousand dollars a year.’
"Truly my cup ran over! The gift of a library valued at four thousand dollars, and such unexpected provision for my salary-all in one day! Could I doubt that God desired the Evangelical Theological College to go forward?" [Note: Campbell, No Time . . ., pp. 36-37.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Joshua 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27