Heaps of Stones

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The book of Joshua essentially documents the conquest of the promised land by the descendants of Israel under the leadership of Joshua, the successor to Moses. It is a vitally important book for those who are disciples of Jesus, for it verifies the veracity of God as He fulfills His promise to Abraham concerning the land of Canaan (Gen.12.1-7). Moreover, the exodus from Egyptian captivity and the inheritance of the land of promise become significant in their foreshadowing of ultimate spiritual truths – deliverance from the captivity of sin; victory over our enemies; God’s provision for His people; the completed revelation of God’s truth; the judgment of God upon those pursuing sin; the heavenly land of promise that awaits the faithful, along with the eternal rest and blessings which God will pour out upon them forever. After Exodus – Joshua, the bible story continually reflects upon the events of those books.

And yet, for all of its import, the history recorded in Joshua is painted in fairly broad strokes. The first ten chapters are somewhat detailed, as they center around the crossing of the Jordan, the defeat of Jericho and Ai, and the initial battle between Israel and the federation of five major southern cities. Thereafter, the record of the conquest is very general, noting the major armed campaigns in both the southern and northern parts of Canaan (ch.11-12). Most of the remainder of the book is devoted to the tribal divisions of the land (ch.13-22), concluding with the well-known final discourses of Joshua (ch.23-24). There are some fascinating considerations that are not chronicled therein. For instance, the major battles with the Canaanites are noted, but there remained the tribal and local challenges of driving out or destroying the sinful Amorites. How difficult it must of been for God’s people to face these pagan neighbors when they went to their individual inheritance and were no longer a part of a huge military force. Certainly, their faith in God would have been tested. But that consideration is for another article.

One of the most interesting elements in Joshua is introduced in chapter four, when God divides the flooding Jordan river so that Israel can cross on dry land. God instructs Joshua to take twelve stones from the dry riverbed and carry them into Canaan and set them up as a memorial (Josh.4.1-8). His purpose in such was to help His people remind their children from generation to generation of God’s power and deliverance, “that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever” (v.20-24).

That event introduces a singular pattern in Joshua. On at least seven other occasions, Joshua and the people pile up a heap of stones in order to mark some significant event (eight, if you count the rubble of Jericho’s walls among the heaps of stones). Joshua sets up stones in the riverbed of the Jordan before it returns to normal (4.9). Jericho was to remain a pile of rubble after the LORD destroyed her walls (6.20,26). A “great heap of stones” was set up over the graves of Achan and his family after his disobedience and execution (7.26). Joshua made the defeated city of Ai “a heap forever” and cast the body of her king at the gates of the city, covering it with “a great heap of stones” (8.29). In keeping with God’s commands in Deu.27.1-8f, the Israelites stood before Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim to recite the blessing and curses of the covenant, raising up an altar of white-washed stones upon which were written a copy of the law of Moses (Josh.8.30-35). When the kings of the southern confederacy were executed (10.22-27), Joshua “laid large stones against the cave’s mouth.” As the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manassah returned across the Jordan to their inheritance, they set up an altar of witness as a reminder of their union with the tribes west of the Jordan, lest the river become a barrier that divided the nation (22.10-11, 22-28). And finally, after Joshua offers his famous farewell address and challenges the people to be faithful, he “took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak” in Shechem “to be a witness to us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD which He spoke to us…” (24.21-27).

Several of the above passages note that those piles of stones “remain until this very day” – a very telling indication of their purpose. For years thereafter, as one traveled through the central parts of the promised land, he would see curious piles of rocks, each of which would hopefully incite curiosity. “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’” (4.21). And each of which would have it’s own story about God, His power, His law, His judgment, and His deliverance. “Then you shall let your children know, saying…” (4.22f).

It is tragic that mankind generally has failed to memorialize the power and activities of God. It was originally God’s intention that knowledge of Him be passed down from generation to generation not through some organized study of history nor through the teaching of some religious organization, but through the family. Deu.4.9f; 6.1f; and Psalm 78 clearly note God’s expectation that we introduce our children and grandchildren to God. And God even made efforts historically to prompt those conversations. A man and his children are walking along the road in Gilgal, or close to the Jordan in the dry season, or through the Valley of Achor and the kids see a curious pile of rocks that seem out of place among the natural formations around. “Dad, why is that pile of stones there?” Now is the time, dad, to tell your kids about God.

Unfortunately, we have little use for memorials anymore. Oh, we still build them, but rarely do kids look at the San Jacinto monument or Washington monument and ask for the story behind them. We’re too given to our computers, iPads, and mobile phones to look around and wonder. We fail to make time to talk with our kids and grandkids, opting often to find some way to merely entertain them. God is rarely in their consciousness because He’s no longer in our consciousness.

Furthermore, the memorials that He has offered as a reminder to us sadly are neglected by us. The feast days of the Mosaic dispensation somewhat replaced the heaps of stones in Joshua, yet the children of Israel became neglectful of them, turning them into selfish celebrations rather than opportunities to reflect, educate, and honor God. So it has become even with the memorial feast of Christ. People in the general religious world often gather on the Lord’s Day, not to worship, revere, remember, thank, and glorify God, but to entertain ourselves and feed our temporal desires. In so doing, we not only suffer for a lack of appreciation, but we fail of introducing the next generation to God and all He has done to deliver us from our enemies. Is it any wonder that young people are becoming less and less appreciative of God in this generation? After all, for the past five or six decades, mankind has transformed the worship of God from an opportunity for remembrance and education into just another social gathering or stage show.

Worship is an opportunity – a gathering of God’s people on a day of celebration so that we can effectively remind ourselves of who we are, Whose we are, and how we came to be His people. It is a travesty when we are mere spectators, or when we let our kids play video games, or when our worship is so ritualistic and insincere that our children never ask why we sing so loudly or why we say “Amen” sometimes or why we shed a tear during the Lord’s Supper. Or, worse, we neglect to attend worship altogether. We should be so consistent that at some point the kids whine, “Do we have to go to services again?” There is the door of opportunity, when we really make an impact about priorities, temporal vanity, and the true meaning of life. Tragically, when it comes to God’s memorials and our responsibility to use them to introduce Him to the next generation, we frequently fail miserably.

Perhaps we ought to turn off everything, start piling up rocks, and then prepare to properly answer the questions that will inevitably come.

–Russ Bowman