Before long we’ll be off on holiday to the sea – something we miss here in Wolverhampton. Usually we come back with a selection of Interesting Rocks – which to be fair have got more ‘interesting’ as my son Thomas’ interest in geology has deepened. Apart from their natural interest, the stones can be a reminder of a place and a time. They can also be fascinating in themselves – often I’ve used stones in meditations, asking people to think of the rock from which they came, and the forces and ages which have formed and shaped them – a good way for many people into thinking about their place in something bigger than themselves and into valuing how the shocks and frictions of life have shaped them into being who they now are, by God’s grace.
Here we read of stones and remembering – though what is being remembered is a bit more significant than a fortnight at the seaside.
Bookends to forty years
This passage feels like something of a bookend with the original Exodus story. Themes and events of which we read back then reappear here – but things have changed.
Israel walked across the bed of the Red Sea to escape from slavery in Egypt. Now she walks across the bed of the River Jordan to invade Canaan. They’re reminded of the sign of the covenant in circumcision – one I’m not surprised they’d forgotten a bit once they had the opportunity. The passover meal is eaten at Gilgal, as it was on the last night in Egypt. They have left one land and arrived in another.
Then, the next day, as Israel eats ‘the produce of the land’, although it’s not yet the crops that they have planted, the manna no longer falls from heaven. God has sustained them through the wilderness, but now they can support themselves with the fruit of the land that is becoming theirs. No longer will they depend on God’s direct provision day to day; now it will be his provision through the miracles of nature and agriculture that will support them, and they will in time have to play their part in providing for themselves.
Signs of the past remembered
Perhaps it’s a sign of the change in Israel’s circumstances that the twelve stones of chapter 4:1-9 become so important. In the wilderness Israel has been in an unusual situation, led physically and visibly by the presence of the LORD, depending on his provision each day for their needs as well as submitting to his guidance and laws.
Now that is changing. Israel is still dependent on God – the victory over Jericho makes it plain that the conquest of the Promised Land (with all the questions it still raises for me) will rely more upon God’s help than on tactics and military strength. But gradually Israel is now beginning to look more like a ‘normal’ nation with a homeland, soon with farms and towns, rich and poor, and all the blessings and pressures of day to day life. The memory of the sea bed and river bed, the manna and quail, the pillars of fire and cloud, will begin to fade.
So God gives Joshua the sign of the twelve stones, carried from the river bed to the bank as a reminder of what has been, and leaves the command to pass on the memory from generation to generation.
Laying down the stones
What are the markers of God’s presence in our lives? Most of us don’t have to depend consciously on God every day, and not many of us are regularly reminded of his involvement in our lives through miracles. So perhaps, like Israel under Joshua, we should take a moment whenever we are aware of God’s care and provision to establish a marker – a physical object to remind us or a note in a journal, perhaps. Then even if we don’t pass on the memory of our personal journey to other generations, we can at least remind our slightly-older self of the reality of God when daily life tempts us to forget.
Perhaps it’s because of my unease about the actions of Biblical Israel in the conquest and about the actions of modern Israel towards the Palestinians that I feel one more thing. It seems especially important, when we find ourselves as conquerors, to remember how God helped us when we were slaves; to remember when we prosper how God helped us when we were in need.
To prepare ourselves for that, we need to lay down the stones now – and to retell the story, at least to ourselves, so that we will not forget what it was to be aware of needing God and to find that he was indeed with us.