Joshua 4:1 – 5:1

19 The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. 20 And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. 21 And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, 24 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”

5 As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel. [1]

Remembering is an essential part of life for God’s people. It is also a deeply human activity. We remember and celebrate our birthdays, our marriage anniversaries, noteworthy events in the lives of our families and of our nation. Such memories not only mark the passage of time, but also give us opportunities to reflect and reassess and maybe readjust for the present in light of the past.

Annual remembrance ceremonies for those killed in the service of their countries remind us of the price of freedom and help us to honor the sacrifices of those who secured it and point us to the value of freedom. The memorial stones taken from the bed of the Jordan and set up at Gilgal were designed for just such a purpose in the ongoing life of the nation of Israel.

This passage roughly divides into two sections of which 4:14 and 5:1 form the reflective summary conclusions. The first section, 4:1-14, is narrated from a vantage point outside of the promised land, whereas the second section (4:15-5:1) views the scene from within the land. Verse 14 of chapter 4 shows the effect of the events within Israel. Verse 1 of chapter 5 shows the effects of God’s miraculous work on those people outside of Israel. This is a helpful structure to see in a chapter that contains elements of backtracking and repetition in its close relationship to the events of chapter 3.[2]


When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever” (4:6b-7). These two verses set the unifying theme for our consideration of what actually happened and why.

The opening words of 4:1 would seem to be moving the action on, however they are an almost identical repetition of 3:17. Which itself is a repetition of what the Lord had already told Joshua would happen. One thing we need to know is that the Hebrew language does not have a distinction between perfect and pluperfect past tenses, something with which we are familiar in classical and contemporary languages. Our English tenses maintain the order of events more logically and credibly to our Western minds. For instance, back in 3:12 we read of the mysterious choosing of a man from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, but we only learn for what that choosing was  when we read this first section of chapter 4.

The purpose of choosing 12 men comes specifically in verse 3 of this chapter. Each man chosen from their tribe was to take a stone from the middle of the Jordan riverbed, where the priests’ feet are anchored while the people cross. They were to carry those stones to the new campsite within the promised land.

This instruction from God to Joshua is passed on to the 12 men who are commanded to fulfill the task (4:4, 5). The author’s emphasis is on the unity of the nation. Every tribe is included on equal terms. Even though 2 1/2 tribes will live east of the Jordan, there is never any notion that the river itself is to divide the nation. They are one people under one God.

The stones are intended to be an always-present reminder of the great miracle by which God brought them into the land and, thus, a reminder of the God who performed it (4:6a). The language is similar to that found in Exodus 12:26, 27, speaking of the Passover as an annual sign, reminder, or memorial of God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery and the execution of God’s wrath upon Egypt.

Future generations need to know that these things really happened and that those events testify to the character and promises of God. Verse 7 references the ark of the covenant, indicating that it was God who was in the midst of the situation with his people to deliver, protect, and guide them. He is not a remote or distant deity, unlike the pagan gods all around them.

Two times in verse 7 the author makes the point that, “the waters of the Jordan were cut off.” The Israelites are to look at the stones. The stones are the evidence. They are a memorial for the generations of Israel. And they’re not simply a memorial to the crossing but also to the covenant God, YHWH, who accomplished all of it. The idea of remembering in the Hebrew context is more than a mere calling to mind. It involves remembering with concern. It also implies reflection with a corresponding degree of action. [3]

Verses 8-10 stress the obedience of the people. First, the 12 representatives of their tribes picked up and carried the stones across to the promised land. And the priests obeyed God by planting their feet in the riverbed while holding the ark of the covenant. They did “just as Joshua commanded” and “just as the Lord told Joshua” (8). The obedience in verse 8 is a link to the later comment of verse 14 that “the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel” on that day, just as he promised he would back in 3:7.

 In verse 9, there is a bit of textual difficulty since it seems to imply a second set of 12 stones were literally set up in the middle of the river in addition to those carried to the West Bank. Some commentators see this as a second memorial marking the very spot where the priests had stood as the people crossed. Certainly, the rabbis who translated the Old Testament into Greek saw it that way since their text refers to 12 “other” stones. Other commentators suggest there was one set of stones set up by Joshua initially, as verse 9 indicates, to mark the place of the crossing, but then those very stones were taken out of the river once the crossing was complete.

Were there two memorials? There certainly could have been. However, the New International Version is very likely right in its translation that the words “had been” should be assumed in verse 9. If they are, the sentence would speak of setting up the 12 sones that had been in the Jordan where the priests had stood.

The NIV translation is right for two reasons. First, God’s command to Joshua and Joshua’s command to the people concerns only one memorial. Second, in telling the story, verse nine seems to explain what happened to the stones taken from the Jordan, not how an additional collection of stones was set up. In the order of events, we are told first that the 12 men bore the stones up out of the Jordan and put them down in the camp (4:8). Next, we are told that Joshua himself set them up as a memorial (4:9). At the end of this chapter, when the stones are mentioned again, nothing is said of a second memorial placed on the riverbed itself. The verses speak only of the stones Joshua set up at Gilgal (4:20).[4]

The point of the action was the same whether there was one memorial or two. The people needed a memorial because, like us, they tended to forget the goodness and mighty acts of God on their behalf. The author adds the fact that “they are there to this day” (4:9b). No matter how apostate the Israelites became during their years in the promised land, no one ever took down the memorial stones.

The author concludes this description of the action by noting that the people crossed over quickly (4:10b), no doubt partly out of fear that the waters might return, but also to emphasize there were no hitches or delays. Everything went smoothly, without complications, because the hand of God was at work not only in parting the waters but also in delivering faith to the people.

Verses 11 through 14 are a summary of what we have been reading since 3:1 and a reminder of its significance. “11 And when all the people had finished passing over, the ark of the Lord and the priests passed over before the people.” All of God’s people are now across the Jordan, confronting Jericho. Verse 12 shows us that this did not include the families of the 2 1/2 tribes whose settlement remained to the east. But the fighting men joined their brothers in the conquest of the land across the river. Verse 13 highlights the obedience of these 40,000 warriors who have come dressed for battle.

This section of the chapter ends with a united nation across the Jordan, ready for battle, and recognizing Joshua as the true successor to Moses. The crossing of the Jordan is clearly intended as a parallel to the crossing of the Red Sea, after which “the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). God has established Joshua as the divine successor to Moses to be the human leader of Israel, and the people are united in their “awe” (4:14) of God’s chief man.


Beginning with verse 15, we revert back to the main narrative. The focus shifts from what the crossing of the Jordan meant to Israel to what it meant for the people outside of the covenant community – the kings of the Amorites and Canaanites “beyond the Jordan to the West,” whose reaction to the news is noted in the concluding summary verse of 5:1: “Their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.

The author follows the same narrative pattern. God initiates the next stage by commanding Joshua to instruct the priests to come up out of the river (4:16). Joshua is acting as the agent of God’s word (4:17), and the priests obey (4:18). There’s also repeated emphasis on the miraculous. No sooner had the feet of the priest touched the dry ground on the West Bank than “the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before” (5:18b).

When God’s presence, symbolized by the ark of the covenant, is removed from the river, the normal conditions of creation are resumed. Only God’s power could have brought about this miraculous chain of events. Only the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of chaos could separate the water from the land and deliver his people. The people there were to learn that lesson, and the record of it in the stones and in the story was to be preserved for all generations yet to come.

The date of the event in the Jewish calendar was the 10th day of Nisan, the first month. That is the same day when the Passover lamb was to be selected in preparation for its sacrifice on the 14th day of the month (Exodus 12:3, 6). The author is pointing out to us that God is in charge of absolutely everything from the miraculous to the mundane. The timing underlies the connection of the entry of the land with the exodus from Egypt some 40 years earlier.

The resting place they choose for their first night in the land is Gilgal (4:19), where Joshua commands the memorial stones to be set up (4:20). Some commentators note that the name of this place comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to roll,” suggesting that the name alludes to the rolling away of the shame of Israel’s Egyptian slavery and desert wanderings.

As Joshua tells the people the purpose of the memorial, he refers first to the historical event itself (4:22), then to its explanation (4:23), and finally to its purpose (4:24). The emphasis is entirely on YHWH, “your God,” mentioned four times. The heart of the story is God’s loyalty love of and care for his people. He dried up the Jordan just as he promised and just as he had done to the Red Sea, and he did it “for us,” his people (4:23).

The major insight comes in verse 24, which reveals the two great reasons for the entry to the land being done in such a miraculous way. First, God wants the whole world to know that all power is in his hands. He is the only true and living God, Creator of everything and everyone, and it was never his purpose to restrict this knowledge to Israel alone.

It was always his desire that his covenant relationship with his people should be evangelistic, a testimony to the nations of his own loving character. But as the storyline of the Old Testament progresses, we see the accumulated failures and ultimate refusal of Israel to be the light-bearer to the nations. Yet here God acts upon the international political stage to demonstrate his reality and his mighty hand.

The second great reason for Israel’s entry into the promised land is that it is for Israel’s benefit, “that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (4:24b). As the Israelites settle down for their first night in the land of promise (which will become the land of rest) that they are there only because of him. Were it not for their mighty and faithful covenant God they would still be slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. Without YHWH, they would have died in the wilderness. Apart from him, they would still be stranded, homeless, wilderness wanderers.

So, their only proper response must be continuing reverential awe and submission to God because he alone is God. That is the one unchanging fact in all the unknown future about to open up before the people of Israel. He is the mighty God who alone can do wonders, so he is to be feared and obeyed. He cannot be manipulated, deceived, or hidden from. But we can trust and obey him, and we can love him because he has first loved us.

This is what the people were to remember whenever they saw the 12 Stones planted at Gilgal. It was to be “a memorial forever” (4:7) to God’s faithful provision. He was to be the object of his people’s love and trust forever. If their hearts melt in loving gratitude and faithful service, they will never melt with the terror like that of the Pagan kings (5:1), who knew themselves to be on a terrible collision course with Israel’s mighty God of all the earth (and yet they refused to bend their knee to him and beg for his gracious covenant love).


So what is our takeaway from Joshua 4? Certainly, it shows us that all our hope is founded upon the God who does mighty things and that we constantly need reminding what those things are and why they happened. If such was the case for the people of Israel and their baptism through the Jordan river, it is even more the case for us at this period of salvation history. We can look back at the finished work of the crucified, resurrected, ascended, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ and the sufficiency of God’s revelation in the 66 books of scripture. We are to remember.

Just like the Israelites, our spiritual memory is very short, so that in the busyness of life we forget the spiritual realities on which we are grounded. It is easy for us to forget that we are children of God and to begin living out of our own wits like orphans on the street. But just as God knew their needs, so he knows ours, and one of the reasons why we have the scriptures in their permanent written form is so we can come back to them day after day to be reminded.

It is one of the reasons why we gather together with fellow believers in regular times of corporate worship, instruction, prayer, and fellowship. In a culture like ours, addicted to novelty, it is easy to fall into the temptation of judging the effectiveness of God’s means of grace by how much new understanding we acquire, or how much of a shiver we get in our liver from singing that cool new worship song.

Remembering something old is very rarely as interesting to us as learning something new. Sure, we want to grow in our knowledge and love of God, but that most often comes from a deepening of what we already know or a new application of old truths rather than startling new discoveries. We constantly need to be reminded of the most basic realities of our Christian experience, the foundations on which everything depends, which explains God’s provision of the 12 Stones at Gilgal and, for us, the institution of the Lord’s Supper.

Do this in remembrance of me” is the command Jesus gives to his disciples (Luke 22:19) as he gave them the sacrament of the broken bread and poured out wine as the sign of his atoning death, the inauguration of the new covenant. There is a far greater miracle than the crossing of the Jordan River! It prompted the Apostle Paul to declare “The son of God… loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We need the visible, tangible reminder of what lies at the very heart of our salvation. We need to remember at what cost he opened the way into the eternal land of promise for us, his redeemed people, with whom he promises to tabernacle forever. We need to give ourselves over to love and serve him forever.

And we need to remember the great victory that Jesus accomplished over sin and evil and even over death itself. Our slavery is ended, and we enjoy the freedom of the children of God. We are “blessed… in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). While a cross may be a symbol of that reality, the Lord’s Supper is a much more vivid reminder and memorial as we commune with one another and with Christ directly.

At his table we actually take the elements, though they are only ordinary bread and wine, into ourselves and make them a part of us, so that we are not simply recalling something that happened in history. We are feeding on Christ in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving. We are appropriating all that Jesus has accomplished for us in the atonement of his substitutionary death. We also remember personally and with renewed commitment to action what it means to be redeemed.

We need to revisit God’s goodness and grace and to recall to one another what the Lord has done for us. It is a withered and shriveled faith that cannot, or does not, share what the Lord has done for us on the cross of Calvary. Just like the parents in Israel, we are to pass on this body of truth and experience, with conviction, to the next generation. When they ask, “What do these stones mean?” (4:6) then we are to tell them.

By word and example we need to tell the next generation that the Lord’s hand is mighty, so that nothing is too hard for him to accomplish. He speaks. We obey. He acts. We remember. The more we recall his character, his goodness, and his grace, the more we shall make God the focus of our thinking and our trusting, whatever difficulties we may be facing.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all of his benefits” (Psalm 103:2).


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 4:19–5:1.

[2] Jackman, David. Joshua (Preaching the Word) (p. 68). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[3] Id. at 69.

[4] James Montgomery Boice, Joshua (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 39.