12 Stones at the Jordan River – A Miracle to Remember (Joshua 3-4)

 This is the first post in a multi-post series on the 7 Memorials found in the Book of Joshua. See part 2.

The two spies had just returned from scouting out the city of Jericho with promising news–according to Rahab, who secretly professed faith in Yahweh, the people of Jericho were deeply afraid (their “hearts melted”) because of Israel (Joshua 2:9-11).

With confidence from this report and at God’s direction, it was now time for Israel to move into their promised land. 

But to do this, they would have to cross the Jordan River.

In a miracle reminiscent of the parting of the Red Sea, the Lord stops the flow of the Jordan River and allows the Israelites to cross it on dry ground. When the team of priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the river’s overflowing waters, the river dried and the Israelites crossed the river about a half-mile away (2,000 cubits) from the Ark.

The power of this narrative is not simply the miracle of stopping water demonstrating God’s power. The text reveals God’s exact lessons from this event. The Israelites even set up a pile of 12 stones to remember this event forever. But why was this event worth remembering?

Showed Joshua's Leadership

In his command to Joshua to cross the Jordan, Yahweh tells Joshua his intent,
“This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they will know that just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you.” – Joshua  3:7 NASB

 This was not only of great personal significance to Joshua, but it was of great significance to the fledgling group of Hebrews without a permanent home. Just as God had blessed the leadership of Moses so he would bless Joshua’s leadership. The powerful things God did for Israel were not finished with Moses, but they would carry on through Joshua.

For Joshua,  God would give him both authority and respect from the people so they would listen to him and follow him with the same trust and awe they had for Moses.

The text reports that Yahweh did exactly what he promised–using very similar language to his promise, it states that God did exalt Joshua because of the Jordan Crossing.

“On that day Yahweh exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, so that they feared him, just as they had feared Moses all the days of his life.” – 4:14 

Promise for the Promised Land

 Moving from the personal promise to Joshua, Joshua shares with the Israelites a second purpose of the Jordan Crossing,
“By this you will know that the living God is among you, and that he will assuredly drive out from you the Canaanite, Hittie, the Hivite, the Perizzite, the Girgashite, the Amorite and the Jebusite. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth crosses over before you in the Jordan.” – 3:10

 This is presented as God’s word to the people even though Joshua was the one speaking (v. 10). While the miracle had not yet happened when Joshua said this, it is clear that “this” refers to the Ark of the Covenant’s presence in the Jordan. It is not about the Ark’s presence itself as much as it is the Lord of all the earth going before them that demonstrates that the living God is with them. 

Asides from God’s active presence in their lives, Israel is also assured that they will indeed receive the promised land. The above translation “assuredly drive out” reflects the emphatic wording of the Hebrew text (Infinitive Absolute). There is no doubt that God will drive out all the different people who inhabit the land, leaving none of them left (though this is not to ignore the conditional aspect of this where Israel fails to drive them all out due to disobedience). 

The importance of the emphatic wording here is that Israel has not yet set foot in the promised land, but as soon as they cross the Jordan they are at war with the land’s peoples. The crossing marks the transition from desiring the promised land to actually seeking it out and having to put their trust in God’s victory into action.  

The Ultimate Purpose

After these two purposes which God shares, the text illustrates the greatest lesson of the Jordan River Crossing through the 12-stone memorial that they build.

Joshua assigns one man from each tribe to gather a (large?) stone from the Jordan River and erect a permanent marker in Gilgal, the area in which they crossed over to (4:9 could also be taken to mean that Joshua set up a second memorial in the Jordan itself).
The command for the memorial nor its lesson is attributed directly to God but it still portrays a powerful spiritual lesson.
The text presents the memorial's purpose twice. In both places, it is clear the “stack” of stones is meant to make people wonder, “what is this for?” The first purpose statement for the memorial is mostly historical:
“That the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of Yahweh; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.” – 4:7
If this alone was the memorial’s purpose, then the memorial would simply signify that the Jordan River Crossing was worth remembering. The second purpose statement is theological and says why this event is worth remembering,
“For Yahweh your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as Yahweh your God had done to the Red Sea, which he dried up before us until we had crossed; so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of Yahweh is mighty, so that you may fear Yahweh your God forever.”

The content of remembrance is that Jordan's drying up is a parallel to the drying of the Red Sea—it is a repeat of Israel’s salvation event on a smaller scale for a new generation.

The purpose of the remembrance is twofold: 1. knowledge of God’s power among Gentiles and 2. a perpetual fear among the Israelites.

Knowledge Among the Canaanites

In this case, the very next verse (which begins a new narrative segment in Joshua) states that this event led to Gentile fear of God,
“Now it came about when 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 how Yahweh had dried up the waters of the Jordan before the sons of Israel until they had crossed, that their hearts melted, and there was no spirit in them any longer…”
Just like in The Exodus, God dried up the Jordan River so that all people would fear him, even if it was not for their salvation. The fear experienced by the Gentiles was for Israel’s own advantage in the conquests so that their enemies would become discouraged. The drying of the Jordan signified to all people that the God of Israel did have power and that Israel was a force to be reckoned with. This was a worthwhile thing for Israel to remember even generations later.

Perpetual Fear Among the Israelites

Just as important as the Gentile’s acknowledgement of God’s power is Israel’s perpetual fear of the Lord. God’s power in drying the Jordan was worth remembering because it was yet another act of God where showed that he was almighty. He was to be respected and obeyed by all the Israelites because he did mighty things on their behalf as their protector.

The memorial was meant to continually remind the Israelites of what God did for them so that they would not forget. God’s work at Jordan wasn’t just for one generation of Israel to feel awe and honor towards God, but it is an everlasting reminder for each generation.


The primary purpose of God drying up the Jordan River, was for both the Canaanites to be afraid of Israel and for Israel to remember God’s power to deliver on his promises.

God signified his presence and the certitude of the Promised Land’s conquest through the Ark of the Covenant in the middle of the Jordan River.

The Jordan River Crossing also showed God’s hand on Joshua as his chosen successor for Moses.

Israel built a 12 stone monument so that they would never forget this event, a miniature version of the Red Sea Crossing, and God’s purposes for this event.


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