A while back I decided to make a mental list of all the times stones were used as a memorial or played an important role in the Old Testament. What a list! Here’s a partial list of what I compiled: Abraham builds an altar of stone and sacrifices on it after God promises him a great nation, land and a blessing (Gen. 12:7); Isaac is about to be sacrificed on an altar of stone when God provides a ram instead (Gen. 22:1-14); Jacob uses a stone for a pillow in Genesis 28:11-22; Moses builds an altar at Rephidim to commemorate God’s victory over the Amalekites (Ex. 17:15); the Mosaic Covenant was written on stone (Ex. 34:1-4); there are several instances in the book of Joshua where a stone altar is built as a memorial, most notably the altar of remembrance after crossing the Jordan (Jos. 4:4-9) and the altar built in the valley of Achor (Jos. 7:26). The list could go on but by now you see that stones are all over the place in the Old Testament. Why stones? Well, if you’ve ever been to Israel, you know they’re quite abundant!
While we do have our modern versions of this phenomenon (think of such structures as the Washington Monument), we really don’t treat stones in the same way as the patriarchs or others in the ancient world did. In most of the aforementioned passages, the word for stone is “eben”. Its more practical application would be as a well cover (Gen. 21:2, 3, 8), or a weapon (Ex. 21:18), but “ebens” were also used as memorials (Jos. 4: 3, 5-9), sacred pillars (Gen. 28:18) and specifically in Joshua as a witness to an event much like a witness testifies in a courtroom (Jos. 24: 26-27). Recently I heard a graduation speech based on Gen. 31:45-53 in which the president of the college challenged and encouraged the graduates to be like the stones erected as a testimony between Jacob and Laban. I felt his words were inspiring and a great encouragement for those students to make their lives a witness out there in the big, wide world. But there was something that was nagging away at the back of my mind, “Were those stones really a reminder of what God had done or was it something else?” A little research proved that while the stones commemorated a covenant between the two men, the transaction was one born out of distrust and suspicion! It was not the best passage to choose as an example, but the lesson was of worth.
It is interesting to note that a stone of testimony was often erected in connection with a covenant. Perhaps the most significant case of this type occurred at the base of Mt. Sinai after the Lord cut His covenant on stone with Moses who then delivered it to the people of Israel. Using the synonym “massebah” which designated a standing, uncut block of stone, it is recorded that Moses erects 12 of them, one for each tribe (Ex. 24:4) as a witness of the covenant between God and His people. While the Mosaic covenant was written on tablets of stone, the New Covenant is written on the tablet of the heart (Jer. 31:31-34; 2 Cor. 3:1-3). When someone comes to faith however, there is no monument erected for the occasion. Instead, writes Peter, we become living stones as a testimony to the relationship we now share with Christ (1 Pet. 2:4-5).
It’s a powerful memory when I pick up my “Goliath” stone and remember collecting it in the Valley of Elah. It’s nice to run my fingers over those wave-washed beach stones and remember the special times I’ve spent by the ocean. It’s fun to look at my little lump of Franklinite and recall it glowing under the black-light. But the greatest stone I possess is my own life. It was not erected as a reminder that God is making sure I am being honest in my dealings with another person. Rather it is a testimony that I am in a covenant relationship with Christ. Like the stones that the Israelites collected from the bottom of the Jordan River, my life should cause people to ask, “What does this mean?” (Jos. 4:4-8) and I should be ready to answer (1 Pet. 3:15)!
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