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! But you can also see this by looking at pictures of places like the Judean Hills and Masada.
The more important question is, “Why remember?” The answer can be found in the book of Joshua. When Israel crossed over the Jordan and into the Promised Land, they collected twelve stones from the river bed and built an altar of remembrance. The Lord tells Joshua, “Let this be a sign among you, so that when your children ask later, saying ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.” (Jos. 4: 6-7)
I would imagine those stones had a very distinct appearance. They must have been quite smooth from the water that had rushed over them for years. The contrast between them and the stones found along the banks of the Jordan was designed to catch the eyes and curiosity of the younger generation. This memorial was to be an educational tool to teach them about their God and their history. History has a way of mentally preparing us for obstacles. We either learn from the mistakes we previously made, or we draw courage from the trials we’ve made it through. Israel’s Jordan crossing and the memorial that followed also testified to God’s faithfulness because it was through His sovereignty that the waters dried up (during the spring floods no less!) so that Israel could cross safely.
Memorials have always played an important role in Israel’s history. Sometimes they were altars of stone. At other times the memorials took the form of holidays and celebrations that focused on God’s deliverance, intervention, and love for His people Israel. Many of them are still practiced and celebrated today in synagogues all over the world. The importance of memorials was not lost on the early church either. Two of our most sacred rites as believers, baptism and communion (Rom. 6:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:23-26), are memorials that the early church practiced and passed on to the generations of believers that followed. We also have holidays to remember significant events in the Bible. Christmas and Easter are perhaps the most well-known. If your sanctuary has stained-glass windows and carvings in the architecture, take a look at the symbols in them. These too are memorials created to remind you of significant pieces of your Christian walk. How many crosses, for example, adorn the artwork in your church?
It is good to build “memorials” on our journey of faith. They are visible reminders of places where we’ve been, aspects of our faith which are meaningful to us and where we’ve felt and seen God’s presence in our lives. The Israelites had many visual reminders which enabled them to teach their children. What kind of memorials will inspire us, encourage us, and educate the generations to come? Finding our own memorials can be a creative and revealing adventure. What stones of remembrance appear on your faith journey?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre