So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho.
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.”
(Joshua 3:14-16; 4:6-7)
Since sometime in the mid-1990s Jama and I have had four boxes of bricks that we’ve carried from place to place, much to the consternation of those who have helped us with our various moves. Each box weighs about fifty pounds, and they are real back-breakers. When someone first encounters our bricks, they invariably ask, “What do these bricks mean?”
The period of the Jewish Exodus offers us a window into the best and the worst of Yahwistic life. These were people who had no written Scriptures. They had left Egypt in a bit of a hurry and had lived nomadically for a generation, principally camping at a place called Kadesh-Barnea (which roughly translates as “holy wandering”), within fifty miles of Beersheba, the southernmost city in Canaan. They were a people wholly governed by secondary encounters with God, as throughout the period Moses had been the one who heard from God and then passed on to the people what God had said. To say that Moses was governor of Israel in this period is to oversimplify the situation.
Israel was a people who learned their history, religion, and culture orally throughout this time. We call the first five books of the Bible the Books of Moses, not because Moses wrote them down, but because they collectively tell the history of the world and of the progressive revelation of Yahweh to the people up to the end of Moses’ life. The sixth book, Joshua, picks the story up from there and moves it forward with the entry, conquest, and settlement of the Land. Without the oral history, almost all of the events of these six books would have been lost, and the people would have lacked much of their identity and the knowledge of God.
So the question is a key one. Joshua 4:6 is probably the earliest catechism we have. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ is the question that school-age children are instructed to ask. And the answer is, “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.”
Did you know that the people of Israel crossed not one, but two bodies of water on dry land? Everyone has heard how the Exodus began, as Israel crossed the Red Sea on foot and the Egyptian army was drowned when their chariots became bogged down in the mud and the waters began to flow again. But hardly anyone who isn’t a Jew remembers the story of how the Exodus ended with a similarly dramatic crossing of the Jordan River (they approached from the East and entered the land at its eastern border roughly opposite present-day Jerusalem).
In the mid-90s our Musicon group sang at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Newington, CT. It was there that we were first introduced to the bricks. Jama had each of us take a brick and carry it around all weekend. Even one brick is heavy. As we went through the weekend, at each place we went the group painted a different word on one of the four major faces of their brick. I don’t remember exactly what the four questions were, but I believe one was something that you need to let go of that is holding you back in your faith, a second may have been something you’re asking God to give you (like a discipline). One face of each brick seems to be someone’s name, so that was part of it too. See how quickly people forget if the community around them isn’t prompting them with catechism?
When Jama gets home from work tonight, I’m going to ask her about the four sides of the bricks. There have been many times I have cursed those bricks because I had to move them one more time. But you know what? Even though I don’t remember right off what the four questions were, I remember what God did that weekend and how huge it was in so many of our lives.
I’m not saying you should build an altar. But there are many reasons to “set up stones” that remind you of something God has done in your life. Then, when life happens to you and you wonder where God is now, you can look at the stones, as Jama and I do on summer nights when we sit outside and have a fire with the bricks surrounding us on the perimeter of our yard, and remember that the God who was there then is the God who is here now.