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Reform Magazine | October 18, 2017

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Chapter & verse: Joshua 4

Chapter & verse: Joshua 4

thorogoodNeil Thorogood finds layered meaning in stories of stones

Sometimes we stand where history was made: The churning memory of war remembered on Normandy’s beaches; the horror brought home following the railway tracks that lead into Auschwitz-Birkenau; the cost made visible amidst the endless rows of graves in so many corners of too many fields. We
have visited great buildings that have seen history unfold: The crowning of the monarch and the trial of a traitor; the decree that set people free and the table at which a poet wrote wonders. History combines place and people. And for people of faith, history unfolds within the purposes and presence of God. So it is in the book of Joshua. So it is as we celebrate together the birth of Christ and the arrival of a New Year.

I am utterly captivated by Joshua chapter four, and especially by its stories of stones. I know there is haunting ambiguity in the
Israelite entry across the River Jordan into the land God had promised to their ancestors; it is a story rich in meaning but dripping in blood. There is liberation and safe arrival but there is also massacre and destruction. To this day we live on into a story that is difficult in a Holy Land that is precious and precarious.

Chapter three takes us to the Jordan in an echo of the crossing of the Red Sea. The waters have been miraculously held back and the people have crossed over. Then comes the story of the stones: God tells Joshua to appoint a man from each of the 12 tribes to gather a stone from the middle of the river (4:2-5). They are to erect the stones as a memorial where they camp for the night (4:6-8). Then, like the one who hides a message under the floorboards for a later builder to discover, Joshua places 12 more stones on the river bed to create an underwater reminder (4:9). Place, people and God are being bound together. And the crucial point, repeated with slightly different emphasis, is that these stones have a purpose: They want to talk; they are to elicit, from future generations, questions about why they are there. Thus the story will be told and retold, keeping alive God’s saving act as history marches onwards – memory reinforced and rekindled by place and stone (4:6-7; 21-24)…

Neil Thorogood is principal of Westminster College, Cambridge

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This is an extract from the December 2014/January 2015 edition of Reform.

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