Joshua 4:9: The Underwater Memorial

In Joshua 4, the Israelites cross the Jordan River while it is parted, as the Levites stand in the midst of the Jordan upholding the Ark of the Covenant.  The Israelites carry twelve stones to the shore to build a memorial in Gilgal.  But another memorial of stones is built as well: in the middle of the Jordan River!  Joshua 4:9 states (in the King James Version): “And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests which bare the ark of the covenant stood: and they are there unto this day.”  The Jordan River later in the chapter reverts to how it was before it parted.  Does that mean that the memorial in the midst of the Jordan was underwater?  How, then, could it be a memorial, since no one could see it?  Moreover, how would the person who wrote Joshua 4:9 even know that the memorial was in the midst of the Jordan in his own day?

The answer that I got repeatedly as I read commentaries was that there were times when the Jordan River was overflowing, and there were times when its water-level was not as high.  When the water-level was not as high, people could see the memorial.  Yet, as Keil-Delitzsch note, the memorial was probably not standing in the midst of the Jordan for centuries, for the streams would have dismantled it.  According to Keil-Delitzsch, it would be a memorial for that generation and perhaps its children, but not for those who lived centuries later.

I thought that Jimmy Swaggart’s interpretation of Joshua 4:9 was interesting.  He commented in his Expositor’s Study Bible: “The first memorial [in Gilgal] could, no doubt, be referred to as Jordan stones, but these spoken of in this Ninth Verse must be referred to as Wilderness stones.  These twelve stones buried on the bottom of the Jordan River, where the feet of the priests had stood, signify the death and burial of Israel’s forty years of unbelief and sinning in the Wilderness.  The Lord is saying to Israel that that time is over, buried, out of sight, and forgotten, typical of all our sins in the past, that is, if we have properly trusted Christ (I Jn. 1:9).”

According to Swaggart, the stones used for the underwater memorial were from the wilderness.  Their being buried by the waters of the Jordan indicates that God has forgiven and forgotten the sins of the Israelites that they committed when they were in the wilderness.  I found this interpretation to be intriguing, although Swaggart was the only one I found who proposed it.  Is there anything backing it up?  Not really, for Joshua 4:9 does not say that the stones were from the wilderness.  Yet, the theme of Israel having a new beginning does exist in the Book of Joshua.  For example, in Joshua 5:9, the LORD tells Joshua that the LORD has rolled away from Israel the reproach of Egypt.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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3 Responses to Joshua 4:9: The Underwater Memorial

  1. Jim says:

    The NIV renders this in the past-perfect continuous “The stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan” suggesting that they were moved to the west bank. Makes sense to me 🙂

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I don’t know. The NIV has to add words to get to that. If it was like the King James, it would italicize those! But, yeah, according to that interpretation, the altar was where Joshua set it up after bringing the stones to the shore, unto this day. Interesting view.

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  3. Jim says:

    I have posted elsewhere:

    So, in Joshua 3 we have the priests carrying the Ark to the water of a flooded Jordan river and it damns the river up, then the soldiers and people can walk through on dry land.

    Then comes the instructions from Joshua to set up the stones by carrying them from the middle of the flooded Jordan to the west bank and set up the memorial there. Then in Joshua 4 we have this as translated by the New Revised Standard Version:

    8 The Israelites [bene Israel] did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there. 9 (Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.)

    It’s that odd verse 9 which the NRSV puts in parenthesis to suggest something’s not right, but not clear what else to do with it. A memorial in the MIDDLE of the Jordan? Are there two memorials?

    The King James Version renders verse 9 as the Hebrew has it:

    9 And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests which bare the ark of the covenant stood: and they are there unto this day.

    The NIV “fixes” the problem by perhaps rendering it the way the translators of the NIV “think” the original author might have meant:

    8 So the people of Israel did as Joshua commanded them. They took 12 stones from the middle of the Jordan River. There was one stone for each of the tribes of Israel. It was just as the Lord had told Joshua. The people carried the stones with them to their camp. There they put them down.

    9 Joshua piled up the 12 stones that had been in the middle of the river. They had been right where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are still there to this very day.

    However, that’s not what the Hebrew says. The Hebrew “tavek” means “in the middle of” or “in the midst of.” And then it says that they are “there to this day” which has to mean in the middle of the river.

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