Joshua 4:20, 21: The Meaning of Gilgal’s Stones, Part 1

Verse 20:[1] And (Josh. 4:3) those twelve stones, which they took out of Jordan, did Joshua pitch in Gilgal.

[The twelve stones also] These were placed in the Ark, says Tertullian, Against Marcion 4; before the Ark, says Rabbi Levi (Masius). Which is false; for they were deposited and fixed in Gilgal (Lapide), as in a place most famous and near to the river. They were set in a visible place, in which manner it is customary to erect statues (Masius). Of these an Altar was constructed for a monument (Josephus in Bonfrerius). This does not satisfy; for these stones were designed to refer to the twelve Tribes, and their passage through Jordan, which they, compacted into one mass of an altar, were able not so agreeably to fulfill (Bonfrerius). We readily suppose that those stones, and what was placed upon their foundation, were erected as posts, or pillars, or columns, in an eminent place. Some also not incongruously think that they were placed as a sort of solemn contract of their newly occupied possession (Malvenda).

Those twelve stones…did Joshua pitch: Which most probably were placed severally and in order, like so many little pillars, which was most proper to keep remembrance of this miraculous benefit vouchsafed to this people.


Verse 21:[2] And he spake unto the children of Israel, saying, (Josh. 4:6) When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come (Heb. to morrow[3]), saying, What mean these stones?

[What do they mean?[4]] He correctly supplies, according to the usage of the tongue (Piscator, Vatablus). Hebrew: what those, that is, what do those signify? No stone monument was set before the Red Sea, because those places were only stations, while also the name of Egypt ought to seem sad and detestable to the Israelites; still less that they might often return that way[5] (Masius).


[1] Hebrew: וְאֵת֩ שְׁתֵּ֙ים עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה הָֽאֲבָנִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָקְח֖וּ מִן־הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הֵקִ֥ים יְהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ בַּגִּלְגָּֽל׃

[2] Hebrew: וַיֹּ֛אמֶר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר אֲשֶׁר֩ יִשְׁאָל֙וּן בְּנֵיכֶ֤ם מָחָר֙ אֶת־אֲבוֹתָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר מָ֖ה הָאֲבָנִ֥ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃

[3] Hebrew: מָחָר.

[4] Hebrew: מָ֖ה הָאֲבָנִ֥ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃, woodenly, what these stones?

[5] See Deuteronomy 17:16.

[6] Hebrew: וְהוֹדַעְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּיַּבָּשָׁה֙ עָבַ֣ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן הַזֶּֽה׃

1 thought on “Joshua 4:20, 21: The Meaning of Gilgal’s Stones, Part 1

  1. Matthew Henry: “The twelve stones which were laid down in Gilgal (Joshua 4:8) are here set up either one upon another, yet so as that they might be distinctly counted, or one by another in rows; for after they were fixed they are not called a heap of stones, but these stones.

    It is here taken for granted that posterity would enquire into the meaning of them, supposing them intended for a memorial: Your children shall ask their fathers (for who else should they ask?) What mean these stones? Note, Those that will be wise when they are old must be inquisitive when they are young. Our Lord Jesus, though he had in himself the fulness of knowledge, has by his example taught children and young people to hear and ask questions, Luke 2:46. Perhaps when John was baptizing in Jordan at Bethabara (the house of passage, where the people passed over) he pointed at these very stones, while saying (Matthew 3:9) God is able of these stones (which were at first set up by the twelve tribes) to raise up children unto Abraham. The stones being the memorial of the miracle, the children’s question gave occasion for the improvement of it; but our Saviour says (Luke 10:40), If the children should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out; for one way or other the Lord will be glorified in his works of wonder.”

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