After Am Yisrael (the Children of Israel) crossed the river Jordan, Yehoshua relayed God’s command: a representative of each of the twelve tribes was to take a stone from the Jordan and carry it to the Israelite encampment. Yehoshua explained that the purpose of taking the stones was so subsequent generations will remember the wonders which took place at the crossing of the Jordan. After the tribes executed God’s command, the Kohanim carried the ark to the west bank of the Jordan and the river’s water resumed its natural flow. Am Yisrael crossed into Eretz Yisrael on the tenth of Nissan and encamped at Gilgal, east of Jericho, and set up the stones there.
The Command to Take Twelve Stones from the Jordan [Yehoshua 4:1-3]:
יהושע פרק ד
(א) וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר תַּמּוּ כָל הַגּוֹי לַעֲבוֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן פ וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ לֵאמֹר:
(ב) קְחוּ לָכֶם מִן הָעָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר אֲנָשִׁים אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד מִשָּׁבֶט:
(ג) וְצַוּוּ אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר שְׂאוּ לָכֶם מִזֶּה מִתּוֹךְ הַיַּרְדֵּן מִמַּצַּב רַגְלֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הָכִין שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה אֲבָנִים וְהַעֲבַרְתֶּם אוֹתָם עִמָּכֶם וְהִנַּחְתֶּם אוֹתָם בַּמָּלוֹן אֲשֶׁר תָּלִינוּ בוֹ הַלָּיְלָה.
And it was when the entire nation had completed crossing over the Jordan, the Lord spoke to Yehoshua, saying: “Take twelve men from the people, a man from every tribe. And command them saying, ‘Take twelve stones from this place in the middle of the Jordan where the priests’ feet are standing, carry them with you, and set them down at the place where you spend the night.’”
Rashi [v.3] explains that the command to take the twelve stones from the Jordan includes a number of aspects:
“והעברתם אותם עמכם” – כמצות משה לבנות להם מזבח בהר עיבל ולכתוב עליהם את דברי התורה ובו ביום באו אל הר עיבל ובנו להם את המזבח והעלו עולות ושלמים ואכלו ושתו וקפלו אותם ובאו ולנו בגלגל:
“Carry them with you” – as Moses instructed them to build an altar on Mount Eval and write upon them the words of the Torah. On the day Israel entered the Land, they reached Mount Eval, built the altar and offered sacrifices, ate and drank and then took the stones with them and spent the night at Gilgal.
All this is elaborated on in Gemara Sota 36a:
בא וראה כמה נסים נעשו באותו היום: עברו ישראל את הירדן, ובאו להר גריזים ולהר עיבל יתר מששים מיל, ואין כל בריה יכולה לעמוד בפניהם, וכל העומד בפניהם מיד נתרז,.. ואחר כך הביאו את האבנים ובנו את המזבח וסדוהו בסיד, וכתבו עליהם את כל דברי התורה בשבעים לשון.. והעלו עולות ושלמים ואכלו ושתו ושמחו, וברכו וקללו, וקיפלו את האבנים ובאו ולנו בגלגל, שנאמר:”והעברתם אותם עמכם והנחתם אותם במלון”, יכול בכל מלון ומלון? תלמוד לומר: אשר תלינו בו הלילה.
Come and see how many miracles were performed on that day. Israel crossed the Jordan, came to Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval (thus traversing a distance of) more than sixty mil, no creature was able to withstand them and whoever withstood them was immediately panic-stricken … After that they brought the stones, built the altar, and plastered it with plaster, and inscribed thereon all the words of the Torah in seventy languages; as it is said: “Very plainly.” [Deuteronomy 27:8] Then they sacrificed burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, ate and drank and rejoiced, pronounced the blessings and the curses, packed up the stones, and came and lodged in Gilgal, as it is said: “Carry them with you, and set them down at the place where you spend the night.” I may think that (the stones were to be deposited) in any lodging place; therefore, the verse states “Where you spend the night.”
There are a number of points which must be understood:
1) Why was it necessary to have such a great miracle, that the Israelites were able to accomplish so much in a single day, and all connected to the stones they removed from the Jordan?
2) Why was it necessary to write the Torah specifically on the stones taken from the Jordan?
3) Why were the Israelites required to transport the stones to their lodging place?
Purpose of Open Miracles: Recognize that all Reality is based upon Hidden Miracles
In his commentary on Torah [Shemot (Exodus) 13:16], Ramban explains that the purpose of open miracles is to bring people to understand that just as open miracles are performed by God, so too everything which transpires in the world comes from His hand, and nothing occurs randomly:
ומן הנסים הגדולים המפורסמים אדם מודה בנסים הנסתרים שהם יסוד התורה כלה, שאין לאדם חלק בתורת משה רבינו עד שנאמין בכל דברינו ומקרינו שכלם נסים אין בהם טבע ומנהגו של עולם, בין ברבים בין ביחיד, אלא אם יעשה המצות יצליחנו שכרו, ואם יעבור עליהם יכריתנו ענשו, הכל בגזרת עליון.
From the great and famous miracles, a person recognizes the hidden miracles which are the basis of the entire Torah; for one cannot have a portion of the Torah without believing that whatever happens to us is miraculous, not merely nature or the way of the world. This is true of the collective and of the individual. The reward of one who performs mitzvot will bring him success, while one who sins will be cut off as punishment; everything is by Divine decree.
Ramban explains that God gave us mitzvot whose purpose is to realize and always remember the miracles He has done for us and to achieve the daily awareness that God supervises and controls the world. Examples of this are the mitzvot to remember the exodus from Egypt twice daily, tefilin and mezuzah. As the Ramban writes:
וכן כל כיוצא בהן מצות רבות זכר ליציאת מצרים. והכל להיות לנו בכל הדורות עדות במופתים שלא ישתכחו, ולא יהיה פתחון פה לכופר להכחיש אמונת האלהים. כי הקונה מזוזה בזוז אחד וקבעה בפתחו ונתכוון בענינה כבר הודה בחדוש העולם ובידיעת הבורא והשגחתו, וגם בנבואה, והאמין בכל פנות התורה, מלבד שהודה שחסד הבורא גדול מאד על עושי רצונו, שהוציאנו מאותו עבדות לחירות וכבוד גדול לזכות אבותיהם החפצים ביראת שמו.
There are numerous mitzvot which are reminders of the exodus. This is in order that in every generation the testimony of the wonders will not be forgotten, nor will here be an opening for the non-believers to deny faith in God. For one who buys a mezuzah and affixes it to his doorway, understanding its meaning, has already professed his belief in the renewal of the world by God and the Creator’s knowledge (of what happens in the world) and His providence. As well, he admits prophecy, and belief in all facets of Torah; this in addition to acknowledging the Creator’s great kindness to those who do His will, in taking us out of slavery to freedom.
The Twelve Stones Serve as the Mezuzah for the Entrance to Eretz Yisrael
The command to take the stones included using them to build an altar on Mount Eval, offering sacrifices, eating and drinking there, as well as transporting the stones to Gilgal. This was to stress to Am Yisrael that they had entered Eretz Yisrael, the Holy Land, as the result of God’s miracles; and the purpose of the miracles was to recognize and believe in God, and that whatever happens is guided by Him. The greater the memory of the experience of the miracles, the higher the level of recognition of God’s existence and providence. Since eating drinking and sleeping in Eretz Yisrael must be done in sanctity, the Am Yisrael’s first eating drinking and sleeping in the Land were in the presence of the stones taken from the Jordan as a reminder of God’s existence and providence as the nation experienced while crossing the Jordan. In this manner, these acts were endowed with sanctity. Beginning Am Yisrael’s national its life in Eretz Yisrael in this way, helps them maintain a level of sanctity whenever they engage in mundane activities within the Land. Am Yisrael will maintain its life style in sanctity by constantly being aware of God’s presence within the Land.
This command is similar to the purpose of the mitzva of mezuzah, of which Sefer haḤinuch [Mitzva 423] writes:
משרשי המצוה להיות זכרון לאדם באמונת השם בכל עת בואו לביתו וצאתו.
Among the roots of the mitzva is as a reminder to the Jew to believe in God whenever he enters his home.
That is, whenever one enters his home he encounters the mezuzah and is reminded of his faith in God, which brings him to run the affairs of his home in sanctity according to Torah. As well, when one leaves his home, the mezuzah is a reminder of his faith, which will bring him to act appropriately outside his home as well; to speak courteously, to deal honestly with others and to act in sanctity.
The stones at Gilgal as well were reminders of the miracles at the Jordan, in order that subsequent generations would continue to appreciate the miracles God performed in bringing His nation into their Land. This is the explicit message of the end of chapter four [20-24]:
(כ) וְאֵת שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר לָקְחוּ מִן הַיַּרְדֵּן הֵקִים יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בַּגִּלְגָּל: (כא) וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁאָלוּן בְּנֵיכֶם מָחָר אֶת אֲבוֹתָם לֵאמֹר מָה הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה: (כב) וְהוֹדַעְתֶּם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר בַּיַּבָּשָׁה עָבַר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה: (כג) אֲשֶׁר הוֹבִישׁ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֶת מֵי הַיַּרְדֵּן מִפְּנֵיכֶם עַד עָבְרְכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לְיַם סוּף אֲשֶׁר הוֹבִישׁ מִפָּנֵינוּ עַד עָבְרֵנוּ: (כד) לְמַעַן דַּעַת כָּל עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ אֶת יַד יְקֹוָק כִּי חֲזָקָה הִיא לְמַעַן יְרָאתֶם אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים.
And these twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Yehoshua set up in Gilgal. And he spoke to the children of Israel, saying, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, what are these stones?“ Then, you shall let your children know, saying, “Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan from before you, until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which He dried up from before us, until we passed over.” That all the people of the earth might know the power of the Lord, that it is mighty; that you might fear the Lord your God forever.
The Importance of Remembering the Miracles God Performed in our Times Within Eretz Yisrael
The importance of setting up the stones taken from the Jordan as a reminder of God’s miracles and His providence applies in our times as well, when we see God’s hand helping us return to Eretz Yisrael in wondrous ways, in our victories over enemies more numerous than we and in the Land’s blossoming. We should set each of these as reminders to ourselves of our faith in God and they should bring us to behave as a holy nation, living its life connected to God.