The memorial set up by Joshua and the Israelites to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan River is described in Joshua 4. The narrative slows way down and becomes a bit repetitive, indicating how important this event was for the Israelites. So what can be said about the memorial itself? The text indicates that the memorial was composed of 12 stones. They were to be carried from the place in the dry riverbed where the feet of the priests stood as the Israelites crossed. The stones were to be carried on the shoulders of twelve men, one from each tribe, and taken to the campsite of the Israelites at Gilgal, east of Jericho.
How big were the stones? There are two bits of data that help get us in the ballpark. One is that each stone was carried on the shoulder of a man. This would limit the size to something less than 100 lbs for the average man. The other is that they were carried for some distance. Gilgal was east of Jericho, which would place it on the desert plain between Jericho and the Jordan River. Jericho is about 5.5 miles from the Jordan River; the nearest flat ground that would have been suitable for a large campground is about 2 miles west of the Jordan. It can probably be concluded then, that the men had to carry the rocks for at least a couple of miles, and perhaps as far as four miles. Given these two factors, it would be surprising if the stones weighed more than 50-75 lbs. Such stones would probably not measure more than a couple of feet in length, at most. The painting that accompanies this post, by William Brassey Hole, is probably pretty accurate in this regard.
How were the stones arranged? The text does not give an answer to this question, but there are some interesting parallels from archaeology that probably point us in the right direction. One might speculate that they could be arranged in a row, stacked up in a pile, or arranged in a circle or square. Some commentators even suggest that they were used to build an altar, although there is no indication of this in the text (and 12 stones would have produced a very small altar). Standing stones have been found in numerous archaeological settings, usually in the context of a religious installation, and the stones are nearly always placed in a line. Examples include the standing stones at the gate of Dan, those at the small Egyptian temple in the Timna Valley, and the very large standing stones at Gezer, to name a few. A fascinating example is the double row of twelve stones, six per line, that were set up on the plain below Har Karkom during the Early Bronze Age (time of Abraham, roughly). These are also approximately the size of stone that Joshua and the Israelites would have used.
Double row of 12 standing stones at Har Karkom, in southern Israel. Photo by A.D. Riddle.
Although it dates many centuries before the time of Joshua, this may be the closest parallel that has been discovered that might represent what Joshua’s memorial looked like.
Aerial view of the 12 standing stones at Har Karkom. Photo by A.D. Riddle.
Another tantalizing bit of evidence comes from the Medeba mosaic map. This 6th century AD floor mosaic is a map of the Holy Land. Near Jericho there is a place identified as “Gilgal, which is also Twelve Stones” (Gk. ΓΑΛΓΑΛ ΤΟ ΚΑΙ ΔΩΔΕΚΑΛΙΘΟΝ). The picture next to that label on the mosaic shows a church building and a double row of twelve stones, six to a side (visible on the mosaic as twelve white tesserae on a black background).
Medeba Map mosaic with the location of “Gilgal, which is also Twelve Stones,” 6th century AD. Photo by Todd Bolen.
While this does not prove the arrangement of the 12 memorial stones, it seems at least as likely as any other arrangement.
Could this memorial still be found? In a word, unlikely. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that, as shown above, these stones were not mammoth rocks that would be hard for later passersby (or a local farmer) to move. Another complicating factor is that we don’t know the exact location of Gilgal. More than a half-dozen locations have been suggested by various scholars (including En el-Gharaba, Khirbet en-Nitleh, Tell el-Matlab, Tell el-Jurn, Tell Deir el-Ghannam, Khirbet el-Mefjir, Suwwanet et-Thaniya, and others), but none has produced any convincing evidence of being the biblical site. In fact, Gilgal seems to have been a religious site, not a regular village or town, so any remains might have been hard to discern under the best of circumstances.
In addition, the area east of Jericho is pretty large. The area that might have been used for a campground (discounting the rough terrain just to the west of the Jordan River flood plain) comprises about 11 square miles, as illustrated by this Google Earth view.
Possible area where Gilgal might be located – Google Earth.
To complicate matters still further, modern irrigation methods have allowed most of this area to be cultivated in the last century, which has disturbed nearly all of the ground. This makes the likelihood of finding any remnant of the memorial set up by Joshua extraordinarily slim. But then, we have the full account handed down in the book of Joshua, so as fun as it might be to find the memorial, we don’t really need it anymore.
If God wanted these stones to be seen by their children or future generations it would make sense that He would preserve them.
Yes, for at least a couple of generations after, Paul. I concur.
He clearly said (Josh. 4:7) “a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”
They are there somewhere.
True. In Joshua 4:9 Joshua also built another memorial of 12 stones in the muddle of Jordan, at a place where the priests who carried the Ark of the covenant were standing..The memorial there remains to this day. I believe God’s word it’s still there for all generations to see.. Most can find many explanations as to why it’s impossible because they know better right? God can use any material of stone etc to last forever….
It also makes sense that both could be near each other.
Are they really the 12 stones that Isarelites took out of Jerico in Gilgal? In the Bible, Joshua, Chapter 4, saying how the Lord dried up the waters of Jordan from before them, until they were passed over as the Lord God did to the Red sea which he dried up from before them, until they were gone over. Is it backed up from the biblio-archaeological ground?
If you’re asking about the photos of the two rows of stones, no, those are not the ones that were set up by Joshua at Gilgal. They are located at Har Karkom, a site in the wilderness about 120 miles south of Jericho. My intent in including the photos was the similarity in number and size, which might illustrate approximately how the stones set up by the Israelites would have looked. Or perhaps they were set up differently!
When a person doesn’t read the entire Torah and especially when a person doesn’t comprehend the book of Genesis, he/she will always look for a physical proof. Even though it would be very interesting to find and see these proofs, Gd of Israel wrote the Torah so that one finds every truth in it. When one studies Torah with the Rabbinical Rabbis who are masters of Hebrew language, particularly of the Hebrew Torah was written, the secrets are revealed so the Torah is not like a PowerPoint presentation but a living machine that is so robust so deep so vast so clear that one will have no doubt that all 304805 letters of Torah are from Gd. When you grasp the Torah in such a way even the physical proofs will be less important. I invite you to study Torah with these Rabbis.
I have discovered a little detail here. Joshua 4:8 stones were carried by the 12 elect to the place of lodging FROM the middle of the Jordan where the priests’s feet stood firm. In Joshua 4:9 Joshua lays 12 stones same place where the priests stood and it THESE stones that are there till this day
Most versions render verse 9 in a way that could lead to the conclusion that there were two sets of stones set up—one at the camp and the other in the riverbed. The reading of the NIV and NAB here is preferable—“Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan.” The Hebrew phrase is bethok (Heb. בְּת֣וֹךְ). The preposition בְּ is rendered “in” by many versions here, but in this case it means “from” (cf. Josh 5:1, “from beyond the Jordan;” Josh 3:16, “from Adam”). This also matches the description given in 4:3, that these stones were to come “from the place where the priests were standing.” It is also inscrutable what a pile of stones at the bottom of the river would have accomplished, since they would not have been visible once the waters returned, and they would have been quickly lost to the ravages of the river.
The original text tells stones were taken from and placed where the priests stood… it was in the midst…as middle, in between, and where the priests set their feet. God often does what seems unreasonable to man.
Very informative. Well done. God Bless
Great insights shared here
In Deuteronomy Moses talked of this memorial I think. And told Joshua to cover them in mortar. If this is the same memorial, they may be looking for the wrong thing.
So I think you’re referring to the command of Moses in Deut 27:2-3, “So it shall be on the day when you cross the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God gives you, that you shall set up for yourself large stones and coat them with lime and write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over, so that you may enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.” This was actually fulfilled in Josh 8:30-32 when Joshua built an altar of uncut stones on Mount Ebal and wrote a copy of the law of Moses on it, “just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded.” Although the account in Joshua doesn’t specifically mention the mortar or lime coating, it wouldn’t have been possible to write out a copy of the law without doing that first, and I think the that it was done in accordance with the command allows us to presume thats how it was done.