Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mike Williams: What do these stones mean? (Joshua 4:17-24)

(Presented by Mike Williams, professor of history, Dallas Baptist University, June 8, during the annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society in Raleigh, North Carolina. I've published it here with his permission.)
17So Joshua commanded the priests, saying, "Come up from the Jordan." 18It came about when the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD had come up from the middle of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests' feet were lifted up to the dry ground, that the waters of the Jordan returned to their place, and went over all its banks as before. 19Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth of the first month and camped at Gilgal on the eastern edge of Jericho. 20Those twelve stones which they had taken from the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. 21He said to the sons of Israel, "When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, 'What are these stones?’ 22then you shall inform your children, saying, 'Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.'” 23"For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; 24that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever."
Throughout history, people have been monument builders. Before even writing, building memorials, monuments, and sacred sites were ways to both preserve history and remind the generations that followed of what had happened in the past. Indeed, even cave paintings, story-telling, and those first writings that became Holy Scripture were monuments in their own ways. Before this story that I just read unfolded, Israel already had its own monuments in the Passover celebration and other festivals instituted as part of the Law of Moses.

In the passage that I just read, Joshua raised this monument to remind the people of Israel of what God had done in their midst and to affirm God’s promise to that generation, reminding them that God was with them in the same way that God had been with their forebears. It was more than a simple reminder of a single event. It was a signature moment in Israel’s history to remind them of God’s care and guidance. We do not know how long that monument lasted, but we do know that the Israelites remembered to tell the story, because it is recorded in Joshua.

As Baptist historians, we are monument builders. We stop along the way to raise markers to remind the generations that follow who Baptists have been but also who Baptists are and who Baptists can be and how God, through good times and bad, has been present with the Baptist branch of God’s family. When we teach, preach, write, preserve, and tell the stories, we are telling the generations that follow our story and their story. We are reminding them that, despite the wilderness wanderings and poor choices that have come along the way, Baptists have a rich heritage that demands that the story be told. Without us, professional and lay historians, librarians, archivists, the story will be lost.

A few weeks ago, in a symposium at DBU, one of our English professors presented her dissertation research on Toni Morrison, the great African-American author. In her presentation, she quoted Morrison’s essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” In this essay, Morrison writes, “If you kill the ancestor, you kill yourself.”1

Those words have haunted and continue to haunt me. Our role as historians is to ensure that our ancestors do not die and, therefore, that we continue to live. So, as we continue to do the work of Baptist history, let us remember to raise stones over and over again so that the generations that follow will be reminded of how God has worked in and through these genuine, devout, cranky, ornery, sometimes humble, oft times arrogant, fiercely independent Christians called Baptists and can continue to work through these same people in the present and in the future.

1 Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 64.

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