“The king made gold and silver as plentiful as stones in Israel.” 2 Chronicles 1:15
This statement was made at the height of the glory of Solomon’s kingdom and it indicates a fundamental truth about life in the land of Israel: there are stones everywhere. The land of Israel was and is today filled with stones, large and small. It should not surprise us then that building piles of stones, or cairns, for a symbolic purpose is found in many passages of the Old Testament and that building cairns would symbolize important truths in Scripture. Two important examples are found in Joshua 3-4 and Jeremiah 31.
1. Cairn – A Sign of the Lord’s Covenant Faithfulness to Redeem Israel (Joshua 3-4)
The crossing of the Jordan River in Joshua 3-4 is the final stage in Israel’s journey with the Lord from Egypt to the Promised Land. It is clear that crossing the Jordan serves as a bookend with the crossing of the Red Sea. In both cases the waters were gathered in a heap (Ex. 15:8 & Josh. 3:13) and the children of Israel walked by on dry ground (Ex. 14:21-22 & Josh. 3:17). In Joshua 4:23, the manner in which Israel crosses the Jordan is explicitly connected to the crossing of the Red Sea,
“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.”
Crossing the Jordan River, then, was the culmination of the Lord’s deliverance from Egypt. After the Lord brought Israel through the Red Sea they came to Sinai to receive His Law. However, redeeming Israel from Egypt was not for the purpose of giving them the Law at Sinai, as important as that was; it was to plant Israel within the land promised to Abraham in the book of Genesis.
Once Israel crossed, they circumcised the nation, observed the Passover (another link with the deliverance from Egypt), and ate the fruit of the land, since the manna had ceased (Josh. 5:1-12). The Lord demonstrated His covenant faithfulness to Abraham and his seed in that what He promised to the Patriarchs, Moses, and the nation did indeed come to pass. His word spoken hundreds of years beforehand had now been realized.
It should not be overlooked that the description of the crossing includes the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord. The ark symbolized the seat of His rule over Israel and indeed over all the peoples of the earth. It was the Ark of the Covenant inasmuch as the box contained the tablets of commandments written by the Lord Himself. He had bound Himself with Israel in a covenant that He was faithful to uphold. Even His very name, YHWH, indicated His lovingkindness and faithfulness. YHWH, their Creator and Redeemer, had made good on His promises to Israel, even by incorporating Himself in the deliverance.
In order to memorialize the Lord’s covenant faithfulness and His deliverance of Israel, He instructed Joshua and the nation to build a cairn at Gilgal from twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan. Joshua explained that the stones were to be a sign that directed their attention to the saving deeds the Lord had accomplished for them. A passer-by would assume that someone had heaped up stones for a reason and so ask what the stones signified. The answer was three-fold:
- Israel crossed this Jordan on dry land.
- The Lord dried up the Jordan as He dried up the Red Sea until Israel crossed.
- All the peoples of the earth should know that the Lord is mighty and to be feared always.
The purpose of a sign is to point away from itself and to what it signifies. The memorial cairn at Gilgal pointed away from itself and to what the Lord had accomplished on behalf of His people and in fact for all the peoples of the earth. The Ark, as the throne of YHWH, meant that He was king of the whole earth and all peoples. The heap of stones was a sign and memorial to God Almighty who heaped up the waters so that His people might be redeemed. This cairn marked the events of such a God breaking into history; simple unadorned stones from a river signified that He was here. Proverbs 1:7 states that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The people who feared the Lord crossed the Red Sea (Ex. 14:31); Rahab feared the Lord and allied herself with Him and His people (Josh. 2:8-13). The cairn at Gilgal would remain as a constant reminder of the proper response to the Lord who breaks into history to redeem His people – to fear the Lord and listen to His wisdom, walking on His paths and keeping His Word.
2. Cairn – Marking a Path Home (Jeremiah 31)
Another important passage that symbolically employs cairns is found in Jeremiah 31. This chapter is found in a larger section of Jeremiah commonly called “The Book of Consolation,” chapters 30-33. These words from the Lord are given to Jeremiah in the deepest and darkest time just before the fall of Jerusalem. The city, king, and people had brought upon themselves the curses of the covenant and so the exile to Babylon was awaiting them. However, in the darkest night the Lord provided a light of hope, that Israel would one day return on the very same highway they had departed on, a return to the Lord in Zion to receive His blessing.
The basis of the covenant between the Lord and His people is His faithful love and covenantal loyalty (31:3). Just as the people sang and danced after they walked through the Red Sea, so also after their trek back to the land, they will take up tambourines and dance along with the merrymakers (31:4). In the day when the Lord plants them in the land, the watchmen on the hills of Ephraim will call out, “Arise, and let us go to Zion, to the Lord our God” (31:6). The Lord promises to save the remnant of Israel, gathering them from the remote parts of the earth, and leading them on a straight path in which they will not stumble (31:7-9), a path that ultimately brings them before the Lord in Zion.
The Lord characterizes the desolation of the land and the exile in these familiar words (see Matt. 2:17-18):
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
However, the Lord promises to turn their mourning into joy (31:13), to return the people as a great company (31:8), and to satisfy them with His goodness (31:14). Although they will be a chastised nation, there is hope for their future and their children will return to their own territory (31:15-17) after they turn back to the Lord and repent (31:19). The Lord yearns for Israel, His son, and He will surely have mercy on him (31:20).
How then will the future generation of Israelites find their way back? As Israel is driven into exile, she is instructed by the prophet to set up cairns along the way. The Hebrew text of Jeremiah 31:21 uses the word ziyyunim to refer to the road marks, the cairns, that Israel would pile up. The Hebrew noun sounds very similar to word ziyyon, Zion,1 which was their final destination in the return. The wordplay suggests that as they are driven into exile, their ziyyunim will both lead them back along the way and signify the place of their return, Mt. Zion. Jeremiah reminds the people to set their hearts onto the highway by which they would depart from the land in hope that along that path they will return (31:21). Israel must take heed to how they walk, they must pay attention to the path, and they must follow the cairns marking and guiding their way to Zion. When Israel is returned from her captivity, the people will say, “The Lord bless you, O abode of righteousness, O holy hill” (31:23).
Jeremiah ends his words by indicating that he awoke from a pleasant sleep. Jeremiah 31 then appears to be a revelatory dream, a sweet dream. The theme of his vision was the promise that the Lord will be the God of all the families of Israel and that they will be His people (31:1). This phrase is the typical covenantal formula found so many times in the Old and New Testaments. The cairns along the highway to Zion signal this most fundamental truth in Scripture, that God and His people belong to each other.
Brian G. Toews is Cairn University’s Provost. He has taught at Cairn since 1993.
All scripture quotations from New American Standard Bible.
1Holladay, William L. Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Chapters 26-52. Edited by Paul D. Hanson. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1989, p. 193.