Not too long ago, I taught an undergraduate Bible course that provided a general overview of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible). After conducting some preliminary assessments, it was clear that, though the majority of students were brought up in Christian homes. They were for the most part Bible illiterate. There were some, of course, who knew a few Bible stories, but they failed to recognize their meaning and their relation to the rest of the Bible. My initial attempt at providing students with good information was unsuccessful. Gaining factual knowledge did not have a transformative effect on the class.
Then, I assumed the challenge of exploring as many avenues as needed in order to engage this new generation of students in a way that was meaningful and transformative. A story found in Joshua chapters 3 and 4 contains a fascinating lesson on multigenerational leadership. In this passage, a new generation of Israelites (the second generation) was finally ready to cross over the Jordan River in order to enter the Promised Land. The first generation, those who experienced God’s awesome deliverance from slavery in Egypt, died during the journey through the wilderness. This second generation had the responsibility to take possession of the land. While the text is not explicit about the thoughts that went through the minds of the people, based on Joshua 3:7 it can be inferred that they were wrestling with one thought: Was God with Joshua (the current leader) like he was with Moses (the previous one)?
These two questions are crucial and often come up at every level of ecclesial leadership. Is God in it? And, do we have the right leadership? It is important to remember that, although God was with the first generation of Israelites and they certainly had the right leader, the people quarreled with Moses and disobeyed the Lord when things got difficult. This shows us that, just because people can say “yes” to both of those questions, it does not necessarily mean that things will go well. We must avoid the trap of thinking that “having the right leader” plus “having God’s blessing” means that there won’t be any bumps in the road. That view undermines the key role that followership plays in any collaborative endeavor.
In the case of the second generation of Israelites, they too were about to have the questions answered with a resounding “yes.” Just like God parted the sea and used Moses, He was also going to part the Jordan River and be with Joshua. But, the passage puts a spotlight on a symbolic act that some representatives of the community were to perform in an effort to engage the upcoming generation (the third generation). As the priests entered the Jordan River carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the waters were cut off. Just like the Lord had done in a previous generation, He turned the water into dry land. This crossing point became a landmark; the unexpected pathway to receive God’s promise and, also, the place where the second generation could say: “The story of our parents is now our story — the God of our parents is also our God.”
The priests stood in the middle of the dried riverbed, holding the ark until all the people crossed over to the other side. Joshua, under God’s direction, commanded a delegation of Israelites to pick up 12 stones. The text reads: Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:4–7).
It becomes apparent that in God’s view, signs or symbols are helpful in order to engage multiple generations. Signs can outlive people and, if vested with the appropriate meaning, they point to deeper realities that help people make sense of their own lives in relationship to God and others. The power of a sign is not in its object but in its meaning (confusing these two gives place to idolatry). In this story, the stones serve as a sign not because there is something intrinsically meaningful about river stones, but because they would cause the following generation to ask questions about meaning. To answer those questions, one would have to retell the stories of how God opens pathways where people see obstacles.
Doing multigenerational work is difficult regardless of whether it happens in ministry contexts, in academic settings, in workplaces, or even at home. Today, we are experiencing rapid social changes at a global level, which shape the different generations in very distinctive ways, enlarging the generational gaps. It has become a common practice to refer to different generations in terms of profiles or collective personalities (e.g., Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials), which, in a sense, can convey the idea that the generations cannot relate to each other. How can we engage in the kind of multigenerational work that would teach the next generations to set their hope in God? Truthfully, this reflection cannot serve as a full answer to that question. However, I do think that this passage is helpful in providing us with a way to make steps forward.
In my own exploration, I discovered that teaching an Old Testament course that centers on biblical symbols caused my students to ask questions about meaning. Today, we can stop at the crossing points of our lives where we are seeing God at work. We can identify some elements (unimpressive as they may be) that can be used as signs or memorials that would encourage the next generation to ask questions and would allow us to share our stories. In our own way, we should make an effort to carry “stones” from the places God has taken us through, and use them as signs that would cause the next generation to ask the question: what do those stones mean to you?