Of These Stones


And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

Matthew 3:9

I have often wondered about those stones.  One might suppose that John the Baptist was merely pointing to the stones on the surrounding ground and, if so, the point may have been made well enough.  But I think there may be more to it.  In John’s Gospel, the location of John’s baptism is said to be Bethabara, the “place of the ford”.

After two millennia, with the course of the Jordan River shifting, and contemporary histories offering as much confusion as insight, the fact is that we don’t know exactly where John was baptizing.  Most educated guesses put it 5 to 10 kms north of the Dead Sea. What we do know is that John pointed to some stones when he made his comment.

When the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land, they set out from Shittim and crossed over to Gilgal, on the way to Jericho.  We might suppose that the road traversed the Jordan at a shallow point, a “place of the fords”.  While the Israelites were commanded to erect a pile of 12 stones at Gilgal, they were also told to pile 12 stones in the middle of the Jordan River at the place where they crossed.  So, when John pointed to “these stones” is it possible he was pointing to the 12 stones piled in the middle of the river?  If so, the effect of his words on the Jewish leaders would have been profound, indeed.

If so, John may have been commenting on the problem of worshiping the symbol instead of the reality.

Longtime Leben readers know that their editor is originally from Virginia, a place where a good deal of one’s culture and identity is wrapped up in symbolism.  Graveyards abound, along with roadside memorial plaques that subtly suggest that most everything that’s important happened a good while ago. In such a place, it is easy to confuse the symbols with the reality.  In fact, it has been our abiding pastime.

But romanticism isn’t really history, and even the symbols lose their luster.

Following the horrific battle of Petersburg, one of those Civil War graveyards became home to thousands of Union dead. Parents came down from the North. The locals regularly adorned the graves of both the blue and gray. And time passed.  During the Depression, in an attempt to make the graveyard easier to maintain, the graveyard administrators cut off the marker stones and laid them flat on the ground where the grass would be easier to cut. The marble bases were sold to a fellow named Oswald Young, who used them to build a two-story house with four bedrooms, a kitchen and a bath.

Principles led to deeds. Deeds became sacrifices, and we erected memorials to them. In time, we built our houses from those memorial stones, and lived comfortably within the cloistered walls, at first giving lip service to deeds of distant memory, and the principles they served, but in time, we merely revered the stones.