Each of the twelve men (representing each tribe in Israel) is commanded to take up a stone (large enough to be carried on the shoulder, held with both hands) from the riverbed of the Jordan River. These men (and the stones they will set up) will be a testimony to God’s divine intervention on Israel’s behalf in opening the way to the Promised Land. A similar dynamic is seen in Genesis, when Jacob commemorates his vision of the stairway to Heaven he observed in a dream at Beth-El, as well as in 1st Samuel (where we first see the name “Ebenezer” mentioned); Samuel sets up a marker to show how far Yahweh helped Israel to push back the Philistines.
After 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites are eager to enter the Promised Land; they hurry across, keeping a respectful distance from the Ark. As promised, the men of war from the 2 1/2 tribes who will remain on the east bank cross over with the rest, trusting that Yahweh will keep their families safe from harm while they are gone. With the full force of Israel committed to the task ahead, the priests with the Ark come up from the riverbed, and the waters of the Jordan are released.
Yahweh has brought Israel to a different place than the previous generation; Kadesh Barnea, the southern entrance to Canaan, was the dwelling of the “sons of Anak” – giants like Goliath who defeated Israel during Moses’ time. Instead of leading them back there, Yahweh will lead Israel through Gilgal, in the eastern portion of Canaan. Gilgal (about 5 miles from the Jordan River) will continue to serve as Israel’s primary camp throughout Joshua’s leadership, and it is where the “ebenezer” stones from the river crossing will be set up. They will serve as evidence to the new generations of the veracity of the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, and entrance into Canaan, as well as Yahweh’s direct role in them all.