What Do These Stones Mean?

Rocks on a beach
Photo by Oliver Paaske on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

When I look at this week’s appointed lectionary texts, I have trouble seeing past all the rocks.

The Acts text recounts the stoning of Stephen: rocks as (literal) weapons. Psalm 31 features the metaphor of God as a rock or fortress who offers safety: rock as refuge. The epistle lesson from 1 Peter—“rock” is right there in the name!—invokes rocks to describe Jesus metaphorically as both cornerstone for believers and stumbling stone for those who do not believe. As for the Gospel lesson, though there aren’t any rocks directly mentioned, almost every funeral I’ve ever been to has included some portion of John 14, and so reading those words I am transported immediately to a cemetery tent, facing a casket and pile of dirt, surrounded by gravestones: rocks as memorials.

Popular culture has its “rocky” moments, too. In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, rocks are a symbol of rage against injustice and trauma. Forrest and his friend Jenny encounter the dilapidated remains of Jenny’s childhood home, where she had been abused by her father. After staring at it a few moments, Jenny throws her shoes one at a time at the house, and then begins pelting the house with rocks until she falls down, exhausted and weeping. Forrest, narrating the story, reflects, “Sometimes I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.”

It is striking how multivalent the meaning of a natural, everyday object like a rock can be: positive or negative, empowering or harmful, life-giving or death-dealing. It’s all in how you read it.

I have said before in this space that I am fond of Walter Brueggemann’s understanding of the preacher qua scribe, which I regard as an alternative to the preacher qua prophet. A scribe is a keeper of the tradition; a prophet is a theo-political commentator. That is not to say that preachers should not comment on the issues of the day, or that preachers shouldn’t put justice at the forefront of their proclamation. On the contrary, justice is an integral part of the biblical tradition that cannot be ignored. But, as Brueggemann notes, “It is utterly impossible to be charged with both truth-telling and maintenance.”1 The truly no-holds-barred truth-telling that the prophets took on will not keep many pastors in their jobs. Nevertheless, by drawing people of faith back to the text—rather than attempting to take on the persona of a Moses, Samuel, Nathan, or Elijah—preachers “keep that confrontation between truth and power alive and available to the community through acts of textual interpretation and imagination.”2 The work of the scribe has never been the static work of a copyist.

In addition to helping us reevaluate the preaching task, the designation of “scribe” also helps us take a better look at this dynamic tradition we are transmitting. The text “consists of remembered confrontations between power (kings) and truth (prophets) given to us through scribal refraction—that is, through an intentional, self-conscious, interpretative editorial process.”3 There is enormous power in transmitting the tradition, because the tradition is never “just” transmitted. It always arrives with interpretation.

Scripture itself attests to this living process of interpretation. Take Joshua 4, for example. After Israel crosses the Jordan river into Canaan, Joshua instructs the Israelites to choose twelve stones from the Jordan river and erect them as a memorial. Twice within the bounds of that story, Joshua raises the question, “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean?’” Although both responses generally affirm that the rocks are a memorial to the crossing of the Jordan, each time a slightly different answer is given. Joshua 4:6-7 emphasizes that “the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD” as the Israelites crossed. Joshua 4:21-24 gives a lengthier explanation, comparing the crossing of the Jordan explicitly to the crossing of the Red Sea. Multiple traditions about the memorial are preserved together. The biblical text itself is already reading and re-reading the tradition.

Without a reader, a pile of rocks is just a pile of rocks. Presented in the context of the entrance into Canaan, suddenly that pile of rocks becomes a deeply meaningful remembrance. The rocks need a reader, a scribe—someone who has learned the story behind the stones and is prepared to transmit the tradition. Different readers will interpret the tradition differently, even when the same words or images are being considered.

This multiplicity of interpretations I regard as a great boon to Christian theology, not an impediment to it. As we have seen in Joshua 4, Scripture itself does not model uniformity, or even consistency, but rather lifts up a living tradition. The interpretation of Scripture, then, is an entry into an ongoing conversation—a conversation grounded in the text yet nimbly responsive to each new day.

The preacher-scribe brings the tradition to a world that, like Philip in John 14:8, is eager for “satisfaction,” contentment—the particular self-sufficiency idealized by Stoic philosophers. But no person is a theological island. Preaching happens in community, and there is never one right answer to the question, “What does this text mean?” The nature of our faith is one of longing and searching, not of an easy settledness. We are always sifting through the rocks, listening for the voices of the interpreters who have come before, and—with the help of the Holy Spirit—proclaiming the tradition anew.


  1. Walter Brueggemann, “The Preacher as Scribe,” in Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004): 5-19.
  2. Brueggemann, 5-19.
  3. Brueggemann, 5-19.