Today, millions of Americans observe Memorial Day, remembering the sacrifice of American soldiers who died serving their country. By visiting veterans’ cemeteries, setting out flags, and gathering with friends for food and fellowship, Americans collectively remember an important element of their history—and reaffirm their identity as American citizens.
Memorial Day may be a U.S. holiday, but Americans are hardly unique in this type of communal recollection of a cultural memory. Societies throughout history have designated memorial days and monuments to remind themselves about the values and ideals they cherish most. In fact, the Bible records many instances in which God’s people (and occasionally God himself) set up memorials to serve as a tangible reminder of God’s faithfulness in the past and promises for the future. Here are a few of the most famous memorials in the Bible.
In Genesis 28, the Old Testament patriarch Jacob heard in a dream God’s promise to bless his descendants. Upon waking, Jacob established a monument to remind himself (and, presumably, those descendants) of the dream and of God’s promise:
Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”
Physical monuments like this were a tangible reminder to God’s people of their history and values—you might think of them as Biblical versions of the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, which serve a similar purpose for modern Americans. There are many accounts of such memorials being set up for that purpose. Later in Genesis, Jacob sets up a memorial pillar to serve as a reminder of his covenant with Laban. When the Israelites first crossed the Jordan River, they set up a stone monument for the specific purpose of reminding future generations of the event:
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had chosen—one from each of the tribes of Israel. He told them, “Go into the middle of the Jordan, in front of the Ark of the Lord your God. Each of you must pick up one stone and carry it out on your shoulder—twelve stones in all, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. We will use these stones to build a memorial. In the future your children will ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘They remind us that the Jordan River stopped flowing when the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant went across.’ These stones will stand as a memorial among the people of Israel forever.”
The teaching of future generations was a central purpose not only of physical monuments, but of the numerous holy days that God established for the Israelites. Perhaps the most famous memorial “holiday” in the Bible is the Passover, which was commemorated annually to remind each Israelite generation of one of the most defining moments in their history:
Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever. It will come to pass when you come to the land which the LORD will give you, just as He promised, that you shall keep this service. And it shall be, when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ that you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice of the LORD, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households.’” So the people bowed their heads and worshiped. Then the children of Israel went away and did so; just as the LORD had commanded Moses and Aaron, so they did.
Practioners of Judaism commemorate this and other Jewish holidays to this day, thousands of years later—a celebration of communal history that makes Memorial Day’s 150-year history look like a flash in the pan.
Memorial celebrations of this sort were not confined to the Old Testament. In fact, in the final days before his crucifixion, Jesus established a memorial observance that Christians around the world re-enact many times each year:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”
Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
Christians participate in the act of communion periodically to remind themselves of Jesus’ sacrifice. We might not think of it in the same way we think of Memorial Day, but despite the difference in spiritual significance, they’re both designed to pull us out of our everyday routines and remind us of who we are. Memorial Day (and its equivalent in other countries) reminds people that they’re citizens who owe many of their civic freedoms to the brave efforts of fallen soldiers. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that we’re children of God who owe our spiritual freedom to Jesus Christ. So when you celebrate Memorial Day or any other holiday of remembrance, consider also the memorials that God has provided us in His Word and in the history of His people.
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Posted by Andy