“They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! … 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.” … “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 … “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:27-33).What also has magnified the size of the city in modern minds is the sensational account in this chapter of the walls falling flat without the Israelites assaulting them with battering rams or other instruments of siege. Since Jericho lies on a juncture of tectonic plates and is particularly subject to earthquakes, this collapse of its walls would have been sensational to anyone witnessing it. But that fact does not mean the city in itself was huge.
Much has been made by skeptics of the fact that archaeologists have not been able to identify evidence for the existence of the city as an inhabited site during the century in which we date Joshua’s career. This is indeed unfortunate, but it does not mean we must discount this account as unhistorical. Attempts by well-meaning Christians to justify the inclusion of such a “white lie” as the destruction of a city that did not exist, sugar-coating the claim by calling it "etiological" and "theological" are pitiful, not to say a discredit to the God of the Bible.
A recent example is S. L. McKenzie who lamely suggests the following:
“The story of the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt and their defeat of Canaanite cities may contain genuine historical elements, as scholars from widely divergent perspectives have contended …. But the primary intent of the story is to account for how Israel gained possession of the Land of Canaan. Its explanation is theological: God gave Israel the land of Canaan. … Jericho was the oldest city in Canaan and a legendary symbol of Canaanite might. As such, it symbolized Canaan. Biblical historians saw the fact that Jericho had come to belong to Israel as representative of God's gift of the whole land to the Israelites (see History of Israel I : Settlement Period)” (S. L. McKenzie, “Historiography. Old Testament” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005], 420-21).Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Jericho—either in the mid-13th century (Joshua's own time) or in later centuries when the narratives in Joshua were being incorporated into a long history of Israel— was "a legendary symbol of Canaanite might", and thus McKenzie's theory of etiology and theology in this account falls like a house of cards.
Contrast to McKenzie's theory the recently published intelligent and sober assessment of the archaeological situation by Prof. K. A. Kitchen, an eminent British Egyptologist:
“22. Jericho. Of its location, at Tell es-Sultan, near the modern village (er-Riha) that still bears its name, there is no doubt. And the town, though not at all large (about one acre), had a very long history, from before Neolithic times down to the late second millennium. It was obviously very prosperous in the Middle Bronze Age (early second millennium), as the spectacular finds from that period's tombs bear witness. But only traces of this survive on the town mound itself - part of the city wall and its defensive basal slope ("glacis"), and some of its small, close-set houses fronting on narrow, cobbled lanes. But this all perished violently, including by fire, at roughly 1550 or soon after. And for about 200 years the ruins lay barren, before resettlement began in the fourteenth century. During that interval a great deal of the former Middle Bronze township was entirely removed by erosion (our fourth limiting factor); but for the tombs, its former substance would hardly have been suspected. But of the Late Bronze settlement from the mid-fourteenth century onward, almost nothing survives at all. Kenyon found the odd hearth or so (later fourteenth century), and the so-called middle building may have been built and used (as also tombs 5, 4, 13) in the Late Bronze I B/lI A periods, at about 1425/1400 to 1275, in the light of Bienkowski's careful analysis. Very little else of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries has been recovered - and probably never can be. … The slope of Jericho is such that most erosion would be eastward, and under the modern road, toward where now are found the spring, pools, and longstanding more modern occupation. There may well have been a Jericho during 1275-1220, but above the tiny remains of that of 1400 -1275, so to speak, and all of this has long, long since gone. We will never find "Joshua's Jericho" for that very simple reason. The "walls of Jericho" would certainly have been like those of most other LB II towns of that period: the edge-to-edge circuit of the outer walls of the houses, etc., that ringed the little settlement. Rahab's house on the wall (Josh. 2:15) suggests as much. This ring would have butted onto the old Middle Bronze walling, but its upper portions (and most of it anyway) were eroded along with the Late Bronze abutments. The dramatic collapse of the walls in view of the Israelites may well have been a (for them) precise seismic movement, as with the blocking of the Jordan so soon before. A belt of jointed structures would fall in segments, not as a whole: and so Rahab's small segment may have survived.So, although both McKenzie and Kitchen refer to Jericho as "a symbol" or "symbolic", they use the terms quite differently. McKenzie assumes that we must sacrifice the biblical historical data in favor of an unsupported notion that the Israelite historian used Jericho as a "symbol" of a Canaan that the tribes never truly conquered during the time of Joshua. Kitchen credits the Bible's historical tradition, but questions the validity of the modern reader's picture of that city, which does not fit the historical data available to us.
There has always been too much imagination about Jericho by moderns (never mind previous generations) and the basic factors have ironically been largely neglected. The town was always small, an appendage to its spring and oasis) and its value (for eastern newcomers [such as the Israelites]) largely symbolic as an eastern gateway into Canaan” (Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2003] 187-88).
Kitchen's assessment is much closer to the actual archaeological situation. Many events of the remote past simply cannot be either verified or disproved by archeology, because the ravages of erosion and over-building by subsequent generations at the site have destroyed the evidence. But the Bible itself, as the living repository of genuine historical traditions has survived the ages to tell us what we might otherwise never know.
Many skeptical scholars today regard the biblical record of the taking of Jericho by Joshua as a test case. If this key event, they say, has been shown not to have happened, then it tells us that we cannot trust any of the biblical accounts of Israel's early history. They are, at best, what McKenzie calls "theological" or "symbolic" (read "unhistorical"!).
I too regard the biblical record of the taking of Jericho as a test case. But I use it to test the ability of modern biblical scholars to understand how archeology and ancient historical texts work. All too many of them fail that test.
The real satisfaction that Joshua and his people felt after the fall of Jericho was not in the physical size of its walls or some supposed "legendary" might of the city. It was the satisfaction that a conscientious workman feels, who has done a job he was commissioned to do by his Master. He may be physically exhausted at the end of the day, but he has a glow of satisfaction within him. "I did what I was instructed to do," he muses, "and look how well it worked!"
May you and I also have that feeling at the end of each day we serve our Master.
Total Destruction — and Mercy!
God made Jericho’s defenses collapse. The mental defense, normally provided by the courage and high morale of the people of Jericho, had already been undermined by rumors reaching them of Israel’s march through the Reed Sea and through the Jordan River. Their physical defenses (the city walls) collapsed after the seven days of marching around the city at God’s command.
But God’s continued support of Israel in their appropriation of the land promised by him to their forefather Abraham was dependent upon their meticulous obedience to his instructions. The first of these was what is described as a "ban" (Hebrew herem) against taking any plunder from the conquered city: everything within the walls of Jericho must be devoted to God—living things by being put to death, non-living objects that were combustible were to be burned, and non-combustible (i.e., metal) objects put into his treasury. There was to be no booty (human booty in the form of slaves, non-human in the form of expensive garments or gold) for the Israelite soldiers from what was God’s victory, not their own.
This instruction was not something new, sprung upon the people at the last moment before the walls of Jericho. It had been given long before to Moses, who conveyed it to the people in anticipation of their future campaigns in the promised land (Dt 2:32-35; 3:3-7; 20:16-18). As the NIV Commentary states it:
Jericho was Israel’s first conquest in the land of Canaan, a kind of firstfruits; therefore everything in it was holy—humans, animals, and property—and was to be consecrated to the Lord (cf. Ex 23:31-33; 34:11-14; Dt 2:32-35; 3:3-7; 20:16-18; et al.)The second instruction was that the Israelites keep the promises they made in the name of the Lord (Dt 23:23). the most important of these was the vow they had sworn to the prostitute-innkeeper Rahab (Josh. 2:8-14), who had believed in Israel's God and showed her faith and loyalty by the risky act of hiding the two Israelite spies from her own people. She and her family were to be spared under the previously agreed-upon condition that they stay in her house and display the scarlet cord in their window, indicating that it was they who had believed in Israel’s God and had protected Israel’s spies.
For further reading onn “holy war” and herem I recommend that people read Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, chapter 5 (pages 258ff); and on slavery in ancient Israel, chapter 3 (pages 80ff, especially page 81).
Dillard and Longman (An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 117) have pointed out how the New testament counterpart to the Book of Joshua is the Book of Acts:
“Many have also drawn a comparison between Joshua and the Book of Acts. After redemption from Egypt in the Exodus, Israel began the conquest of her inheritance; after the redemptive work of Jesus at the cross, his people move forward to conquer the world in his name. Israel enjoyed an earthly inheritance and an earthly kingdom, but the kingdom of which the church is a part is spiritual and heavenly.”In view of this comparison, it is worthwhile considering several details in Acts which match conceptually events under consideration here. In consideration of the fact that it was God, and not themselves, who was the true conqueror of Jericho (and similar cities such as Ai), the Israelites were commanded to devote all captured persons and items to the Lord (the ḥerem ban). Failure to do so resulted in ferreting out the individual at fault and allowing God’s judgment to fall upon that individual. In the case of Joshua, the individual was Achan, who was ferreted out, identified, allowed to confess his guilt, and judged by God with death (ch. 7, on which more in a later posting). In the Acts narrative the culprits are Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who failed to carry out the gift of all that they had sworn to devote to the Lord’s cause and his people (Acts ch. 5; see my Acts blog on this story).
The second similarity has to do with God’s determination to save out of the enemy’s ranks all those who recognized him as not only Israel’s Savior, but their own as well. In the book of Joshua this Gentile believer is Rahab the prostitute. In the book of Acts it is not just one individual but a whole group of individual examples provided by Luke, beginning with Cornelius the centurion in Acts 10-11 (here too see my Acts blog) and continuing throughout the rest of the book.
These two aspects of God’s mode of action in both Joshua and Acts reflect two important aspects of the eternal character of God, which do not change over time: (1) his absolute holiness which requires him to judge and eradicate all evil, and (2) his boundless mercy and love for all who will sincerely call upon him to save them.
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with [Moses] and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:5-7 NIV)These two aspects of God’s nature met at the cross of Jesus, who took upon himself God’s just judgment of the world’s sins. As St. Paul wrote:
"… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:23-26 NIV).It was at the cross of Jesus that
“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. ” (Psalm 85:10 KJV).Whoever does not see these twin aspects of God’s character—his justice and his mercy—does not really know him.