What Really Happened at Jericho
For many people, what is known of the book of Joshua could be summarized by one verse of the African- American spiritual:
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,
And the walls came a- tumbling down.
(If pressed, Rahab also might be mentioned as a contributing character.)
There is some truth in this portrayal. Joshua is a main character, and the battle of Jericho one of the book’s pivotal events. While this is not all Joshua is about—sadly, most people don’t read much beyond Jericho—it is an important part.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the events at Jericho as they’re presented in Joshua 5:13–6:27 and aim to tackle some of the challenges this story presents for the church today.
Warfare in the Ancient Near East and the command of total destruction
The warfare practices represented in Joshua 6 are part and parcel of their ancient Near Eastern context. For instance, Jericho is barred and “no one went out and no one came in” (6:1), terms similarly used in siege accounts such as the eighth century Egyptian victory stele of King Piye. He imposes sieges, “not letting goers go, not letting entrants enter.” Once a city is taken, the consecration of booty to the god is known from thirteenth century BC Egyptian texts.
The practice of destruction of life was also common. Several texts speak of the utter destruction of populations, although the hyperbolic nature of the claims is evident in that the populations continued. For example, the fifteenth century Gebal Barkal Stele of Thutmose III reads:
The great army of Mitanni, it is overthrown in the twinkling of an eye. It has perished completely, as though they had never existed.
The practice appears repeatedly in the twelfth century BC Assyrian Annals of Tiglath- Pileser who “burned, razed, and destroyed” many cities. He also curses conquered Hunusu:
[I] conquered that city. I took their gods; and I carried off their booty, possession and property. I burned the city. Three great walls which were constructed with baked bricks and the entire city I razed and destroyed. I turned it into a ruin hill and a heap. . . . I inscribed . . . a warning not to occupy that city and not to rebuild its wall.
How to understand the command of total destruction
The destruction of Jericho is the first and most extreme application of the herem command in Joshua—the command of total destruction. Reading the herem text within the context of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts aids in understanding what is (and is not) intended by the words of these texts and the purposes for which these texts were written.
But such understanding does not preclude the reality these texts communicate: people died, and cities were burned by the command of God.
The challenge of Jericho is not unique to our modern context (as if moderns are somehow more sensitized to the destruction of war). Origen, writing in the third century AD showed full awareness of the difficulty, seeing it as necessarily requiring spiritual reading:
Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ, who came to teach peace, so that they could be read in the churches.
A similar discomfort is apparent in Eric Seibert’s recent comments on Joshua 6–11:
By any standard of measure, the narrative describing the conquest of Canaan in Joshua 6–11 is one of the most morally troubling texts in the entire Old Testament. Historically, it has also been one of the most toxic. This text has had an extremely harmful afterlife and has been used to provide religious rationale for some of the most heinous acts of violence in human history. People have repeatedly utilized the conquest narrative to justify colonialism and its attendant evils of warfare, killing, theft, and dispossession.
Interpretative attention to this problematic aspect of Joshua is important. But much more can be said of Joshua 6 (as the first of the warfare texts in the book); to focus primarily upon the herem in fact moves in a direction that the biblical text itself does not take. Not only is the herem a reality limited in time primarily to this era of Israel’s life, but in books canonically following Joshua, it is downplayed, and focus is directed in other ways. This is suggestive of the biblical writers’ own discomfort with this aspect of Israel’s past life and their ability to come to terms with it. The canon, in its references and allusions to Joshua, plots a trajectory away from the herem of Joshua 6 toward an attitude of inclusion of the foreigner.
This in turn provides a context in which Jesus’ call to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44–5) is easily located.
The significance of marching around Jericho seven times
The number seven is characteristic of the Jericho account and is found elsewhere in biblical military accounts (1 Sam 11:3; 13:8; 1 Kgs 20:29; 2 Kgs 3:9). Ancient Near Eastern military and cultic texts also feature the number seven.
In the Kirta epic, a mid- second millennium text from the kingdom of Ugarit north of Canaan, the king is commissioned by the god El to divinely- planned military action. The seven-day march and siege effects the enemy’s submission by aligning military effort with sacred time and the will of the commissioning god:
March a day, and then a second
A third day, and a fourth;
A fifth day, and a sixth.
Then, at sunrise, on the seventh,
When you arrive at Udum the great
Arrive at Udum majestic
Attack its outlying town, assault the surrounding villages!
Then halt, a day and a second
A third day, and a fourth
A fifth day, and a sixth . . .
Then, at sunrise, on the seventh,
King Pabuli will sleep no more . . .
Then he’ll send two messengers,
To Kirta in the night- camp . . .
Take, O Kirta, offerings— offerings of peace!
A similar emphasis is found in cultic entry rituals that bring the deity to the king’s palace by a grand procession and sacrifices. One such ritual found in Ugaritic literature reads, “The king will go take the gods. Everyone will follow the gods on foot; the king himself will go on foot, seven times for all of them.” The parallel to the procession of the ark around Jericho is apparent, setting Israel’s action in the cultic as well as military sphere.
What does Jericho represent?
Jericho has been interpreted typologically or symbolically as the world, the flesh, and the devil overcome by Christ and the believer.
Origen’s preaching on Joshua includes the figure of Jericho as the world, out of which the church (Rahab) is saved. The trumpets blown against the city are a figure of the gospel preached by its priests or ministers. It is the word of God, sounded out in the ministry of preaching, that proclaims judgment against the world.18 In a further reflection on this typological reading of Jericho, Origen reads the battle as a call to holy living in which each believer battles against his or her sins.19 Origen also extends this figure eschatologically, so that Jericho (the world) falls at the end of the age— an end signaled by the trumpet blast of 1 Corinthians 15:52. Out of this world, Rahab (the church) is saved at the end of time.
Origen is not alone in such figural readings. The fifth century Maximus of Turin also likened the trumpet to the word preached. Maximus likened the walls that fall to “evil thoughts [that] have been destroyed” so that the preaching of the priests “penetrates to the bare parts of the soul, for the soul is found bare before the Word of God when its every evil deed is destroyed.” Maximus sums up the figure:
In this regard, before the soul knows God and accepts the truth of the faith, it veils itself, so to speak, under superstitious works and surrounds itself with something like a wall of perversity, such that it might seem to be able to remain impregnable within the fortifications of its own evildoing. But when the sacred sound thunders, its rashness is overthrown, its thinking is destroyed, and all the defenses of its superstitions break asunder in such a way that, remaining unprotected, as it is written, the Word of God might penetrate even to the division of its spirit and its inmost parts . . . . so also now the priestly preaching subjugates, captures and takes vengeance on a sinful people.
Maximus also follows Origen’s eschatological reading. In his reading, the seven days of marching figures the fullness of time after which the world will perish, with the one who does the will of the Lord enduring forever (citing 1 John 2:17).
This eschatological reading also appears in the nineteenth century writer, Charlotte Maria Tucker. Despite the growing predominance of historical and historical- critical readings of the time, Tucker continues with common figural readings. She construes Rahab as the church, anxiously watching for the fullness of time:
There is much that reminds us of Christ’s church, in the position of the pale, anxious woman of Jericho, watching from her casement the Israelites encircling the city doomed to destruction, she herself secure in a promise, saved by faith. . . . A thousand years with the Lord is but as a day, and for nearly six such periods has the silent, solemn march of events, brought nearer the grand consummation before us. . . . She [Rahab/Church] is listening with trembling expectation for the sound of the shout, and the voice of the archangel, and the trump of God [citing 1 Thess 4:16]. . . . She has nothing to fear in that day: the blood of Christ is her salvation— the angel of destruction will see the token of living faith [Tucker here making a common figural association of the scarlet cord and the blood of Christ], and touch not the redeemed of the Lord.
In a recent class on Joshua, readings representing this approach were shared with students preparing for a variety of church and parachurch ministry. Students expressed varying degrees of resonance with such figural reading of the Canaanites and the inhabitants of Jericho. There was recognition that the helpfulness of such figural reading was not an attempt to sidestep historical questions but opened up yet another way to engage the text for Christian reading. Comparison was made to a similar appropriation of the many enemies presented in the Psalter. These enemies might be flesh- and- blood enemies but could also be enemies such as sickness, rejection, and even the discord of psychological pain. The broad range of presentation of the enemy in the Psalter becomes a means of entry into the Psalter’s words and experience: one was readily able to read one’s own challenges into the enemy presented in the psalms.
Granted that the psalms and Joshua are two very different genres, the engagement with the enemies of the psalmists provides a way to consider the enemies in Joshua. Such a reading could be considered an extension of the figural reading in which Joshua stands as a type for Jesus. As Joshua led Israel against its flesh- and- blood enemies, so Jesus leads the church and its individual members against the spiritual forces in heavenly places arrayed against it. Such a figural reading, by which the church considers the Canaanites as types of the soul’s enemies, need not be wholly abandoned.
A different battle
Dr. Gordon Franklin was the New Testament professor at Northwest Bible College in Edmonton, Alberta. Although I attended there thirty years ago, I still remember several of his ideas and ways of capturing truth. Some of his one liners were priceless, pithy, and still ring true today. He once commented that churches can forget that they are on the front lines of a battle and in doing so, forget what really matters and perhaps lose sight of the battle itself. He would say, “Only those far behind the front lines complain of warm beer.” I often recall that saying when churchgoers grumble about things that are, in the grand scheme of God’s action, inconsequential. Perhaps they grumble because they’ve left the battle and are far away from Christian action. Or perhaps they’ve forgotten they stand on the front lines where beer (warm or otherwise) is not the issue. Those who see themselves on the front lines know the real issue is the spiritual battle in which Christians are engaged. This is their focus (Eph 6:10–17).
Joshua’s query to the heavenly commander, and the response he receives, are reminders of that heavenly battle. Joshua initially fails to recognize the heavenly nature of this commander, reducing him to earthly concerns of “whose side are you on?”
It is not uncommon in the Christian tradition to understand the commander as the preincarnate Christ. Calvin makes this identification in his commentary on Joshua 5:13–15, “it was thus a special pledge of the divine favor that the Captain and Head of the Church, to whom Moses had been accustomed, was now present to assist.” Whether this identification is correct, or whether the commander is heavenly but only of an angelic order (see Explain the Story above), the point is clear. There are things more important for Joshua to know than whether the commander was Israelite or Canaanite.
The commander’s response directs Joshua to the more important reality of the unseen realm. It is Joshua’s recognition of this new, heavenly perspective that precipitates his openness to listen. It likewise precipitates his response to the holy. Israel’s battle fought in the human sphere dealt with heavenly realities: God was near and the ground holy. Recognizing this, Joshua removed his shoes, heard God’s direction, and acted accordingly.
This discussion can be added to the earlier consideration of a Christian reading of the Canaanites as spiritual enemies. As the church and its members attend to the heavenly realities of frontline warfare, it sees beyond the human manifestation of such battle. The church is invited to see the heavenly realities behind the human realm so that it not be blind to God’s presence. The church is called to fight not against flesh- and- blood enemies but against spiritual forces in heavenly places. In such battles (as in all of life), the church acknowledges it walks in the power and presence of God and fights with the weapons he has provided: dependent prayer and humble action.
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