The Saga of Ancient Jericho

A study of Joshua’s great victory over the ancient city of Jericho
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

After having spent forty hard years in the wilderness of Sinai, the children of Israel were stationed on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea. The challenge was now before them; they were to take the land of Canaan which Jehovah had promised to Abraham five centuries earlier.

The first obstacle in Israel’s path was the fortress city of Jericho. Joshua sent spies across the Jordan to survey the situation. When the presence of these Hebrews was detected, a Canaanite woman, Rahab the harlot, befriended them. Doubtless she saved their lives, and in turn, the spies promised that she and her family would be spared during the coming invasion (Joshua 2).

Shortly thereafter, Joshua led Israel against Jericho. The procedure for capturing the city was strange indeed, according to military standards. The Hebrews were to encompass the walls of the city once a day for six days, then, seven times on the seventh day. A blast was to be made on the priests’ trumpets, the people were to give a great shout, and the city would be theirs—for God had given it to them (Joshua 6:2,16). When the Hebrew people, by faith, followed this plan, the walls of Jericho fell down.

According to divine instructions, the Israelites then destroyed the inhabitants of the city (with the exception of Rahab and her kinsmen), both man and beast. They were charged to confiscate the gold and silver and the vessels of brass and iron for Jehovah’s treasury, but they were prohibited from taking any personal booty. The city was then burned. Finally, a prophetic curse was placed upon any who attempted to refortify Jericho (Joshua 6).

It is important to note at this point that the chronology of the Bible indicates that the Israelite conquest of Canaan took place near 1400 B.C. Upon the basis of archaeological data, we know that Solomon commenced his reign over the united kingdom of Israel about 970 B.C. Additionally, 1 Kings 6:1 states that from the fourth year of Solomon’s reign, back to the time of the exodus from Egypt, was a period of 480 years. This would suggest that Israel’s departure from Egypt occurred circa 1446/5 B.C. Since the invasion of Canaan commenced about forty years later (after Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness), this would put the conquest of Canaan at approximately 1406/5 B.C. It is important to remember this because liberal scholars, rejecting the chronology of the Bible, date these events 150 to 200 years later!

There are several important elements in this account worthy of consideration.

Is the Account Historically Accurate?

The historical accuracy of the fall of Jericho has lain under a cloud of doubt in the minds of many for more than three decades. John Garstang, a professor at the University of Liverpool, excavated Jericho between 1930 and 1936. Garstang identified a destruction level at the ancient site which he called City IV. He concluded that this was the occupation level which paralleled the city of Joshua’s day, and that the biblical account was accurate. Jericho had fallen to Israel about 1400 B.C. He wrote: “In a word, in all material details and in date the fall of Jericho took place as described in the Biblical narrative” (1937, 1222). For several years, scholars generally accepted Garstang’s conclusions. However, that was to radically change.

From 1952 to 1958, Kathleen Kenyon, of the British School of Archaeology (daughter of famed archaeologist, Sir Frederic Kenyon) supervised an expedition at Jericho. Her work was the most thorough and scientific that had been done at this site. Her team unearthed a significant amount of evidence, but surprisingly, Kenyon’s interpretation of the data was radically different from Garstang’s. She contended that City IV had been destroyed about 1550 B.C. and therefore there was no fortress city for Joshua to conquer around 1400 B.C. She suggested that the archaeological evidence discredited the biblical record! And, not surprisingly, a sizable segment of scholars fell dutifully into line. Whenever there appears to be an apparent conflict between the Bible and other data, there is always a certain group that immediately calls the Scriptures into question. They never have the patience to wait for the more complete picture. Comments like those of Magnusson are typical: “[O]n a purely literary level, the Book of Joshua reads more like an adventure story than history. . . [T]here is no archaeological evidence to support it” (1977, 96).

One of the most curious elements of this whole matter, however, is the fact that, prior to her death in 1978, Kathleen Kenyon’s opinions regarding Jericho had been published only in a popular book (Kenyon 1957), in a few scattered articles, and in a series of preliminary field reports. The detailed record of her work was not made available until 1982-83, and an independent analysis of that evidence is bringing to light some startling new conclusions.

The March/April, 1990 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, certainly no “fundamentalist” journal, contains an article titled, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?—A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” authored by Dr. Bryant G. Wood. Dr. Wood is a visiting professor in the department of Near Eastern studies at the University of Toronto. He has served in responsible supervisory positions on several archaeological digs in Palestine. In this scholarly article, Wood contends:

When we compare the archaeological evidence at Jericho with the Biblical narrative describing the Israelite destruction of Jericho, we find a quite remarkable agreement (1990, 53; emphasis added).

The professor emphasizes several major points of agreement between the archaeological evidence and the record in the book of Joshua. We summarize as follows.

The Bible indicates that Jericho was a strongly fortified city. It was surrounded by a “wall,” and access to the fortress could only be obtained through the city “gate” (Joshua 2:5,7,15; 6:5,20). Biblical Archaeology Review notes:

The city’s outer defenses consisted of a stone revetment wall [some fifteen feet high] at the base of the tell [hill] that held in place a high, plastered rampart. Above the rampart on top of the tell was [the remnant of] a mudbrick wall [about eight feet high at one point] which served as Jericho’s city wall proper (Wood 1990, 46).

According to the Old Testament, the invasion occurred just following the fourteenth day of Abib (March/April) (Joshua 5:10), thus in the springtime, or in the harvest season (3:15). Rahab was drying flax upon her roof (2:6). Both Garstang and Kenyon found large quantities of grain stored in the ruins of Jericho’s houses. In a very limited excavation area, Kenyon found six bushels of grain in one digging season. “This,” as Wood comments, “is unique in the annals of Palestinian archaeology” (1990, 56).

The biblical record affirms that the conquest was swiftly accomplished in only seven days (6:15). The people of Jericho were confined to the city with no chance to escape (6:1). The abundance of food supplies, as indicated above, confirms this. Had the citizens of Jericho been able to escape, they would have taken food with them. Had the siege been protracted, the food would have been consumed. The Old Testament record is meticulously accurate.

When the Israelites shouted with a great shout on that seventh day, the “wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city” (6:20; cf. Hebrews 11:30). Kenyon’s excavations uncovered, at the base of Jericho’s tell, a pile of red mudbricks which, she said, “probably came from the wall on the summit of the bank” (Kenyon 1981, 110; as quoted in Wood 1990, 54). She described the brick pile as the result of a wall’s “collapse.” Professor Wood states that the amount of bricks found in the cross-section of Kenyon’s work area would suggest an upper wall six and a half feet wide and twelve feet high (1990, 54).

According to the Scriptures, Jericho was to be a city “devoted” to God, hence, the Hebrews were to confiscate the silver and gold, and the vessels of brass and iron for Jehovah’s treasury. However, they were to take no personal possessions (6:17-19). The archaeological evidence confirms this. As indicated earlier, a considerable amount of grain was found in Jericho. Grain, in biblical times, was exceedingly valuable, being frequently used as a monetary exchange (see 1 Kings 5:11). It is therefore unthinkable, unless by divine design, that the Israelites would have taken Jericho, and left the grain intact. The Bible is right!

The Scriptures state that during the destruction of Jericho, the city was set on fire (6:24). When Miss Kenyon dug down into the city she discovered that the walls and floors of the houses were “blackened or reddened by fire. . . [I]n most rooms the fallen debris was heavily burnt” (Kenyon 1981, 370; as quoted in Wood 1990, 56).

The Bible indicates that Rahab’s house was built “upon the side of the wall, and she dwelt upon the wall” (2:15). A number of houses were found just inside the revetment wall, which could have abutted the wall, thus easily accommodating an escape access from the city (Wood 1990, 56). The evidence indicates that this area was the “poor quarter” of the city—just the type of residence that one might expect a harlot to have.

Whereas Kathleen Kenyon contended that Jericho (City IV) had been destroyed about 1550 B.C., and abandoned thereafter, hence, there was no city for Joshua to conquer in 1400 B.C. (according to the biblical chronology), the actual evidence indicates otherwise. A cemetery outside of Jericho

has yielded a continuous series of Egyptian scarabs [small, beetle-shaped amulets, inscribed on the underside, often with the name of a pharaoh] from the 18th through the early-14th centuries B.C.E., contradicting Kenyon’s claim that the city was abandoned after 1550 B.C.E." (Wood 1990, 53).

Other evidences indicate a harmony with the biblical chronology as well. There is absolutely no reason to contend that the book of Joshua is in error in its description of the conquest of Jericho.

Moral Difficulties

Some have argued that the account of Jericho’s destruction places the Bible in a morally compromising position. It is alleged that Rahab’s lies (Joshua 2:4-5) condone situation ethics, and that the slaughter of the city’s women and children (Joshua 6:21) is reprehensible—a reflection upon a benevolent God. These objections simply are not valid.

First, one should note that the Scriptures do not attempt to conceal Rahab’s falsehood. Her weakness is bluntly revealed. This evidences the impartiality of the divine record and is an indirect suggestion of inspiration. Too, one should understand that this woman was from a pagan environment. Her concept of morality and her personal lifestyle (she was a harlot) needed considerable refining. In spite of her sordid background, she had developed a sincere faith in Israel’s God (see Joshua 2:9ff). Consequently, when the spies approached her, she was not “disobedient” as were the others of Jericho. She received the spies and sent them out another way. It was by these “works” of faith that she was delivered (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). She was not “justified” by lying; rather, she was justified by her faith and her works, in spite of her ignorance and/or weakness. It would be a gross misuse of this narrative to employ it as proof that there are occasions when it is divinely permissible to lie.

We must not pass from this point without noting that the case of Rahab demonstrates the wonderful harmony between faith and works in the divine plan. The writer of Hebrews states that Rahab perished not, as a result of her faith; James declares that she was justified by her works. These two requirements are not mutually exclusive of one another.

Second, while the extermination of an entire population may seem excessively cruel when viewed as an isolated incident, other factors shed light on that situation. Consider the following:

  • The destruction of Canaan’s heathen tribes was justified in view of their utter abandonment of moral restraint. The ancient evidence indicates that they practiced child-sacrifice, religious prostitution, sodomy, etc. A people can reach a state of such deep depravity that the justice of God demands punishment.
  • Their destruction had not been rendered impetuously. Jehovah had been patient with them for more than five hundred years; finally, their cup of iniquity ran over and the time for judgment came (see Genesis 15:16).
  • This type of punishment was implemented on a rather limited basis—principally, upon the tribes of Palestine. This was due to the fact that God had chosen Canaan as the place where the Hebrew nation was to be cultivated in view of the coming Messiah, the Savior of the world. It was an example of moral surgery for the benefit of all mankind.
  • Finally, it is still true that these Old Testament narratives illustrate the fact that innocent people (e.g., infants) frequently have to suffer the consequences of evil acts which others generate, due to the kind of world in which we live. This should motivate us to want a better state wherein wickedness does not exist.

And so, though such cases as the fall of Jericho may entail some difficulty, the problem is not insurmountable.

The Prophetic Curse

Following the destruction of Jericho, Joshua pronounced an imprecation upon the ancient city, saying:

Cursed be the man before Jehovah that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: with the loss of his firstborn shall he lay the foundation thereof, and with the loss of his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it (Joshua 6:26).

Some writers have assumed that this prophecy failed, for not many years after Jericho’s fall, one reads of people living in Jericho (see Joshua 18:21; Judges 3:13; 2 Samuel 10:5). In fact, it is specifically called “the city of Jericho.” And yet, there is no record of the “curse” being fulfilled in those times proximate to Joshua’s invasion.

In response to this charge, several factors need to be noted. First, the prophetic curse did not state that Jericho was never to be inhabited. It does not even indicate that the city was never to be rebuilt. The divine prediction was simply this: the man who attempts to rebuild Jericho, as a fortress city (cf. “set up the gates of it,” 6:26) would be the recipient of the divine curse (see Coslinga 1986, 73).

The fact of the matter is, five and a half centuries later, during the reign of Ahab of Israel, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho as a fortress. And, precisely as Joshua had declared, he lost his oldest son when the foundation was laid, and his youngest son when the gates of the city were set up (see 1 Kings 16:34). The prophecy was fulfilled. There is no discrepancy in the Bible record.

  • Coslinga, C. J. 1986. Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Garstang, John. 1937. Jericho and the Biblical Story. Wonders of the Past. J. A. Hammerton, ed. New York, NY: Wise.
  • Kenyon, Kathleen. 1957. Digging Up Jericho. London, England: Ernest Benn.
  • Kenyon, Kathleen. 1981. Excavations at Jericho, Vol. 3: The Architecture and Stratigraphy of the Tell. Thomas A. Holland, ed. London, England: British School of Archaeology.
  • Magnusson, Magnus. 1977. Archaeology of the Bible. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • Wood, Bryant G. 1990. Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?—A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence. Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April.