What Happened at Jericho?
The fall of the Walls of Jericho, fresco by Raphael, The Vatican Museums, Rome, 1519
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson May 23 – May 29, Joshua 1-8; 23-24
We read in Joshua 6:1-5: “Now Jericho was straitly shut up because of the children of Israel: none went out, and none came in. And the Lord said unto Joshua, See, I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valour. And ye shall compass the city, all ye men of war, and go round about the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days. And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams’ horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets. And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall ascend up every man straight before him.”
So, according to the story, Joshua obeyed God’s commandment and set his army seven days around the walls of Jericho. “And he said unto the people, Pass on, and compass the city, and let him that is armed pass on before the ark of the Lord.” (Joshua 6:7). “And Joshua rose early in the morning, and the priests took up the ark of the Lord. And seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the Lord went on continually, and blew with the trumpets: and the armed men went before them; but the rearward came after the ark of the Lord, the priests going on, and blowing with the trumpets.” (Joshua 6:12-13). This continued for six days. “And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they rose early about the dawning of the day, and compassed the city after the same manner seven times: only on that day they compassed the city seven times.And it came to pass at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city.” (Joshua 6:15-16). “So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.” (Joshua 6:20). “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword…And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein: only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord.” (Joshua 6:21, 24).
This “Battle of Jericho” is one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament, and its fame has been enhanced by an old, well-known African-American spiritual, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” by an unknown author, or perhaps Jay Roberts, who copyrighted the song in 1865, but it was probably originally sung during the first half of the nineteenth century. The fame was also enhanced by artist depictions, such as The fall of the Walls of Jericho, fresco by Raphael, located in The Vatican Museums, Rome, 1519, shown at the beginning of this essay. That painting depicts distinctly Renaissance towers of a mighty walled city. Likewise, later artistic depictions, such as, The Seven Trumpets of Jericho, by James Tissot, 1904, show a very impressive walled city. Later depictions show ever higher and more impressive city walls.
The problem with the biblical story and the later depictions is that the “battle” apparently didn’t occur exactly as described or depicted. Moses had brought the Children of Israel to a place across the Jordan River from Jericho and the Israelites encamped there (c.f. Numbers 26:3). They apparently did not know the lay of the land in Canaan, west of the Jordan, so sent out men before them to search out the land (c.f. Deuteronomy 1:22-28). When those spies returned, they told of a land flowing with “milk and honey,” and wonderful fruit. “Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak [giants] there… and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” However, one of the spies was certain they could take the land. “And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” (Numbers 13:26-33). Because of this “evil report,” and because no one apparently believed Caleb, the Israelites were afraid to enter the land of Canaan. We read in Numbers 14:1-3, “And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us to return into Egypt?”
Joshua and Caleb stood before the Israelites and said, “…rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, and the Lordis with us: fear them not. But all the congregation bade stone them with stones…” (Numbers 14:6-10) Because the Israelites rebelled against God, even after all the miracles they had seen, the Lord said to them, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me. Say unto them, As truly as I live, saith the Lord, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you: Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me, Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised. But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:27-33)
We don’t know what the Israelite spies actually saw in Canaan, we only know what they apparently reported. What had Caleb seen that the others either hadn’t seen or, at least didn’t report? What did Caleb mean by, “…their defence is departed from them…?” Here’s a “what if” story. What if the spies approached Jericho, up to a safe distance away, and saw a hill with a wall around the sides? What they apparently didn’t know, or at least failed to report, was that the mud brick upper sections of the walls had broken off their stone foundations and slid part way down the hillside around three hundred years earlier (around 1550 BC – it was around 1240 BC when the spies were sent out). The evidence of this condition is discussed more fully below. Eleven of the twelve spies saw a “city” on the hill surrounded by a wall. What Caleb perhaps saw was that the wall had already fallen.
Now fast forward forty years. The Israelites are back at the same camp site on the east side of the Jordan. They cross the Jordan on dry land (something that apparently happened often with the Jordan: Joshua 3:14-17; 2 Kings2:8; 2 Kings 2:14), and attack the long-deserted city of Jericho. What? Long-deserted? No one wants to tell the story that the Israelites wandered around in the desert forty years because they were afraid to attack a deserted city, with the walls already collapsed. One must assume that the women and children were left in camp at Gilgal (Joshua 5:10), on the west side of the Jordan, and that only the men attacked the “city” of Jericho, some eight miles away. Who of them wanted to tell their women and children that they had attacked an empty city? Caleb and Joshua were old men by then, and maybe the story of the “battle” was passed around without their knowledge. The story would have been passed down for the next five hundred years or so as oral tradition before it was ever written down. Maybe the story had been embellished by the addition of the army marching around Jericho seven times. How else would one explain how the walls just fell “down flat” (Joshua 6:20) on their own? The statement that “…the people shall ascend up every man straight before him” (Joshua 6:20) suggests that the “city,” or what was left of it, was on a hill.
Here’s what we know about Jericho from extensive archaeological research: located just under twenty eight miles northeast of Jerusalem, Jericho is the second most excavated site in Israel – only surpassed by Jerusalem itself. In around 1200 BC, Jerusalem, was a modest-sized but growing settlement, was the center a vassal city-state ruled by Egypt, and housed an Egyptian garrison. Jericho, on the other hand, had been deserted for around two hundred years.
In 1867, a young British Captain of the Royal Engineers, by the name of Charles Warren was hired by the Palestine Exploration Fund to begin the first modern archaeological excavations of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and in the surrounding areas. Warren’s greatest discovery in Jerusalem was a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the Temple Mount, and a water shaft down there, now known as Warren’s shaft.1 In 1868, Warren also dropped several shafts into the Jericho tell (hill) but found nothing there.
Apparently, no further archaeological excavations were undertaken at Jericho for the next forty years. Then in 1907-1913, two Germans, Ernst Sellin, a Protestant theologian, and the archaeologist, Carl Watzinger, excavated the site. They discovered a large revetment wall, composed of large Cyclopean stones at the base with a mudbrick wall above, which had supported the slope of the Jericho tell during the Middle Bronze (3300 BC to 1200 BC). This initial find supported the story of Joshua’s capture of the city in around 1400 to 1200 BC.2
The site was excavated by the British archaeologist, John Garstang, in 1930–36. Garstang was an early pioneer in application of the scientific method to archaeology. He kept detailed notes of his excavations, supplemented with extensive photographs, a somewhat rare practice in early 20th-century archaeology.3
Then, in 1952–58, the Jericho tell was excavated by Kathleen Kenyon, a renowned British archaeologist and member of the Council of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. The absence of certain Cypriot pottery at City IV (suggesting that the site was unoccupied from around 1600 to 1200 BC) led Kenyon to conclude that the destruction of that era’s Jericho was earlier than previously proposed – perhaps as early as 1600 BC, some 400 years before the Israelites arrived.4 During her excavations, Kenyon discovered a massive, 26-foot diameter tower that stood 26 feet tall, built around 8000–7000 BC, and connected on the inside of a wall that was 13 feet thick. Based on that discovery, archaeologists have listed Jericho as the “oldest city in the world,” with the oldest city wall ever discovered – with a date now pushed back to as early as 9000 BC.5Kenyon concluded that, “Except for a small, short-lived settlement (ca. 1400 B.C.), Jericho was completely uninhabited ca. 1550-1100 B.C.” This date has been confirmed by a variety of other methods including radiocarbon dating.6 Both Garstang and Kenyon found numerous storage jars full of grain in City IV and concluded that the city must have been destroyed soon after harvest time when the granaries were full.7
From 1997 to 2019, excavations at Jericho were under the direction of Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of the Palestinian National Authority, in cooperation with Lorenzo Nigro, an Italian archaeologist, who is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Coordinator of the Oriental Section of the Department of Sciences of Antiquities of Sapienza University of Rome. The major contribution of the Italian–Palestinian expedition has been to develop an overall periodization of the site, reexamining and largely confirming the data produced by previous expeditions, especially those of Kenyon.8 The expeditions also discovered new material, such as a tower of the Middle Bronze Age and a Palace from the early Bronze Age.
Apparently around the time Jericho was destroyed, some forty other cities in Canaan were also destroyed. Most scholars attribute these destructions to the military campaigns of Pharaohs Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II.9 So the Israelite encroachment and settlement into Canaan was apparently more peaceful than what the “heroic” Biblical accounts suggest. The archaeological evidence suggests an infiltration, rather than a conquest, extending over several hundred years. Some scholars have attempted to contract the destruction of Jericho from 1550 BC down to 1400 and to expand the Israelite incursion into Canaan from 1200 BC to 1400 to stretch the two ends of the string together and make the archaeology fit a reworked Biblical account. The simplest explanation is that later Israelite historians/propagandists took a real story and embellished it to make their history seem more exciting.
Such a modification does not negate the story that the Israelites had been led by God from Egypt, where they had been for four hundred years after Jacob’s family had been saved from famine, but where they may not have been in the level of slavery, and certainly not in the numbers, depicted in the Biblical account; to Canaan, which had been promised to Abraham’s seed. They apparently arrived in Canaan around 1240 BC, which had been greatly weakened by destruction from Egypt, followed by a decline in Egyptian power. After hanging out in the desert for forty years because they were afraid of giants and other non-existent boogie men, they entered a country where previously powerful cities largely lay in waste: “…their defence is departed from them…” (Numbers 14:9) They occupied the previously sparsely settled hill country, moving in over several generations, beginning in about 1200 BC. Then later chroniclers enhanced their history by embellishing the stories of their entry into Canaan. However, the general story remains true: the miracles provided by God to sustain them, the receiving of the codified Ten Commandments, and their settling into their new, but not fully comfortable homes in Canaan – largely because of the continuing disobedience.
There are many events in US history where our memory and reality don’t jibe. The Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place mainly on Breed’s Hill – and the Red Coats won. What about that lonely midnight ride of Paul Revere, immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem – Revere was only one of over forty riders who spread the word that night that the Regulars were coming – after all, they were all British. Longfellow’s poem is much more poetic than factual throughout. The Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4th 1776, but rather on August 2nd of that year.
What about the “First Thanksgiving,” in the fall of 1621, which was neither first nor a thanksgiving. It was a rather traditional harvest festival like those in Europe, probably held around Michaelmas (Sept. 29) at the end of the harvest. The “passive” Pilgrims apparently did not invite the Wampanoag Native Americans, with whom they had signed a treaty, to the feast. Rather, the Wampanoag heard gunfire coming from Plymouth, as the Pilgrims were celebrating, and came to investigate. The fifty Pilgrims, who were celebrating, wisely chose to invite the ninety Wampanoag to stay and eat. In return, the natives brought venison to contribute to the three-day feast. Furthermore, people in the Commonwealth of Virginia had been celebrating thanksgivings since around 1607. One charter specifically required, “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” There was a thanksgiving feast in Jamestown, Virginia in 1610.10 So why don’t we depict Virginia settlers rather than Massachusetts settlers as our models of Thanksgiving? Politics.
President Abraham Lincoln, attempting to bolster the country in the midst of the Civil War, declared that the last Thursday of November was to be set aside as a national Thanksgiving Day. The Proclamation by President Lincoln, penned by Secretary of State William H. Seward, 3 October 1863, states, in part:
“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God…”
“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens...”11 Lincoln’s proclamation did not mention either Pilgrims or Native Americans.
Abraham Lincoln’s presidential successors followed his example of annually declaring the final Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving until 1939, when the celebration was changed to the fourth Thursday because there were five Thursdays that year. In 1941, the House and Senate passed a joint resolution fixing the fourth Thursday as the date to celebrate, and on December 26, 1941, amidst the opening terrors of WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law.
At about the same time, according to historian David Silverman, a fable that our Pilgrim ancestors come to America for religious freedom was advanced by New England Protestants in an attempt to gain an advantage in the country’s cultural/political hierarchy, placing them above Catholics and late-comer immigrants. Nineteenth-century Americans were looking for an origin story that wasn’t soaked in Native American blood, didn’t carry with it the religious prejudices from the Old World, and wasn’t built on the backs of slaves. The humble, “conflict-free” story of one hundred two Pilgrims forging their way in a New World in search of religious freedom was just the ticket. Regardless of whether or not the myth was rooted in historical fact, it was advanced as truth.12
Many, if not most, events in history are different from what has been written about them. That does not mean that American rebels didn’t fight the British regulars on a hill outside of Boston, that Paul Revere didn’t ride, that the Declaration of Independence was not signed, that there wasn’t a first Thanksgiving, that religion didn’t play a role in at least some Pilgrims coming to America, or that the Israelites didn’t come from Egypt to Canaan. When we learn the apparent facts about an event – and no one has all the facts, not even the people who were there – someone writing the history, especially years after the event, usually gets part, if not most of the story wrong – or even fabricates large portions.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. Rossner, Rena, The once and future city, The Jerusalem Post 26 January 2006; jpost.com/Local-Israel/In-Jerusalem/The-once-and-future-city; Retrieved 12 May 2022
3. Garnett, Anna, John Rankin and John Garstang, Founding Egyptology in a Pioneering Age; archive.org/web/20160617142729/https://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/research/ directory/material_culture_wengrow/Anna_Garnett.pdf; retrieved 12 May 2022
4. Davis, Miriam, Dame Kathleen Kenyon Digging up the Holy Land, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, Calif, 2008
6. Hubbard, Jr., Robert L., Joshua, Zondervan Academic, Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2009
8. lasapienzatojericho.it/History.php; retrieved 12 May 2022
10. Lawler, Andrew, The First Thanksgiving, National Geographic, November 2018; Morill, Ann, Thanksgiving and Other Harvest Festivals, Chelsea House Publications, New York, 2009
11. obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/transcript_for_abraham_lincoln_thanksgiving_proclamation_1863.pdf; retrieved 13 May 2022
12. Silverman, David, This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019