The Trouble with Jericho

I mentioned in a recent blog post that an old friend of mine asked me, “What was the most faith-challenging thing I had encountered during my time in Israel and what was the most amazing thing?”  In that blog post, I wrote about what was one of the most amazing things I had encountered during my first semester in Israel.  In this post, I will tackle what was one of the most faith challenging places I visited:  Jericho.

About now, some of you are probably asking, “What’s wrong with Jericho?”  Anyone that spent any time in Sunday school as a child knows the incredible story of Jericho.  If you were in a Middle School or High School chorus, you probably sang the old spiritual (also sung by Elvis Presley):

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
Jericho Jericho
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho
And the walls come tumbling down

Before we get to Jericho, I need to back up.  The problem started before I visited Jericho.  The origin of the problem was probably my own naivete.  You see, I have pretty literalist tendencies when it comes to how I read the Bible.  Especially in narrative sections, I tend to believe that what the Bible says should be taken as being pretty accurate—at least in the context and perspective of those writing the account.  If there were inconsistencies in the Text, it was probably due to our own misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

I guess the first surprise on this journey was that many of those who would consider themselves to be “Biblical Archaeologists” don’t actually put a lot of stock in the Biblical Text—or at least in the historical accuracy of the Biblical Text before the late 8th century BC (the time of the Assyrian conquest and King Hezekiah).  Why is that? In all fairness, it is due in large part to the “facts in the ground”, or lack thereof.  The further back you go, the murkier it gets.

For example, there is scholarly debate about the Exodus and when the Israelites entered the Promised Land.  One opinion is that the Exodus was around 1270 BC.  This is known as the “Late Exodus.”  This group uses certain Biblical texts and information to come up with this date.  Another group, using different Biblical texts and information claim the Exodus was around 1446 BC.  This is known as the “Early Exodus.”  The majority of scholars, however, hold another opinion:  the Exodus didn’t happen.  Their reasoning?  In part, the lack of archaeological evidence.

Based upon a lack of archaeological evidence, some groups have gone so far as to argue that David and Solomon never really existed.  They were legend, much like King Arthur. Likewise, for many years, the dominant view among archaeologists was that the city of Jerusalem was very small (the Eastern Hill and Temple Mount) until the Greco-Roman period—despite the fact that the Bible gives pretty accurate details regarding the city walls and the gates of a much larger city.  The basis of their opinion was what they had NOT found in their excavations.  Those that believed in a small Jerusalem were called “Minimalists.” Those that felt the Biblical account was more accurate were called “Maximalists.”  The battle was heated.  The vast majority were in the Minimalist camp.  Maximalists had a pretty hard time of it until the 1970s.

In 1967, something important happened:  Israel regained control of Jerusalem in the Six Day War.  The Jewish Quarter of the Old City had been destroyed and would need to be rebuilt. This section of the city sits on the Western Hill—an area that the Minimalists believed was primarily agricultural prior to the Greco-Roman period. Before rebuilding, the State of Israel decided to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to excavate in the Jewish Quarter.  They put one of Israel’s most respected archaeologists in charge of the program:  Nahman Avigad, head of the Archaeology Department at Hebrew University.  Dr. Avigad was a careful and humble man.  He was also a staunch Minimalist.

Avigad faced incredible pressure from all sides.  On one side, the archaeological community and Biblical scholars wanted to make the most of this opportunity.  On another side were those that felt Israel needed to rebuild and resettle the Jewish Quarter quickly to avoid foreign intervention.  Then there were the developers and construction firms that were anxious to make some money.  From the outset, it seemed like a no-win situation.

Yet, while excavating in their first section (Area A), Avigad and his team uncovered something remarkable: a very large wall.  The wall was three times thicker than the current 16th century Old City walls.  The wall dated to the late 8th Century BC, the time of King Hezekiah.  In other words, the Maximalist view, and the Bible, were correct.  So troubling was this discovery to the Minimalist position, that Avigad set up a small team within his group to act as “Devil’s Advocate” to attempt to poke holes in the idea that this wall proved the Maximalists’ stance.  In the end, and with great reluctance, Avigad and his team acknowledged that they had found proof of the size of the city of Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the 1st temple and that the Maximalist position and Biblical account were correct.  Today, this section of wall is called, Avigad’s Wall.  Later archaeologists would find more remnants of the wall on other parts of the Western Hill.

King Hezekiah was making the city ready for an Assyrian invasion that he knew was coming.  He had four years to get the city ready.  The city had expanded out onto the Western Hill—which was unprotected.  So, he undertook a massive building project to extend the walls and fortify the city before the Assyrians got there.  One thing that was very interesting in Avigad’s excavation was that underneath a portion of the wall was a foundation of a house.  It appeared as if the house was destroyed to the foundation and the wall built over top.  An eyewitness to these events was the prophet, Isaiah.  In his book, he writes an interesting criticism of Hezekiah:

On that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that there were many breaches in the city of David, and you collected the waters of the lower pool. You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago. (Isa. 22:8b-11, NRSV)

Isaiah records that Hezekiah broke down houses in order to fortify the wall.  In Avigad’s Area A, they found evidence of this very thing that the Bible mentions almost in passing.

The Broad Wall

Home Foundation underneath the Broad Wall.

So, where did the Minimalists go wrong?  The easy answer is that they should pay more careful attention to the Biblical text.  However, that’s really a cheap shot.  The first mistake they made was something we are all guilty of:  bias.  Whether we like to admit it or not, our interpretation of data is easily influenced by our personal biases.  We expect to see the world in certain ways and ignore facts that don’t align with our desired perception of reality.  However, the bigger mistake they made was making an argument from silence.  That’s not bias, it’s faulty science.  The fact that you have NOT found something cannot be grounds for saying that thing never existed.

So What’s Wrong with Jericho?

OK, so that’s a really long-winded introduction to the topic at hand:  Jericho.


My kids grew up watching Veggie Tales—Biblical stories told by a group of cartoon vegetables, singing silly songs and delivering valuable moral lessons.  There were just enough subtle adult references to keep the parents amused as well.  The Veggie Tales re-telling of the battle of Jericho was called, “Josh and the Big Wall.”  Jericho was inhabited by small French peas in homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  In the Biblical narrative, God tells the Israelites to march around the city once each day for six days and on the seventh day they are to march around it seven times, blow their trumpets and yell.  After doing that the walls fell down and Israel ransacked Jericho.  Their first victory in the Promised Land.

jericho tower

Jericho Tower estimated to be 10,000 years old. Photo Courtesy of Photoguide 4, Accordance Bible Software

Any child that has attended Sunday school knows that Jericho was a major city with massive walls.  In fact, archaeological evidence very clearly shows that Jericho was a major city with very large walls.  Excavations indicate that it may be the oldest city found to-date on earth.  It also shows that it was destroyed and burned—much like what the Biblical text describes.

jericho trench

Jericho excavation trench. Evidence of mud brick walls. Photo courtesy of Photoguide 4, Accordance Bible Software

About now, you are probably thinking, it all sounds pretty straightforward.  What’s the problem?  Well, the problem is that the destruction of Jericho was well before the Israelites left Egypt, regardless of whether you hold to the late or early exodus theories.  In fact, no archaeological evidence has been found to-date that aligns with habitation of Jericho for either an early or late exodus.  From the evidence, it seems very unlikely that the Israelites were responsible for the destruction of Jericho that is evidenced in the archaeological record.

I can already feel some of you getting your hackles up.  Before you start posting all sorts of angry comments, let’s look a little deeper at what the Bible actually says and what might be our own personal biases.  In the interest of space, I am not going to quote the whole story.  You can read it in the book of Joshua, chapter 6.  Here is what we know from the Biblical account:

  • It was a city with walls surrounding it and a gate
  • There were houses built into the wall
  • It had a king.
  • There were soldiers there.
  • There was a prostitute living there with her extended family.
  • There was livestock, gold and silver.

So, those are the facts that we get from the Biblical account.  What information don’t we know from the Bible?

  • We don’t know the population of Jericho.
  • We don’t know how large of a city it was.
  • We don’t know how high the walls were.

In order to help us better understand what the Bible says, we need to look at a couple of the Hebrew words used in the account to see if they can help shed light on the story.  The first word, is the Hebrew word for “city”:  Iyr (עִיר).  This word is a little vague.  It really refers to a population center.  It could be a large city or even a small town or village.  The second word is the Hebrew word for “king”: Melek (מֶלֶך).  This word is also pretty general.  It is used to describe God as “King of the Universe”, a king like David or Solomon, or even a town or tribal chief.  So, neither of these words really help shed light on the story.

Making Sense of It All

So, how do we reconcile the “facts in the ground” with the Biblical text?  I will admit that I pondered this question quite a bit this last semester.  However, my instructor put forward an idea that I believe fits the Biblical narrative and the archaeological evidence.  The solution is that Jericho was possibly a military outpost of small-to-moderate size.  This sort of outpost would easily have had a ruler (Melek), soldiers, livestock and a prostitute.  This seems to best fit what has been found to-date in the ground and the Biblical Text.

Wait!  Am I not falling into the same trap that the Minimalists did; arguing from silence?  Perhaps.  It is possible that in the future archaeologists might uncover some section of Jericho that aligns with the Biblical account and our traditional understanding of the story.  However, the facts in the ground uncovered to date, don’t support it.

In this case, I don’t think the problem is with the archaeological methodologies, evidence or the Biblical story.  The problem lies in our personal biases.  Whether we realize it or not, we all have some vision in our mind’s eye about the city walls of Jericho.  We read the Biblical account and we imagine a massive wall (á la Veggie Tales) and a huge destruction.

Yet, give me the benefit of the doubt for a minute and let’s imagine what happens to the significance of the Biblical story if we assume it was a small military outpost.  First, we need to remember that Israel had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.  They had been totally dependent upon God for food and water.  They’ve had a few skirmishes with local tribes along the way, but were largely untested in battle.  Moses had died and Joshua was the newly-minted (and unproven) leader.  A lot was riding on this first victory.  If things didn’t go well at Jericho, then Israel’s faith in God could be broken and the conquest of the Promised Land would probably end before it began.  There was a lot riding on this first battle.

So, what if the first conquest in the Promised Land was a small military outpost?  What does that do to the confidence of the Israelites?  What does it say about God and the destruction of innocent lives?  What does it say about God caring for His people?  For me, it shows a God that was willing to take his people where they were and work with them to build their faith to help them see that He could do great things through them.  He doesn’t give them a task that seems too overwhelming.  He gave them a task that would stretch and test their faith without overwhelming it.  He was going to build up to even greater events once He had refined them. There is an interesting passage in Deuteronomy that seems to give some indication of this:  “The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you” (Deut. 7:22).  God tells them that when they enter the land, would be given to them gradually.  They weren’t big enough or strong enough yet to manage the whole land.  It was going to take time.

For me, this speaks to how I see God working in my life.  Looking back, I can see how God has worked with me through smaller matters of faith to lead to greater things.  God often needs to refine and mature us in order to prepare us to accomplish His plans.

Personally, I think I like this version of the battle of Jericho better.  It’s more relatable to how God works in my life than the Veggie Tales version.  It might not make for good TV, but it certainly makes for a pretty good life.

So, you might be asking yourself: was there a big battle that God was preparing Israel to fight?  I think there was and we’ll look at it in the next blog post.


7 thoughts

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  3. Hey Rob, I’ve returned to this teaching a half-dozen time since you posted it. It continues to calm the angst I feel in comparing biblical narrative with archaeologic narrative. Keep them coming!


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  5. I understand what you are saying about the size of Jericho but you also mentioned that Jericho was destroyed while the Iraelites were still in Egypt. Maybe I just missed it but could you please explain that to me?


    • Hi Carlos,

      Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world. Archaeological studies indicate it is at least 10,000 years old. There is evidence of a massive destruction at Jericho that looks a whole lot like what the Bible describes. However, the dating of that destruction is problematic.

      The date of the destruction, as determined by archaeological studies, does not fit the biblical timeline. The destruction of Jericho was much earlier.

      So, if we believe the biblical account of the Israelites at Jericho, what sort of city was there? I argue that the “city” was a much smaller fortification. I believe that argument fits the bible text, when you carefully examine the Hebrew.

      In other words, our traditional interpretation of events is incorrect. The biblical text can be read to support a destruction of a small fortification rather than a massive, walled city.

      Hope that helps.



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