By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Battle of Jericho was the first battle fought by the Israelites during the course of their conquest of Canaan. Joshua leads the people of Israel in an attack on the ancient walled city, bringing the colossal walls of Jericho down with the sound of trumpets, according to the Book of Joshua from the Old Testament.
Let’s take a closer look at those trumpets, Joshua’s attack on the city, and the history of Jericho, as we seek to understand the meaning of this story and offer an analysis of its significance. But first, here’s a summary of what chapter 6 of Joshua tells us.
Joshua and the fall of Jericho: summary
Chapter 6 of Joshua (quotations below are given from the King James Version of the Bible) begins with the walled city of Jericho closed so that Joshua and the Israelites couldn’t breach its walls and make it inside:
6:1 Now Jericho was straitly shut up because of the children of Israel: none went out, and none came in.
God gives Joshua instructions on how to conquer this mighty city:
6:3 And ye shall compass the city, all ye men of war, and go round about the city once. Thus shalt thou do six days.
God commands the priests of Israel to parade the Ark of the Covenant – the chest containing the tablets on which the ‘Ten Commandments’ were inscribed – around the city as they perform their ritual around the outside of Jericho:
6:4 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.
Apparently, after doing this for seven days running, the sound of the trumpets will be enough to flatten the walls of the city and enable Joshua and the Israelites to take it:
6:5 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.
As commanded by God, they do this for six days, until the seventh day arrives:
6:15 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.
6:16 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.
The only person who will be kept alive is Rehab, a prostitute (and anyone else she lives with). This is because she acted as a fifth column for the Israelites and secretly took in the messengers Joshua smuggled into the city:
6:17 And the city shall be accursed, even it, and all that are therein, to the LORD: only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all that are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent.
And sure enough, when the priests blow the trumpets, the mighty walls of the city fall down:
6:20 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.
6:21 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.
Joshua and the fall of Jericho: analysis
Many Old Testament miracles plausibly have their roots in more down-to-earth happenings, and scholars have suggested that the fall of Jericho, if it happened at all, was the result of an earthquake that fortuitously coincided with the Israelites’ invasion of it.
However, this is one Old Testament event for which there appears to be no archaeological or textual support, outside of the Bible itself. Indeed, the leading consensus is that Jericho was actually unoccupied at the time of Joshua, following an earlier destructive Egyptian campaign.
Even when the biblical siege of Jericho would have taken place (if it ever did), around three thousand years ago, the city of Jericho was at least four thousand years old, with signs of a town having existed there (albeit under different names) as early as 5000 BC. However, even earlier, smaller settlements have been uncovered on the site dating back to 9000 BC. It’s hard to compute such numbers, but it means that Joshua and the biblical fall of Jericho is twice as close to our own time as it was to the earliest settlement on that part of the West Bank.
The walls of the Canaanite Jericho, archaeology shows, were between twelve and fourteen feet thick. It would take some trumpet blast to knock them down.
So should we treat Joshua’s siege of Jericho as purely a divine event, with God bringing down the walls for him (or the priests bringing down the walls, but with rather a lot of assistance from Yahweh)?
Perhaps. Certainly there appears to be little historical support for the event, but the symbolism of a mighty fortress city with thick walls being brought down by the Israelites, with God’s help, is a reminder that the children of Israel are God’s chosen and that they are destined to conquer Canaan.
Nevertheless, as Isaac Asimov points out in Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov, there may be something to the psychological warfare the Israelites waged on their opponents.
The Israelites’ circling of the city seven nights in a row and their parading of the sacred Ark of the Covenant may have had the effect of ‘spinning a supernatural net about the city’, undermining the inhabitants’ confidence that they could withstand a divinely powerful army.
And talking of ‘undermining’, it’s also possible that the trumpet calls were to disguise the sound of Joshua’s men digging under the wall’s foundations, ready to undermine those walls and bring them down. Again, this is pure speculation, and because the story appears to have little historical foundation of its own, we should probably just take the story for what it is.