Wibble Wednesday: The walls came tumbling down (Joshua 4–6)

OK, this week I’m going to try to get done on time.

The quick snarky summary: In an almost certainly ahistorical development, the Israelites conquer a walled city. Surprisingly, they do not do it by swarming over the walls like ants or by starving the inhabitants out, but with weird wall-destroying ritual.


As of last chapter, the Israelites are an invasionary force. By crossing the Jordan, they have occupied Canaan proper. It’s worth noting, of course, that they’ve already conquered, looted, and settled part of what would have been regarded after the stabilization of the monarchy as the “Kingdom of Israel”, since that actually included a good chunk of Transjordan. However, in spite of the settlement on the east bank, the text to this point has considered the true patrimony of the Israelites which it’s their destiny to conquer to be bounded by the Jordan.

We already know they’re heading to Jericho, which is a useful bit of knowledge since we know a lot more about Jericho than we do about most of the other sites mentioned thus far in the Bible. A lot of the previously mentioned places we only have approximate locations for, much less evidence of any sort of activity there. However, Jericho is an extremely old and surprisingly well-preserved site, and we know a lot about the progress of the local civilization. The site was clearly a very inviting one for settlement, and the evidence of human habitation stretches all the way back to prehistory. In the historical record, after it grew from a settlement into a city, there are several well-defined and well-separated layers indicating sporadic habitation, as the cultures of the Near East rose and fell. The most relevant one for this story is a Bronze Age city of probably Semitic origin, which was one of the most urbanized, one of the most well-preserved, and one which was definitively destroyed by the 16th century BCE. Any cities earlier than this one would’ve been too early to have been encountered by the Israelite state according to any remotely sane timeline of the Exodus, and any cities after this one would have been way, way too late to figure into the story, as after the fall of the Bronze Age city, Jericho was only lightly inhabited for well upwards of seven centuries.

So what do we know about this walled city? For starters, archaeologists have identified the wall, or perhaps a whole series of walls. Some of the fortifications are of great antiquity, built by the late Neolithic settlement which hardly deserved the title of “city”. Small as the settlement was, its walls were still an impressive engineering project by the standards of the time, produced primarily from mud bricks except for a stone tower; the tower itself was about 30 feet high, and the wall was probably much shorter, and there was a moat dug around it. This was almost certainly not the wall the Israelites encountered, and by the Bronze Age it was heavily fractured by earthquakes and erosion, and the moat was probably full of scree. The wall of the Bronze Age city was apparently made of a plastered packed-earth slope and mud bricks at the top.

The point of this disquisition is that the image you have of a “walled city” is probably wrong. We’re not talking about masonry here, with stone blocks and mortar standing tall and perpendicular to the earth, insurmountable and only damageable with great force. These walls would have been slopes, as steep as they could make them (which is actually pretty steep), forty feet tall at the most, and, while quite thick, made of materials which could easily be broken with hand tools. Besieging a construction of this sort is not the troublesome task you might think it to be. We see images of an army frustrated by walls which couldn’t be climbed and which could be defended from towers or ladders by vigilant archers. Basically, you probably think of a conventional attack on Jericho as kind of like Peter Jackson’s conception of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. This is actually a pretty good visual for the other mythically besieged ancient city, Troy, whose walls were built from tremendous limestone blocks, but Jericho’s walls were more of a rampart, which could slow attackers, and stymie them with attrition if the defenders had ranged weapons, but ultimately an unchecked attacker armed with nothing more than a sword or ax could probably ascend these walls in short order, cutting hand holds, scrabbling up the less steep sections, and vaulting over the top.

SO if we try to take the battle of Jericho in a non-supernatural context, there’s not much that’s actually surprising in the basic prospect that a large invasion force could overrun a walled city. Casualties would happen, but we can see that a primitive wall would provide limited protection when massively outnumbered. We don’t even have to go with the absurd 600,000-man fighting force the Bible proposes to envision such an outcome: the total walled area of Jericho is ten acres, which isn’t that big, and it couldn’t have had a very large population (the most liberal estimates of ancient world population density give a number of 625 people per hectare, which comes out to about 2500 residents of the walled city). Any reasonably large nomadic group could mount a significant attack on a city of that size, and apparently, around 1600 BCE, one did.

With regard to that date: it’s closer to what Biblical historians will accept, but it’s still pretty far wide of any timeline which would make Joshua mesh seamlessly with the rise of the monarchy. There’s about 2 centuries of slack in there, and the Biblical timeline really needs a 13th or 14th century destruction. So, after spending about 1000 words on analyzing the context of the story, I”d conclude, based on chronology, that it’s basically completely bunk as written — there probably was a razing of the town of Jericho, but it predated any sort of Israelite coalition, and was a ruin by the time of any sort of Israelite history-recording.

Taken in that light, this actually serves as an explanatory story: through the glory years of the Israelite monarchy, and into the early years of the Deuteronomical recording and redacting of the history, there was a conspicuous ruined town near the west bank of the Jordan. It’s not exactly surprising that, supplied with a narrative of conquering the nation from the west, this town would receive its own little conquest tale.

But I still haven’t talked much about the actual content of this story. Chapters 4 and 5 cover preparations for war, but maybe not of the sort you’d expect. Religious ritual takes center stage, and in the narrative where it is holiness, not might that brings them victory, it’s important to be in a state of particular divine favor. So there are a number of acts to be done specifically to sanctify God’s name first. To start with, Joshua’s awfully proud of the way the river just stopped, so to celebrate the miracle he has cairns of twelve stones (12 holding special ritual significance, as that’s one for each tribe) erected both in the middle of the Jordan and on dry land, with stones taken from the bottom of the river. Maybe this is an origin story for a specific monument, as it uses a locution we’ll see a fair bit more of later in Joshua: “and there they remain to this day”.

Incidentally, in Chapter 4 there’s also an enumeration of the two-and-a-half tribes which will fight in the forefront of battle, as numbering 40,000. Each of these individual tribes (except possibly for the Manassahites, who aren’t divided up by subtribe) number way more than 40,000 alone in the census back in Numbers 26, so either this vanguard is only a small subset of the Transjordanians, or the book of Joshua is silently editing down the (ridiculous) numbers from the Torah.

Chapter 5 deals with symbolic transition from wanderers to residents. First off, the Israelites are circumcised, which seems a foolish act on the eve of war, seeing as the last mass circumcision reported in the Bible ended in genocide of the recuperating subjects and that could totally happen again. More familiarly symbolic, 5:10–11 includes several aspects indicative of agriculture: the Israelites offer the passover sacrifice (generally regarded as a spring festival, in addition to its commemorative purpose), and the manna, which was the food of their wanderings, ceases to fall. The symbolism of the narrative suggests that at this point the Israelites are growing their own food. As a straightforward telling, it doesn’t quite work—how could they consume the fruit of their labor after just arriving in a new land, and not having planted yet?—but as a symbolic story it clearly is meant to describe the origins of Israelite self-sufficiency.

We’re nearly at the actual battle, but before we can get to it, there’s a peculiar interlude where Joshua meets a mysterious stranger while alone. This setup is suggestive of the supernatural, as both Abraham and Jacob had mysterious encounters who were actually supernatural beings, and it’s particularly reminiscent of the latter incident, in which the supernatural stranger is in fact malicious. However, in this story, the stranger is not an enemy, but is the captain of an angelic army. This occurrence is confusing, because this angel, and the troops he presumably commands, are never mentioned again, and it’s hard to divine why this bit of narrative is here.

In Chapter 6, the Israelites finally approach Jericho, but to their disappointment, it’s closed up and they can’t get in. I kind of already discussed that, so let’s just move on, and suppose that Jericho actually had impregnable walls. Since the whole build-up to this battle was suffused with ritual and with signs and wonders, it’s tonally appropriate that their response is through ritual. Also, it’s totally in line with the messages which were hammered home in Deuteronomy, that Israel’s success or failure is solely determined by their religious practice rather than their actual skill. As is pretty well known, the ritual here is a parade seven times around the city with the Ark of the Covenant in the middle. It’s a good thing Jericho’s so small, I guess. And at the end of the parade, as the spiritual says, “de walls come tumblin’ down”.

Then the Israelites kill everyone (except Rahab and her family) and burn everything (except for metals, which were acquired by the temple treasury). It’s particularly stressed that nobody’s allowed to profit from the spoils of Jericho. At the end are a few more elements which have the character of explatory texts for something of greater recency: it’s explicitly said that Rahab and her descendants dwelt and continued to dwell among the Israelites, and that Jericho should never be rebuilt. That latter one doesn’t quite come true, but it’s probably included as an explanation for Jericho’s long-extended nonhabitation. Presumably historically the reasons were more drearily demographic or climatic, but if you’re throwing the well-known ruin into your conquest story, I guess you need a sexy reason why it’s remained a ruin.

But the exact purpose of the vehemence is unclear, and it seems a bit misplaced. Nowhere is it intimated that the people of Jericho are unusually wicked (that is to say, more so than the rest of the Canaanites), or that the city deserved a special vengeance. But the thoroughness of the destruction, and the destruction of useful items instead of looting them, and the commandment to never rebuild it… those are kind of narratively harsh elements, aren’t they? It’s somewhat akin to Rome salting the fields of Carthage, but there we know why Rome was so bloodthirsty. Here there doesn’t seem to be any special reason for the vengeance, and other cities (presumably no better or worse) aren’t placed under so extreme an interdiction.

Speaking of those other cities: next week they’ll fight one. And to our surprise, and theirs, they’ll lose!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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