Is the battle of Jericho in Joshua a real historical event?

by Luke Wayne
03/02/2020

Yes, the battle of Jericho described in the Book of Joshua is a true, historical event. Not only do the Scriptures plainly teach it as genuine history, but historical and archeological evidence also corroborates many important points in Joshua's account. It can be shown, for example, that Jericho was a fortified city, its walls did totally collapse, it really was destroyed by fire after this collapse, its great wealth of grain really was burned and abandoned rather than being looted, and the site really was left uninhabited after it was destroyed rather than being rebuilt as one might expect. We can have great confidence that what is described in the book of Joshua is precisely what happened.

Two Spies Sent to the City

Joshua's account of the battle of Jericho begins with Joshua sending two spies ahead to go into the city and then report back. We read:

"Then Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim, saying, 'Go, view the land, especially Jericho.' So they went and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there,'" (Joshua 2:1).

We are also told that someone in Jericho figured out that the men were Israelite spies and informed the king:

"It was told the king of Jericho, saying, 'Behold, men from the sons of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land,'" (Joshua 2:2).

The rest of the chapter is devoted to the king's attempts to capture the men, and their narrow escape through the faith and cunning of the Canaanite prostitute, Rehab. It's not the kind of story you'd make up later to magnify the exploits of your forefathers. Interestingly, though, the sending of spies, even specifically in pairs, into cities before attacking them is well attested in the ancient near east. And, while it would seem pretty easy to wander in and out of town like a normal traveler without drawing any attention to yourself, we also have evidence that such spies were often identified and caught. We've discovered clay tablets in Mesopotamia, for example, that report the release of spies in exchange for the promise of ransom payments.1 We also have records of a pair of Hittite spies in Egypt whose mission backfired when they were captured and tortured for information about their own army.2 In one clever instance, a pair of third-party spies were actually hired for the designed purpose of being noticed and questioned so they could provide false information to the city's king! The account of Joshua's two spies in Jericho fits very well with what we know about the time period.

The Attack Occurred in Spring, During the Harvest Season

The details given in the account in Joshua make it clear that the attack occurred in the Spring season during a time of harvest. We are plainly told when the Israelites cross the Jordan to begin their conquest of the land:

"and when those who carried the ark came into the Jordan, and the feet of the priests carrying the ark were dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks all the days of harvest)" (Joshua 3:15).

Thus, the text overtly says that this was the "days of harvest." Earlier, when Rahab hid the spies, we read:

"But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them in the stalks of flax which she had laid in order on the roof," (Joshua 2:6).

The flax stalks drying on the roof would also be consistent with a harvest season. Just before the attack on Jericho, we also read:

"While the sons of Israel camped at Gilgal they observed the Passover on the evening of the fourteenth day of the month on the desert plains of Jericho. On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain," (Joshua 5:10-11).

Passover occurs in the Spring and in conjunction with a grain harvest. The fact that fresh, unleavened Canaanite grain is available is also evidence of a very recent harvest. Indeed, the ancient Jewish Historian Josephus deduces from this text that "they reaped the grain of the Canaanites, which was now ripe."3 The details of the text are thus uniformly consistent on this, even in incidental details, the way one would expect an accurate historical narrative to be. It also happens that archeologists excavating Jericho in the 20th century discovered that that the storage jars of grain were completely full, indicating that the city fell immediately after the harvest,4 before any of the stored grain had been eaten. Thus, these seemingly minor details of Joshua's account are not only internally consistent but also closely match the external evidence. 

The Siege was Short:

Joshua states that the city was put under siege:

"Now Jericho was tightly shut because of the sons of Israel; no one went out and no one came in," (Joshua 6:1).

Yet, unlike the typical prolonged siege where the city is made to slowly starve out as they gradually use up their resources, divine intervention made the battle of Jericho remarkably swift. We read:

"Then on the seventh day they rose early at the dawning of the day and marched around the city in the same manner seven times; only on that day they marched around the city seven times. At the seventh time, when the priests blew the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, 'Shout! For the Lord has given you the city,'" (Joshua 6:15-16).

"So the people shouted, and priests blew the trumpets; and when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted with a great shout and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight ahead, and they took the city," (Joshua 6:20).

The entire affair took only a week. This fits with the same evidence we observed above in confirming the time of year. That the grain jars unearthed at Jericho were full not only indicates a recent harvest, it also indicates a short siege since much if not all of the grain would have been eaten if the city had endured a long siege.

The Walls Collapsed

The most famous part of the Joshua story is that, by the power of God, the walls of Jericho collapsed and the Israelites were able to storm in and take the city. We read:

"It shall be that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when you hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people will go up every man straight ahead,” (Joshua 6:5).

"So the people shouted, and priests blew the trumpets; and when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted with a great shout and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight ahead, and they took the city," (Joshua 6:20).

Archeology, of course, cannot tell us that it was God who knocked the walls down, but it certainly shows us that the walls did fall. The excavations at Jericho confirm that Jericho's defensive walls fully collapsed. In fact, they collapsed outwardly in a manner that would form a "ramp" of sorts for an invading army to scale more easily into the city!5

The City was Utterly Destroyed with Fire and was not Plundered

Another distinctive detail in Joshua's narrative is that Jericho was utterly destroyed as a offering to the Lord. The city was burned with fire and, while certain metal vessels were stored up in the tabernacle for sacred use, the city's wealth of grain, clothing, stone and clay vessels, etc. were to be burned with the city. Such things were of great value in the ancient world, so to leave them to the flames was highly unusual! Yet, we read:

"The city shall be under the ban, it and all that is in it belongs to the Lord; only Rahab the harlot and all who are with her in the house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent. But as for you, only keep yourselves from the things under the ban, so that you do not covet them and take some of the things under the ban, and make the camp of Israel accursed and bring trouble on it. But all the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron are holy to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord," (Joshua 6:17-19).

"They burned the city with fire, and all that was in it. Only the silver and gold, and articles of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord," (Joshua 6:24).

Archeology again verifies that the city was burned after the walls collapsed,6 The full jars of grain we have already mentioned also fit with Joshua's account. They, too, were left full and burned rather than being looted.7

City was Left Uninhabited

Finally, Joshua tells us that the city was completely destroyed and then left uninhabited.

"They utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword," (Joshua 6:21).

"Then Joshua made them take an oath at that time, saying, 'Cursed before the Lord is the man who rises up and builds this city Jericho; with the loss of his firstborn he shall lay its foundation, and with the loss of his youngest son he shall set up its gates,'" (Joshua 6:26).

Once again, the archeology shows that, after the city was destroyed and burned, it remained uninhabited for a lengthy period of time.

The Counter Argument

In spite of the many layers of agreement between the events described in Joshua and the archeological evidence, some critical scholars claim that Joshua's battle of Jericho could not have happened. They argue that the remains of Jericho are too early and that the city was already vacant by the time the Israelites would have arrived. This case rests primarily on the absence of any imported Cypriot pottery, which scholars believe was in wide, popular use throughout Canaan during Joshua's time period, though secondary lines of evidence like carbon dating are often appealed to as well.

Some other scholars, however, argue back that, even in the absence of the popular imported pottery, the local Canaanite pottery found at Jericho is in the style of the correct period for Joshua's battle. They also point out that the items that have been carbon-dated are the sort that might have been reused from earlier periods, allowing for deceptively early dates (a common problem which is one of the difficulties in using Carbon dating in archeology). Still other scholars have pointed out that the nearby tombs remained in use on into Joshua's era, demonstrating that people must have still been living in the city at that time and burying their dead in the tombs outside the walls.8 Thus, while most secular scholars will tend toward skepticism about the biblical record, the idea that we have overthrown the biblical narrative on the basis of our current understanding of changing pottery fashions over 3,000 years ago is far from compelling.

What's more, all of this assumes that we have rightly identified the exact date that the events of Joshua are supposed to have occurred. If we are misreading the Old Testament dates by just a hundred years or so, the entire conversation changes! Now, if the archeological evidence pointed to a date that was, say, a thousand years later than Joshua with technologies that could not have existed in Joshua's time and inscriptions dealing with people who obviously lived long after Joshua, we would have very good reason to think that what we had found was not Joshua's battle.

But that isn't the kind of evidence we find at all! Even the critical scholars place the event within 150 years of when they think Joshua's battle is supposed to have occurred, and even that discrepancy if based almost entirely on our current assumptions about when exactly certain fashions in pottery were in vogue. But, considering how closely everything in Jericho corresponds to exactly what Joshua describes in such precise detail, it seems more likely that we are slightly off in our estimation of bronze age fads, or else that we are slightly off on when certain Old Testament events occurred, or both! Or perhaps other factors are also involved. Maybe Jericho culture was out of step with the surrounding trends in pitcher designs for reasons we don't understand over three millennia later.

The book of Joshua never tells us what sort of bowls or pots were there when the Israelites arrived. It does, however, describe a series of very specific details about the time of year, the length of siege, the manner of the city's destruction, the highly unusual refusal to loot the city's storehouses, and the fact that the city was left uninhabited for a long time after it was destroyed, all of which match precisely what we find in the remains of the city. There is no good reason to doubt that Joshua provides us with an accurate, historical account of the fall of ancient Jericho.

 

 

 

 

  • 1. John Noble Wilford, New York Times, January 5, 1988, Section C, Page 1
  • 2. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology (Zondervan, 2017) 106
  • 3. Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews, Book 5, Chapter 1, Section 4
  • 4. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology (Zondervan, 2017) 110
  • 5. Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1999) 95
  • 6. Randall Price, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archeology (Zondervan, 2017) 109
  • 7. ibid, 110
  • 8. ibid, 108-109