Summary: This is a great children's story. But as adults, it prompts some difficult questions. Is it even true? How could God destroy an entire city? It's also a wonderful example of God's people overcoming a seemingly-insurmountable obstacle through faith and obedience.
JOSHUA AND THE WALLS OF JERICHO
We’re moving from our series on prayer to a new series called ‘Bible Stories for Grown-Ups.’ There are some famous stories in the Old Testament which we may have heard as children, perhaps at home or at Sunday School. In this series the idea is to take a fresh look at them as grown-ups. We don’t want to lose the excitement that the stories gave us as children, but we want to ask some questions we have as adults.
Today we’re looking at the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho. This is one of the most famous stories in the book of Joshua. The Israelites had left Egypt. Moses handed over to Joshua and Joshua sent spies into Canaan. The spies visited Jericho and were helped by Rahab. The Israelites then crossed the Jordan and the men were circumcised (the children’s version leaves that out!). That brings us to chapter 6. The Israelites arrive at Jericho.
The site of the Biblical city of Jericho is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The UNESCO website tells us why Jericho is important. One reason is that it’s the oldest town in the world. Jericho was ‘a big fortified town surrounded by a stone wall’ 6,000 years before the Israelites arrived! It was probably the largest city in Canaan at that time. It lay at the south of Canaan and it blocked the way to Canaan.
If we come back to this story as adults, what questions come to mind? I guess we’ll all have different questions, but here are a few that come to mind for me:
• Is the story true?
• How could it be right for the Israelites to destroy the city and its inhabitants?
• Is it a true picture of faith?
We could no doubt ask more questions. For example, the way the Israelites accepted Rahab is certainly interesting. But these three questions will be quite enough to look at. They are all hard questions.
IS THE STORY TRUE?
This is a really important question to ask. Scripture in general has been under relentless attack since about the middle of the 19th century. Loss of confidence in scripture is a major stumbling block to faith. In particular, many Christians today doubt the Old Testament.
If the accounts of how God acted in the Old Testament are true then they have a lot to teach us. But if they are not true, if God didn’t in fact act in the way the Bible tells us he did, then these passages can’t teach us anything about how God acts!
When we come to this specific story, we find many scholars saying that it isn’t true. The key issue for them is the matter of date. They accept that Jericho was destroyed and burned, as the Bible says. But they think it all happened long before Joshua appeared on the scene. By the time he arrived, Jericho was a pile of rubble. We have to answer these people. We need to deal with things that destroy faith.
So, what do we know? I’m going to use some secular sources.
Let’s start with the date of the Exodus. Wikipedia tells us:
‘Most proposals for a historical Exodus of any sort place it in the sixteenth, fifteenth, or thirteenth centuries BCE.’ Go to an academic source and you find that the date range is a bit narrower. The ‘traditional’ date for the Exodus is about 1450 BC and the ‘consensus’ date is about 1250 BC. Make a mental note: 1450 or 1250 BC.
Now let’s look at the date of the destruction of Jericho. The UNESCO website tells us:
'…the site was rebuilt again at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, and surrounded by a mud brick wall that lasted until 1580 BC, when it was violently destroyed by fire.'
Wikipedia tells us almost the same thing:
'Bronze Age Jericho fell in the 16th century at the end of the Middle Bronze Age … carbon dating c. 1573 BCE confirmed the accuracy of the stratigraphical dating c. 1550 by Kenyon.'
Again, a similar date. The ‘Kenyon’ who is mentioned is Kathleen Kenyon. She was a British archaeologist who excavated the site between 1952 and 1958. And the carbon dating is of charcoal and grain seeds found at the city. However, there are questions about the accuracy of the original carbon-dating. Some tests done in 2000 showed a wider range of possible dates.
Wikipedia suggests quite a wide range of possible dates, as far back as the sixteenth century, i.e. until 1600 BC. But the archaeologists think that even 1550 BC is too early for the destruction to have been carried out by Joshua and the Israelites.
So where does that leave us? The Bible scholars are not in complete agreement about when the Israelites entered Canaan and the archaeologists cannot be totally precise about when Jericho was destroyed and burned. Within the range of possible dates, there is overlap. Both events could have been around the fifteen century BC. So, it seems that the Israelites could have been responsible for the destruction of this city. The dates are not obviously impossible, and there are a number of points of correspondence between the archaeological evidence and the Biblical account, for example, that the city was destroyed at this time, and burned, and that it remained largely unoccupied for about five centuries.