Its Defenses Overcome
After the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River, the people of Israel were ready to take Jericho. But they faced an obvious difficulty. How could they conquer a city protected by high walls? They had no catapults or battering rams. They probably had few if any ladders. Joshua learned the answer to this question in an unexpected way.
At the end of chapter 5, we read that when he went to look over Jericho, he met the captain of the Lord’s host. Joshua fell down and worshiped this commanding figure, recognizing that He was none other than the Lord Himself. Indeed, He was the preincarnate Christ. Christ commanded Joshua to remove his shoes because the ground where he stood was holy. As we have said, the ground was holy because of its nearness to the divine presence. Without protest Joshua complied with the command. Once he had thus purified himself of worldly pollutions, he was ready to hear what the preincarnate Christ had come to say.
The first several verses of Joshua 6 continue the previous chapter by relating the message that the captain of the Lord’s host spoke to Joshua.
The message proper is prefaced by the observation that the city of Jericho was shut up tight. No one entered and no one left. The inhabitants were well aware that just a few miles away there was a teeming multitude of invaders poised to strike. It is remarkable that the leaders of Jericho were not trying to negotiate terms for surrender. Later in the Book of Joshua, we discover the reason. God hardened the hearts of all the Canaanites so that they did not desire peace with Israel (Josh. 11:19-20). Whether they hated Israel and its God so much that they preferred death to surrender, or thought that to surrender would mean death anyway, or imagined that somehow they could defeat Israel, we do not know. Surely they had heard that Israel in its conquests had left no survivors.
After again assuring Joshua that victory was certain, the Lord instructed him on how the city should be taken. The plan for attack was peculiar indeed. The Lord wanted all the soldiers in Israel to march around the city once each day for six days. Priests bearing the ark of the covenant would march with them, and ahead of the ark would go seven priests carrying so-called "trumpets of rams’ horns." These were the instrument known in Hebrew as the shofar, which was in fact made from a ram’s horn. The sound that it produces is not especially pleasant or musical, but it is notably loud, even intimidating if several are blown simultaneously. Seven shofars played at once by skillful players would have raised a terrific noise that would have chilled the hearts of every hearer in Jericho. The streets of the city would have resounded with a fearsome wailing. It is possible that the Canaanites, who were not shepherds like the Hebrews, had never heard such horns before. Their surprise at hearing them and the unnatural loudness of the unearthly sound must have greatly augmented their fears as they awaited battle.
The Lord instructed Joshua to follow a different plan on the seventh day. Instead of going around once, the whole force should continue marching until it had compassed the city seven times. Then, at the conclusion of the march, the players on the shofar should sound a long blast and all the people should raise their voices in a great shout. The consequence, the Lord promised, would be that the walls would immediately fall down flat, allowing every soldier to rush straight into the city and engage the enemy.
God chose this method of conquering a city to keep Israel humble. He did not want them to imagine that they won the victory by their own strength and courage. Rather, He wanted them to recognize that they won it by the power of God. He wanted them to give Him the glory.
Without delay, Joshua implemented the plan he had received from the Lord. The narrative does not tell us exactly on which day he began the assault on Jericho. The lack of transitions suggests that he began it immediately after seeing the Lord, on the very same day. Yet it may be that he waited until the next day or until he had finished preparing the nation for battle. On the day chosen to start the assault, he summoned the priests and told them what to do. Likewise he called the people and told them their responsibility. Then the battle started. The armed force marched about the city with the ark of the covenant in their midst. Some of the soldiers went before it, some after it. Directly in front of the ark went the seven priests blowing shofars. Joshua had commanded everyone in the march to keep their mouths still. No one was to utter a sound until, on the final day of march, the signal came to shout.
Imagine what the march would have looked like to the people cowering behind the walls of the city. Although Jericho was probably the best-fortified city in Canaan, it was not large by modern standards. It occupied only about six acres. Therefore, it was about a half mile in circumference. How large was the attacking force? Earlier in the book, we learned that two-and-a-half tribes supplied 40,000 soldiers (Josh, 4:13). If the contingents from the other tribes were comparable in size, the whole army numbered about 200,000. Then how long was the line of march? If they walked in ranks of a hundred at three-foot intervals, the procession stretched over a mile. We may assume that the soldiers did not come near the walls, but circled at a distance, beyond reach of arrows and also beyond reach of tumbling debris when the walls fell on the last day. The actual length of the circuit might have been close to a mile also. It is therefore likely that the vanguard returned to the starting point just as the last soldiers in the march were setting out. At that moment the city was completely surrounded by soldiers at least a hundred deep. Yet while this massive force ringed the city, the inhabitants heard nothing except the insistent blowing of shofars, raising a sound that seemed ominous and threatening and mournful, like music written for slaughter.
The inhabitants must have watched the march in a high state of alert, bracing themselves for an attack which they expected to begin momentarily, but nothing happened. The vanguard marched around the city and left. Soon the whole army had gone away without a fight, and the vista was free of soldiers. The people of Jericho must have felt that they had gained a reprieve. Wild hopes must have surged in their breasts that some army of Canaanites had come to their rescue and drawn away the Israelites.
But such hopes were dashed the next morning when the host returned and marched around the city again. For six days, the Israelites continued this maneuver. Morale in the city, already low before the assault, must have sunk to the level of desperation, as the defenders could not escape from hearing the same nerve-wracking sound and watching the same terrifying sight day after day. Everyone inside the walls was paralyzed with fear.
Then came the seventh day. Recognizing all that must be done before nightfall, Joshua started out with his men early in the morning. When the army arrived earlier than usual, the people in Jericho realized that this day would bring something new, perhaps the long-awaited battle. But the battle was unlike any other recorded in history. It began with the attackers marching around the city seven times. At the conclusion of the seventh circuit, the priests began to blow with all their might on the shofars and Joshua commanded the people to shout. He encouraged them not to be afraid, because "the Lord hath given you the city."
Next in the narrative comes a list of further instructions that Joshua issued to the people before they rushed into battle. In the din of horns and shouts, it would have been impossible for anyone to hear Joshua except those near him. The reader is evidently supposed to assume that he was repeating instructions that he had given earlier, when the whole army was quietly listening. Perhaps he had spoken to them as they assembled for march.
The instructions dealt with how the soldiers should treat people and property within the city. All people, regardless of age or sex, were to be regarded as accursed. Because the wrath and judgment of God rested upon them, they were to be killed. The only exception would be Rahab and anyone taking refuge in her house. They would be spared in reward for the help she had given the two spies.
Likewise all the property was to be regarded as accursed. In other words, it was to be left alone, so that it would burn up when the city was set afire. Joshua warned the soldiers against taking any spoils for themselves. If they flouted the Lord’s command by carrying any Canaanite property to camp, the Lord would be displeased with the whole nation. The cursedness of the defiled thing that had been snatched from the city would pass to the camp itself. The whole nation would suffer trouble from the Lord. Later, trouble indeed came upon the nation when one soldier paid no heed to Joshua’s warning. The ban on spoils had an exception also. Objects made of precious metals were to be removed from the city and deposited in the treasury of the Lord. Since fire would not destroy such objects, presumably they were removed so that the people of Israel would not be tempted to go back and plunder the city at a later time.
After Joshua gave the order to shout, all the people shouted. Imagine the surprise and shock and terror inside the city. Until now the marching had had no accompaniment except the piercing sound of the shofar. But now the ground shook with the roar of two hundred thousand voices. In consequence, the wall fell down flat.
In my childhood I heard a speaker claim that the collapse of the walls had a purely natural cause—namely, the intense sound that buffeted them when the horns blew and the men shouted. Yet although the sound was undoubtedly ferocious, it is highly unlikely that it had enough energy in it to bring down the walls. Finding a natural cause for their collapse misses the point of the story. The point is that Israel had an easy victory because the Lord helped them. The Lord brought down the walls by supernatural means. If their collapse had been anything but a miracle, the damage to the walls would have less than complete. Portions would have been left standing.
The Biblical account of Jericho's destruction provides an unusual opportunity to test whether we can rely on the Bible for true history. The ruins of Jericho still exist, and several teams of archaeologists have studied them in great detail. It turns that a multitude of facts given in the story correspond to visible remains of the city.1
- The city was indeed well-fortified. If the force coming against it was a nomadic people just emerging from the wilderness, without sophisticated military equipment and without experience in assaulting a walled bastion, they would have looked on it in despair. The city had an outer stone retaining wall fifteen feet high. Made of large rocks, this was probably intended to discourage attempts at tunneling through. On top of the retaining wall was a wall made of mud brick. Behind this outer barricade, starting near the top of the stone portion, was a rampart leaning backward at a steep angle. The entire slope was covered with white plaster to make it slippery. Then emerging from the top of the slope was the main city wall, rising another twenty-five feet. Also made of mud brick, it was ten feet thick, allowing a large force of soldiers to hold defensive positions along the upper rim.
- From the size of the mound containing all the ruins of Jericho, we can estimate that the population of the city never exceeded two or three thousand. At the time of Joshua’s assault, Canaanites from the surrounding countryside were perhaps sheltering there, raising its population by a few more thousand. So, despite the elaborate fortifications, would it not have been easy for an army of 200,000 to conquer Jericho? Hardly. They could not set the city on fire from outside. Also, as we have said, the Israelites had no catapults. And nowhere in the vicinity could they have found large enough trees to make battering rams. And even if they could have gathered enough wood to assemble makeshift ladders, setting them at the top of the sloping rampart would have been impossible. The only conceivable means of attack was to build human ladders to scale the walls, then use ropes to pull up the main body of soldiers. But the people of Jericho had been preparing for this assault for quite a while. No doubt they had supplied themselves with countless arrows and sling stones, so that just a thousand defenders spread over the top perimeter of the wall could rain down enough deadly fire to thwart any attempt to climb into the city. The only alternative without God's miraculous intervention was to conduct a prolonged siege until the people of Jericho either surrendered or starved to death. But a siege would have given other Canaanite kings the time needed to combine their forces and surround Israel. Therefore, it must have been obvious to the Israelites themselves that to conquer Jericho, much less all of Canaan, would be impossible through human might or strategy.
- Besides confirming the strength of Jericho, the findings of archaeology have agreed with the Biblical account in many other respects as well. At the time of destruction, all the walls, both around the rim and throughout the city, fell down flat.
- A few houses actually escaped destruction. Unlike most houses in the city, these were not within the main wall, but outside it, just behind the retaining wall. Their location is consistent with what the Bible tells us about the place where Rahab and her family took refuge.
- After the city's collapse, not before, the city was swept by fire. The account in Joshua agrees, telling us that after the Israelites took the city, they made a great fire of the ruins.
- The burn level at the site is too thick to have been the remains of a fire started by an earthquake. This evidence is important, because some archaeologists have proposed that the city was destroyed by an earthquake rather than by conquest.
- Within all the dwellings, archaeologists found jars and containers full or nearly full of grain. The destruction of the city evidently happened right after harvest, which, in the Jordan Valley, takes place in the spring. The Book of Joshua tells us that Jericho was conquered shortly Passover, which is also in the spring.
- Since the containers were full of grain, the siege of the city must have been of short duration. In fact, it lasted only seven days.
You would think that the evidence would compel archaeologists to admit that the Bible is true. No, instead of believing the Bible, they have constructed a dating system which places the fall of Jericho hundreds of years earlier than the exodus. So, they conclude, what we see at Jericho has nothing to do with Joshua. Yet Christian archaeologists and scholars have presented a very strong case that the popular dating system is untenable, for many reasons. One is that it makes havoc of any sensible dating of events in other regions of the Middle East. Another problem is that throughout Canaan, archaeologists find that not only Jericho, but also every other city occupied before the coming of Israel came to sudden complete destruction. The whole land shows clear transition from urban life to pastoral life. To evade this problem, secular scholars place the downfalls of these cities at different times, perhaps even centuries apart. But to justify their dating, they rely on very flimsy evidence, mainly slight or even questionable differences in the kind of pottery found in the ruins.
When the walls collapsed, they fell outward. All their stones cascaded down the slope outside the wall, leaving absolutely no protection for the city. Israel’s soldiers, finding that they now had unimpeded access, rushed straight through the crumbled walls and slew whatever living creature they found, whether man, woman, child, or beast.
Why did the people of Jericho have to die? They died because they hated God. They knew about His great power, but they refused to worship a God who is righteous. They loved their sins too much to forsake them. If any had repented of their sins and turned to God as Rahab did, He would have graciously included them among His own people. They would not have died.
Yet the defenders able to fight were few compared to the vast army of Israel. The extermination of everyone inside the city must have been accomplished quickly with little loss of life on Israel’s side. Yet we do not mean to minimize the greatness of Israel’s triumph, or the importance of God’s help in their triumph, for Israel had no human means or devices capable of penetrating the walls of Jericho.
Joshua had previously directed the two spies to rescue Rahab and her relatives. As soon as the walls fell, they rushed to her house, which they found still standing amid the rubble. With Rahab they found her father and mother, her brothers, and all her relatives. The two men removed them from the scene of destruction, conducting then safely all the way back to Gilgal.
Then, when the slaughter of everyone else in the city was complete and all valuable things had been confiscated for the treasury of the Lord, the men of Israel finished the work of destruction. They torched the city and evacuated it, leaving it to burn down to nothing but cinders. As dusk approached, you can imagine the sight from any vantage on the plain of Jericho. It was as though the mound had become an altar with a burnt offering. Indeed, it was only by fire that it was possible to cleanse the land of all the pollutions left by Canaanite religion.
The mound was a huge bonfire that continued burning through the night. The roar of the conflagration did not soon subside, but persisted for hours, as if it were a lingering echo of the roar that had brought down the walls. Drifting from the city and drenching the countryside was the foul smoke of corpses. Flames tirelessly erupted skyward and lingered as a mournful glow that could be seen from miles away. These flames were like signal fires sending news of the tragedy to all the fearful tribes of Canaan who were crouching in their holes, waiting for the enemy to come.
The account closes with a happy ending. Rahab not only escaped from the city alive, but she became an honored member of the nation. Still in the day when the book was written, she and her family were dwelling and prospering in the land. Rahab herself married an important Israelite in the tribe of Judah (Matt. 1:5).
As he reflected upon what had been accomplished, Joshua pronounced an epitaph upon the city that stood guard at the entrance to Canaan. The epitaph was a curse upon any man who dared to rebuild a place so loathsome for all its corruptions. The man who sought to restore Jericho would lose both his firstborn and his youngest son. The prophecy was fulfilled in the days of Ahab, king of the northern division of Israel, whose capital was Samaria. Hiel the Bethelite rebuilt Jericho with foundations and gates, but at the cost of Abiram, his eldest son, and Segub, his youngest (1 Kings 16:34).
Israel’s victory at Jericho made Joshua a famous man throughout Canaan—famous in the sense of being greatly feared. How did the Canaanites know exactly what happened at Jericho, since there were no survivors? No doubt the battle had been watched from a distance by many eyes hidden behind rocks and trees. News of Israel’s victory probably spread through the land with the speed of messengers on foot.
Like all the other incidents reported in the Book of Joshua, the conquest of Jericho is rich with spiritual applications based on its larger significance. As we have argued before, the wars in Canaan picture Christian experience. They show the Christian waging battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Yet it would be a mistake to see God's side in the battle as just the individual Christian. The army of Israel is a picture rather of the whole church carrying out its mandate to be salt and light in a corrupt world.
The first responsibility of the church is to preach the gospel and make disciples in all nations, and it is this responsibility which is the primary spiritual theme of Joshua’s assault on Jericho. So whereas the crossing of the Jordan shows salvation and the rites at Gilgal show consecration, the conquest of Jericho shows evangelism. It is a picture of the church fulfilling the Great Commission.
Notice the bizarre method that Israel used to overthrow the city. It consisted solely of making noise. For six days, as the host tramped around the walls, the priests blew loudly on shofars, and on the seventh day they kept up the din seven times longer, until at last the signal was given for the whole army to raise a great shout. Then the walls fell and the city was taken. What the loud alarm given by the soldiers surely signifies is faithful proclamation of the gospel. The army of Israel had only one role in the work of conquest—to sound forth a clear message to the people of Jericho. It was a message communicated primarily through the priests, who represent those whose calling is to preach the gospel. Yet in the end the whole nation joined in giving the same message, just as the whole body of believers within the church shares in the ministry of witnessing to a lost world.
Notice also the message that was conveyed by the shofars and the shouting. It was a warning of imminent destruction decreed by God. Is this not the essence of the gospel that we carry to a lost world? The first precept of the gospel is that all men are sinners bound for eternal damnation. The gospel properly stated informs the world that it is one step from judgment.
Notice also the actual means of Jericho’s destruction. The army did not scale the walls or ram down the gates. Rather, the walls fell because God intervened miraculously to make them fall. God designed the assault on Jericho to exclude any contribution of human might or strategy. He eliminated the arm of flesh so that He alone would get credit for the victory. Likewise there is no victory in the work of God apart from the power of God. When we preach the gospel, it is not by our eloquence that men are convinced and come to Christ. It is solely by a working of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. The grace of God produces a response of faith. It is our responsibility to preach, yet even this is worthless unless it is done with reliance on the Holy Spirit, who brings grace into the process so that the result will be lasting fruit.
Notice the prominence of the ark as the army circled the walls. The ark accompanied the marchers, with a place in the midst of the whole army. Immediately in front of it went the priests who blew the trumpets. As we have said before, the ark symbolizes the presence of God. The ark’s role in the assault is a reminder again that the work of the church is a work of God. Without the presence of God, which the ark represented, the blowing of the trumpets and the shouting of the people would have been futile. The people of Jericho would have remained secure behind their walls.
What does the falling of the walls signify? The interpretive key is a verse in 2 Corinthians that perhaps alludes to the victory at Jericho (2 Cor. 10:4-5). The walls of Jericho picture the worldly systems of thought that protect people from the truth in Christ. As sinners who resist exposure of their sins (John 3:20), the ungodly must build a world view that, first, renders God unnecessary and, second, seems adequate to explain life. In modern times they have devised an elaborate pseudoscientific mythology known as evolution, which serves to explain human origins, to bolster the humanistic dream that man on his own will solve the problems of his race, and to free man from accountability to any moral code that contradicts his own sinful preferences. Anyone today whose mind has been shaped by secular education and by living and working in a secular world looks upon Christianity as irrelevant foolishness. The evidences that Christianity is true make no headway against his deep-seated certainty that it is not true. The confidence that a worldling has in his secularism has less to do with any real process of reasoning than with respect for his opinion leaders. The spokesmen for worldly science and philosophy seem like intellectual giants next to a preacher. Never mind that in terms of prestige and lifestyle choices, these spokesmen have a huge stake in their absurd opinions. If they took God's side, they would lose both their place of influence and their pleasures. Never mind that many fashionable ideas among intellectuals in days past have been abandoned because they were thoroughly discredited (inheritance of acquired characteristics, conservation of mass instead of mass-energy, etc.). Never mind that their arguments are so weak that in debate with Christians their weapon of choice is personal ridicule and condescension. Yet if God so chooses, this formidable wall of false ideas sheltering a man from the truth will crumble under the preaching of the gospel. God will dismantle the wall to permit the salvation of the man's soul.
In the present time, preaching truth can only bring down the walls defending unbelief in individual hearts. Yet the day will come when every wall of lies will tumble, for the shofars are also a picture of the final trumpets preceding the return of Christ. No imagination that Christianity is false will survive Christ’s appearance in the clouds of heaven.
Yet the gospel is not only a message of coming judgment, but also a message of hope—a message declaring to the lost that they can escape judgment through the blood of Christ. Where do we see the hope of the gospel in the assault on Jericho? We see it in the salvation of Rahab and her family. Because they believed in the message of the shofars and the shouting—the message that God Himself was to bring destruction on Jericho—they were spared. When the ungodly around them perished, they were brought out alive. They were saved because they put their faith in the God of Israel, identified themselves with the people of God, and entrusted their lives to His promise of salvation. All this is clearly a picture of what the preaching of the gospel accomplishes. Just as Rahab and her family were few in the city, so also the number who believe the gospel are few in comparison with the whole population of the world (Matt. 7:13-14). Just as God had long been proving His reality to Rahab, even from before the time the spies came to her home, so in bringing any man to Himself, God uses a lifetime of experience to prepare his heart so that he will believe the gospel when he hears it. Just as Rahab escaped judgment only by hanging a scarlet cord from her window, so no man can be saved unless he puts his faith in the scarlet blood of Christ. Just as Rahab’s faith enabled her to survive only because she followed instructions and remained in her own house during the assault, so faith cannot save any man unless it is a real faith leading to obedience (Jas. 2:26).
When the walls fell, the army swept into the city and quickly dispatched all the wicked. At the same time the spies who witnessed to Rahab had the joy of bringing her out of the city. The twofold task of the army—both to destroy and to save—recalls how Jesus defined the task of the church (Matt. 16:17-19). The church has the keys of the kingdom. What do they open? In context, it is clear that they are the keys to the gates of hell. The idea Jesus is suggesting is that the world of lost men languishes behind the gates of hell in the kingdom of darkness. To open the gates and escape is for them impossible. Yet the gates cannot prevail against the keys of the kingdom. By preaching the gospel, the church can release as many as believe and usher them into the kingdom of light, a place of freedom rather than a place of bondage. The same idea appears in Paul’s writings (Col. 1:12-13).
Understanding Jesus’ promise in verses 17 and 18 of Matthew 16 illuminates His cryptic comment in verse 19. The church is a gatekeeper. It does not give freedom to the lost indiscriminately, but only to those who believe. These are the ones loosened. The rest stay imprisoned under lock and key. The church binds them, as it were, by refusing to let them through the gates of hell. The ones who escape have already been appointed to salvation; that is, they (in a literal translation) “shall have been loosed in heaven.” The ones who remain in bondage have not been appointed to salvation; that is, they “shall have been bound in heaven.” The army that overran Jericho shows us the binding and loosing function of the church. Only the believers left the city. The rest were not permitted to leave, but tasted the wrath of God.
Notice finally what happened to Jericho. All of its wealth was confiscated by Israel or consumed by fire. The thought here is that when the church advances through evangelism, each new believer must make decisions about how much of his personal identity and worldly culture he should retain. Many of his old ways and belongings must be cast aside because they are defiled. But many others are inherently worthwhile. Because man is created in the image of God, he can, even in his unregenerate state, create things of value. Through the exercise of his intelligence he can arrive at accurate scientific knowledge; he can devise legal systems that afford justice; he can compose beautiful music and poetry; he can devise ways of controlling and using his environment to promote human welfare. In all these achievements he is fulfilling his mandate from God to have dominion over the world. When a person comes to Christ, he need not turn his back on the good things in his former life. Just as Israel ransacked Jericho for valuables and carried them away, so a new believer should hold onto everything good in his possessions, customs, and skills—everything worthwhile in his culture and heritage. But also just as Israel transported the gold and silver of Jericho to the treasury of the Lord, so a new believer should take whatever good he salvages from his past and dedicate it to God. Every possession must be used for God; every habit and custom must glorify God; every skill must become a tool in God’s service.