The Walls of Jericho: Biblical Truth or Historical Propaganda?

The Fall of Jericho is a popular Biblical story that has long fascinated theologians, historians, and archeologists.

Jan 21, 2024By Jonathan Szo, Ph. D. History (in progress), MA History, BA (Hons.) History, B.Ed
walls of jericho myth truth

 

In the Old Testament, there are few victories on as grand a scale as the Battle of Jericho. Fought as the first of a series of Israelite battles against the Canaanites. The fall of the walls of Jericho is an epic story of the triumph of faith. However, how historically accurate is the biblical account of the Fall of Jericho? Is the story true, or is it just another legend that falls into the category of historical propaganda?

 

The Walls of Jericho

taking of jericho
The Taking of Jericho, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, 1896-1902, via Belfast Bible College

 

The ancient city of Jericho is now an archaeological site in Palestine known as Tell es-Sultan. However, in 8500 BCE, Jericho became a growing city that boasted walls over 6 feet thick and 15 feet high and the tallest tower anywhere in the world at 28 feet in height. To this day, the walls of Jericho are the oldest defensive walls ever discovered. To add to this imposing structure for early armies, a massive defensive ditch also surrounded the walls. While these numbers may seem inconsequential compared to later fortifications, the people of Jericho assuredly slept soundly in the beds, knowing that these massive defensive walls were in place.

 

Over the millennia, Jericho rose and fell as a city of importance. At times it sat abandoned as groups of people migrated throughout the ancient world. However, Jericho faced another threat in 1400 BCE, over 7000 years after its foundation. Now settled by the Canaanites, the city would soon come under attack by the Israelites led by Joshua.

 

However, conquering Jericho meant conquering its walls, which would not be done easily. At this time, Jericho not only boasted its original walls, 15 feet high, but a second, newer set of walls also sat at the top of the hill Jericho. These more recent fortifications could have reached as high as an imposing 26 feet and encircled the city. Before the Assyrians invented siege weapons in the 9th century, it appeared that only divine intervention could take down the walls of Jericho.

 

The Israelites March to Jericho

israelites capture jericho bible card
The Capture of Jericho, the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907, via Wikimedia Commons

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In the Bible, the Israelites and Canaanites are ancient enemies. The people of Canaan were also descended from Noah but through his son Ham, famed for his betrayal of Noah and thus cursed to be subjugated by the Israelites.

 

The Canaanites resided in the land promised to the Israelites, God’s chosen people. They were also known idolaters who were said to be motivated only by greed and material wealth. For these transgressions, they would be among the first to feel the wrath of the God of the Old Testament.

 

Before this, however, the Israelites required a leader. After the death of Moses, his son Joshua was chosen for this task and it was promised that God would be with him in his quest to conquer the Promised Lands, or current-day Israel.

 

Joshua was no fool — he was well aware that the ancient stronghold of Jericho barred his way to the Promised Land and thus he sent spies to the city. There the spies met the prostitute Rahab who hid them from the wrath of the King of Jericho and promised her safety in the coming attack. The spies then returned to Joshua, who, confident in victory, crossed the Jordan River at the head of his army.

 

The Biblical Account of the Fall of Jericho

walls of jericho gustave dore
The Walls of Jericho Fall Down, by Gustave Doré, 1866, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Upon reaching the ancient city, Joshua was first met by a man holding a sword. Upon asking him if he was a Canaanite or Israelite, the man replied that he was a commander in the Lord’s army- also known as an angel. This display of divine intervention did not come a moment too soon, as the Israelites quickly discovered that Jericho was virtually unassailable by any means of warfare they knew.

 

According to the Biblical account, Jericho had been “shut up inside and outside” (ESV, Joshua 6:1), and none left or entered the city, which the people of Israel besieged. Unable to attack, Joshua prayed for and received divine assistance. God spoke to Joshua, imploring him and the other fighting men of Israel to march around the city once, every day, for six days. Not only this but the famed Ark of the Covenant, the golden vessel that held the original ten commandments, would be taken with them. Trumpets of ram’s horn held by priests were to be taken on this daily vigil around the walls.

 

Of course, seven is a distinctly important Biblical number. Thus, on the seventh day, the men, ark, and priests with their horns would make seven circuits of the besieged city. At the close, the horns were to be blown, the people to shout, and God promised that he would sunder the mighty walls of Jericho.

 

jericho woodcut
Jericho woodcut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493, via Wikimedia Commons

 

These instructions were carried out exactly as God commanded for six days. On the seventh and penultimate day, before the final procession, Joshua addressed his troops: everyone in the doomed city of idolators was to be put to the sword, “both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” (ESV, Joshua 6:21). Due to their greed and bad faith, the entire city had to be purged, save for the prostitute Rahab and her family who had helped hide the Israelite spies. However, God would still get his due from the city once it fell as promised. All valuables of gold, silver, and bronze were to be kept for the Lord’s treasury.

 

Thus, on the seventh day, the Israelites marched around the city seven times with the ark of the covenant. Once the procession was completed, the horns were blown, the people shouted, and the mightiest walls in the ancient world collapsed.

 

The Israelites ran up the slope over the downed wall. The massacre then began and the city was destroyed and put to the torch. As the town burned, Joshua delivered the death blow to Jericho. He cursed whoever would attempt to remake the doomed city, saying, “Cursed before the Lord be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho. At the cost of his firstborn shall he lay its foundation, and at the cost of his youngest son shall he set up its gates” (ESV, Joshua 6:26). This was followed for half a millennium, as Jericho would sit abandoned for the next 500 years.

 

Truth or Historical Propaganda? The Quest to Rediscover Ancient Jericho

tell es sultan jericho
Tell es-Sultan, Jericho, Palestine, photo by Diego Delso, 2011,via Wikimedia Commons

 

Archaeological evidence surrounding biblical sites has always been hotly contested. People of various faiths who support the Bible champion the accounts found in it as historical facts as a book that God ordains, while others are quick to point out the issues found within its pages contradicted by archeological evidence — Noah’s flood being one example. Some people simply desire to know whether the book can be used as historical evidence to any degree or whether its accounts of great Israelite victories ordained by God were merely historical propaganda utilized by canny ancient peoples to demonstrate that their God was mightier than all others and to give hope to future generations.

 

So where does Jericho stand concerning these questions of biblical proportions? As one of history’s oldest cities and due to its importance to the people of many faiths, the ancient city has been heavily researched and excavated by archeologists in the 20th century.

 

From 1907 to 1911, Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger excavated ancient Jericho. They discovered the collapsed remains of the smaller, older inner wall and massive outer wall. While the destruction appeared to signify a win for the supporters of Joshua’s story, Sellin and Watzinger eventually decided that the destruction of the walls had likely occurred in the Middle Bronze Age, 200-500 years before God’s Army’s supposed arrival and victory.

 

fall of jericho horns
The Fall of Jericho, by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1901, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Further work was carried out at Jericho in the 1930s by John Garstang, who fell somewhere between the biblical and secular accounts of what occurred. Garstang found that, in opposition to his predecessors, the walls of Jericho fell in 1400 BCE (the critical year for the biblical story) and that the Israelites were there, leading to the destruction of the city. However, Garstang took a more pragmatic view when speaking about what caused the walls to collapse; due to the well-known seismic activity in the area and because the walls fell outwards, Garstang believed that it was more likely that a timely earthquake caused the mighty walls of Jericho to tumble down, rather than divine intervention.

 

However, supporters reason, could it not be that the earthquake was its own form of divine intervention? It certainly occurred at an opportune time, and the Israelites could not have conquered without it. Indeed, how does one define a miracle?

 

Other clues Garstang gives also support the account of the Book of Joshua. The fact that the walls fell outwards instead of inwards is a small victory, as Joshua clearly states that the attacking Israelites climbed up and over the fallen wall. This also provides solid reasoning as to how they were able to climb over the smaller, older wall. Furthermore, Garstang discovered proof of an ancient fire when the walls fell, further supporting the biblical account that stated the Israelites put the entire city to the torch.

 

Skeptics Arise: Kathleen Kenyon Challenges the Biblical Account

jericho from tell es sultan fisheyeview
Jericho from Tell es-Sultan, photo by Davide Mauro, 2022, Wikimedia Commons

 

The 1950s saw another widespread and substantial excavation of Jericho, this time by renowned archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon who brought new technology to Tell es-Sultan, examining stratigraphy and pottery shards. Based on her findings, Kenyon deduced that the fall of Jericho occurred in 1550 BCE, 150 years before the commonly held year of 1400 BCE for the Israelite conquest. As Kenyon was an eminent figure in the field, her work was generally more widely accepted than Garstang’s. Many people thought these findings dealt a fatal blow to the biblical account of Jericho, but others persisted in their beliefs.

 

For example, Kenyon also discovered burned grain on her dig. This burned grain has led many to believe that Jericho fell relatively quickly as the people had not consumed it like they would have if the city had been subjected to a prolonged siege — which it certainly could have withstood with its enormous walls and fortifications. For some, the uneaten grain points to the possibility that the city was taken in a surprising fashion after mere days (maybe only seven?), again giving credence to the biblical narrative.

 

From the 1950s to the present day, archaeological digs, discussion, and scientific testing have continued at the Jericho site as people attempt to piece together what occurred in the city more than 3000 years ago. In fact, some of the most recent findings, including further study of Kenyon’s findings, examination of the pottery, and carbon-14 dating, have dated the destruction of the city almost exactly at 1400 BCE, giving even greater confidence to those who believe that God indeed struck down the walls of Jericho and delivered the city to his chosen people.

 

The Walls of Jericho: In Conclusion

battle of jericho
Battle of Jericho, by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld, 1684, via Wikimedia Commons

 

So, the question remains: was the fall of Jericho a victory of biblical proportions for the Israelites or simply historical propaganda and a compelling story? More importantly, does it matter?

 

While the arguments that place the destruction of Jericho at the same time as the Israelite sources are compelling, questions such as these are challenging to fully prove. The archaeological evidence is piecemeal for both sides, and the argument rages on. Biblical scholars remain convinced the evidence is clear that God struck down the walls for the Israelites. At the same time, skeptics and other renowned archaeologists believe it is more likely that the people of Israel simply migrated slowly to the lands of the Canaanites and built legends as they clashed with them. The city of Jericho, they contend, had already been abandoned for over a century and was just incorporated into the story.

 

Regardless of what occurred, it is essential to realize that the Bible was not created as a history textbook — although many accounts from its pages are easily verifiable historical facts. Whether the fall of Jericho happened exactly as transcribed within its pages or not, it remains a gripping chronicle of faith and triumph.

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By Jonathan SzoPh. D. History (in progress), MA History, BA (Hons.) History, B.EdJonathan is currently a Ph.D. student in history at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, where he is focusing on Canadian History, the Upper Canada Rebellion, and the Age of Revolutions. He holds a Master's in History from UNB, a BA in History (Hons.) from Crandall University, and a Bachelor of Education from St. Thomas University. In his spare time, Jonathan enjoys baseball, soccer, mountain biking, and hanging out with his golden retriever, Bo.