Joshua and Jericho: The problems!

image Anyone who has taken the trouble to look dispassionately at the Old Testament quickly comes across some very difficult passages.  Amongst the hardest is this one following Joshua’s victory at Jericho:

They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed (herem) with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys (6.17).

With the exception of Rahab and her household everything is put to death.  This is herem; the utter destruction of cities, nations, people and livestock.  Herem has a religious purpose.  Whatever is annihilated is assumed to have been consecrated to God for his exclusive ownership.  It now enjoys the highest degree of holiness (set apartness) and cannot be returned for normal use (Lev 27:28).

Not every act of destruction in the OT is herem: Only God can decide what is herem. So here, at Jericho, there is to be no humane exceptions for the elderly, disabled, women, or children. Everyone dies. Whilst other nations also engaged in religiously inspired liquidation, this command is from the God whom Christians worship as being the ultimate expression of love. And it leaves us troubled.

God applied herem at Jer­icho and Ai differently. He decreed all of Jericho to be herem and off-limits to Israel as plunder, but exempted sil­ver, gold, bronze and iron objects from destruction (they went into his treasury; 6:19, 26). At Ai, however, God also exempted any objects or animals the Israelites wanted to keep for themselves. An act of God’s grace to benefit his people?

But behind the varied applications of herem is a vital truth: God owns everything. His ownership gives him the authority to decide whether and to what extent humans may enjoy the use of his property.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters. Psalm 24:1 -2

The “earth” refers to what we call “property” today and “everything in it” is … everything. This includes everything that humans have created using the raw materials since the latter all belong to God. “All who live in it” refers to all earth’s inhabitants, including humans and animals. There are no areas marked “Property of X” or “Belonging to Y”; everything is marked “Property of God,” and there are no exceptions. God owns everything, and we humans own nothing.

So what is it that God finds so abhorrent about the Canaanites that warrants action that risks us doubting his very character?  The reason usually given is that he needed to protect Israel from the Canaanites disgusting but tempting religious beliefs, from apostasy.  But was Canaanite religion so attractive and Israel’s faith so fragile to warrant herem?  And is God so capricious?

In Joshua, the nations are dealt with so differently to elsewhere in the Old Testament.   Usually God is the merciful ruler of all peoples (Ps 96; Jonah), the defender of the weak of all nations (Ps 82), the one whom the nations seek (Isa. 2:1 -4). That view of God ought to mean that Canaanites should have been able to live in dignity. If then the warrior policies of Joshua are out of step with the God of the rest of the Bible, we should try and understand why that is the case rather than ignore the book. Not to have a good answer to what is happening in Joshua, will trip us up when we are next challenged by someone dismissing our God as a violent ethic cleansing tyrant.

So here is my understanding. Joshua’s war and land policies were time-specific and limited. They applied only to the conquest and settlement period and are not a precedent. But this does not answer the question of God’s morality. Let’s look again then at Joshua for other insights about God’s character. The book contrasts the acceptance of God’s plans by Rahab and the Gibeonites (2:9-11; 9-10) with the resistance to it by others (5:1; 9:1-2; 10:1-5; 11:1-5). This contrast suggests that the Canaanites perished for resisting God, and not for their religious decadence or economic oppression. Those who submit to God’s sovereignty are saved but resistance is met with force.

Indeed, L.G. Stone argues, that overall Joshua shows that obedience to the law is the test of anyone’s acceptance or resistance to God’s rule. Therefore this time-limited holy war (Stone’s term) is much more about “uncompromising obedience to God’s law” than about “territory or warfare”.  The experience of Rahab and the Gibeonites in receiving God’s compassion, in fact – his salvation, shows that God permits exceptions (Deut 20) to those who acknowledge his greatness.

Therefore, rather than promote violence as the normal treatment of those who lived in the land before Israel arrived, Joshua teaches three things:

  1. Those who honour God’s greatness and do not teach Israel idolatry may remain in the land (Rahab and the Gibeonites),
  2. Rigorous obedience to the law is God’s expectation for all peoples in the land (there are repeated references to the law and to Moses), and
  3. God shows righ­teous anger towards his opponents but his mercy and compassion towards those who turn to him.

Seen this way, the openness to some non-Israelites in Joshua parallels the inclusive themes of the rest of the OT, and antici­pates the New Testament’s emphasis on an international ethnically inclusive community (Acts 1:8,- Rev. 5:9, 14:6).

image Though small in area (about ten acres), Jericho is among the world’s oldest towns (founded ca. 8000 BC).  In the mid-1930s, ruins of both a double city wall on top the mound and a residential area on its southeast slope were dated to 1400 BC. Other spectacular evidence suggested the town’s great prosperity during the early Middle Bronze Age (from 2000 BC).  This gave rise to some excitement as it seemed to confirm the historical accuracy of Joshua.

However, later excavations indicated that by 1550 BC the mound itself showed only a few traces of prosperity. A violent battle then left the town barren and uninhabited for two centuries, and that erosion had washed away all but a few traces of occupation after that. It therefore seemed that except for a small, short-lived settlement around 1400 BC, Jericho was completely uninhabited from 1550-1100 BC. It was then rebuilt during Ahab’s reign (1 Kings 16:34).

In other words, notwithstanding what we read in Joshua 6, was there a fortified city of Jericho for Joshua and Israel to conquer?  The absence of a “fortified city,” however, does not necessarily mean that Jericho was completely uninhabited in Joshua’s time. Most Late Bronze Age towns were small and unwalled, and the evidence is of such a settlement at Jericho at the correct time. The “wall” of Joshua 2 and 6 might be well be the outer walls of houses (like Rahab’s) that together formed a protective circle around the city.

The latest scholarly opinions show differences in approach.  Some say that that the archaeological history of Jericho remarkably parallels the biblical account. For example, that the eastern walls fell before they were burnt (Josh 6:20-24).  Others argue that the Jericho of Joshua 6 was washed away by erosion and that the ruins lie under modern day roads and farmland. Whatever was there has long, long since gone, and that “Joshua’s Jericho” will never be found!

3 comments to Joshua and Jericho: The problems!

  • Hi John,
    Enjoyed Adrian this morning and as he mentioned your blogg thought I would have a read of how you saw the cleansing some would say savagery of the Israelites.
    I found your view of Rahab and the Gibeonites helpful also the word ‘herem’
    I have always thought that God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 15:16 throws a light on what is happening here. Clearly the Amorites were a decadent people in Abraham’s time. I cannot believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were not mirrored to some degree in the rest of the country. However God still gave the rest of the indigenous population [the Amorites] a further 400years perhaps like Jonah and Nineveh for real repentance. With child sacrifice every sort of sexual perversion and else where we read that Sodom and Gomorrah neglected the poor, see-Ezekiel 16:49-50, so by the time of Joshua the cup of wickedness was overflowing and the Israelites were the means of God’s promised judgment made to Abraham all those years previously.

    I expect there is nothing new in what I am saying and that this view has been around for years. Would be interested in your view? Thank you for the work you put in to these ‘bloggs’

    Warm regards in the Saviour’s name

  • […] death of the whole family is another troubling aspect of the book of Joshua (see my discussion on herem).  Our 21st century shock comes from our sense of individual responsibility.  However, in […]

  • […] So, on balance, I think that the “ruse” is much more “prudent” than “treacherous”.  The Gibeonites had a serious respect for God, no offensive idolatry, wanted peace not war, and seek a right treatment (9:25). On God’s side, he offers the kind of mercy to non-Israelites which he later offers to all nations.  This is wholly constant with my previous discussion on herem. […]