The battle of Jericho is one of the more popular events that take place in the Old Testament. In the Book of Joshua, it also takes place within a series of events which culminate into the complete entrance and settlement of the Israelites within the land of Canaan, also known as “the Promised Land.” If the Israelites indeed enter the land from Transjordan, they would have come into contact with the inhabitants of this major city/fort residing in the oasis of the Jordan River valley.
Geographically, Jericho falls along a major ancient road in the valley. The imposing mound, Tel Es-Sultan has been identified as ancient “Jericho” even though there has been other identifications of a “Jericho” at Tell Abu el’ Alayiq which contains a large Hasmonean palace, Tell El-Hassan in the byzantine period, and one of Herod the Great’s Roman Period palaces discovered at Khirbet en-Nitla. It is not uncommon for sites to move over time which can make some identification of ancient towns and cities difficult.
For the purpose of this article we will focus on Tel Es-Sultan and assume its location, since it is the largest tel (the Hebrew for “ruin; manmade mound created from centuries of occupations built on top of each other) in the area. It also has evidence of occupations from the Epipaleolithic Period approximately 9000 BC to the Late Bronze II age, using standard archaeological dating methods (not focusing on biblical chronology).* According to this dating, it would make Jericho the oldest city discovered in the archaeological record! One of the more impressive structures from the excavations are a round stone tower from the Neolithic Period (8.5m in diameter and stands to this day, preserved 7.75m tall) built against the inner-city wall. The society living there suggests a transition from hunter-gathers to one of the first, budding sedentary civilizations.
The city flourished in the Early and Middle Bronze ages (3250-1550 BC) as there was monumental architecture (palaces, buildings and wall fortifications) built on the site as well as several cave burials and family graves on and around the tel.
Now, to answer the question: “What about Joshua and the Israelites, is there any evidence of them or a battle at Jericho?” There is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is: it’s complicated. The reason of this complication lies in methodology and interpretation. Which results in my long answer. For those of you still with me and would like an explanation, here it is:
When referring the Biblical time period, the emergence of the ancient Israelites would have taken place during the Late Bronze Age (1550 – 1200 BC). Whichever way you look at biblical chronology (which usually has something to do with where you date the Exodus: 15th Century or 13th Century BC), the emergence of Israel into Canaan has to take place shortly after this episode, i.e. one generation after the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt.
Jericho was one of the first sites excavated when scholars rushed to the Holy Land in order to excavate and find the hidden secrets of an ancient Israelite culture to battle skeptics of the Bible. The first excavations took place between 1907-1909 in which an Austro-German team under the direction of E. Sellin and C. Watzinger. Before scientific methodology and modern methods of excavation became standardized, someone thought it would be a good idea to dig a series of trenches into these delicate tels in order to evaluate the stratigraphy. This accomplished the goal of reading the occupations, but at what cost? Archaeology is already destruction of that which has been buried by time. Once it is uncovered, it cannot be put back again. It was discovered later in the discipline’s infancy, that this tactic was not sustainable and the loss of data was incalculable. Even so, the data collected during this work for subsequent excavations, was and is useless to this day.
Methodology improved with the excavations of J. Garstang in 1930-1936 who excavated the Late Bronze portion of the tel. He believed his findings were the remains of the Canaanite fortress in which was destroyed by Joshua and the Israelites. However, when an up-and-coming archaeologist by the name of Kathleen Kenyon later excavated the site in 1952 and 1958, she declared Garstang’s pottery chronology wrong and instead claimed that the city was destroyed much earlier in the Middle Bronze Age. Therefore, according to Kenyon, Joshua and the Israelites would have come upon an already empty town; leaving the event of Joshua at Jericho, fictitious.
There are archaeologist and historians who still feel this way concerning the absence of a Late Bronze civilization and destruction at Jericho. But there is also a considerable number of archaeologists who view who Kenyon to be wrong in her evaluation of the site and the destruction of the outer walls and subsequent destruction by fire. They would believe that Garstang’s assumption does indeed fall correctly in line with biblical chronology and the Late Bronze Age II (13th Century BC). There is also a period of little to no occupation of the Iron Ages and Persian Periods which is also verified by the Biblical Text after Joshua places a curse upon anyone who rebuilds Jericho (Josh 6:26).
There is a battle being fought when it comes Ancient Jericho and it is not the one fought in Joshua 6. Ultimately because of these two things, methodology and interpretation, that the battle rages onward between Biblicists and secular archaeologists. The fact remains that it is probably futile to make any claims as to an Israelite presence at Jericho because there was barely any presence if there ever was one. The text claims that the Israelites were in and out in 7 days and on account of extensive erosion and poor excavation methods, it is a miracle anything survives at the site at all.
In the Bible, the destruction Jericho is yet another sign from God that he fights the battles for His people. In this God’s desire for his people is their faith, rather than their military prowess. The salvation of Rehab and her family (Josh 6:25) is also telling as to the extension of Yahweh’s promise to the Israelites and also to the Canaanites if they were willing to accept it. It is an important story, yet the main points of the narrative are not driven by archaeology (although supplemented), but by are implied theologically and exegetically.
Let me know what you think in the comments!
For further reading on Jericho excavations please see the following:
The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Jericho. Pg 674-697.
On the Reliability of the Old Testament. K. A. Kitchen. pg 187-188.
*One day I will do a post concerning numbers and dating in the Bible compared to modern dating systems, absolute/relative chronology. For the moment I am using the standard dating systems we have available to us based on ceramic typology and radiocarbon dating.