Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
Ritual Violence at Jericho

Ritual Violence at Jericho

(Josh 5:13–6:27)


Don C. Benjamin

Old Testament Story: an introduction (2004: 133-141)

            The Bible sets the Inauguration of Joshua (Josh 5:13–6:27) at Jericho. Jericho is an oasis in the Jordan River Valley some 840 feet below sea level and 20 miles north of the Dead Sea. In contrast with the Hills of Galilee, which average 40 inches of rainfall a year, and with the Hills of Samaria, which average about 30 inches of rainfall a year, and with Jerusalem, which averages 24 inches, and with Beth-shan, which averages 13 inches, Jericho receives only six inches of rainfall a year.

Jericho was founded on a site where two fault lines cut deep into the hill country, creating two east–west highways running between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley. One route, called the Beth-horon Pass, ran through the Valley of Aijalon near Jerusalem; the other ran near Gibeah and Michmash. What draws the telling of the Inauguration of Joshua to Jericho is not only its strategic location, but also its standing as a threshold separating chaos from cosmos. Jericho was the place where the world began, where cosmos was created. Therefore Jericho was the site where Joshua was inaugurated to teach the people of Yahweh to live in the land of Yahweh without cities like Jericho.

Cities were the legacy of the pharaohs and the work of slaves. A thousand years after the days of Joshua, the people of Qumran still renewed their covenant with Yahweh by crossing the Jordan River and processing around its Jericho’s ruins.

Generation after generation left marks at Jericho. Mesolithic pioneers occupied the site in 8000 BCE during the Natufian era. Neolithic engineers fortified Jericho with a massive wall, tower, and dry moat between 8500 and 4300 BCE Early Bronze settlers occupied the site from 2900 to 2300 BCE Hyksos warriors established a battle camp at Jericho fortified with a sloping glacis and mud-brick wall in 1750–1560 BCE Hezekiah (726–697 BCE) and Simon (142–134 BCE) were the last kings of Judah to rebuild it (Judg 3:13; 2 Sam 10:5; 1 Chr 19:5).

Despite Jericho’s long history, however, the site was uninhabited as often as inhabited. Jericho was a ghost town from 4000 to 2900 BCE, from 2300 to 1750 BCE, from 1560 to 716 BCE, and from 587 to 142 BCE The existing ruins at Jericho and Ai, Jericho’s sister city, date from the Early Bronze period (3300–2000 BCE) or the Middle Bronze period (2000–1550 BCE). As yet, there is no archaeological evidence for a city or a destruction layer at either site after 1200 BCE (Fig. 30).

Kathleen Kenyon (1906–78) of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem was the most accomplished archaeologist to excavate Jericho (1952–58). For her, Jericho was a strongly fortified Hyksos city during the Middle Bronze period. Like the Hebrews, the Hyksos were a Semitic people. They ruled an empire that stretched from Avaris near Cairo today to the Carmel Mountains near Haifa. Their city at Jericho was destroyed more than 250 years before Joshua, and remained abandoned until 716 BCE, when Hezekiah rebuilt it. More than one explanation has been offered to reconcile the destruction of Jericho described in the book of Joshua with the lack of solid archaeological evidence that a city existed at the site in the days of Joshua.

Perhaps the traditions describing the conquest of Jericho and Ai (Josh 1–9) are not battle reports, but explanations of the ruins that the Hebrews found at Jericho and at Ai. Since this proposal was first suggested, anthropologists have shown that storytellers do use striking natural phenomena and human ruins familiar to their audiences to punctuate stories, but they do not tell stories just to explain natural phenomena and human ruins.

Perhaps Jericho’s Late Bronze–period city may still lie beneath a section of the tell that has not yet been excavated. No full scale excavations have been conducted at Jericho since those directed by Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated only a small portion of the site.

Perhaps the city that Joshua conquered may have been completely eroded by Syria-Palestine’s winter rains and the modern Israeli highway. There was a real city at the site when the Hebrew villages appeared in the area, but all trace of that city has vanished.

Perhaps the people whom Joshua conquered in the Late Bronze period were living behind Middle Bronze–period walls. They did not build their own walls in the Late Bronze period, but simply recycled those from an earlier period.


Charles Warren (1867–68) dug three thirty-foot shafts into the tell and determined that the 70-foot high, 10-acre mound (1200 N-S x 600 E-W feet) was artificial, not natural.

Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger (1907–09, 1911) mapped the Middle Bronze period (1600 BCE) retaining wall, 15 feet high, at the base of the tell.

Using a pottery chronology now considered faulty, John Gartstang (1930–36) dated mud-brick wall and city at stratum IV to the Late Bronze period and their destruction to Joshua (1400–1380 BCE).

Kathleen Kenyon (1952–58), whose reports were finally published in 1981–83, dug three trenches on N, W, and S sides of the tell, dated the tower (25 feet diam., 25 feet high) to Neolithic period (7000 BCE), mud-brick wall (6.5 feet wide, 12 feet high) and 40-degree glacis to the Early Bronze period, but mud-brick wall and city at stratum iv to the Middle Bronze period (1350 BCE) because there was no Mycenaean pottery associated with either.

Bryant G. Wood (“Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” BARev 16 [March/Apr: 1990]: 44–57) did not excavate Jericho, but restudied Kenyon’s records, and argues that:

1) 20 strata, 3 major destructions, 12 minor destructions cannot be assigned to only 100 years (1650–1550 BCE);

2) There is Late Bronze–period local pottery in Garstang’s and Kenyon’s finds;

3) Jericho is not on a trade route, hence would not import Late Bronze–period Mycenaean pottery like Megiddo and Gezer;

4) Kenyon excavated an ordinary neighborhood where imported Mycenaean pottery would not occur;

5) Kenyon excavated only two 26-foot x 26-foot squares, which provides too little data to be conclusive;

6) Hyksos retreating from Egypt would not have destroyed Jericho, which was their own city;

7) Egyptians did not pursue Hyksos north of Sharuhen in the Negeb;

8) Egyptians always attacked before harvest, and six bushels of wheat recovered indicate city fell after harvest;

9) Continuous scarab record in tombs from the Middle Bronze period through the Late Bronze period (1800–1400 BCE) indicates a Late Bronze–period city did exist

And concludes that:

1) A landslide caused by a Late Bronze–period (1400 BCE!) earthquake blocked Jordan;

2) An earthquake collapsed the Late Bronze–period mud-brick wall, which tumbled across retaining wall;

3) The Hebrews used rubble as a ladder to enter the city;

4) Spontaneous fires caused by collapsing buildings destroyed the city.

Figure 30 Jericho’s Archaeological Record


Perhaps the “Jericho” in these traditions may originally have been “Bethel,” which, like Ai, was also a sister city of Jericho. There is clear evidence for Bethel’s destruction in the Late Bronze period, and storytellers may eventually have transferred the battle of Bethel to the more famous Jericho.

Perhaps Kenyon simply overlooked evidence for a city at Jericho during the Late Bronze period. There may be locally made Late Bronze pottery among Kenyon’s finds, even though there is no Late Bronze–period pottery imported from Mycenae. There may also be scarab seals from the Late Bronze period among the grave goods that Kenyon recovered. Burned grain recovered from the excavation may show that Jericho fell quickly and not after a prolonged siege. An earthquake may have created a landslide that held back the waters of the Jordan and tumbled the city’s main mud-brick wall, providing a ramp down from the top of the tell across its glacis and retaining wall. The Hebrews may have climbed up this ramp into the city set ablaze when roofs collapsed into cooking fires.

The interpretation here, however, assumes that it was the ruins of Jericho, and not a living city, that inspired the Inauguration of Joshua at Jericho. The ruins of its lofty tower and massive walls were monuments to the affluence and organization of the peoples who once lived at Jericho. Like others who came on these ruins, the Hebrews were awestruck. The ruins made the Hebrews wonder why Yahweh allowed this great city to be destroyed, and whether or not they should rebuild it.

The Hebrews had good reasons to rebuild Jericho. Rebuilding the city would be an act of stewardship. They would be repairing the land that Yahweh had willed to them. Normally, heirs were expected to take immediate possession of their testator’s estates in order to begin payment of the agreed annuity or sacrifices. Rebuilding Jericho would also allow the Hebrews to enjoy its affluence. Jericho was an economic gold mine. Obviously, the founders of Jericho knew how to make a good living in this land, and the Hebrews wanted to imitate them. The Hebrews hoped Jericho could make Israel as rich as their predecessors on the site.

The Inauguration of Joshua at Jericho reflects the idealism of early Israel. The Hebrews who built their villages in the hills above Jericho were survivors of the great slave empires of Egypt, Hatti, and Mycenae. Cities were the hallmark of these empires. While most cultures in the world of the Bible looked on cities as great accomplishments, these early Hebrews considered cities to be monuments to slavery. Hence, they created a village culture, not a city culture. To prevent slavery, early Israel prohibited not only cities, but monarchs, taxes, and soldiers as well. Life in early Israel would be simple, but it would be free.

Interdicts similar to the one placed on Jericho in the Inauguration of Joshua at Jericho also appear in a tradition about Babel (Gen 11:1–90) and a tradition in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 6:10–19). To rebuild Jericho would return the Hebrews to the slavery from which Yahweh had delivered them. Cities and slavery were the antithesis of being Hebrew. The Inauguration of Joshua warns the Hebrews not to rebuild Jericho, but to leave the city in ruins, and off-limits, as a reminder that only in a land without cities can they remain free.

Crisis Episode

(Josh 5:13)

            The Inauguration of Joshua at Jericho (Josh 5:13–6:27) follows the same pattern as the Inauguration of Marduk in the Enuma Elish Stories from Mesopotamia (Fig. 31). Just as the divine assembly of Babylon inaugurates Marduk to confront Tiamat, Yahweh inaugurates Joshua to confront Jericho. Inauguration stories identify candidates to the community and authorize their use of power. These stories defend leaders against charges of ambition by portraying them as simply following the commission of their divine patrons. Inaugurations regularly open with candidates pursuing ordinary tasks.

When the book of Joshua opens, the Hebrews are east of the Jordan River. Some are content, even proud, to remain there. They have no desire to cross the frontier into the unexplored land to the west. Yahweh interrupts this peaceful existence and inaugurates Joshua to lead the Hebrews into a new world. When the inauguration opens, Joshua is cast as a sentry on guard duty at the perimeter of the Hebrew camp. Yahweh approaches the camp as a warrior responding to a call to arms (1 Sam 13:2; 22:7; 24:3; 2 Sam 6:1).

The intention of the theophany is to attract the attention of a candidate and to lure the candidate into the presence of Yahweh. The armed warrior attracts the attention of Joshua, just as the burning bush attracts the attention of Moses at Mt. Horeb (Exod 3:3). Joshua challenges the warrior to identify himself: Are you for us, or for our enemies? (Josh 5:13) The warrior answers: Neither! (Josh 5:14), which is a characteristic refusal of Yahweh to identify himself on demand. Only Yahweh asks questions. At ease! would be a better translation of Yahweh’s refusal to give the password.

The prohibition of images of Yahweh (Deut 5:8–10) in an aniconic culture like ancient Israel imposes restraints on any theophany in the Bible, which technically can never be an image of Yahweh. Therefore, inaugurations regularly introduce Yahweh vaguely as a messenger (Exod 3:2) or a man from the household of our Creator (Judg 13:6). In the Inauguration of Abraham at Mt. Moriah (Gen 21:33–22:19), a messenger speaks to Abraham twice (Gen 22:10+15), before Yahweh speaks to him (Gen 22:16). In the Inauguration of Moses at Mt. Horeb (Exod 2:23–4:23), a messenger appears (Exod 3:2), before Yahweh speaks (Exod 3:6). Although the Annunciation to the Wife of Manoah (Judg 13:1–25) never formally introduces Manoah and his wife to the man from our Creator, only Yahweh hears prayers (Judg 13:9), eats sacrifices (Judg 13:15–16), and refuses to give the candidate a name (Judg 13:17–18). The motif of Yahweh as a warrior with the a fiery sword


inauguration story crisis (Josh 5:13)

When Joshua appeared at Jericho, a warrior suddenly approached him with his sword drawn. Joshua challenged the stranger: Friend or foe?

inauguration story climax (Josh 5:14)

The warrior answered: At ease! I am Yahweh, commander of the divine warriors. I am with you.

Joshua fell to his knees, touching his forehead to the ground. Your word is my command!

 Yahweh Sabaoth ordered Joshua: Take off your sandals. You are standing on holy ground.

So Joshua removed his sandals.

inauguration story denouement: a creation story (Josh 6:1–27)

Jericho was unable to muster soldiers or assemble elders before the Israelites. Then Yahweh said to Joshua: I have delivered Jericho with its ruler and all its warriors to you. Your warriors should circle the city in procession once a day for six consecutive days. Seven priests should walk in procession with their trumpets in front of the ark of Yahweh. On the seventh day, walk in processions around the city seven times. Order the priests to blow their trumpets and the warriors to shout their battle cry: is Lord!’ In response, the walls of the city will prostrate before the procession of warriors walking one behind the other.

So Joshua, the son of Nun, ordered the priests to shoulder the ark, and assigned seven priests with trumpets to lead it out of the camp. He ordered the warriors to circle the city in procession in front of the ark, and they carried out Joshua’s orders. Seven priests blowing their trumpets led the ark of Yahweh out of the camp with warriors walking both in front of the ark and behind it. Although the priests blew their trumpets continuously, Joshua had ordered the warriors not to shout their battle cry until he gave the word.

On the first day, the ark circled the city only once before returning to camp for the night. At dawn, Joshua ordered the priests to shoulder the ark, and assigned seven priests blowing their trumpets continuously to lead it out of the camp with warriors walking both in front of the ark and behind it.

On the second day, they circled the city only once before returning to camp for the night.

On six consecutive days, they repeated the ritual.

At dawn on the seventh day, they walked in procession around the city, in the same order, a total of seven times. It was only on the seventh day that they circled the city seven times. On the seventh time, when the priests had blown their trumpets, Joshua gave the word to the warriors: Shout: ‘Yahweh has delivered the city into our hands! Sacrifice the city and everything in it to Yahweh. Spare only the household of Rahab the prostitute because she spared our warriors. Bring nothing from the sacrifice back to the camp. Plunder taken from a sacrifice contaminates everything it touches. Deposit the silver, gold, and bronze and iron from the sacrifice directly into the treasury of Yahweh.

The warriors shouted their battle cry as soon as the priests blew their trumpets.

In response, the walls of the city prostrated before the procession of warriors walking one behind the other. They sacrificed the entire city to Yahweh, men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses.

Joshua ordered the warriors who had scouted the land: Deliver the household of Rahab the prostitute as you swore to her you would do!” The warriors who had scouted the land delivered Rahab, her father, mother, brothers, and their slaves, and brought them to the perimeter of the camp. They offered the city as a sacrifice and deposited all the silver, gold, bronze, and iron directly into the treasury of Yahweh. Nonetheless, they spared the household of Rahab the prostitute, who are still Israelites to this day, because she spared the warriors Joshua sent to scout Jericho. Joshua placed the city under interdict: “Cursed be the ruler who 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.

 Yahweh was with Joshua, he was honored throughout the land.

Figure 31 Inauguration of Joshua at Jericho (Josh 5:13–6:27)


at the boundary between the old world and the new world also appears in a Story of Adam and Eve as Farmers and Child-bearers, where Yahweh stations the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24). Yahweh also appears as a warrior in the books of Samuel-Kings (2 Sam 24:16–17; 2 Kgs 19:35; 1 Chr 21:16) and in a Trial of David (2 Sam 24:16–17). The warrior who confronts David is armed only with a raised hand, but as in the Inauguration of Joshua at Jericho, the target of this warrior’s commission is a city. Yahweh talks with David about the city of Jerusalem, and with Joshua about the city of Jericho.

What takes place at this threshold will determine the future of Israel. Jericho is a sacred center and Yahweh guards its threshold with a fiery sword. Joshua must use competence and courage to deal with the guardian. Once across the threshold, the candidate is endowed with the wisdom of the sacred center by this guardian. To seize this wisdom, the candidate must challenge the guardian. Only by crossing the established boundaries, only by provoking the guardian’s destructive power, can the candidate obtain the guardian’s constructive power, which will allow the Hebrews to pass over into a new world. To cross the threshold, candidates must develop the discipline to deny the senses that limit them to the known world, and acquire a sense of the unknown new world. Armed with the confidence of this new sense, candidates confront the guardian without fear and lead their households forward. A Labor of Moses and Zipporah against Yahweh (Exod 4:24–26) and a Labor of Jacob against Yahweh (Gen 32:23–33) are parallel stories told about ancestors crossing a frontier to undertake a divine mission.

Climax Episode

(Josh 5:14)

            In the standard inauguration stories, Yahweh greets candidates formally by calling their name twice: Moses! Moses! (Exod 3:4). Once addressed, candidates realize they are in the presence of Yahweh. Instead of calling Joshua by name, however, Yahweh addresses him Joshua as his commander in chief: At ease, I am Yahweh, commander of the divine warriors (Josh 5:14).

Joshua, like candidates in other inauguration stories, prostrates himself. His posture is a demurral that demonstrates his lack of ambition and argues that he will take possession of Jericho only in obedience and not in a selfish quest for power. With both physical and verbal demurrals candidates promise to serve the community, not dominate it. Candidates in inauguration traditions are reluctant messengers.

Yahweh often responds to the demurrals of candidates with the promise: I am with you. This promise appears at both the beginning of the Inauguration of Joshua at Jericho when the warrior says to Joshua: as commander of the army of Yahweh I have now come (Josh 5:14), and at the end when the story confirms that Yahweh was with Joshua (Josh 6:27).

Yahweh often stays the transfer of a candidate from the human plane to the divine plane with the words: Fear not! The delay allows candidates to carry out a divine mission. Here Yahweh delays Joshua’s transfer by teaching him the protocol for an audience with his divine patron. He tells Joshua to remove his sandals, which will prevent the holiness of Yahweh from transfiguring him into a risk for the Hebrews when he returns to the camp.

Denouement Episode

(Josh 6:1–27)

            Joshua is now prepared to receive his divine commission. Standard commissions use a command (Exod 3:8–10), a Decalogue (Deut 5:6–21), or a covenant. This commission, however, is a creation story like the Enuma Elish Stories that developed in Mesopotamia, and the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth in the book of Genesis (Gen 1:1–2:4). When on high are the opening words of the Enuma Elish Stories (Enuma I: 1), and a good example of the standard opening words for creation stories. Likewise, When Joshua appeared before Jericho better translates the opening words of this inauguration. When the messenger of Yahweh appears, a radical change is imminent (Gen 39:5; Exod 12:13; 1 Sam 5:9; 7:13; 12:15).

Sterility affidavits are the standard crisis episodes in creation stories. They certify that when the creator begins to create, there is nothing but chaos.

The sterility affidavit of the creation story: all who went out of the gate of his city (Gen 34:24) and all who went in at the gate of his city (Gen 23:8–10) identify the two most important groups of men. As early as the culture of Sumer, cities were governed by warriors and elders. In the Stories of Gilgamesh, both the elders and the warriors commission him to declare war on Kish. Here in the Inauguration of Joshua, there are no warriors to protect Jericho from its enemies, and there are no elders to resolve disputes among its households. The city is as lifeless as the chaos before which Yahweh stands in the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth.

The climax episode in the creation story is a cosmogony. Yahweh directs Joshua to celebrate the end of the old world of Jericho and the beginning of the new world of Israel. This liturgy contains a series of rubrics describing what is to be done and what is to be said. For six days, the Hebrews are to walk in procession around Jericho once a day. On the seventh day, they are to process around the city seven times. These seven days of processions parallel the days of creation in the Stories of the Heavens and the Earth. This liturgy, however, does not draw cosmos from chaos, but returns cosmos to chaos. It is a reversed ritual that inverts the creative process.

Although some words in the liturgy do carry military connotations, they also carry liturgical connotations. For example, the same Hebrew word can mean army or people of Yahweh (Josh 6:8). Likewise, to carry the Ark of the Covenant was as much an act of war as an act of worship. In battle, the ark was a rallying point for warriors separated from their detachments. In worship, the ark was the pedestal of Yahweh toward which the congregation directed its attention.

The walls of Jericho are the divine patron of the city. They prostrate themselves, which signals that the old world of Jericho has come to an end, and acknowledges that Yahweh is the new divine patron of this land (Josh 6:20). The walls are to remain prostrate and the city is placed under interdict to remind the Hebrews that the old world of monarchs and taxes and soldiers and cities and slaves has ended. The Hebrews draw a circle as they dance with the ark around the ruin, creating a forbidden zone where only Yahweh may enter.

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