In this digital age the crowing glory of any historical event is when software engineers make the event into a gaming video. Use any internet search engine and you’ll find numerous games representing the “Battle of Jericho”. Although the theme of the event remains, the software engineer will add dramatic effects in order to engage and excite their audience. Like the software engineer, the author of the Book of Joshua has added similar dramatic effects to engage and excite his audience. My sermon today will not attempt to deny divine intervention but, rather, to emphasise Joshua’s tactical genius as a military commander. Such was Joshua’s genius as a military commander, Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson the famous Confederate general during the American Civil War was fond of saying that the book of Joshua is the model of a perfect battle report. After Moses’s death and the 30-day mourning period was concluded, Joshua had received God’s commission to prepare the children of Israel to cross the Jordan River. He was to enter the land of Canaan and conquer all its inhabitants, then to divide the land into portions for all the Israelite tribes.
Description of the Israelite Army
Each tribe was to provided a militia from its able-bodied men over the age of 20 years. These able-bodied fighters were not a rag-tag rabble of poorly armed fugitives without any military experience, they were in fact all fully battle hardened, having defeated the Ammonite Kings, Sihon and Og, at Jahaz and Edral. They had captured and occupied all the territories from the Arnon River in the South to the Jabbok River in the North and east as far as the Jordan River. The Israelite army was equipped with weapons found in Egyptian and Canaanite armies of the day. It was highly trained and capable of executing a broad array of tactical manoeuvres, including special operations and the ability to take fortified cities by storm.
Even though both the Books of Joshua and Judges mention no weapons other than the sickle sword, we can be fairly confident that weapons used by the Israelite militia army consisted of the mace, short spear, sickle sword, longbow and sling. What I found interesting concerning the sickle sword (what the Egyptians called a khopesh) is that its cutting edge is on the convex side as opposed to the reaping-hook which has its cutting edge on the concave side. So it was a slashing weapon for use in close quarter combat together with the mace and the short spear. The longbow and sling were used as artillery. Without a supply of metals, the Israelite army would rely on weapons and materials they could capture from their defeated foes.
Joshua 6:24 describes the city of Jericho and everything in it being burned except objects of silver, gold, copper and iron. These metallic items were deposited in the House of the Lord. It is likely the gold and silver were used to purchase the expensive copper and tin to make new bronze weapons.
Description of Bronze
The technology of smelting copper and tin to form a durable alloy is first seen around the copper deposits of Cyprus. The warm Mediterranean world had few tin deposits, forcing them to trade with cold barbarian lands to the North. We know that from 2000 BCE tin mining started in Cornwall, initially focusing on alluvial deposits (river gravels containing ore).
The Phoenicians, a now vanished pre-Roman civilisation in North Africa, traded directly with Cornwall. The name “Britain” comes from the Phoenician name “Bar a tanac” meaning “Land of Tin”. The Greek historian Herodotus, who is the source for much of the little we know about the ancient world, describes how tin comes from the Cassiterides, ‘lands of tin’ that sat beyond Gaul (France).
The Jordan River
Even at its full flow during early spring the Jordan River is never more than 90 to 100 feet across and a depth ranging from 2 to 10 feet. Josh 5:11-12 describe Joshua’s plan to cross the Jordan River at the time of spring harvest in Canaan which would enable the Israelites to eat the Canaanites’ ripened grain. But choosing to cross at this time the Israelite would encounter the Jordan River at its most dangerous. It would be in full flow due to the late winter and early spring rainfall combined with the melting snows from Mount Hermon.
So why did Joshua choose this most dangerous time to cross the Jordan River? Using his military genius Joshua had employed a tactical surprise by choosing a time that the Canaanites would never suspect the Israelites would attempt a crossing. A full reconnaissance of the Jordan to find the most suitable crossing point would have been made. Once a crossing place had been located stones would be positioned across the breath to the river creating a shallow ford crossing further downstream. It’s also logical to think that the two spies deployed to Jericho would have located and used this same ford crossing. The American West wagon trains used similar methods to this by placing their cattle and wagons upstream to provide a shallow ford a short distance downstream for the people to cross safely.
Preparations for battle
With the Israelites safely across the Jordan and camped at Gilgal, Joshua circumcised his troops. During the 40 year travel in the desert none of the males had been circumcised. The only logical reasons I can think of for Joshua wanting to circumcise his men at this time was to determine three things: 1) Like the Orla of fruit trees, these men are now fit to enter the land of Israel 2) circumcision would test the courage of his soldiers 3) his men would remain celibate during the healing process. As any old school boxing coach will tell you, remaining celibate before a fight increases both concentration and aggression in a fighter e.g. Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson both heavyweight boxing champions practiced celibacy prior to their fights.
Jericho’s destruction and Joshua’s curse
There seems little strategic value in Joshua’s army attacking Jericho considering its size. Given the average speed of a human being, it would take about 10 minutes to walk around the 1/2 mile perimeter of Jericho. The area inside the walls of Jericho was approximately six acres. Based on 200 persons per acre as a rule of thumb used in archaeology, the population of the city would have been approximately 1,200 citizens. This number of people couldn’t possibly pose a threat to the much larger Israelite nation.
For most of us Joshua 6:21 makes extremely unpleasant reading: “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both men and woman, young and old, as well as oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword.” The text continues describing the city being burnt to the ground followed by Joshua’s curse on the city of Jericho.
What was the reason for this devastating and total destruction?
There is evidence to substantiate that the occupants of Jericho were a sick people, many of them suffering the effects of schistosomiasis (snail fever) a nasty debilitating disease. (1) Elisha’s Well, Jericho’s only water supply, would have been the source of infection. Schistosomiasis follows close contact with contaminated water. Parasites leave the water snail and enter the human body usually by penetrating the skin.
Parashat Metzora informs us of uncleanness or defilement covering a range of conditions that could affect people or clothing and even the walls of buildings. The affected individual, clothes or building was considered to be “cursed” by God and “impure.” They were further considered second only to that of a corpse. Touching them, or anything that they may have touched, could spread the “curse” to others.
Joshua 6:26 describes Joshua’s curse on the city of Jericho: “Cursed before the Lord be the man that raises up and rebuilds this city Jericho at the cost of his first-born shall he lay its foundation and at the cost of his youngest sun shall he set up its gates”. Could schistosomiasis have been the reason for Joshua’s curse?
Joshua had achieved absolute victory over Jericho! All the nations of Canaan were witness to the Israelites formidable strength. He had struck fear into all the Canaanite nations making them aware of their pending fate. Joshua like the Mongols wanted his army to be preceded by an army of fear.
Finally, with reference to our current affairs, the removal of our nations statues and monuments. All of us today are standing on the shoulders of giants that have gone before us. When viewed through a 21st century prism some actions carried out by these individuals were indeed evil but when viewed through the prism of context they remain giants. Removing them will not blot out our history.
(1) Hulse EV. Joshua’s curse and the abandonment of ancient Jericho: schistosomiasis as a possible medical explanation.