Formations 07.07.2019: The Battle of Jericho

Illustration showing the Battle of Jericho
from Rudolf von Ems’s Weltchronik.

Joshua 6:1-5, 20-25

At this year’s Tony awards, the musical Hadestown won the award for best new musical. It retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice as if it took place in some kind of depression-era, post-apocalyptic company town.

Singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell began working on the musical in 2006 for a community theater. And one number, “Why We Build the Wall,” has invited audiences since then to hear this call and response between Mr. Hades and his chorus of workers.

He asks, “Why do we build the wall, my children, my children?” They repeat his question then answer, “We build the wall to keep us free. That’s why we build the wall. We build the wall to keep us free.” The song continues like this, with each back and forth adding another layer, until everyone sings:

What do we have that they should want?
We have a wall to work upon.
We have work and they have none.
And our work is never done,
my children, my children.
And the war is never won.
The enemy is poverty.
And the wall keeps out the enemy.
And we build the wall to keep us free.
That’s why we build the wall.
We build the wall to keep us free.

Mitchell’s song reminds us that wall building represents a perennial problem of human faith, mixing half-truths with bold promises. Just as they shape ancient myths, the questions we have about walls arise in our contemporary lives. The book of Joshua offers similarly rich layers balancing pasts, presents, and futures. While this feature makes the Deuteronomic History so challenging to interpret, it also allows us to engage questions we still confront—questions of national identity and common flourishing, of promised land and inheritance, of what we remember and what really happened.

In Joshua 6, we follow the story of escaped slaves leaving a place of oppression and coming into a new home. In the same story, “they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (v. 21). How should they have carried a legitimate goal of safety and freedom with the imposition of violence that sometimes follows?

One layer removed, the events appear to be the result of a cultural memory constructed much later. The stories of the exodus and conquest have shaky ties to historical reality, but they inform who Israel could become. Because they had been slaves in Egypt, the writer of Deuteronomy calls Israel to care for the vulnerable among them (see Deut 26). At the same time, the historian imagines the ancestors’ failure to completely drive out the people of the land as the beginning of their downfall, intimating Josiah’s reforms, in which religious sites outside of Jerusalem are destroyed and related priests killed (see Judg 1, 2 Kgs 23).

Whenever they remembered Jericho and for whatever reason, they told a story about priests, the ark of the covenant, and warriors, all circling the city, shouting and blowing trumpets. They told a story about God leveling the walls that separated them from freedom. And they told a story about all but one family from that society being destroyed. Here, the story prompts celebration. Though in a few weeks, we will remember that similar stories caused Israel prolonged lament.

For those that are ours to tell, perhaps the question is, how will our reading of Joshua inform our responses to the challenges that confront us?


• What walls in our culture extend oppression? What walls create safe boundaries?

• What centers our collective memory as a church? As a community? As a nation? What parts of this memory should we protect strongly? What parts of this memory can be grown by listening more widely?

• What effects come from centering our own action in these stories? What effects come from centering God in these stories? Explain.

Reference Shelf

The Deuteronomic History

While some scholars have argued for a first edition of DH dating to the time of King Josiah (c. 640–609 BCE; for example, Nelson 1981a, 1981b; see also a brief history of the discussion in Rowlett), it is now generally accepted among critical scholars that the DH reached its final form sometime during the Babylonian Exile (586–539 BCE) or shortly thereafter, perhaps as late as the fifth century BCE. However, it has been well argued that an earlier edition or redaction of Joshua was produced during the time of Josiah (see references to Nelson and Rowlett above; both with extensive bibliographies). On this take, Joshua was an “ideological document” (Rowlett, 44) written to support Josiah’s violent reforms recorded in 2 Kings 23:1-25. Here Josiah is portrayed as being in a power struggle with religious leaders throughout the land reaching from “Geba to Beer-sheba” (2 Kgs 23:8). In order to gain control of Judah and rid his empire of those who were accused of abandoning Yahweh and his covenant, Josiah engaged in a violent crusade. According to R. Coote, “Joshua is molded on Josiah and his conquest on Josiah’s murderous rampage through the highland in the attempt to recover the glory of David’s kingdom” (1990, 164).


It would seem to be the case that the further one goes back in time, the less reliable, historically speaking, the Bible becomes. In fact, the results of many years of archaeological discoveries in the southern Levant have shown that there is almost no archaeological data that can support the historicity of the so-called Patriarchal period (as well as the exodus/conquest stories). Most mainstream scholars today interpret these stories as legendary folktales. The “exodus” story is seen as mostly fictional as is the story of a pan-Israelite “conquest” that resulted in the slaughter of all the “Canaanites” in a military invasion originating in the Transjordan (on the issue of migrants entering Cisjordan from the area east of the Jordan River see Van der Steen, 1996). The critical question now becomes not one of historical reliability but one of ideological intent. Why was this “history” written in the manner that we now know it? For whom was it written and with what expectations?

John C. H. Laughlin, Reading Joshua: A Historical-Critical/Archaeological Commentary, Reading the Old Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015), 49, 52.


A system of defensive structures, usually consisting of walls, towers, and gates. Though the majority of the population in the biblical world lived in unwalled villages and farmed the surrounding fields, there was a significant trend towards urbanization beginning in the third millennium b.c.e. These cities, in Palestine and elsewhere, were normally surround by fortification, and they provided a haven for the occupants in times of war (cf. Num 13:28; Deut 1:28). People who lived in unwalled settlements or at some distance from the fortified urban centers were exposed to great danger (cf. Ezek 38:11; Zech 2:4). In addition to the walled towns, there were small isolated forts at strategic locations in most biblical lands; these were built for security purposes and guarded borders, passes, commercial routes, etc. (cf. 2 Sam 8:6; 2 Chr 11:5-11; 17:12; 27:4).

Great ingenuity and expenditure of labor went into the task of building walls, towers, and gates that could withstand the outright attacks and siege warfare of one’s enemies. Attention was given to the proper construction of foundations and to the height and thickness of walls, and gate complexes had to be built on a massive scale, since the gateway was, obviously, the weakest point in a town’s defensive system. The famous reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh portray dramatically the Assyrian siege of Lachish (cf. 2 Kgs 18:13-37; 19:8), and the Bible itself is filled with references to sieges of fortified Israelite towns (e.g. Deut 20:20; 2 Sam 20:15; Luke 19:43; 21:20). According to 2 Kgs 17:5, some cities could resist siege for a long time. Because defenses were constructed so well, sometimes the best way to capture a city was to lure its defenders outside the safety of their walls (cf. Josh 8:10-17).

Gerald L. Mattingly, “Forts/Fortifications,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 307–8.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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