JOSHUA AND THE WALLS OF JERICHO
Joshua 5:13 - 6:21; Luke 13:1-8
Our summer series of sermons focus on well-know Old Testament stories, and today’s sermon
revolves around the narrative of Joshua and the walls of Jericho. This story is often taught in Sunday
school and it has been passed down from generation to generation as a gospel song, ‘Joshua fit the
battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down’. Let’s have a detailed look at this story and dig
deeply into the verses to uncover spiritual truths, following Paul’s advice in 2 Timothy that ‘All
Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in
righteousness, so that the man (and woman) of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good
work’. As I speak, I will be drawing on other parts of the Bible, interpreting Scripture with Scripture.
Reading and understanding the Bible is somewhat like doing a join-the-dots picture – certain dots or
passages join together to provide part of a picture of God’s revelation.
Today’s passage begins in chapter 5, verse 13. But what has happened up to this point? Well, the
children of Israel have finished their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and they have been
commanded by God to prepare for their entry into Canaan, the Promised Land. However, they were
on the east side of the Jordan River and the Promised Land was on the other side of the river. Just as
He had provided the Israelites the means to escape slavery from Egypt by separating the waters of
the Red Sea and providing a path of dry land for the Israelites to cross in safety, God also separated
the waters of the River Jordan and the Israelites crossed en mass from the east side of the river into
Canaan. But the Promised Land which had been described as a land full of milk and honey, was also
a land dotted with city states, full of enemies against God and His chosen people. And close to
where the Israelites had crossed the Jordan River, situated strategically, was the city of Jericho.
Verse 13 begins with Joshua near Jericho. He was probably on a scouting expedition, looking at the
possibilities for attacking and capturing Jericho when he came across a man with a drawn sword.
Joshua’s challenge to him makes sense, ‘Are you for us or against us?’ Was the man another
Israelite who perhaps had the same idea as Joshua and was assessing Jericho’s fortifications, or was
he a Canaanite, someone who had come out of Jericho to challenge an Israelite champion to single
combat, like Goliath would do so later in the time of David.
The man replied that he had come as the commander of the army of the LORD. Notice that
whenever the title LORD is used in the Old Testament, it is written in capital letters. This refers to
the personal name of God, Yahweh. This is how God introduced Himself to the Israelites when He
gave them the Ten Commandments. He said that He was the LORD, Yahweh their God who brought
them out of Egypt. According to His divine, gracious initiative, Yahweh entered into a covenant with
the people of Israel, not because they deserved such a special relationship, but because He had
chosen them to be His people according to His good will. They were the descendants of Abraham,
the man to whom God had promised the land of Canaan which was to be populated by Abraham’s
descendants. But when God spoke with Abraham four centuries earlier regarding the Promised
Land, He indicated that entry into the land was linked to judgement. God told Abraham that his
descendants would be slaves in a foreign land and that four hundred years would pass by before the
sin of the Amorites, who lived in Canaan, had reached its full measure. The Canaanite culture was a
culture of lust and cruelty, of abominations and inhuman practices. By the time of Joshua, the
judgement of God was to descend upon the Canaanites, and this was symbolised by the drawn
sword in the hand of the man Joshua met.
This man was no ordinary man. He was Yahweh Himself, revealed in human form. Joshua recognised
the situation and fell face down to the ground in worship. To reinforce the fact that he was in the
presence of God, Joshua was told to take off his sandals for he was standing on holy ground. This
reminds us of Moses before the burning bush where Moses, too, was instructed to remove his
sandals for he was also standing on holy ground in the presence of God.
With hundreds of thousands of Israelites encamped close by, the inhabitants of Jericho realised that
they were under siege. As verse 1 in chapter six describes, the city was tightly shut up, and no-one
could go in or go out. And the LORD then provided Joshua a most unusual strategy for conquering
Jericho. The entire Israelite army was to march silently once around the city of Jericho, once a day
for six days. Seven priests carrying trumpets made of rams’ horn were to accompany the soldiers, as
well as priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. While the soldiers marched around Jericho in
silence, the priests made a lot of noise, blowing non-stop into their trumpets. On the seventh day,
the Israelite army marched around Jericho seven times, accompanied by the priests carrying the Ark
and the priests blowing the horns. On the seventh time around Jericho, as the priests blew into the
trumpets, Joshua ordered the Israelites to give a loud shout, and the walls came tumbling down.
Why did God give Joshua this unusual battle strategy? We are given the answer in verse 2 which
records God’s declaration that He would deliver Jericho into the hands of the Israelites. An army
marching around a fortified city, even a big army of thousands of soldiers stomping, would not cause
6-metre thick double city walls to collapse. Neither would the noise produced by seven priests
blowing with all their might into trumpets have any impact on such walls, and yet, on the seventh
day, after the Israelites had marched around Jericho seven times and shouted as ordered by God via
Joshua’s instructions, the walls collapsed.
It would have been an unusual, eerie experience to have been an inhabitant of Jericho, standing on
the walls and looking down on the Israelite army coming from its camp, marching around the city
once a day in silence, and then marching back to its camp, with the only noise made by the priests
blowing the trumpets. Each time the Israelite army approached, those in Jericho would have
mentally and physically prepared themselves for battle, and would have expected the Israelites to
come shouting and threatening as they ran to attack the city. But the Israelites did not do what was
expected. It would have been nerve-wracking watching the Israelite army approach once a day for
six days and make no effort to break down the city gate and walls. On the seventh day, it would
have been startling, astonishing for the inhabitants of Jericho, and also for the Israelites, to see the
walls collapse just when the Israelites finally made a noise, when they shouted as ordered to do so.
This was a demonstration of God’s presence as indicated by the Ark carried by the priests, and this
was a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to people who obey His commands. This was a
demonstration of God’s power.
The walls collapsed and the Israelite soldiers charged straight in. Verse 21 says that the Israelites
devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men, women,
young and old, cattle, sheep and donkey. But Rahab the prostitute and her family were spared
because she had earlier hidden Joshua’s spies before the invasion campaign had started, and had
kept the spies safe from the soldiers of the King of Jericho. The violence in verse 21 can be hard to
absorb, especially for us in the 21st century. Understandably, Bible scholars and Christians are not in
one accord regarding the meaning of this verse and other similar verses in the Old Testament. Some
argue that surely God would not have ordered the wholesale slaughter of a city like Jericho. This
would be genocide. If we condemn the genocide committed by the Nazis against 6 million Jews in
the Second World War, if we condemn the genocide committed by Hutus against 800,000 Tutsis and
moderate Hutus in the Rwandan war in 1994, and if we condemn the ethnic cleansing carried out by
Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims in the civil war during 1992 to 1995, and if we condemn the
recent ethnic cleansing committed against the civilians in Darfur by Sudanese militia, then how can
we come to grips with what happened in Jericho?
From the second century onwards, starting with Marcion, who was an early Christian theologian,
there have been people who wonder whether the God of the Old Testament and the God of the
New Testament are the same God. The God of the Old Testament seems to be a God of wrath while
the God of the New Testament is portrayed as a God of love and forgiveness. Others have
wondered whether the violent passages in the Old Testament were inserted by later writers for their
own political or theological reasons, or whether Joshua did God a disservice and over-
enthusiastically ordered the slaughter on his own initiative and credited God with the event.
We need to keep several things in mind when pondering over the relevance and meaning of verse
21. First, we must remember what the apostle John wrote, that God is light and in Him there is no
darkness at all. Second, we must remember what Abraham learnt when he interceded for the city of
Sodom – that the Judge of all the earth will do right, even when destroying cities like Sodom and
Gomorrah. As he interceded for Sodom, Abraham was gradually brought to realise there were no
righteous people in that city, only evil people who victimised each other and victimised people who
entered the city. Thirdly, God judges and punishes sin because sin goes against His holiness, and
because sin destroys the shalom, the wholeness of God’s creation. Fourthly, in the Old Testament,
God’s judgement was either carried out though supernatural events such as the flood in Noah’s time
or fire and brimstone from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah, or God’s judgement was carried out
by human armies. This was the case regarding Jericho. And fifthly, the God whom Jesus called our
heavenly Father is the God of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the gospels is it recorded that Jesus
ever called into question God’s goodness, righteousness or judgement. What Jesus questioned was
the blind, legalistic interpretation of Old Testament law by the people of his day that resulted in
hardship for those suffering from poverty and illness, as demonstrated in the second half of today’s
gospel passage where Jesus healed the woman with the bent back on the Sabbath, in full knowledge
that this would aggravate the narrow-minded leader of the synagogue.
It is interesting to note that the person who talked about hell and judgement the most is our Lord
Jesus. The first half of today’s gospel text records Jesus’ words regarding repentance and the
consequence of non-repentance. Some Jews had gone to Jesus and told him about the Roman
governor, Pilate, killing Galilean Jews while they were offering traditional sacrifices in the temple.
Most likely, those who spoke with Jesus were eager to see if He would speak out against the Roman
occupation. But Jesus turned their attention from politics to repentance. He said that the Galileans
who were killed by Pilate and the eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them were no
worse sinners than others living in Jerusalem at that time. All are sinners and all will perish unless
there is repentance. Jesus continued with the parable about the fig tree, indicating that there is a
time limit to the invitation to enter the kingdom of God. When the time limit has been reached,
those who have not repented will suffer punishment and exclusion from God’s kingdom.
Our mighty and sovereign God is the God of both the Old and New Testaments, and He is the God of
second chances. He wants all people to be saved. He does not want anyone to perish, but the time
for repentance is limited, and for those who do repent, for those who recognise His Lordship in their
lives, and who turn to live in a godly way, such people are included in His kingdom, no matter who or
what they were like before conversion. Rahab is a wonderful example of this principle. She was no
way like Joshua who was a biblical hero with a great biblical CV. He was a protégé of Moses; when
he and Caleb and ten others were sent out to inspect the Promised Land forty years earlier, only
Joshua and Caleb returned with faith that that God would deliver the Promised Land to the Israelites
against what seemed like overwhelming odds; Joshua was the one chosen by God after Moses’
death to lead Israel; and from today’s passage, we see that he was on speaking terms with God.
Rahab’s life experience was another matter. She earned her living by prostitution. She was a
Canaanite, a pagan who had worshipped idols. Yet when she heard about the God of the Israelites,
she believed in Him. She said to the Israelite spies whose lives she saved, ‘the LORD your God is God
in heaven above and on the earth below. Please swear to me by the LORD that you will show
kindness to my family because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that ... you will
save us from death’. Joshua honoured the promise made by the spies to Rahab. Her faith in God’s
righteousness and justice was praised by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews. He included
Rahab with the giants of faith such as Abel, Abraham, Joseph and Moses. He wrote, ‘Now faith is
being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were
commended for....by faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies was not killed with
those who were disobedient’.
Many scholars have speculated that the collapse of the walls of Jericho was due to an earthquake. If
it was an earthquake, the earthquake mysteriously did not destroy the part of the city wall where
Rahab’s house was situated. She and her family were preserved from the city walls’ collapse and
they were saved from the slaughter by the two spies who were sent by Joshua into Jericho ahead of
the invading Israelite army and they were brought to safety outside the Israelite camp. If you take
time to read the genealogy of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospel of Matthew, you will see an
interesting fact. Rahab became an ancestress of Jesus. She became a member of God’s covenant
people and she married one of the spies who was called Salmon. Her son was Boaz, the righteous
man who married Ruth. Boaz and Ruth were the great grandparents of King David, which makes
Rahab his great, great grandmother, and part of the family tree of our Messiah.
So, how do we internalise the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho? First of all, we must realise
that the commandment to wage Yahweh’s war against the Canaanites was unique. Not only did God
provide the unusual battle strategy which caused the collapse of the walls of Jericho, God also
commanded that there be no plundering of Jericho because the conquest of that city was linked to
God’s judgement against the inhabitants. It was not to be an opportunity for the Israelites to enrich
themselves through the suffering of others. Violent conflict is inevitable wherever fallen humanity
expresses its greed and corruption as demonstrated time and time again in history and current
affairs. Violent conflict is unacceptable and it is proper that we feel the tragedy and the suffering
that are its consequences. God’s people have always been directed to resolve conflict righteously
and to seek peace. Even when He was arrested and man-handled by the soldiers in the Garden of
Gethsemane, Jesus would not let His disciples use violence to protect Him. He ordered Peter to put
away his sword. Our Lord wants His people, He wants us, to be peacemakers.
The second point to internalise is encapsulated in the words of 1 John 1: 9: ‘God is faithful and just
and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’. God has zero tolerance for sin as
demonstrated in the destruction of Jericho, but He is one hundred percent faithful in keeping His
word towards those who repent and trust and obey Him as Joshua and Rahab found out.
And the third and last point is to emphasise God’s desire for people to repent of their sins and to
turn to Him. Isaiah 55, verses 6 to 11 say,
‘Seek the Lord while he may be found,
Call upon him while he is near;
Let the wicked abandon their ways,
And the unrighteous their thoughts;
Return to the Lord, who will have mercy;
To our God, who will richly pardon.
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways my ways’, says the Lord.
‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
‘As the rain and the snow come down from above,
And return not again but water the earth,
‘Bringing forth life and giving growth,
Seed for sowing and bread to eat,
‘So is my word that goes forth from my mouth;
It will not return to me fruitless,
‘But it will accomplish that which I purpose,
And succeed in the task I gave it’.
Let us pay attention to what God has said. Let us seek Him, and trust in His mercy. Some of us may
feel closer to Joshua. Others of us may feel more akin with Rahab. In whatever situation we feel we
are in, God is calling us to Himself. Let us draw close to Him. Amen.