Post Author: Bill Pratt
Many Christians, as they read the book of Joshua, are uncomfortable with the accounts of conquest that are recorded there. The conquest of Jericho is the first in Canaan for the Israelites. The biblical writer describes the battle of Jericho this way in Josh. 6:20-21:
When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
What causes many of us discomfort is the phrase “men and women, young and old.” It seems that we must understand Joshua’s conquest of Jericho as a complete annihilation of a major population center, including non-combatants who are women, children and the elderly.
Christian scholar Paul Copan strongly disagrees with this understanding of the attack on Jericho in his book Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Copan marshals a case to dispute the traditional view of Jericho being a major population center with loads of non-combatants living in it.
His argument rests on two primary points. First, the language found in Josh. 6:21 should be understood as Near Eastern warfare rhetoric. In other words, Joshua’s original audience would not have understood the sentence, “They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” as literally meaning that. Instead, they would have heard Joshua describing a decisive military victory.
Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia BC. The language is typically exaggerated and full of bravado, depicting total devastation. The knowing ancient Near Eastern reader recognized this as hyperbole; the accounts weren’t understood to be literally true.
Copan cites several examples of Near Eastern warfare accounts which used hyperbole to describe their victories, including accounts originating from Egyptians, Hittites, and Assyrians. This historical data casts new light on how we should understand biblical warfare accounts, especially those recorded in Joshua.
Copan’s second point is that the city of Jericho is not a large population center containing numerous non-combatants which were killed in the assault. According to Copan, the language used in Joshua 6 is “stereotypical Near Eastern language [which] actually describes attacks on military forts or garrisons, not general populations that included women and children. There is no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai” (emphasis added).
Copan goes on to explain:
Given what we know about Canaanite life in the Bronze Age, Jericho and Ai were military strongholds. In fact, Jericho guarded the trade routes from the Jordan Valley up to population centers in the hill country. . . . That means that Israel’s wars here were directed toward government and military installments; this is where the king, the army, and the priesthood resided. The use of ‘women’ and ‘young and old’ was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t living there. . . . The text doesn’t require that women and young and old must have been in these cities.
If this is true, then what of Rahab? According to Copan, “Rahab was in charge of what was likely the fortress’s tavern or hostel.” Evidently it was common for a fortress to have a tavern where “traveling caravans and royal messengers would . . . stay overnight.” Most of Jericho would have consisted of soldiers, priests, and political leaders.
Copan’s argument is compelling, as it cites ancient Near Eastern historical data to place in context what the original readers of Joshua’s book would have understood. This is exactly what the historical-grammatical method of biblical interpretation calls us to do. As we gather more data about the ancient Near East, we must constantly refine our understanding of the biblical texts.