Did the Wall of Jericho Collapse or Did the City Surrender?

By Dafna, Avraham Lorberbaum | Jewish Bible Quarterly, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Did the Wall of Jericho Collapse or Did the City Surrender?


Dafna, Avraham Lorberbaum, Jewish Bible Quarterly


When the people heard the sound of the horns, the people raised a mighty shout and the wall collapsed (Josh. 6:20). There are many and varied opinions as to when and how the wall of Jericho fell. I will not deal with the chronological issues, but only with the fall of the wall, doing so on the basis of the text and with the intention of showing a different possible interpretation.

The approach of scholars like William Foxwell Albright, John Garstang, Kathleen Kenyon, and others regarding Joshua 6 and the collapse of the wall is well known. (1) Their arguments are based mainly on the exact or approximate dating of the destruction of the wall of Jericho, as well as which wall was destroyed (outer or inner). They did not take up or resolve the mystery of the collapse itself.

The classical commentators Rashi, the Metzudot, and others, ignore the issue of the collapse of the wall, while Radak, Abarbanel, Malbim, and others interpret the phrase and the wall collapsed [va'tipol] literally. An exception can be found in the Aramaic translation of Targum Yonatan, that translates nafla tahtehah as "V'nafal shura d'keret v'etbala"--that is, "fell down" and "was swallowed up." Radak tries to solve the problem by explaining that only "a portion of the wall fell," and the soldiers entered through the breach and captured the city. The section of the wall in which Rahab and her family lived remained intact, thus saving them (for she dwells in the [casemate] wall). In his fifth question to Joshua 6, Abarbanel negates Radak's explanation, explaining his reasoning for doing so.

Perhaps the Targum Yonatan and the Talmud were influenced by the episode of Korah and his entourage (Num. 16:31-32), especially where the Torah uses the phrase bala [swallowed], which they adopted and ascribed to the story of the collapse of walls (Num. 16:31-33, 26:10; Deut. 11:6.) (2) In the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 54b) there is the following exchange:

   The wall of Jericho was swallowed up? It fell! ... as it is
   written, And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of
   the shofar, the people shouted a mighty shout ... and the wall
   collapsed ... (Josh. 6:20)! [No!] Because it was the same height
   and width, it was swallowed up. [Since its height and width were
   the same, falling would have had no effect. Therefore it was
   swallowed up.]

See also the commentary of Shlomo Eiger on the above, beginning with the phrase And the wall.... "This interpretation is tenuous and difficult to accept." It is clear from the above rabbinic sources that the wall did not "collapse." I conclude, rather, that the wall around Jericho neither collapsed nor was it swallowed up!

Joshua 2 serves as the basis for my conclusions. The text is clear that Joshua sent spies to Jericho to get a feeling for the psychological condition of the people in the city: And Joshua ... sent out two men as spies secretly, saying to them, 'Go and see the land and Jericho ... (2:1). He said nothing more. This should be juxtaposed to the story of the spies in Numbers 13:18-25.

While the goal in Numbers 13 is a detailed military mission, in Joshua it is left vague. Note also the phrases "to scout" and "and they reconnoitered" in Numbers 13:17 and 21, as opposed to "go and see" in our story, indicating the distinctions between the goals of each of the spy missions. Also note how they arrived at the city at night (Josh. 2:2) and left soon thereafter (v. 15) without coming into contact with any one other than Rahab. From the conversation between Rahab and the men (vv. 9-11), during which only Rahab speaks while the men silently listen to her, it becomes clear that the men were sent to discover the psychological state of the people of Jericho. (3)

No doubt, Rahab was answering the questions posed to her by the spies; questions that the editor of Joshua chose, for reasons of his own, not to include in the text. …

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