The Jericho Massacre

I wrote and posted the original version of this essay in 2000. To my surprise, it recently came up high in the search results with the string "Jericho massacre." Matching the title usually isn't enough for a page with few incoming links, so someone with a decent Web presence probably linked to it. I stand by the original essay, but it's worth saying a little more about the attempts made to justify they mythical extermination of multiple cities. I've added a new section without changing the existing text. In addition, I've eliminated a broken link and made some typographical improvements. (August 8, 2021)

The people raised the war cry, the trumpets sounded. When the people heard the sound of the trumpet, they raised a mighty war cry and the wall collapsed then and there. At once the people stormed the city, each man going straight forward; and the captured the city. They enforced the curse of destruction on everyone in the city; men and women, young and old, including the oxen, the sheep, and the donkeys, slaughtering them all. — Joshua 6:20-21

Why Joshua? Because I see ADF's task as similar to the one he faced. Just as God told Joshua to lead the children of Israel across the Jordan to take back the Promised Land from the enemies of God, I believe God has called ADF to help the body of Christ take back the legal territory that has been occupied for far too long by the opponents of the Gospel. — Alan E. Sears, President of the Alliance Defense Fund, ADF Briefing, February 2000.
Glorified by time, scripture, and song, the Battle of Jericho has become a fixture of Western legend. Children's videos have been made about it. The phrase "and the walls came tumbling down" has become an expression of victory. Joshua is considered a hero. When the FBI planned out their tank assault on the Branch Davidians, they called their design the "Jericho Plan."

Yet what the Bible describes is an invasion by forces seeking to take over the lands occupied by the native population, and massacring entire cities to do this. As described in the verses quoted above, the Israeli attackers wiped out men, women, children, and even livestock, simply because God had told them they were entitled to the city.

Modern historians believe that the events described in the Book of Joshua are not an accurate description of history. There was probably no city at the site of Jericho at the time the Israeli people entered the area from Egypt. Historically, it's likely that many atrocities were committed by many different peoples in the ancient Middle East. The issue is not the actions of a historical army, but the Bible's glorification of mass murder — and the continued acceptance of that evaluation by many people today.

There are other passages in the Bible which are equally bloodthirsty, but they are buried in obscurity; most people aren't aware of Moses' outrage at his army for taking women and children prisoners instead of slaughtering them (Numbers 31:13-18), or other similar passages. Joshua's campaign is distinctive for being famous and yet not inducing widespread moral revulsion.

Perhaps most people who have heard of the Battle of Jericho aren't aware of the outcome described in the Bible. Most popular stories end with the collapse of the wall, and draw a curtain over the bloodshed which followed. Still, many people do read the Bible and must be aware of the horror of the actions described there.

People such as Alan E. Sears, head of an organization dedicated toward obtaining court decisions that are consonant with their version of God's Will, are almost certainly familiar with the Bible in detail, and know exactly what they are praising when they applaud Joshua's murderous actions. For such people, anyone who gets in the way of their aims is an "enemy of God," with all that that implies.

Some people may be afraid to object to the praise of Joshua because of fear of being labelled "anti-Semitic." But the crimes, like most crimes of war, were instigated by the leaders in a particular time and place. Chapter 14 of the Book of Numbers is particularly revealing in showing the relationship of Joshua to the people. Joshua, making his first appearance in the Bible as a scout, along with Caleb, told the people of Israel, "do not rebel against Yahweh or be afraid of the people of the country, for we shall gobble them up."

The people were ready to stone these bloodlusters, when Yahweh appeared in Person and had a major tantrum. He said to Moses, "How much longer will they refuse to trust me, in spite of all the signs I have displayed among them? I shall strike them with pestilence and disown them." Moses managed to calm God down; but He still declared that none of the adults present except Joshua and Caleb would live to enter Canaan. The message was clear: go along with God's campaign of mass murder, or be stuck forever in the desert.

Of course, it's hardly plausible that this fit of Divine Petulance ever happened, but the core of the story rings true: that the leaders wanted to take over cities after exterminating the present population, and that the people went along only after many threats, much persuasion, and perhaps some faked displays of God's wrath. Whether it happened or not as written, we've seen the same dynamics at work many times; just a day or two ago as I write this, Iran's current Ayatollah, speaking before a cheering crowd, has called for the destruction of Israel for the greater glory of Allah.

Perhaps as long as there are people, there will be leaders who want to glorify themselves by butchering other people, or by invoking the "glory" of past butchers. But if we can reach the point where the Jericho Massacre isn't considered a pious story of how God supports His loyal followers, but a vicious tale which has been fraudulently presented as Holy Scripture, we'll have come a little closer to a world in which such demagogues have no influence.

Additional notes, August 2021

Answers in Genesis is a big fundamentalist website, and not surprisingly, it has a page purporting to justify God's telling Joshua to commit genocide. It says it's addressing the question, "Could the loving God of the New Testament order the complete destruction of the inhabitants of Jericho found in the Old Testament?" I'm not addressing consistency with the New Testament here. I'm concerned with how anyone could honestly regard the God who ordered those killings as anything but a monster. The page is honest on a key point that many others dance around; that Joshua (in this mythical story) waged a war of extermination, killing every man, woman, and child in the cities his army attacked.

The article claims that the Canaanites were so utterly evil that they deserved violent extermination. "Recent textual discoveries in Ugarit confirm the Scripture record of centuries filled with idolatry, sodomy, bestiality, sorcery, and child sacrifice. Consequently, each generation had polluted the next with idolatry, perversion, and blood."

There are no specific citations. I can't find any that indicate that the city — let along all Canaanite cities — were cesspools of evil deserving of genocide.

But suppose the charges are true. What do they imply? Idolatry means worshipping a deity that someone doesn't approve of. Sodomy is gay sex. Anyone who regards these as capital crimes is horribly intolerant. Bestiality — yuck, but should people be killed for it? Attempts at sorcery or magic were common in ancient societies; they didn't have any concept of science yet.

That leaves child sacrifice as something we can all regard as abhorrent today. But killing all the children in a city as a response to the sacrifice of some of them is as far from a just response as you can get.

In the end, Answers in Genesis falls back on the claim that if God does something, it must be right. "Is there ever a time when divine genocide is justified? The answer must be 'yes,' because the judge of the whole earth always does what is right."

Yahweh (according to the Bible) drowned the entire population of the world, except for one family. Was this right? Yes, because He did it. He firebombed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, wiping out their whole populations. As an encore, He turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt just for peeking. Was this right? God did it, so of course it's right!

He could have turned everyone in those cities into salt, giving them a painless death. Instead, he sent down a rain of burning sulfur. Imagine what it's like to die that way. Remember that (if you believe the story) small children suffered the same horrible death as the adults.

Answers in Genesis holds that anything its version of God does is good, simply because it's God doing it. In that case, why bother to paint the victims as bad people? God doesn't need a reason to commit atrocities. He could arrange for the most holy and moral man who ever lived to be gruesomely executed, and that would be good. (According to the Bible, he did that too.)

The defenders of alleged divine atrocities aren't looking for reasons. Their only goal is to gain worshippers for an imagined deity who makes Mao and Hitler look like humanitarians. It provides them with money and status. "Answers in Genocide" would be a more appropriate name.

The Proud City

Lyrics: Gary McGath, Copyright 1995
Music: Leslie Fish's setting of Kipling's "The Palace"

Our people had built a proud city
Protected by high walls of stone.
My father and grandfather lived here;
For ages this land was our own.

But then from the south came invaders,
Demanding we yield to their might.
They'd leave us alive, though in slavery;
Our people prepared for the fight.

For seven hot days they besieged us,
All marching and circling around.
The blast of their horns held great magic—
The stone walls collapsed to the ground.

They marched through the streets of our city;
Their guide was a treacherous whore.
Our soldiers were bold but outnumbered;
The ditches were filled with their gore.

Now slaughtering women and children,
And stealing whatever they find,
They show us no mercy or quarter.
No live foes will they leave behind.

And now to my home come the killers.
I take up my sword, as I must.
I'm only a boy, but I'll face them
Till they strike me down to the dust.

I stand here awaiting the onslaught;
Now all that I lived for is gone.
Well, what are you waiting for, butchers?
Your prey stands before you! Come on!

But you who dwell far down the ages,
Will any of you ever know
That once we had built a proud city—
The city we called Jericho?

Last updated August 8, 2021
Copyright 2000, 2021 by Gary McGath

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