We all know the Jericho story pretty well—at least, if we’ve had much in the way of Bible schools, religious studies, or scriptural readings, we are familiar with how the walls of the city came tumbling down. We also know that Joshua, the leader of the Israelites, takes his people on a conquest of Canaan. There he fights the Battle of Jericho, his spies aided by the prostitute Rahab (who in turn deals with the spies to ensure safe passage for her family). The city is fortified, so God tells Joshua to march around the city once each day for six days, making sure to include seven priests with ram’s horns and the Ark of the Covenant to lead the way (Josh. 6:7). (Sounds like a totally reasonable battle strategy, right?). They do so, and the wall of Jericho coming falling down. The Israelites win the day; Rahab is rescued.
All is well.
There’s a little pesky verse here that we ought to focus on during all this tumult. I give you Josh. 6:21. The set-up: the Israelites, having access to the city:
They [The Israelites] 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.
Joshua and the Israelites proceed to massacre and kill “every living thing” in the city, including “men and women, young and old.” And they don’t even spare the poor donkeys!*
This is yet another instance of God acting, or else the Israelites acting with God’s imprimatur, in a horrific, murderous way. We now consider these types of things—killing innocents—war crimes (rightfully) and abhor this kind of “total war” throughout history, from Sherman’s March to World War II. The Book of Joshua, sadly, is no exception: here the killing of innocents is written about with clear acceptance; regardless of whether this actually occurred (it likely didn’t**) it should be yet another reason we should be dubious about looking to the Old Testament to draw some consistent set of values and principles.
*The salt in the wound: after the murder of everyone, Joshua curses the city and tries to prevent anyone from building a city there again (Josh. 6:26-27).
**While most scholars—and even protestant leaders such as John Calvin—discounted the historical accuracy of Joshua, it seems likely that the Israelites probably conducted some kind of campaign against Jericho or a geographically similar place at one point in time or another.