4. The Walls Fall Down (Joshua 5:13-6:27)

Audio (29:19)

James J. Tissot, 'Joshua and the Angel before Jericho' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Joshua and the Angel before Jericho' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.

Though the Israelites had defeated the Ammonite kings on the east side of Jordan, Jericho was the first city they must take if they were to conquer Canaan. It was a fortified, walled city, and its king had spared no effort to prepare its defenses against the Israelites who had been encamped a few miles east of Jordan for many months. It would require a miracle of God to take this stronghold.

The Commander Has Now Come (5:13-15)

"13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, 'Are you for us or for our enemies?'

14 'Neither,' he replied, 'but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.' Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, 'What message does my Lord have for his servant?' 15 The commander of the LORD's army replied, 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.' And Joshua did so." (5:13-15)

The Commander's words are nearly identical to those of Yahweh to Moses, speaking out of the burning bush a full forty years before (Exodus 3:5). The Commander is none other than the God himself. God the Warrior.

Why does he answer, "Neither"? Isn't he for the cause of Israel's army? No. Israel's army must be enlisted in his cause. He is the Commander, not they. When things are difficult, we wonder, "Is God on my side?" Wrong question. "Am I on God's side?" is the appropriate question.

I have heard some argue that it could not have been God the Father, that it must have been the pre-incarnate Jesus. Scripture isn't specific in our passage, but clearly it was a theophany, God's presence that Joshua was in, and he knew it full well. Like his forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God had now appeared to him, and he lies prostrate on the ground before his Lord.

Q1. (Joshua 5:13-16) What is Joshua's challenge question to the Unknown Warrior with drawn sword? Who is He? Whose side is He on? Whose side are you on? Why does an encounter with Him require us to humble ourselves? Why is it so hard to submit ourselves to God?

Yahweh the Warrior

Just what is the significance of the Commander's presence? He identifies himself as Commander of the host of the LORD. (The Hebrew word for "host" means "army".) Here is the supreme commander of the heavenly host, the angelic army that has appeared on God's behalf throughout history. Here are a few of the passages in Scripture:

"Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God's host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim" (Genesis 32:1-2, KJV).

"Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left" (1 Kings 22:19, NIV).

"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying..." (Luke 2:13, NIV).

"Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory." (Psalm 24:7-10, NRSV)

"The sound of a tumult is on the mountains as of a great multitude!
The sound of an uproar of kingdoms, of nations gathering together!
The LORD of hosts is mustering a host for battle." (Isaiah 13:4, NRSV)

"David said to the Philistine, 'You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied." (1 Samuel 17:45)

The phrase, "the LORD of hosts," appears about 285 times in the Old Testament in the KJV. NIV usually translates it "the LORD Almighty," which captures some of the greatness and glory of this phrase, but unfortunately loses the military sense of the term. The LORD of hosts is not just an expression of greatness, but of armed might, willing to punish evil and uphold righteousness.[16]

We live in an era that has few military heroes. We idolize men of the screen and playing field, singers and those who have made fortunes in the Silicon Valley. But military heroes? Hardly. We distrust the military and deride it -- except in times of war when courage and bravery and the willingness to stand up against wrong is all that keeps civilization from tyranny. Then we admire those who succeed on the bloody battlefield and defeat the enemies of righteousness.

The message of this passage in Joshua -- and the entire Bible for that matter -- is that God is a Mighty Warrior, who will judge righteously and punish wrong. If we believe that the God of love can never punish the wicked, then our Bible reading is narrow indeed. He is mighty. And his mere presence is enough to win the battle, for the "battle is the LORD'S" (1 Samuel 17:47; Exodus 14). In the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation we see

"... a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.... He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen.... He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: 'King of kings, and Lord of lords.'" (Revelation 19:11-16)

In Revelation 19, the Commander is clearly Jesus Christ the Victor, so perhaps we should view the Commander that stood before Joshua as this same figure. The Commander comes in vengeance upon his enemies in Jericho, and in armed might.

When Joshua gets up from the ground, the Commander is gone. But Joshua can now go into battle assured, because he knows that God will be with him who told him, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go" (1:9).

God has made that same promise to us: "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). But sometimes we doubt. Where are you, God? Where are you when I need you? Have you left me? Will you save me from this trial I am going through?

In 2 Kings 6, we read of Elisha the prophet, who hears from God the military plans of the king of Aram and passes them on to the king of Israel so that the Israelite army can elude its enemies. When the king of Aram hears that Elisha is the secret of Israel's success, he seeks to kill him. Elisha and his servant are in the city of Dothan when the king of Aram arrives with his army. In the morning, Elisha's servant looks out and sees the city surrounded with an army, and horses, and chariots. He comes terrified to Elisha.

"Do not be afraid," Elisha tells him. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them."

I can imagine the servant looking again, unable to see any opposing army. He turns back to Elisha with terror in his eyes, so Elisha prays, "O LORD, open his eyes so he may see." Then the servant looked "and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha" (2 Kings 6:15-17).

The Commander and his armies are with us, whether we see them or not. Jesus is captured by a small contingent of troops in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter draws his sword to defend his Master. Jesus tells him to put it away.

"Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:53)

That day the hosts of heaven were not called to his defense. They look on aghast as they see their Commander whipped and beaten and mocked, and finally crucified. Jesus does not call them for this battle. This one he must fight alone, the Righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1 Peter 3:18; John 1:29).

Jesus dies alone on the cross. The disciples mourn him. Mary helps wash his body as it is laid in the stone cold tomb. Darkness falls. But the third day, early in the morning, as the sun is just beginning to rise, he steps forth a Victor. And in this battle, the Scripture records, "he disarmed the powers and authorities ... made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Colossians 2:15).

The Warrior says: "As the Commander of the Army of the LORD I have come." This fulfills God's promises to Joshua: "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (1:5); and "do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." (1:9)

The Commander is at the Battle of Jericho with Joshua. And though unseen, he crumbles the walls, destroys the city, and crushes the army, leaving only a little for Joshua's army to finish. The Commander is with us, too.

Q2. (Joshua 5:14) What is the significance of the Commander of God's Armies being with you? If he will fight your battles for you, what does your job consist of?

The Jericho March (6:1-14)

James J. Tissot, 'The Seven Trumpets of Jericho' (1896-1902), gouache on board, 7-5/16 x 12-1/16 in., The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'The Seven Trumpets of Jericho' (1896-1902), gouache on board, 7-5/16 x 12-1/16 in., The Jewish Museum, New York.

The Israelite armies surround Jericho, cutting off any supplies from reaching them.

"Now Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in." (6:1)

Next, Yahweh, Commander of the Army of the Lord, gives Joshua specific -- and strange -- instructions.

"See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor. You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams' horns before the ark." (6:2-4a)

The defending soldiers high atop the walls of Jericho observe a strange procession that the first morning of the siege. No armies rush the ramparts. In the distance, they can hear the sound of the shofar, the ram's horn trumpet of battle.

And then they come, marching in order. First, an armed guard in ranks. Then priests, blowing the shofar. Then four priests carrying on gilded poles over their shoulders a box draped in blue (Numbers 4:5-6). After the priests march a rear guard. Following the rear guard, the entire Israelite army (6:3) marches in stillness. The dust billows from under thousands of feet, yet their voices were still. The procession seems endless. They circle the city once, then return to their camp, the sound of shofars finally dying in the distance, and the muffled sound of marching armies finally still.

The next morning the same strange procession occurs again. And the same thing each morning for six mornings in a row. For those who know what the ark represents -- the throne of Almighty God -- it all makes sense. Here is the procession of the King, guarded front and rear by soldiers, preceded by his ministers, and followed by his people, as they tour the city that would soon be theirs.

How long was the Jericho march? According to archeologists, Jericho measured about 740 feet by 260 feet (225 meters by 80 meters), with a circumference of about 1,970 feet (600 meters), a little more than a third of a mile.[17]

But why the trumpets only? Perhaps they are announcing the King in procession represented by his throne, the ark. Whatever the reason for these particular instructions, the Israelites obey God and follow them. It's important to be obedient to God, even if we don't understand our "orders." I'm sure the effect on those in the besieged city was terrifying. To watch 600,000 troops march around the city each day must have increased their sense of impending doom (Numbers 1:45-46). When will they attack?

The Seventh and Last March (6:15-21)

"15 On the seventh day they rose early, at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. 16 And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, "Shout, for the LORD has given you the city." (6:15-16)

Seven, of course, is the number in the Bible used for fullness and completeness. That much is clear. The seventh and final day the Israelites get up at daybreak and march -- not once but seven times -- around the city, and at the final trumpet blast held long, the people shout a great shout.

"20 At the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city." (6:20)

What Shook Jericho's Walls? (6:20)

Did the sound waves of the shouts of hundreds of thousands of fighting men so weaken the walls that they suddenly collapse? I doubt it. Could God have destroyed the walls without using any natural means? Certainly. But the most likely explanation is that God timed an earthquake to occur at precisely at the time the Israelites shouted, just as an earthquake-caused landslide probably stopped the Jordan River from flowing just at the time the priests entered the water.

Jericho is considered both the world's oldest city, and its lowest city, at 850 feet below sea level. It lies below sea level because it lies on the Afro-Arabian fault line that runs from modern-day Turkey in the north to Mozambique in the south, one of the world's major fault systems. The hill country of Judah had tilted up into mountains, while the Jordan Valley had sunk well below sea level. Since ancient times, this has been a geologically active area.[18]

Most likely the cause was a well-timed earthquake. Is an earthquake a miracle? skeptics ask. It is one of the "natural" movements of the earth, they could argue. The miracle is in the timing. Precisely at the moment the Israelite army shouts, the walls begin to crumble and then collapse, and the Israelites rush forward into the city, destroying the dazed survivors and rescuing Rahab and her family.

Is there any archeological evidence of this catastrophic event? Apparently not. Even-handed archeologists can neither confirm nor deny this on the basis of what they've uncovered so far. This city, the oldest in the world, has apparently been settled since about 8,000 BC, and contains many layers of building and debris, as war and nature have destroyed the city again and again.

British archaeologist John Garstang excavated Jericho from 1930 to 1936 and believed he had found evidence of the collapse of the town walls about 1400 BC. But apparently the walls he identified were from the Early Bronze Age, not the Late Bronze Age of Joshua's time as he had supposed. The Late Bronze Age city was apparently built on top of the eroded ruins of the Middle Bronze town after a century and a half of abandonment, though what is left is so severely eroded that little can be discerned from it.[19]

Q3. (Joshua 6:1-23) What is the meaning of the seven days of marching with the ark? What does the ark represent? What mechanism do you think God used to make the walls fall down?

Devoted to the Lord

Joshua has given the Israelites strict orders not to take any plunder for themselves, but to destroy the city and everything in it -- except for Rahab and her family.

"The city and all that is in it are to be devoted (herem)[20] to the LORD.... But keep away from the devoted things (herem), so that you will not bring about your own destruction (haram)[21] by taking any of them.... All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred[22] to the LORD and must go into his treasury." (Joshua 6:17-19)

Herem is closely related to our word "harem" (from Arabic harim) which refers to a secluded area of a house allotted to women. In Arabic the word literally means "sanctuary," a "forbidden" area, since the women in a harem are exclusively the property of the husband and off-limits to all others. "Devoted" (NIV), "devoted to destruction" (NRSV, ESV), "accursed" (KJV) is the Hebrew word herem used in our passage to refer to "the exclusion an object from the use or abuse of man and its irrevocable surrender to God."[23]

Christians struggle with moral issues concerning the destruction of all the people of Jericho and other Canaanite cities. How does this correlate with Jesus' command to love your enemies? Don't they contradict each other? I have spent considerable effort to explore these issues for you in several appendices. I encourage you to study them carefully before you answer Question 4 below.

Destruction of Sin

We struggle with destroying all the inhabitants of Jericho and other Canaanite cities. We can become so upset that we begin to judge God himself for doing this. Be careful not to judge before you understand what this destruction has to do with sin.

Consider these verses from the Pentateuch:

"In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure....'" (Genesis 15:16)

"Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants." (Leviticus 18:24-25)

 "Completely destroy them -- the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites -- as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God." (Deuteronomy. 20:17-18)[24]

The point of destroying the Canaanites was (1) punishment of gross sin and (2) the importance of the Israelites to be separated from sin so they might continue to worship and live before Yahweh with purity.

 There are important metaphorical lessons for us also. We are "devoted to the Lord" in the sense that we are his possession completely. In the context of condemning sexual sin, Paul teaches us:

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Everything that we have and are we owe to Jesus. We either surrender fully to him, or we reserve some things for ourselves (as Achan did in Joshua 7), rather than turning them all over to the Lord.

Both Jesus and Paul use the cross as a powerful symbol of this radical death with regards to sin. Jesus taught his disciples:

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it." (Luke 9:23-24)

Taking up your cross here doesn't mean bearing a burden. It means being ready to die, and thus enabling us live for Christ each day with abandon. Paul continues the metaphor when he talks about being crucified, with regards to sin.

"For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin." (Romans 6:6)

"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)

Dear friends, while we may not fully understand the destruction of the Canaanites. But we must not fail to miss the implications for our own lives of surrendering all to the Lord and rooting out, with the help of the Spirit, the sins which infest our lives.

Q4. (Joshua 6:27) The slaughter of all the people in Jericho is difficult for us to understand. Why do you think God ordered it? In what sense are you "devoted to the Lord" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Metaphorically, how does this relate to Jesus' teaching to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him, and Paul's teaching on the crucified life? (Luke 9:23; Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20).

Rahab's Family Is Rescued (6:22-23)

Joshua charges the two spies with the responsibility of identifying Rahab's house and bringing her and her family safely out of the burning city. In so doing they keep their word and Israel's honor. As yet, Rahab's family don't live within the military encampment, but "in a place outside the camp of Israel" (6:23), probably as a security precaution.

A Curse on Jericho (6:26)

"At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: 'Cursed before the LORD is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates.'" (6:26)

In the book of 1 Kings we read the fulfillment of Joshua's word:

"In [King Ahab's] days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the LORD, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun." (1 Kings 16:34)

Ahab reigned about 874-853 BC, hundreds of years after the fall of Jericho.

The Battle Is the Lord's

Jericho will always live in Sunday school classes as the city where "the walls came a-tumblin' down."

But to the maturing Christian, it represents something more. Here, Joshua, a strong and mighty warrior, is unashamed to prostrate himself at the feet of God -- the great Fighter of Battles -- and let him set the battle plan. So often we select battlefields that are not of God's choosing -- and fail miserably. But as we can learn to listen carefully and prayerfully to what God is saying to us, we'll be able to follow his leadership.

"The battle is the Lord's" (a phrase taken from David's encounter with Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:47) is only true when God leads us into battle. The struggles and buffetings we experience in life are ours alone -- until we surrender our lives to the Lord. At that point, and as we follow him, they become his battles, too. And he will fight for us -- for his own glory -- as we trust him.

The keys to the Battle of Jericho, then, are faith and obedience. We saw Rahab's bold faith in Lesson 2. Here we see Joshua's bold and willing faith to follow the Lord into battle.

"Tumblin' walls" live in the minds of children, but bold, obedient faith is born in the hearts of earnestly seeking believers who study this Battle of Jericho.

Lessons for Disciples

Lessons in book formats are available.

The story of the fall of Jericho gives us a number of lessons to ponder.

  1. God is not on our side. Rather, he calls us to be on his side. If we will do that, he will fight our battles for us (5:13-16)
  2. Since God is leading our battles, we must be careful to listen to his directions, and follow them carefully as we show up for battle, rather than try to do it ourselves.
  3. Yahweh is depicted as a Warrior. We disciples should expect to "fight the good fight of faith," rather than be spiritual pacifists.
  4. We disciples must be "devoted to the Lord," we are not our own, we are bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
  5. Destruction of the Canaanites is a metaphor of sin being crucified in our lives (Luke 9:23; Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20).


Father, give us that same kind of faith that will prostrate itself before you and then follow you wherever you lead. Make us afresh warriors in your great army, not in our own private platoon. And grant that we may join the hosts of heaven on that great Day when Jesus returns. For His sake, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, 'Are you for us or for our enemies?' 'Neither,' he replied, 'but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.' Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, 'What message does my Lord have for his servant?' The commander of the LORD's army replied, 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.' And Joshua did so." (Joshua 5:13-15, NIV)

"When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city." (Joshua 6:20, NIV)

"But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho--and she lives among the Israelites to this day." (Joshua 6:25, NIV)


[16] See John E. Hartley, saba, TWOT 2:749-751, for a good discussion of the concept of the LORD of hosts, Yahweh the great Warrior.

[17] Woudstra, Joshua, p. 109.

[18] Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands (Moody Press, 1985), pp. 37-39.

[19] R.A. Coughenour, "Jericho," ISBE 2:992-996; Kitchen, Reliability of the OT, pp. 187-188; J. Gordon McConville, "Jericho," DOTHB, pp. 542-543.

[20] KJV "accursed," Jerusalem Bible "set apart for Yahweh under a ban."

[21] KJV "make yourselves accursed."

[22] Kodesh, "sacred, holy, consecrated."

[23] Leon J. Wood in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament 1:324.

[24] See also Genesis 15:16; 2 Kings 21:11; Ezra 9:1; 1 Kings 11:5-7; 1 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 23:13; 2 Chronicles 36:14; Ezra 9:11; Judges 10:6.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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