The Lord Fought the Battle of Jericho
Today is one of those Sundays where we come to a very familiar passage of Scripture. This is among the most well-known passages in the Old Testament. And so I’m assuming that basically all of us are generally familiar with the gist of this story, especially given that we just read most of it together.
Most of the times that I’ve heard the story of the battle of Jericho taught or elaborated on, God’s power to overcome obstacles seemed to be one of the major points. And that’s certainly an element here.
Israel was a nomadic people living in tents and it’s likely that, at this point, they hadn’t yet developed the technology to lay siege to a city and knock its walls down. Forty years earlier, when the people had first been ready to enter the land, the spies reported that while the land looked great, “the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:28). And those fortified cities were a big factor in scaring the people off.
So it’s a big deal for God to just knock over the first city they come to. It’s one more way of Him demonstrating His power and showing that He is totally able to take care of things for HIs people as they follow Him obediently. And that is one of the big ideas in this passage.
The Violence Problem
But there’s more than that going on in this passage. It’s so interesting to me that many of us associate this story with Sunday school and children’s Bible stories because, if we look just a little closer, we realize that the events of this day were not rated G. This is an incredibly violent and even disturbing account.
And specifically we see that in verses 20 & 21: “So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city. Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.”
Did you catch that? After the walls fell down, the Israelite soldiers went up into the city and killed everybody. “Men and women, young and old.” That means old men. Little girls. Those Israelite soldiers walked out of the rubble later on that day with the blood of Jericho’s citizens on their swords and they did it at God’s command.
Some of you are thinking “Wow, Chris, thanks for wrecking this story for us.” But the truth is that this was always here in front of us. This is just what verse 21 says.
And this is not just confined to Jericho. We’re going to see this kind of thing all over the book of Joshua. And it’s not the first time this happens in the Bible either. Deuteronomy 2:32-34 says “Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Jahaz. And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors.” Deuteronomy 3:6 says of the kingdom of Bashan, “And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children.”
Now why am I drawing attention to this this morning? Why can’t I just gloss over this like those children’s Bibles tend to do? They don’t really illustrate this part of the story very often, do they?
The reason is that you can only gloss over elements like this for so long. Eventually someone is going to point this out to you and is going to say, “You seriously believe that? You believe that God is a loving God, and yet here he is commanding the genocide of the city of Jericho and basically everybody else in Canaan.”
This is the kind of passage that skeptics of the Bible love to point to. And so you’re going to need to deal with this at some point. And maybe it won’t be some other skeptic—maybe it will be just you carefully reading the Bible on your own and noticing stuff like this for the first time. How will you react? How will you respond to a good and loving God commanding His people to go kill grandparents and toddlers?
That’s a major question. You might lose your faith depending on how you answer that question. And so I really want to prepare you this morning not to run from this question but to face it, head-on in an honest and a faithful way.
But there’s another reason why we’re going to focus on this aspect of the Jericho account this morning. By focusing on this issue—the slaughter of Jericho’s citizens—we’ll actually get to the heart of this whole story. These questions take us right to the heart of what was going on at Jericho and, in fact, the whole book of Joshua as a whole, and be able to see what that means for us today.
So that’s our focus today. As a result, this won’t be a typical message. We won’t walk verse-by-verse through this story and much of our application today will simply be understanding this issue. But, I trust you’ll find that we’ll leave having understood what God revealed to us here in this passage and we’ll be equipped to carry it’s truths into our lives this week and beyond.
So here’s the big question: how can a loving God be okay with His people killing an entire city of people?
How Moses Explained This
And we’re going to start by seeing how the Bible answers this question up to this point in the story. Because this event at Jericho didn’t come from nowhere.
All the way back in Genesis 15 God told Abraham that his descendants having the land was connected to the sin of the people living there. “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:13–16).
One reason for the time spend in Egypt was that “iniquity” or sin of the Amorites—the inhabitants of the land—wasn’t “complete” yet. In other words, when Israel took over the land, it would be an act of judgement against the sin of the inhabitants, and when Abraham was alive, that sin wasn’t quite bad enough to be punished yet.
In Leviticus 18 God lists some horrible practices, including intimacy with family members and animals, and then He says, “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (Leviticus 18:24–28).
God describes the land basically puking out its inhabitants because of the awful things they were doing.
Deuteronomy 9:5 sums it up well when it says, “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 9:5).
So let’s just say this now: when people read about Israel conquering the land in the book of Joshua and describe it as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing,” they’re not reading very carefully. Israel was not at war with the Canaanites because they were Canaanites and Israel just wanted to eradicate these people groups. Rather, Israel was at war with these people because of their sin.
In other words, God was using Israel as an instrument of judgement against these peoples.
We don’t want to hide from the fact that Israel was commanded to completely destroy these peoples. But as we’ve seen, the reason for this was the awfulness of their sin. It was the sin that needed to be eliminated.
We see this back in Deuteronomy 7, as Moses was preparing the people for this conquest. He told them, “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly” (Deuteronomy 7:1–4).
So notice again—the reason for destroying the people is not for ethnic reasons. It’s because of their sin and the fact that, if they were allowed to survive, their sin would be a snare and a trap to the people of Israel.
Deuteronomy 20 tells us the same thing. And this is an important passage because it shows that there were different rules Isarel was to follow in warfare, depending on whether they were at war in or outside of their land.
When they were at war outside of the land, they were specifically told to spare the women and the little ones (Deuteronomy 20:14). But starting in verse 15 we read, “Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:15–18).
So there’s that idea again. For the cities in the land Israel was to live in, the people were to be completely destroyed so that their sin would be completely destroyed and wouldn’t trip up Israel in the years again.
So once again, this is very different than “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.” Israel was not at war with these nations because they were of a different ethnicity. Instead, what we see is God, as king of the earth, using Israel to exercise judgement on these peoples for their wickedness, and making sure that their wickedness wouldn’t stick around to ensnare His people in the future.
God the King
Now this idea of God, as king, using Israel to judge the Canaanites comes into sharp focus in our passage today. Take a look at where our passage began, back in 5:13. “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us, or for our adversaries?’ And he said, ‘No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, ‘What does my lord say to his servant?’” (Joshua 5:13–14).
This exchange here unlocks the entire story for us. And it starts by noticing Joshua’s question. “Are you for us, or for our adversaries [or enemies]?” Joshua is thinking in terms of sides here. They are the good guys, the Jerichoans are the bad guys, and Joshua wants to know whose side this man is on.
And the answer he gets is “no.” “Neither” says the NIV. And he goes on to explain that He is the commander of the Lord’s army. This is an angel or perhaps even an embodiment of God’s presence through Christ.
And by saying “no” to Joshua, he’s showing that Joshua was asking the totally wrong question and thinking on a totally wrong level. Joshua is thinking “who is on my side or not? And the angel shows that the real question is “who is on the Lord’s side or not?”[See David Reimer, Joshua, ESV Expository Commentary, p. 371.]
Once again, the angel’s answer “neither” shows that God is not on Joshua’s team. Rather, Joshua needs to make sure he’s on God’s team.
And this helps us see that what happened at Jericho was far more than just a fight between Israel and the Canaanites. This commander of God’s army demonstrates that God had come to lead His troops in judgement against His enemies. And Joshua and the Israelites were simply God’s instruments.
This is why, as Israel marches around the city, the ark of God leads the way (Joshua 6:4, 9, 13). Remember that the ark was like God’s portable throne, and having it up there in the front showed that this was about Him, as King of the Earth, coming to judge whose who resist His rule.
Why Rahab Matters
And this, ultimately, is why Jericho fell. They refused to bow their knee to Yahweh, king of the earth.
Remember chapter 2 and Rahab’s confession, when she said that “[Yahweh] your God, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11). Rahab didn’t have access to secret information nobody else had. Everyone in Jericho had heard about what God did for Israel when He brought them out of Egypt. They’ve had a lot of time to consider what’s going on here.
But Rabah has faith and asks to be spared. And notice that the Israelite spies don’t say “Wow, that’s great that you’ve bowed your knee to the Lord, but you’re a Canaanite, so sorry, we need to kill you.” Not at all. Without batting an eye, they say in verse 14, “Our life for yours even to death!” There is no hesitation all the way along about saving her life.
And here in chapter 6, Joshua himself says, in the presence of all of the people, that Rahab and her family were to be spared (6:17). And we know that the story goes on from there. Rahab, that Canaanite prostitute, went on to marry a Hebrew by the name of Salmon, and they had a son named Boaz. And that Boaz married a Moabite widow by the name of Ruth, and they had a great-grandson named David. King David (Matthew 1:4).
Rahab shows us that God would spare anybody who turned aside from their wickedness and confessed Him as the King of all of the earth. And what this means is that those commands to wipe everybody out were for those who fought against Israel. They were for those who held on tight to their wickedness and refused to bend their knees to Israel’s God.
And that’s why Jericho perished. They could have waved the white flag so many times—while Israel was all healing from their surgeries, or each one of those six days Israel marched around the city. But instead of confessing like Rahab, they locked their doors and sat there in silent rebellion. That’s why they perished.
And that’s exactly why we read in Joshua 11:19-20, which says, “There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.”
Now this gets in to the issue of God hardening or “strengthening” people’s hearts, which we’ll deal with when we get to chapter 11, but it seems pretty clear from that passage that if the people had soft hearts and had come to make peace and surrender to Israel’s God, they would have found mercy.
Sin is a Bigger Deal Than We Think
So let’s just review what we’ve seen already. We’ve seen that Israel was not on an ethnic cleansing mission to kill the Canaanites simply because they were Canaanites. Instead, in this particular time and place, God was using Israel as His instrument of judgement to punish their idol worship and wickedness and to completely remove their sin from the land where Israel would be living.
Now maybe you’re thinking, “Ok, I get that. I see how that’s explained in the Bible. But I still think it’s horrible. Seriously? Killing all of those people?”
And if that’s what you’re thinking right now, I understand that. It was a horrible thing that happened that day. Killing all of those people was a horrible thing.
And the point here is not that it wasn’t horrible. The point is that the wickedness of the Canaanites was even more horrible yet.
See, that’s the point of these moments in the Bible, like the curse back in Genesis 3 or Psalm 35 which we looked at this summer. When we see horrible things happening in response to sin, the lesson for us is that that sin is even worse yet.
So it’s not that killing everybody in Jericho was a really great thing, but rather that their idolatry and perversion was even worse. And so it was better for all the inhabitants of Jericho be killed then for their wickedness to be allowed to continue.
Especially because, at that point in history, religion was a family affair. If a sin was going to be dealt with, it had to be dealt with at the family level. And I’m going to post some stuff on our church website this week to explain that a little bit more.
But the big challenging idea for us here is that worshipping the moon, instead of the maker of the moon, is far, far worse than we tend to think. Sexual perversion is far, far worse than we tend to think. Especially when the maker of the moon and the creator of marriage shows up on your front door, and instead of surrendering you lock your gates and brace for impact.
Romans 1 tells us that worshipping what God made instead of God Himself is not just what primitive people do but rather is a moral atrocity for which there is no excuse. And that it leads to all kinds of unnatural behaviours and practices. And that because of all of humanity’s sin, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Romans 1:18). And what we see at Jericho is a foretaste of the wrath of God which will come to all who insist on holding on to their wickedness.
So once again, Joshua 6 is not teaching us that Israel was bloodthirsty or that life was cheap back then or that we should kill people who are different than us. Joshua 6 is teaching us that idol worship and sexual perversion are way bigger deals than we tend to think, and it’s giving us a preview in history of the judgement that is coming to all who refuse to turn aside from their sin.
Why Should I Listen to You Instead of Jesus?
Now I realize that, as I say that, it doesn’t feel that way for many of us. At least I’m assuming that because that’s how it is for me.
I can follow the logic in my head but my gut feeling still tends to be that maybe the sin of the Canaanites wasn’t such a big deal. I’ve been conditioned by modern ways of thinking to see the Canaanites as just some primitive, simple people who worshipped the moon and slept with whoever they wanted because that’s what they did back then, and was this slaughter really necessary?
And if that’s where you’re at this morning, if that’s a feeling you sympathize with, you have a choice to make. On the one hand you can say, “I’m going to trust my sense of right and wrong. I’m going with my gut on this one. And therefore God and God’s word must be wrong here.”
Or we can say, “I’m going to trust God’s word on this one. I’m going to trust God’s descriptions of right and wrong. And if I’m going to mistrust anything here, it’s going to be my gut sense. If someone is not seeing anything clearly here, it must be me.” And in humility, we learn from a passage like this rather than standing over this passage in judgement.
That’s the question. Do we know better than God? Do we know better than Jesus, who believed that Scripture—including the book of Joshua—was true and unbreakable (John 10:35)?
That’s a great question, by the way, any time someone wants to mistrust or attack the Bible. Why should I listen to you instead of Jesus? That’s a great question to ask yourself.
And just so you know, if you go with the first option—of trusting yourself instead of Jesus, and judging the Bible—you’ve got some heavy lifting to do. If the Bible is untrustworthy, you’ve got to build your own moral framework from the ground up to show why the slaughter at Jericho was wrong.
You have to be able to answer questions like, “Why are humans valuable? Why is killing another human wrong?” And you need to answer those questions without appealing to the Bible or the God described in the Bible.
And good luck with that.
When my atheist friends or family tell me that the Bible is atrocious because of stories like Joshua chapter 6, my response is “Wrong by what standard? According to who? If there is no God, and we’re all just the product of a big accident, then who cares what happened at Jericho? Who cares what was written about it and who cares what people today happen to believe about that? If there’s no God than we’re just bags of protoplasm orbiting a star in a random universe that happened completely by chance. Animal species attack and kill each other on this planet all of the time. Why does any of this even matter?”
I’m pointing here to the way that people often criticize the Bible while still holding on to ideas that only come from the Bible in the first place. Such as the idea that anything matters in the first place. Because if the God of the Bible does not exist, we’re just here by accident, then nothing really does matter. And so who cares what happened at Jericho?
But we do care, don’t we? This bothers us. And that’s evidence that we’re not the product of a big accident. That’s evidence that we were made in the image of a moral God. We do understand that people are valuable because they were made in HIs image.
But we were made in His image, and not the other way around. But we can never forget that we are not the ones in charge here. We don’t get to decide what’s true or not. And so we need to come to a passage like Joshua 6 eager to learn, not eager to pass judgement.
How Big is Your God?
As we start to wrap things up here, I don’t assume that I’ve laid to rest every struggle and objection or answered every question that you might have this morning. I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to dialogue more about any of the material here.
But I do think we’ve gotten to some of the really important questions in this passage. Questions like, “how serious is sin?” And “whom do I trust more—God, or myself?”
And behind all of these question is the greatness and the majesty and the holiness and the power of God. Joshua 5 and 6 show us a God who is greater than we can think. A God powerful enough to knock down cities without any tools. A God who deserves the worship and allegiance of the whole world. A God so worthy of worship that worshipping anything else is an atrocity.
And I don’t think there’s a day that goes by when we don’t need to be reminded of how great God is. I’m not sure what all of the challenges are in your life today. What you’re struggling with, what you’re sad about, what you’re tempted with. But I know that this week you’re going to need to be reminded of how great God is.
You’re going to face obstacles and challenges, and you’ll need to remember that God is the city-levelling God for whom nothing is impossible.
You’re going to face temptations to worship and serve other things, and you’ll need to remember that God is the worthy Creator who deserves all of our worship and allegiance.
And you’re going to face your own sin and failure, and you’ll need to remember that God is the merciful one who welcomes Rahab and welcomes you when you repent and confess and believe.
And that’s the question we’ll end with: when you encounter God in His greatness, when He shows up at the front door of your heart, so to speak, will you respond like Rahab with softness and faith, or like the rest of Jericho, with stubborn rebellion?
Will you run to the cross, where Jesus suffered destruction and judgement in our place? Or will you bar your gates and sit tight and insist on facing God’s judgement on your own?
That’s where Joshua 5 and 6 bring us. And that’s why we’re going to end by singing “In Christ Alone.” Rahab could be forgiven, and you can I can be forgiven, because Jesus suffered in our place and sent His spirit to make us turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10).
And there’s not a moment this week where we’re not going to need to remember that and celebrate that and rest in that truth.