Biblical Views: Giants at Jericho
We all know the words of the old spiritual: “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a-tumblin’ down.” According to the Biblical account of the conquest of Jericho, Joshua and his troops marched around the city once a day for six days; on the seventh day they marched around it seven times, and on the seventh circuit they blew their horns and shouted. “When the people heard the sound of the horns, the people shouted a mighty shout, and the walls fell down” (Joshua 6:20). This is a climactic moment in the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Once the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, the other cities fell like a row of dominoes.
But did it really happen? This has been a vexed question in the history of Biblical archaeology. According to the best interpretations of the archaeological evidence, Jericho was destroyed around 1550 B.C.E.1 and was not settled again until after 1000 B.C.E. But the emergence of Israel dates to around 1200 B.C.E., right in the middle of this 500-year gap. If Joshua and his troops had surrounded Jericho, there would have been nobody home.
Biblical archaeology—if such a thing really exists—involves the rigorous correlation of textual data from the Bible and material evidence from archaeology. We must take the best interpretations of both sets of data in order to see what kinds of correlations or patterns are present. The case of Jericho is usually taken as a notorious instance where the Biblical and archaeological data don’t connect at all.
Or do they? I suggest that they do connect in a remarkable way. The problem is that the Biblical evidence hasn’t been sifted properly to yield the correct connection with the archaeological evidence. In my understanding, the walls of Biblical Jericho have been visible all along. It is the Biblical story itself that has forgotten or suppressed a key detail that makes the correlation apparent.
The insight that, in my view, solves this problem was first proposed by a pioneer of Biblical archaeology, G. Ernest Wright. In an article from 1938 with the delightful title “Troglodytes and Giants in Palestine,” Wright observed:
Pausanias [a second-century C.E. Greek geographer] tells us that the great walls of Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos were constructed by the giant Cyclopes … Hebrews viewing some of the cities of Canaan, which we now know to have possessed walls as thick as eighteen feet, and often built of cyclopean masonry, might well have thought in terms of giants, just as did the Greeks.
In other words, the Israelites would naturally have thought that the giant “cyclopean” walls of many old, ruined Canaanite cities (including Jericho) must have been built by giants. From this they reasonably concluded that the original inhabitants of Canaan were giants.
This conclusion is borne out by many Biblical texts. For example, when Moses sends spies to scout out the Promised Land, they report back:
The people who live in the land are powerful, and their fortified cities are very large, and indeed we saw giants there … All the people that we saw in it are men of great height … We seemed in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we must have seemed in their eyes.
(Numbers 13:28, 32–33)
The scouts seem to trace the ancestry of these giants back to the antediluvian marriages between “the sons of God” and human women, whose offspring were mighty warriors called Nephilim (see Numbers 13:33 and Genesis 6:4).
The prophet Amos also testifies that the original inhabitants of Canaan were giants, whom Yahweh destroyed in the Israelite conquest. Amos says in a divine oracle: “I destroyed the Amorites before them, whose height was the height of cedar trees, and whose strength was like an oak” (Amos 2:9).
King Og of Bashan was one of these aboriginal giants. According to Deuteronomy 3:11, his bed could still be seen on display in the city of Rabbah: “It is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, according to the ordinary cubit.” This translates to 13.5 feet long and 6 feet wide—a bed fit for a giant!
Against the backdrop of these scattered memories of the original giant inhabitants of Canaan, we can fill in the background to the story of Jericho. The walls that survived into the Israelite period were huge, and so their inhabitants would seem to have been giants. We now know that these cyclopean walls were built during the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1550 B.C.E.), which is precisely when Jericho was last occupied before the Israelite period. The Israelites saw these ruined walls (which had been destroyed hundreds of years earlier) and knew that giants must have lived there. The Israelites remembered—as Amos recalls—that Yahweh destroyed these giants before them. According to the story of Jericho, the walls fell in a great miracle. Perhaps it didn’t happen exactly how or when the Biblical writer said, but the Israelites believed that Yahweh, the Israelite God, destroyed the city without Joshua and the army having to shoot a single arrow. According to the story that was passed down, after the walls fell, the Israelites “utterly destroyed all that was in the city by sword—man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass” (Joshua 6:21).
The story fails to mention that the men and women, young and old, were thought to be giants. But if we are warranted in supplying this missing piece of Israelite memory based on the other Biblical stories of giants in Canaan, then we have a clear link between the Bible and the archaeological evidence of the massive walls of Jericho. They were the same ruined walls that we can still see today, and they are still breathtakingly huge. It is easy to see why the Israelites would have thought—as Wright observed—that they were built by giants. And when the walls came tumbling down—well, that must have been a great story.