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The Walls of Jerico . . . and When Archaeology and the Bible Disagree

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsOne of the most remarkable events recorded in the Old Testament is the collapse of the walls of Jericho. Here would seem to be an ideal opportunity to bring the testimony of Scripture and the testimony of archaeology together. Unfortunately the attempts to do that have not been as satisfactory as we may have hoped and have occasioned quite a bit of controversy. In his Joshua contribution to ZIBBCOT, Richard S. Hess offers some thoughts for us to consider.

John Garstang’s excavations in the 1930s revealed an important fortified center at ancient Jericho with mud brick walls. However, work two decades later by Kathleen Kenyon confirmed that these walls dated centuries earlier than any time that the Israelites could have entered Palestine. Although some have challenged this change in dating, most ceramicists who study the evidence from Tell es-Sultan affirm the absence of preserved walls in the Late Bronze Age. In itself this is not surprising. Sites such as Lachish and Megiddo have preserved no Late Bronze Age walls.1 Yet it is clear from Egyptian accounts of the site during this period that Megiddo was fortified by a wall.2 Perhaps the same was the case at Jericho. The walls may have eroded after their destruction in chapter 6 and before Jericho was rebuilt hundreds of years later in the ninth century (1 Kings 16:34).

The placement of a house on the city wall was not extraordinary but was known to take place at this time. Casemate walls, which allowed for domestic structures "sandwiched" between two parallel walls, could explain the presence of Rahab’s "inn" on the walls, though these are not attested in Israel before the tenth century.3 If these walls were mud brick and easily subject to erosion, a more likely possibility might be the presence of a small circle of mud-brick houses built so as to form a continuous wall around the site of Jericho.4 The descent from Rahab’s window to the ground outside Jericho could have been as small as a single storey (from the second storey window to the ground) or the fort could have been built beside a precipice formed by the tell and thus the descent could have been much longer.

What are our options when archaeology and the Bible do not seem to be in agreement? Most commendable is the further examination of the interpretation of the data from both the Bible and archaeology. In this case, we may have to rethink our preconceptions about what the walls of Jericho would have looked like. Occasions may also arise when we just have to confess that we are not able, given current knowledge, to successfully harmonize the two. In this case we must always keep in mind the adage that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Archaeology can only recover what has survived.


Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


1 R. Gonen, "Urban Canaan in the Late Bronze Period," BASOR 253 (1984): 69–70.

2 I. Finkelstein and D. Ussishkin, "Back to Megiddo," BAR 20/1 (January/February 1994): 32.

3 King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 232.

4 D. Merling, The Book of Joshua, 251; K. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 188.

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