Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The destruction of Jericho is the most powerful sonic event in the Bible (Josh. 6:1-27). Told as the first Israelite battle during the conquest of Canaan, the story depicts deafening sounds shaking the walls of Jericho to the point of collapse. Sound waves alone, the story tells us, were enough to topple the thick fortification and assure a swift and victorious invasion.
The opening verses of the narrative set the dramatic scene. Joshua is given a divine command to send his troops marching around the walled city for six days. They are to circle Jericho one time per day, accompanied by the Ark of the Covenant and seven priests carrying shofars. On the seventh day, they are to complete the circuit seven times as the priests violently blast their horns. The march is to climax with a sustained blast accompanied by screams and shouts. “Thereupon the city wall will collapse,” the Bible tells us, “and the people shall advance, every man straight ahead” (Josh. 6:5).
In the excessive attack that follows, Joshua’s soldiers exterminate the inhabitants of Jericho, slaughter their livestock, and burn the city to the ground, sparing only the family of Rahab, a harlot who hid two Israelite spies during a reconnaissance mission to the city. The Israelites also pilfer gold and silver and objects made of copper and iron, which “go into the treasury of the Lord” (Josh. 6:19).
In the first decade of the twentieth century two German archaeologists, Carl Watzinger and Ernst Sellin, conducted a scientific investigation of the Jericho site, expecting to validate the historicity of the biblical account. They determined instead that the city had been unoccupied during the purported period of Joshua (c. 1400 BCE). Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon confirmed their findings in the 1950s, and radiocarbon tests done in 1995 dated samples from the site to 1562 BCE (plus/minus 38 years).
This does not mean that the myth is without basis. Jericho is an earthquake-prone location. In fact, a fault line runs through the area, known as the Jericho Fault. Most researchers agree that a massive earthquake struck the region and demolished the city’s ancient walls. Legend of the cataclysmic event grew as the story passed from person to person and generation to generation. The Israelites inserted themselves into the retelling, distorting and embellishing the details to include their tribal hero Joshua and the noisy people under his charge.
Clothing earthquakes in mythological images is fairly common. Seismic events have given rise to several Japanese myths, including the story of a gigantic catfish named Namazu, upon whose back the land floats. When the fish flips its tale, the ground trembles. A West African myth has the Earth resting atop a giant’s head. Earthquakes occur whenever he sneezes. The Maoris of New Zealand tell a story of Mother Earth, who is pregnant with the god Ru. When Ru kicks in the womb, the world shakes.
These and other earthquake myths are rooted in observable phenomena. Trying to explain the Earth’s random and ruinous power, they draw on imagery from ordinary experience: fish, pregnancy, people, etc. And since the audiences are familiar with these elements, the stories seem like reasonable depictions of cause and effect. Mystery solved.
The plausibility factor is important when considering the biblical story of Jericho. The people of Israel were intimate with the audible force of the shofar, a utilitarian instrument with civic, ceremonial and military uses. They heard its ear-splitting tones and felt its bone-rattling vibrations—the impact of which was amplified when more horns were added to the cacophonous mix. With a little imagination and exaggeration—and the added roars of Israelite troops—the sound was amplified to destructive levels.
The collapse of Jericho is a uniquely Israelite take on earthquake mythology. It projects human responses to sound onto the Earth, and incorporates Israel’s favorite instrument into one of its most important stories.
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