Chapter 6 – part 1
The following is from my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets
Did the City Walls of Jericho Miraculously Fall?
Joshua 6 recounts the remarkable episode of the Israelites’ conquest of the city of Jericho when they returned to their homeland in Canaan after centuries of abject slavery in Egypt.
Joshua had a vision. God instructed him to perform an extraordinary series of activities, all related to the number seven, over a seven-day period, in front of the fortified and impregnable Jericho walls. The Israelite warriors were told to march around the city walls one time on each of six days. Seven priests carrying seven rams’ horns were to be part of the demonstration, with the ark following the priests. The people were told to walk in silence on each of the six days.
The entire assembly was told to circle the city seven times on the seventh day. The priest was instructed to sound the rams’ horns and the people were told to shout loudly, “and the wall of the city will fall down in its place, and the people should go up every man straight before him.”
Joshua tells his vision to the people but does not mention that the wall will miraculously fall. He orders the soldiers to save Rahab, who was in the city, to reward her for hiding the spies that he had sent to reconnoiter the city several days earlier.
The Israelites follow Joshua’s instructions. When they shout on the seventh day, “the wall fell down in its place, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.”
1. Why did the Israelites perform such an elaborate ceremony, including repeats of the number seven: seven days, priests, and horns; seven encirclements on the seventh day?
2. Did the city walls of Jericho actually fall?
3. Rahab, who had helped the spies that Joshua sent to reconnoiter Jericho, was saved by the Israelite soldiers when they entered the city after the walls fell. She lived in an apartment in the wall and let out a string from her window to show the Israelites where she was located. How is it possible that the walls fell if the Israelites were able to save Rahab? If the wall fell, the string could not have been seen and Rahab would have been killed in the collapse of the wall, which was her dwelling.
4. Should we accept the idea that God performs miracles?
Maimonides took a firm stance on the question of God’s involvement in the world. He was convinced that the world functions according to the laws of nature and that God does not interfere and change the laws of nature by performing miracles. According to Maimonides, God, who is wise and all-knowing, built into the laws of nature everything necessary and therefore there is no need for change. In several places, Maimonides does mention that miracles occur; however, commentators explain that these statements were made to satisfy the requirements of the multitude of Jews who needed to believe in God’s constant vigilance over their lives and His helpful interference to aid them with miracles.
Reading the story of the falling walls as a miracle raises problems. If the walls miraculously fell, as the plain meaning of the biblical words seem to state, how could the Israelites know where Rahab was without her signal, and how could they save her from being crushed in the collapse? And, assuming that she survived the collapse, how would they find her among the multitude of Canaanites who were obviously rushing about in confusion to escape the aftereffects of the fall?
The plain meaning of the text seems to say that the walls miraculously fell. The story predicts that the wall will fall in its place, and then confirms that it fell in its place.
The early translation Targum Jonathan was composed by one person or by a school of people around the beginning of the fifth century. The Targum, which translated the prophetical books from Hebrew to Aramaic, understood the story in a straightforward way. The translator(s) treats the story literally, but changes “fall/fell down in its place” to “fall/fell down, and it will be swallowed up.” The addition seems to answer the question “how could the army advance over the fallen stones?” The targumist(s) replies that an additional miracle occurred: the stones were “swallowed up” and there was a clear area, an easily traversable path for the troops’ advance.
This interpretation emphasizes the quandary: if the entire wall fell and if the stones were swallowed up, how could Rahab be saved?
Arnold B. Ehrlich
Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848–1919) was a brilliant Bible scholar, rabbi, and professor, who lived and died in New York. He was the author of eleven volumes on Scripture. Shunned by mainstream Judaism during his lifetime due to his translation of the New Testament, he is, unfortunately, not well known. In his commentaries, he frequently raised doubt about the authenticity of biblical tales, such as whether King David and King Solomon really existed; but while many may disagree with Ehrlich’s outlook and the manner in which he interpreted the Torah, people must nevertheless recognize that his views were thought-provoking.
In his commentary Mikra Kipeshuto on Joshua 10:37, Ehrlich answers the query about Rahab by arguing that the author of Joshua forgot that he had stated that Rahab was living in a dwelling in the wall. This view is obviously unacceptable for, among other reasons, it is difficult to believe that the author would forget what he wrote just several chapters earlier.
The eighteenth-century Bible commentator David Altschuler wrote a commentary in two parts – Metzudat Tziyyon and Metzudat David. He explains the phrase “fall/fell down in place” as “fell in front of all the soldiers who were surrounding the city wall.” No person, he writes, needed to turn to the side. Each soldier simply moved forward “straight before him” because the entire wall caved in. Altschuler’s understanding fits the plain meaning of the text, but it retains the problems mentioned above.
Radak (David Kimchi)
Radak offers an answer that is contrary to the plain reading of the biblical passage. Radak (1160-1235) was greatly influenced by Maimonides. He generally attempted to explain miracles as natural events or to underplay them. It is possible that, like Maimonides, he did not believe in them, but like his mentor he was purposely not altogether clear on the matter. In his treatment of the Joshua episode, he seems to accept the miracle.
Radak notes the problem of how Rahab was saved from the tumbling wall and adds that if the entire wall toppled and she was saved by some miraculous event, Scripture would have told us. Also, he points out, Joshua ordered his soldiers to go to Rahab’s house. If the wall had crumbled, the troops could not have entered her house because it would not be standing.
He suggests that Rahab was saved and the attacking troops could see the signal string she let down from her window because the entire wall did not break. He posits that only the entrance to the wall that was in front of the advancing Israelite army gave way. He pictures the Israelites standing in front of the wall entrance. When the text states that every Israelite could advance “straight before him,” according to Radak, it means that they rushed toward a relatively small breach.
This interpretation, while reasonable, seems to be contrary to the plain meaning of the passage. Additionally, it retains the idea that a miracle occurred, albeit a smaller event.
Don Isaac Abravanel
Abravanel (1437-1508) rejects Radak’s explanation. Like Altschuler, he sees the text stating explicitly that the entire wall disintegrated. He tries to resolve the problems by asserting that Rahab put the signal string out of her window before the wall collapsed, the Israelites saw where it was, and they went to that area to find her after the wall broke. This resolves the problem of the string, but it leaves the question of how Rahab escaped being killed and how the soldiers could locate her among the throngs attempting to escape the tumbling stones and the invading Israelite forces.
The biblical scholar, historian, thinker, and essayist Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889-1963) states in his Sefer Yehoshua that the stories of the capture of Jericho, saving Rahab, and marching around the city walls with the blowing of rams’ horns are most certainly true. However, he considers the specific part of the story of the miraculous collapse of the city walls to be legendary.
He notes that some scholars suggest that the people surrounded the city for six days and were unable to find a way to enter and defeat it. Then, on the seventh day, an earthquake occurred. The people saw the earthquake as the hand of God. They blew their horns, shouted, and entered the devastated city. He rejects this view, asserting that if there were an earthquake, the Bible would have stated so, as it does in other places.
He contends that the city was conquered by battle. As proof, he points to the text stating that Joshua sent spies to reconnoiter the land for battle. As additional proof, he cites the story of Rahab, which shows that the wall could not have miraculously dropped.
Kaufmann’s understanding of the battle answers virtually all the questions and is reasonable. He could have added that the Bible frequently states matters in a hyperbolic manner. Thus when it states that the walls fell because of God, it could be understood in a Maimonidean sense (Guide 2:48) that the “ultimate cause” was God who created the laws of nature, but the immediate cause was the successful Israelite battle plan. The story contains another hyperbole, for it would have been impossible for so many Israelites to walk around the city seven times on the seventh day. Kaufmann could have also added as proof the fact that Joshua never told the Israelites that the wall would miraculously fold.
The one question remaining is why the number seven is repeated. Kaufmann recognizes that the repetition seems to indicate that the Israelites were performing some kind of magical act. He rejects this notion because the Israelites never attempted to conquer land by magic in other instances and they did not use the number seven again in this fashion. However he fails to explain why it was used here.
Levi ben Gershom, also known as Ralbag and as Gersonides (1288-1344), was a great philosopher and one of the most creative and daring minds of medieval Jewry. However, his explanation of the appearance of seven seems weak. He states that God wanted the Israelites to use the number seven repeatedly in order to impress them with the multiple significances of the number in Judaism. There are seven days of creation, the seventh day is the Sabbath, the seventh month is the New Year, the seventh year is the Sabbatical year, the holidays of Passover and Sukkot are seven days, and the number appears in many other places. He does not explain why this lesson needed to be taught at this time and what the connection was between this lesson and the defeat of the inhabitants of Jericho.
An Alternative Interpretation
It is possible, as Kaufmann explains, that the wall never miraculously fell. It is also likely that the series of seven was a tactic used by Joshua to scare the Canaanite inhabitants.
The number seven had special significance in virtually all ancient cultures, and most of them held the superstitious belief that the number could be used to harm people. Knowing the superstition and knowing how fearful the ancient pagans were of superstitions, Joshua arranged a spectacle to frighten them.
As they watched from the top of their wall, the Canaanites saw the Israelites marching in dead silence around their city carrying their ark, the symbol of their God, and the ancient ceremonial rams’ horn – not the customary metal horn used by many cultures at that time. The combination of the use of these recognizable sacred items and the silence of the march was disquieting.
The disquiet increased daily on each of the six days and grew into a profound fear. On the seventh day, a day they must have realized had special significance because of the repetition of the number seven, they saw the larger group of marchers and heard the ceremonial horns sound and the people suddenly shout. Many must have felt that some magical force had struck them. The superstitious pagans panicked, began to run, and caused their fellows to fall back. In the fear and confusion, it was easy for the Israelites to attack and succeed. The tactic worked and the wall, poetically speaking, fell.
The story of the conquest of Jericho raises several questions, principally, why did the Israelites go through an elaborate ceremony involving the number seven, did the wall encompassing Jericho fall, and how was Rahab saved from the crumbling wall? These questions were noted by many of the commentators who offered various, sometimes unsatisfactory, solutions. It is reasonable to assume that the wall did not fall, but that this was a biblical poetic way of describing that the Israelites were able to defeat their enemy.
One way of looking at Joshua’s use of the number seven, having the ark accompany the forces as they marched silently around the city on seven days, with seven priests carrying seven ancient ceremonial horns, was that this was a tactic to scare the superstitious inhabitants of Jericho.
The plan worked. Joshua could not use the trick again because the Canaanites would not fall for the same trick twice. However, just as he used trickery to conquer Jericho, he used other tricks to conquer other cities.
 Guide of the Perplexed 2:29 and 3:32.
 For example, Genesis 4:15 reports that God did not punish Cain for killing his brother Abel and (according to the translation of the Jewish Publication Society) “set a sign for Cain, lest any finding him should smite him.” The Hebrew original that is translated “for Cain” is leKayin. Ehrlich comments that most commentators understand that God put some kind of sign on Cain so that upon seeing it people would be reminded that they were not permitted to kill him. This is incorrect, according to Ehrlich, for if the sign was placed on him, the Torah should have written beKayin, “on Cain.” Thus the verse is saying that God gave Cain a sign, a verbal assurance, that no one would kill him. Additionally, he continues, what kind of benefit did God give Cain by not killing him but by requiring him to go throughout life with a sign on his forehead reminding everyone who saw him that he was a fratricidal murderer?