Massacres and miracles at Jericho
Some places are associated with massacres (like Srebrenica) and some with miracles (like Lourdes), but both occurred at ancient Jericho. Jericho in the Middle East is said to be one of the oldest settlements in the world. It’s also the lowest city in the world, being in the Jordan rift valley.
Jericho was a strategic location on the route from the fords of the Jordan river to Jerusalem. This route is part of an ancient route between the Kings Highway to the east and the Via Maris (way of the sea) to the west. These were the major ancient routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Jericho was one of the gateways to the land of Canaan. It was the access point to the hill country of Palestine from the Trans-Jordan, being 8km (5 miles) west of the Jordan river and 22km (14 miles) east-northeast of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem experiences a Mediterranean climate, but due to the “rain-shadow” effect, Jericho on a plain in the Jordan valley has low rainfall. Because of a spring it’s an oasis in a desert which has been called “the city of the palms” (Dt. 34:3; Jud. 1:16; 3:13; 2 Chr. 28:15NIV).
In this post we look at some historical events that have occurred at Jericho.
The promised land
The exodus was when the Israelites journeyed from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. The first mention of Jericho in the Bible is near the end of the journey when “the Israelites travelled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho” (Num. 22:1). At this time Jericho was a fortified city occupied by the Canaanites.
Before their leader, Moses, died, he viewed the promised land from Mount Nebo, including “the valley of Jericho, the city of palms” (Dt. 34:1-4). Jericho was central in the land that was occupied by the Israelites: between Hazor in the north and the Negev in the south and the Trans-Jordan towards the east and the Cis-Jordan towards the west.
When the tribes of Israel were allocated land in Canaan, Jericho was in the territory occupied by the tribe of Benjamin. Jericho was near the boundary of Benjamin with Ephraim to the north (Josh. 18:12, 21). And the southern boundary of Benjamin was the Pass of Adummim (Josh 15:7) – the road from Jericho to Jerusalem goes up this ridge.
The Bible explains why the Canaanites were invaded and driven from their land. God told Abram that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years and after this “your descendants will come back here (Canaan), for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). The peoples of Canaan were dispossessed of their land as an act of God’s judgement when their sin had reached God’s limit (Dt. 9:4-6). They were guilty of idolatry, sexual immorality, religious prostitution, witchcraft, and child sacrifice (Lev. 18:24-27; Dt. 9:4-6; 18:9-12).
Joshua at Jericho (1410BC)
The Israelites entered the promised land by crossing the Jordan River near Jericho. Because Joshua and the Israelites followed the Lord’s instructions, God gave them a great victory over the fortified city of Jericho. It was a miracle that the walls of the city fell down when the army shouted. Jericho was destroyed and lacked walls and gates for centuries after this because Joshua placed a curse on whoever would rebuild them (Josh.6:26). Only Rahab and her family, who cared for the spies, were rescued and saved from the massacre (Josh. 6:22-23, 25).
So the city and its occupants were destroyed because of their wickedness. And God gave it to Israel as their first possession west of the Jordan river. This incident reminds us: that Joshua had faith in the true God but the Canaanites didn’t, that God judges people’s sin, and that salvation is available to the repentant.
Israel destroys Jericho (1375BC)
But later on Jericho was destroyed by the Israelites themselves! When the Israelites punished the Benjamites because of a rape and murder at Gilead, 25,000 of the Benjamites died in battle and the Israelites “put all the (Benjamite) towns to the sword, including the animals and everything else they found. All the towns they came across they set on fire” (Jud. 20:48).
So there was another massacre in Jericho and the town was burnt once again. In this instance, God’s people also experienced God’s judgement.
Ehud at Jericho (1316BC)
When the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, Jericho was attacked and captured by the Moabites (Jud. 3:12-30) and Jericho was ruled by the Moabites for 18 years. After the Israelites cried out the Lord, He gave them a deliverer named Ehud. Ehud assassinated Eglon the king of Moab and “took possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab” (Jud. 3:28). So the Moabites were defeated and Jericho was ruled by the Israelites once again.
So, when the Israelites turned away from God, Jericho was captured and ruled by foreigners. But the city was regained by Israel after they repented and prayed.
Up to this time, Jericho was a place of battles, massacres and destruction.
David’s men at Jericho (995BC)
When king David sent some men to the king of the Ammonites, the king shaved their heads and cut off half of their beards, humiliating David’s men (2 Sam. 10:1-5). So David instructed them to stay at Jericho until their beards had grown back. This means that Jericho was still occupied at this time although it had no city walls or gates.
Fortification of Jericho (850BC)
When the kingdom was split into Judah and Israel, they became more vulnerable to foreign invasion. Two such enemies were Moab and Ammon, just east of the Jordan river. That’s probably why the city walls and gates of Jericho were rebuilt (1 Ki. 16:34) as a fortified city in the time of King Ahab (about 850 BC). Jericho had lacked such fortifications for about 560 years. Was the fact that Jericho was now fortified why Moab and Ammon attacked Judah from the south rather than from the east (2 Chr. 20:1-26)?
Elisha at Jericho (850BC)
Idolatry was prevalent in the 9th century BC in the kingdom of Israel. Even king Ahab worshipped Baal (Canaanite storm god) and Asherah (Canaanite goddess of love and fertility) (1 Ki. 18:18-19). But there were 7,000 Israelites who didn’t worship Baal (1 Ki. 19:18). These people who worshipped the true God were probably led by prophets. Besides Elijah and Elisha, there were groups of prophets at Bethel and Jericho (2 Ki. 2:3, 5). The prophets from Jericho went with Elijah and Elisha to the Jordan river to witness the miracle by which Elijah and Elisha crossed the river. But only Elisha returned and he had Elijah’s coat which symbolized that he was succeeding Elijah. Elisha began his ministry at Jericho with a miracle turning brackish spring water into pure water (2 Ki. 2:18-22).
So at this time there was a group of godly people living at Jericho and the prophet Elisha performed a miracle there.
David and king Zedekiah at Jericho (976BC & 586BC)
In God’s covenant with Israel, if they disobeyed God they were to be driven from their land (Dt. 28:32-37). And this is what happened 680 years later (when the Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel) and 820 years later (when the Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah).
Two Jewish kings fled from Jerusalem to Jericho. When the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, the army and king Zedekiah escaped at night and fled towards the east. But the Babylonian army chased them and captured the king in the plains of Jericho (2 Ki. 25:3-6; Jer. 39:4-5; 52:8). David made a similar trip when he escaped from Absalom in 976BC by travelling from Jerusalem to the Jordan river (2 Sam. 15:28-16:14).
After the Babylonian exile, in about 537BC, 345 men of Jericho returned to Judah (Ezra 2:34). And in 444BC, men from Jericho helped to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 3:2). This showed that there were still godly people living at Jericho 260 years after Elisha began his ministry and that they returned to live in Jericho after the exile.
Jesus at Jericho (AD30)
The Jericho of New Testament times was built by Herod about 2.4 km south of the ancient site. It was at the mouth of Wadi Qilt, which is the valley north of the Pass of Adummim. In the middle ages the crusaders built a town about 2 km east of the ancient site and the modern town has expanded to include the ancient site.
Jericho was on the route between Galilee and Jerusalem if you wanted to avoid travelling through Samaria. It is supposed that the sites of Christ’s baptism (at the Jordan river) and temptation (at a mountain west of Jericho) are near Jericho.
In the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk. 10:29-37), the traveller was attacked as he was going down from Jerusalem (797m above sea level) to Jericho (250m below sea level). The distance was about 29 km (18 miles) and the difference in altitude about 1050m. At that time, it was a narrow, winding mountainous trail or footpath through rocky desert terrain. And there were plenty of hiding places and escape routes for bandits. Robberies in the wild and lonely terrain were so frequent that a Roman garrison had to be stationed there to protect travellers.
On the trip to Jerusalem before His death, Jesus stayed at Jericho. This was where the tax collector Zacchaeus was converted (Lk. 19:1-10) and Bartimaeus was healed of blindness (Mk. 10:46-52). This healing seemed to have occurred after Jesus left ancient Jericho (Mt. 20:29; Mk. 10:46) and before He reached Herodian Jericho (Lk. 18:35). After this Jesus climbed the ascent to Bethany, Bethphage and Jerusalem.
This history of Jericho began with a fortified city that was destroyed by God and ended with a fortified city that witnessed miracles of God. Between these times the city lacked fortifications and was destroyed and conquered. During this time period, Jericho was occupied by the Canaanites, the Israelites, the Moabites, the Israelites, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Seleucids and the Romans.
This reminds me of what Paul told the Athenians, “From one man He (God) made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God determines the beginning and end of nations and the lands that they would occupy.
The incidents that happened at Jericho illustrate God’s supernatural power. The city walls fell when the army shouted. Ehud was able to assassinate Eglon. And Elisha and Jesus did miracles.
The people of Jericho were punished when their sins had reached God’s limit. In a coming day God will punish our sinful world because, “her sins are piled as high as heaven, and God remembers her evil deeds” (Rev. 18:5NLT). Meanwhile, on which side of the walls of Jericho are we?
Some of the occupants of Jericho were ungodly (the Canaanites, the Moabites, and the Israelites who disobeyed God by practicing idolatry) and some were godly (Elisha and the prophets, and the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile). And some changed from being ungodly to godly (Rahab, the Israelites who repented of their idolatry, and Zacchaeus).
Lessons for us
Over the centuries, many things happened at Jericho – massacres, rescues and miracles. But it was always under God’s control. Likewise, many things happen in our lives. But we can be assured that God is in control.
Let’s trust God like Joshua, and change from our ungodly ways like Rahab and Zacchaeus. Paul told the Athenians how to do this by repenting of their ungodly ways by trusting in Jesus because “He (God) has set a day when He will judge the world (at the second coming of Christ) with justice by the man (Jesus) He has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him (Jesus) from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
Written, June 2018
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom