Note: I am looking for answers both in Biblical Text and from other historical texts

Joshua 6:21-25 says that they killed every living thing in it (the City of Jericho) -- "men, women, young, old, cattle, sheep, donkeys." except for Rahab and her family, which is a good thing because she becomes part of the lineage of David and then Jesus Christ, but then the Israelites burned what was left.

Then in Joshua 6:26 Joshua said that Jericho should not be rebuilt The NIV Bible says this

At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho:

    “At the cost of his firstborn son
        he will lay its foundations; 
     at the cost of his youngest
        he will set up its gates.”

Who were these people of Jericho, that such a curse be put on the place where the city once stood and that even the children should be slain?

I imagine that God didn't want the Israelites to intermarry with the people of the land

  • I am asking who the people of Jericho were at the time when Joshua came to conquer them. There had to be a reason that he didn't want any to survive, save Rahab and her family.
    – Malachi
    Feb 23, 2016 at 13:52
  • 1
    Oh I see, the focus is on the people of Joshua's time, not those of the time when it was later rebuilt.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 23, 2016 at 13:55
  • yes, exactly! do I need to word the question to better reflect that?
    – Malachi
    Feb 23, 2016 at 13:57
  • Your edits and comments completely change the question. I thought you intended a hermeneutical question about Joshua’s curse (thus my answer). But you actually have a moral question – Why did Jericho “deserve” destruction? – presuming that it did, and you’re asking for evidence to justify blaming Jericho for the murder of her children and the curse on her rebuilder. The text you cite is incidental to your actual question. I suggest re-editing this question to fit the curse issue, and your very valid moral questions about the Canaanite genocide might find answers at Christianity.SE.
    – Schuh
    Feb 24, 2016 at 2:43
  • My question is, who were the people of Jericho before they were destroyed. Who were these people?
    – Malachi
    Feb 24, 2016 at 4:26

4 Answers 4


The Curse on Jericho: a Personal Theodicy?

[NOTE: An earlier version of the question suggested Joshua's curse was central to the OP concern. While not directly addressing the revised question, this answer still offers helpful background.]

Joshua’s curse on the rebuilder of Jericho’s fortifications is unique in the Hebrew Bible, and as the OP's question suggests, it is largely unexplained. What does it mean, and why is it here?

1. History offers no answers, for as Dick Harfield explains, the biblical account of the fall of Jericho and so-called ‘conquest of Canaan’ is ahistorical. Archaeology confirms that the flourishing Canaanite city-state of Jericho was destroyed by fire c.1550 BCE and only modestly rebuilt in the 10th-9th centuries BCE, leaving the site largely uninhabited during the period during which the story of Joshua is set. The ancient ruins of cites like Jericho and Ai likely inspired aspects of the Joshua story but offer no particular insight on details of its narrative.

2. Neither does the biblical story itself offer a rationale. Jericho was the first of the Canaanite towns to be conquered by Joshua and the Israelite tribes in the Deuteronomic History, and the religious ritual and strategy that brought the walls ‘tumbling down’ were a dramatic opening for the miraculous campaign to follow. The fact that the city was ‘utterly destroyed’ and its inhabitants (save a promised few) and all of its animals killed is consistent with the principle of ritual purging called herem. While distasteful to many contemporary readers, genocide is not unusual in these Bible stories.

But the account provides no explanation for Joshua’s curse on any future Hebrew builder on the Jericho site (Tel es Sultan). After the city’s destruction the text merely states:

“At that time Joshua pronounced this oath: ‘Cursed of the LORD be the man who shall undertake to fortify this city of Jericho: he shall lay its foundations at the cost of his first-born, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest.’” (Jos.6:26, JPS).

The text that describes the fulfillment of Joshua’s curse some 300 years later is also light on details:

“During [Ahab’s] reign, Hiel the Bethelite fortified Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of Abiram his first-born, and set its gates in place at the cost of Segub his youngest, in accordance with the words that the LORD had spoken through Joshua son of Nun.” (1Ki.16:34, JPS)

This tiny vignette appears in the middle of apparently unrelated stories about Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, and it presents the death of Hiel’s sons during the fortification of the rebuilt southern city of Jericho as the fulfillment of Joshua’s curse. No other information is offered. Hiel and his sons are completely unknown, his motivation for re-securing the town unexplained. The connection with Bethel may (or may not) be meaningful, but in the following years Jericho is unremarkable except as the beneficiary of one of Elisha’s miracles. Searching for an explanation for Hiel’s story at this point in the text, medieval rabbi Levi ben Gershon suggested Hiel figures as a warning to Ahab, but again, a warning of what? The biblical account provides no clues.

3. The needs of the biblical writers, however, may offer clues. Rather than ask why Joshua cursed Jericho’s rebuilder – a question to which neither history nor the biblical account offers answers – one may ask why the author put this curse in Joshua’s mouth. Does the curse serve a literary purpose?

Curses in the Bible were sometimes simply the stated consequences for disobeying the law (e.g. Dt.28:15-68) or a judgement pronounced on a crime after the fact (e.g. Gen.3:14, 4:11, 9:25, 49:7). Some curses, however, are best read backwards, as hindsight explanations of future events. For example, Noah’s curse on Canaan, Ham’s son, is understood by many interpreters as the mythopoeic justification for the subordination of the Canaanites to the Israelites. Whether or not the curse was actually spoken in history, its purpose in the story is to justify its later ‘fulfillment’.

That is, the curse may be a literary device. While presented as a predictive malediction, a negative prophecy, a curse may be a vaticinium ex eventu, the ‘foretelling’ of an event after its known fulfillment. It serves the needs of the storytelling writer rather than the characters within the story itself.

In the case of Joshua’s curse it may be that the writers of the unfolding Deuteronomic History had a genuine bit of historical tradition about the tragic family life of Jericho’s rebuilder, Hiel the Bethelite. Perhaps his personal tragedy was already widely regarded as the result of a curse on the old city ruins, and the writers simply appropriated it to Joshua. Or perhaps both the curse and its fulfillment were composed. Regardless, it may be that the biblical writers used Hiel’s tragic life as a personal-scale southern example of the national theodicy they were simultaneously advancing in the tragic tale of Ahab and the northern kingdom – i.e. bad things happen for divine reasons – and the curse was backdated to the last heroic character with cause to pronounce it.

Whatever their reasons for including Hiel’s story in the narrative of 1 Kings 16, the writers’ insertion of the curse into the storyline at Joshua 6 most likely came afterward. While it has the abstract benefit of strengthening the Joshua-character’s ‘prophetic’ authority, the curse otherwise sits awkwardly in a text which fails to answer basic questions about its purpose. Only with consideration of its ‘fulfillment’ does the curse begin to make some sense, not as a fact of history or event within the biblical narrative but as a literary device serving the biblical writers' wider theological purpose.

  • 1
    This is actually a good answer-the spelling out of destruction for Jericho and the consequential rebuke of Hiel is the direct result of disobeying God's commands, both present and future. I gave this answer to "Why Canaan"here which explains the curse of Canaan and the succeeding generations to follow. To impose a 'secular humanist' interpretation ignores the true meaning of the text, and 'asks God' to submit our judgment. The failure as a nation to comply with His Directive is the current global mess we are in.
    – Tau
    Feb 27, 2016 at 19:27
  • Superb answer!!
    – bach
    Apr 5, 2019 at 13:21

Did Jericho "deserve" destruction?

The biblical story of the fall of Jericho in Joshua 6 offers no explanation or justification for the sack of the city and slaughter of all but a handful of its residents. Jericho was the easternmost large city north of the Dead Sea, and apparently by sole virtue of its geography it was the first of dozens of cities and villages – presumably inhabited by northwestern Semitic, ethnically Canaanite people – to fall to the Israelites as they conquered the region. The text gives no hint that Jericho or any other city “deserved” destruction or that Jericho was more immoral than other Canaanite cites. As it was for the whole campaign, Jericho's destruction seems simply to have been the consequence of God’s command to the Israelites to drive the Canaanites out and exterminate all that remained (Jos.1:1-9). Jericho was just first on the map.

For reasons explained elsewhere, Joshua’s curse (v.26) on the rebuilder of the city is incidental to the story of Jericho’s destruction. It is merely tacked on at the end of the account without explanation or direct association with the narrative. It should be noted that Joshua did not prohibit the rebuilding of the city nor curse the city’s Canaanite residents. As it turns out the curse is said to have been ‘fulfilled’ on an Israelite man with no apparent ill motive some 300 years later in the story (1Ki.16:34).

While the offered text does not rationalize or justify the murder of the children and others of Jericho, this is of course a major concern for later readers. Since the consensus of scholars is that these accounts are largely ahistorical, these ethical and moral questions are now often treated under the rubric of apologetics. But readers still ask, Why did God command genocide?, or more pointedly, What was the theological motivations of the Deuteronomic writers that caused them to tell the story in this way? The text under consideration here offers no insight to these questions.

  • I liked your 1st answer better, but you reiterated the fact that it was God's Judgment. There is ample reasons stated throughout the bible why God determined judgment; Deut. 7 is perhaps the best passage of explanation. God gave them ample opportunity 'as a people' to repent; instead they continued on in their hedonistic, ritual murder, and defilement ways, which God explicitly forbid Israel to imitate. His Covenant provision for them made it impossible for them to 'compromise'-when they did, disaster followed.
    – Tau
    Feb 27, 2016 at 19:46

I can't seem to locate the passage but if memory serves the Anchor Bible volume "Joshua" reported that archaeology showed that there was a wasting disease in the area. Skeletal remains were found distorted. My memory isn't what it used to be so take that with a grain of salt.

However, this is held forth by others as a legitimate reason:

the STDs and other infectious diseases that must have pervaded those cities may well have been carried by the smallest children, and if so, they may have posed a grave danger to the physical health of the Israelites. Imagine some of the nations today most ravaged by AIDS, but living more than three thousand years ago, with no access to even the most basic medical resources. It may be that infectious diseases were also ravaging the domestic animals in these cities, which would also explain why they were destroyed.

It's horrible to contemplate that things were so bad that it was actually necessary for even the youngest members of that society to be killed in order to stop the generational cycle of degeneracy and disease. But something along these lines seems likely to be the reason for God's order to leave alive nothing that breathed.


And we have this:

Gen 15:13 Then the LORD told Abram, "You can be certain about this: Your descendants will be foreigners in a land that isn't theirs. They will be slaves there and will be oppressed for 400 years. Gen 15:14 However, I will judge the nation that they serve, and later they will leave there with many possessions. Gen 15:15 Now as for you, you'll die peacefully, join your ancestors, and be buried at a good old age. Gen 15:16 Your descendants will return here in the fourth generation, since the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet run its course."

  • you quoted, but gave no reference to what you were quoting or where in the reference you are quoting from, I only ask because I am curious, this answer sounds very reasonable and logical IMO.
    – Malachi
    Apr 28, 2016 at 19:04
  • Actually, I posted without the source, realized I had and made the correction. See above.
    – user10231
    Apr 28, 2016 at 19:06

Although one of the oldest cities in the ancient world, Jericho was not continuously occupied up until Israelite times. Ian Wilson says, in Before the Flood, pages 127-128, that Jericho's Pre-Pottery Neolithic B culture thrived on a mix of agriculture and hunting. Whether or not the neolithic people who lived in Jericho were Semitic people related to the the Canaanite people of biblical times is indeterminate. Some time around 6000 BCE Jericho became abandoned.

Archaeologists have found a number of layers, showing occupation and abandonment over the subsequent 5000 years of history. The pioneer of archaeology in Jericho, Kathleen Kenyon, found remains of the walls which had surrounded Jericho, but no evidence of any walls that had been destroyed during the 15th to 13th centuries BCE, the time ascribed to Joshua. Another difficulty is that archaeologists find no evidence of a unified military conquest of Canaanite cities in the Late Bronze Age. Lawrence E. Stager says in 'Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel', published in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, page 97, of the thirty-one cities said to be taken by Joshua and the Israelites, twenty have been plausibly identified with excavation sites; of these, only Bethel and Hazor show discontinuities consitent with invasion at approximately the same time, and it is even debated whether the destruction of Hazor XIII was as late as that of Late Bronze Age Bethel.

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman say, in The Bible Unearthed, chapter 3, excavations show that Canaanite cities of around 1230 – 1220 BCE were not regular cities with walls, since Egypt provided security. This means that the city-dwelling Canaanites were secure and prosperous, although there may have been minor skirmishes between the rulers of neighbouring cities. It also means that biblical stories of walled cities are not supported by the evidence. This date is rather later than the traditional conquest date of approximately 1400 BCE, but is suggested by Finkelstein and Silberman because of presumed references to Rammesside pharaohs in the Exodus narratives. On page 82, Finkelstein and Silberman tell us that Jericho was entirely unoccupied, with no trace of a settlement of any type in the thirteenth century, so there is no answer to a question of who the inhabitants were at this time. At the earlier period of around 1400 BCE, there was a small village, but again no walled city. These villagers were probably West Semitic, like the coastal Canaanites. An Israelite conquest in 1400 BCE is also untenable since the discovery of the Amarna letters, which show that Palestine was under unchallenged Egyptian rule more than half a century later.

The Cambridge Ancient History, volume II Part 1, supports the archaeological consensus that Jericho was destroyed at the end of the Middle Bronze Age and re-occupied on a small scale in the second half of the 15th or early in the 14th century BCE. The inhabitants of this unfortified village were subsistence farmers. Final destruction of Bronze Age Jericho occurred soon after 1300BCE, consistent with the findings of Finkelstein and Silberman that the village was unoccupied in the thirteenth century, the earliest period consistent with Book of Exodus references to Rammesside pharaohs.

Jericho has a history spanning thousands of years, with waves of occupation and abandonment, possibly by different ethnic groups at different times. However, the question seeks to establish who the occupants were at the time of the biblical conquest under Joshua. This question is unanswerable, as it is now clear that there was no unified conquest and because the site of Jericho was unwalled and probably unoccupied at the very time of this supposed conquest.

  • how(who/why) was the 15th - 13th Century BCE determined as the possible time when God's Army led by Joshua went through Canaan? Wikipedia says that there was an Egyptian Conquest through the area, could this have been Joshua? Wikipedia says it was around 1500 BCE, radiocarbon tests said it could have been 16th or 17th century that the walls came down, it is possible to stretch that far earlier?
    – Malachi
    Jun 12, 2015 at 13:16
  • you have given me lots of good information, and I appreciate it, like you said thought it is difficult to say who the people were when we don't know a good time frame.
    – Malachi
    Jun 12, 2015 at 13:16
  • @Malachi We know there was an Egyptian invasion in 1207 BCE because the Egyptian records say so. The occupants had been attempting to assert their independence. Jun 12, 2015 at 21:06
  • @Malachi It is true that Jericho's walls came down 16th-17th century, apparently as a result of a major earthquake known to have struck the area. Jericho was abandoned and the walls were not rebuilt. Any Hebrew invasion and takeover of the Canaanite hinterland could not have been before the mid-14th century because of the Amarna letters. Consensus is now that the Hebrews were actually rural Canaanites who left the region of the rich coastal cities to settle peacefully in the hitherto sparsely populated hinterland. Jun 12, 2015 at 21:12

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.