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.”
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.