Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 2

This is the second post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “And Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the first post here.

All biblical quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version. (Crossway, 2001)


Continuing her post on God’s “promises” that he kept in the Bible, Thomason writes,

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, but critics say the battle never occurred. They state that walls do not fall down because of people marching around them. What is unusual is the fact that archeological evidence demonstrates the walls fell outward, when ordinarily walls fall inward.

As you can see, Thomason offers no source for the claim that “archeological evidence demonstrates that the walls fell outward.”  However, in the previous section on Babylon Thomason had relied on James Kennedy’s Why I Believe and it is there we find her claim.

Then there was the story about Jericho. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, but the critics said that it never happened. One does not just walk around a city and have the walls fall down flat. But what did Professor John Garstang, British archaeologist and authority on Hittite civilization, discover when he came to the site of Jericho to dig? He stated: “As for the main fact, there remains no doubt the walls fell outward so completely that the attackers would be able to clamber up and over their ruins into the city.” Why is that so unusual? Because walls do not fall outward. Ordinarily they fall inward, but in this case the walls were made by some superior power to fall outward, as the Bible says. The critics also declared that the account is obviously fatuous because it says that the Israelites marched around the city seven times in one day. You could not walk around a modern city of one hundred thousand people seven times in one day, and Jericho was described as a great city. But Garstang’s investigation provided an interesting fact about Jericho – it was small than the sites upon which many large metropolitan churches are built. Having been to Jericho many times, I know that I could walk around it seven times in one morning and play a set of tennis before lunch! Again the critics were proved wrong. (Kennedy, 2005, 34)

So, what do we make of this? Are Thomason and Kennedy right that the archaeological evidence shows that the walls of Jericho fell outward? Is this proof that God keeps his promises?

Joshua and Jericho

If you went to Sunday School as a child you are no doubt familiar with the story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho. After Moses’ death, Joshua, Moses’ assistant, is left to command the Israelites as they enter Canaan. (Joshua 1:1) One of the first major cities that Joshua has scouted is Jericho and he sends two men to the city to check out its defenses. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. (2:1) The king of Jericho learns that spies from the Israelite military were in Jericho and so he searches the city. He asks Rahab if she was housing the men but she lies and says that while they came to her house, she did not take them in and they left the city later that night. If the king wants to catch them, he should do so quickly. (2:2-5)

After the king leaves, Rahab goes to where she has hidden the two men and tells them that everyone in the region knows that Israel is on the move and that Yahweh is with them. She also knows that they will take Jericho which could mean death and destruction for her family and for herself. So she pleads with them to “deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” (2:12-13) The spies commit to this and she helps the men escape Jericho. (2:14-21)

An illustration of the two spies leaving Rahab’s house. From the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us. 

After a few days, both spies return to Joshua and tell him that “all the inhabitants of the land melt away because of us.” (2:24) Not long after, Israel crosses over the Jordan River and begins to approach Jericho. Jericho, in the mean time, has prepared for a siege and the city shuts down. (6:1) Yahweh tells Joshua to march around the city once a day for six days. While they do that, seven priests with seven trumpets will march too with the ark of the covenant behind them. On the seventh day, the Israelite military will march around the city seven times and then the priests will blow with their horns. Once the people hear the sound of the trumpet, they are to shout “with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat.” (6:2-5)

Joshua follows Yahweh’s command and on the seventh day, when the trumpets blew and the people shouted, Jericho’s walls fell and the people took the city. They “devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” (6:21) As a result of Jericho’s capture and destruction, Joshua’s “fame was in all the land.” (6:27)

Now, as fascinating a story this is and as memorable as it may be, it is unlikely that it has any basis in historical fact. It is not simply that, in Thomason’s words, “walls do not fall down because of people marching around them.” The reason is that at the time the Canaanite conquest was purportedly taking place, Jericho had no walls. In fact, it was likely not even inhabited.

Dating the Conquest

There are a variety of issues that need to be considered when asking what happened at Jericho. We cannot address each and every one of those issues but we do need to consider both historical and archaeological issues related to the conquest of Canaan by Israel which began with the destruction of Jericho.

In dating the conquest we must also date one of the major events that preceded it: the Exodus. The Deuteronomic Historian in 1 Kings 6 wrote that the time between the fourth year of Solomon’s reign and the Exodus of Israel was four-hundred and eighty years. (1 Kings 6:1) We can date Solomon’s reign to around 968 BCE which would put the Exodus at 1448 BCE. And since we know that Israel wandered for forty years in the desert before entering Canaan (Deuteronomy 2:7), this would put the conquest of Canaan and the sacking of Jericho at around 1408 BCE.

There are a variety of problems with this view. For starters, the number four-hundred and eighty may be symbolic as it is 40 x 12. Both the number forty and the number twelve are significant in biblical texts. And, as R. K. Harrison observed, it isn’t always easy to determine whether the numbers that the Bible is using are meant to be taken literally or symbolically. (Harrison, 1970, 131) The number forty in the Bible signifies a generation and it may be here that the historian is trying to fit twelve generations – just as there are twelve tribes of Israel over which Solomon ruled – into the period between the Exodus and the building of Solomon’s temple. In other words, perhaps it is merely a symbolic dating, not a historical one.

There is another issue as well. The first mention of Israel in non-Jewish texts comes from a poem written by the Egyptian Pharoah Merneptah who ruled from 1213-1203 BCE. The Merneptah Stele, composed sometime during that period, says,

The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!”
Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head:
Tehenu is pacified, Hatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is captured, Gezer seized,
Yahoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed,
Hurru is become a widow for Egypt.
All who roamed have been subdued
by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt,
son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat,
given life like Re every day.
(Coogan, 2013, 75)

If the Exodus happened in 1448 and the conquest began in 1408, why is there no record of Israel for two-hundred years in Egyptian literature or, for that matter, any literature? This is problematic.

The Merneptah Stele, By Webscribe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8206743

Another problem for the dating of Exodus in the fifteenth century BCE can be found in Exodus 1:11 – “Therefore they [i.e. the Egyptians] set taskmasters over them, to afflict them [i.e. the Israelites] with heavy burdens. They built for Pharoah store cities, Pithom and Raamses.” These cities were in actuality military garrisons that guarded northern Egypt from enemy invasion. Pithom – Egyptian for “house of Atum,” an Egyptian deity – and Ramesses (i.e. Raamses) – which would have been known in Egypt as Pi-Raamses or “house of Ramesses” – were cities constructed during the Nineteenth Dynasty, a period in Egyptian history that lasted from 1295-1186 BCE. (Durham, 1987, 8) The Pharoah who built Pi-Ramesses, Ramesses II, reigned in Egypt from 1279-1213 BCE, well over one-hundred and fifty years after the Exodus allegedly took place if we follow the chronology of the Deuteronomic Historian in 1 Kings 6:1. There is simply no way that the Israelites built those two cities if the Exodus happened in 1448.

We must also observe that in the fifteenth century BCE, the Pharoah who would have been the one presiding over the events of the Exodus would have been Thutmose III whose reign lasted from 1479 to 1450. (Cline, 2007, 75) Following his decisive win against a coalition of the Canaanites in Megiddo, Thutmose gained control of Canaan and used it as a platform to invade Mesopotamia. In fact, Egypt’s control of Canaan remained well into the thirteenth century under Pharoah’s like Ramesses II as the empire was in the thirteenth century “at the peak of its authority – the dominant power in the world.” (Finklestein & Silberman, 2001, 60) The idea that the Israelites were dominating Canaan during the late fifteenth and early fourteenth centuries does not fit with the data.

So, when did the Exodus occur? [1] It must have occurred before the reign of Merneptah (1213-1203) but not before the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213). Many scholars date the Exodus, then, to around 1250 BCE. This would put the conquest of Canaan under Joshua’s regime to 1210. But now we run into more trouble.

Did the Walls Come Tumbling Down?

We have already noted that Egypt’s power in Canaan was at its height, making an Israelite conquest of the region unlikely. But there is specific evidence that makes the claim to an Israelite attack on cities like Jericho even more improbable, if not entirely untenable.

Excavations of the ruined city of Jericho began in the nineteenth century but a more thorough one was conducted by the British archaeologist John Garstang who was referenced by Kennedy. Garstang conducted his work in the 1930s and concentrated on City IV, the version of Jericho that supposedly existed at the time of the Israelite conquest of the region. Among the various things Garstang discovered, by far the most important was a wall that had been destroyed presumably by an earthquake. Jericho had walls throughout much of its history, even as far back as 3000 BCE. But the wall at City IV had to be dated to 1400 BCE in Garstang’s view for a number of reasons. This was proof that the biblical account was vindicated: the Israelites had marched on Jericho and sacked it after an earthquake and taken down its wall. (Cline, 2009, 40-41)

This was, of course, not without controversy. Previous excavators had dated City IV to 1550 BCE and so Garstang was essentially upending the prevailing model. This is, of course, what good scientists do, but good scientists also check each other’s work. And in Garstang’s case that peer-review came in the form of Kathleen Kenyon, director of the School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. From 1952 to 1958 she labored in Jericho to see if Garstang was right and to uncover what happened to the famous city. (Cline, 2009, 40)

Kenyon [2] discovered that Garstang was wrong about much of his findings. For starters, City IV was indeed destroyed by a military force but it wasn’t the Israelites and it wasn’t in 1400. Rather, the destruction had been caused by the Egyptians around 1500 BCE. Furthermore, the wall that Garstang had discovered was likely destroyed by an earthquake, not in 1400, but in 2400 BCE. (Dever, 2003, 45)

However, Kenyon’s most important finding deals a death-blow to the version of the Canaanite conquest recorded in the book of Joshua. She showed that during the time period when the Israelite conquest must have occurred that the city of Jericho was abandoned and unfortified. There were no inhabitants to slaughter and no wall to march around. In other words, the biblical story was flat-out wrong. (Dever, 46-47)

The Purpose of the Story

So if there was no battle at Jericho, where did the story come from? For starters, we must acknowledge the fact that the book of Joshua was not written at the time of the conquest. The book shows similarities with Deuteronomy, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. It is a Deuteronomic History and as such was likely put together from various sources during the days of King Josiah. The Deuteronomic Historian

took texts that told the story of his people’s arrival in the land – the stories of Joshua, Jericho, and the conquest – and he added a few lines at the beginning and at the end to set the story in a certain light. This became the book of Joshua. (Friedman, 1997, 130)

The main purpose behind telling such stories, particularly at that time in Judah’s history, was to show that Yahweh had been with Joshua and the people in their conquest of the land. That land belonged to them, their descendants, despite the threats from the Assyrians or Egyptians or Babylonians. Just as Yahweh was with Joshua so too would he be with Judah if they would return to him and get rid of false gods.

That isn’t to say that the Deuteronomic Historian knew he wasn’t writing history. Undoubtedly, he thought he was. But six centuries would have separated him from Joshua and without proper records he would have had to rely on much later traditions no doubt. Furthermore, there was no such thing as “archaeology” by which he could have unearthed evidence of City IV of Jericho, nor were there things like radiocarbon dating or the “Kenyon-Wheeler” method of excavation. The historian worked with what he had. And what he had, as it turns out, was false.

God’s Broken Promise

So in the end, despite the claims of Thomason (or Kennedy), the promise from God that if the people marched around Jericho once a day for six days, seven times the seventh day, and shouted when they heard the blast of the priests’ horns, the walls would fall down simply did not come to pass for one very simple reason: there was no wall there to be felled.


[1] In proposing a date for the Exodus I am in no way committing myself to belief that it occurred as the book of Exodus narrates. I am skeptical that such an event ocurred and tentatively think that if an exodus-type event happened, it was in reality multiple events that took place gradually over time. As I type this end note, it is August 28th, 2017 and in September a new book is coming out by Richard Elliot Friedman entitled The Exodus: How it Happened and Why It Matters (HarperOne, 2017). I am looking forward to seeing Friedman’s view on the issues.

[2] The Vassar College website has an excellent overview of the excavations at Jericho that can be found here.


Eric H. Cline. From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2007.

Eric H. Cline. Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Michael D. Coogan. A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

William G. Dever. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.

John I. Durham. Exodus. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987.

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 2001.

Richard Elliot Friedman. Who Wrote the Bible? second edition. New York, NY: Harper One, 1997.

R. K. Harrison. Old Testament Times. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1970.

James Kennedy. Why I Believe. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2005.


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