The story of Jericho consists of four major episodes. It begins in 2:1-24 with Joshua’s spies and Rahab. In this episode Joshua sent spies to investigate the city. They encountered Rahab who turned to Israel’s God, protected the spies and received a solemn promise of safety. Then the spies returned to Joshua with confidence that God was going to give Israel victory.
Balancing with this beginning, the fourth and final episode closes the story of Jericho. In 6:22-27, the narrative returns to Joshua’s spies and Rahab. In this episode, Joshua ordered the spies to honor their oath of protection for Rahab, and she and her family were adopted into Israel. By starting and ending with Rahab and the spies, our author portrayed everything that occurred in chapters 2–6 as part of the battle for Jericho.
Now, Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 remind us that we should celebrate how Rahab’s faith, expressed in her obedience, delivered her from God’s judgment. But, when we set this episode in its larger context, we can see that our author emphasized other matters as well for his original audience.
Two episodes of astonishingly miraculous events appear between these bookends. On the one side, we find Israel’s miraculous crossing of the Jordan River in 3:1–5:12. These chapters begin with Israel’s ceremonial preparations on the eastern shore, highlighting their devotion to God and God’s approval. Then the priests, carrying the ark of the covenant, stepped into the river, and the Jordan parted. Halfway across, twelve men piled twelve stones next to the priests, and the people passed by. As the crossing ended, they moved the stones to the western shore, the river closed, and the twelve stones were erected as a memorial at Gilgal.
In balance with the ceremonial beginnings of this episode, our author reported how Joshua then consecrated the Israelites through circumcision. And four days later, Israel observed Passover and ate the produce of Canaan, instead of Manna, for the first time.
This brings us to the third episode: the miraculous fall of Jericho in 5:13–6:21. To introduce this battle, our author began with a mysterious vignette that explained Joshua’s extraordinary upcoming victory. As Joshua approached Jericho, he met an angelic figure and, in 5:13, Joshua asked him a crucial question: “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” In verse 14, the angel answered, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” When Joshua humbled himself, the angel called for Joshua to remove his sandals because he stood on holy ground. And with this act, the angel assured him of the support of heaven’s army.
Following this vignette, God gave instructions for the attack on Jericho — an attack that depended entirely on the support of heaven’s army. The Israelites were to march once around the city for six consecutive days, with the priests in front carrying the ark of the covenant. On the seventh day, they were to march around the city seven times. The priests were to blow their trumpets, calling the angelic armies to battle. And the people were to shout and move in only after the miraculous fall of the city walls. Israel obeyed all of God’s directives.
It’s important to mention a feature of this story that appears time and again in Joshua’s conquest. According to 6:17, Joshua ordered that “the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” The expression “to be devoted” translates the Hebrew verb charam (חָרַם). This term, along with the corresponding noun cherem (חֵ֫רֶם), has connotations of an act of worship. Outside the context of war, in places like Leviticus 27:28, this same terminology is used to refer to the permanent dedication of people, animals, or land to services of worship. But in the context of war, such as in Joshua, it refers to killing animals and people and devoting select precious metals and the like to the Tabernacle.
To understand how these were acts of worship, we need to remember that ordinarily armies — including the armies of Israel — enriched themselves with the plunder and slaves they acquired in battle. But in passages like Deuteronomy 20:16, God ordered that, with rare exceptions like Rahab, the inhabitants of Canaan were to be devoted to him as an act of worship. By doing so, Israel gratefully acknowledged that the victory was actually God’s victory.