Was Jericho a “City” or a Military Fortification?

The ruins of ancient Jericho, scarred by over a hundred years of archaeological digs, as seen from the air.

The ruins of ancient Jericho, scarred by over a hundred years of archaeological digs, as seen from the air. It would probably take no more than an hour or so to walk around the “city.”

I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land some years ago, and one day our tour bus drove through the modern city of Jericho. At one point during our drive, our tour guide announced that we were passing the ancient site of Jericho. But before I had enough time to pull out my camera, we were gone and left the ancient “city” far behind.

It was not quite what I had imagined. As a kid, I was accustomed to hear the story of how “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” and destroyed the “city.” Now, when I think of “city,” I think of a relatively large population area. My hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia, is fairly small by the standard of most cities today, about 9.1 square miles in size, or just a little under 6,000 acres. Contrast that with ancient Jericho, which is approximately only 6 acres in size.

That’s about less than half the size of my small neighborhood.

Wow…. If ancient Jericho was really a “city,” then it must have been a really, itsy-bitsy small one. I suppose the people in such a really small “city” could have been packed in like sardines, but it got me thinking about what the Bible says in Joshua 6 about the “city” of Jericho. What are we to make of this?

City or Military Fortification?: The Clue of the Citadel of Rabbah

We can become so accustomed to certain ways of reading the Bible that we miss some of the finer details.  Denver Seminary Old Testament scholar, Richard Hess, has written one of the premier commentaries on the Book of Joshua. Hess argues that the Hebrew word that is often translated in English as “city”, transliterated from the Hebrew as “ir,” can have a variety of meanings. Here are some examples:1

  • The small town of Adam, where the waters of the Jordan were dammed up, in Joshua 3:16, allowing Israel to cross into the Promised Land.
  • The village of Bethlehem (1 Samuel 20:6).
  • Tent encampments (Judges 10:4, 1 Chronicles 2:22-23).
  • The army fortress of Zion in Jerusalem, but not the whole city at large (2 Samuel 5:7, 9; 1 Chronicles 11:5,7).

One particular example from Richard Hess that stuck out to me was the description of Rabbah, which is where the modern capital of Jordan exists, Amman. This was where Joab, one of King David’s men, engaged in battle, before David later arrived to completely conquer the city:

Now Joab fought against Rabbah of the Ammonites and took the royal city. And Joab sent messengers to David and said, “I have fought against Rabbah; moreover, I have taken the city of waters. Now then gather the rest of the people together and encamp against the city and take it, lest I take the city and it be called by my name.”So David gathered all the people together and went to Rabbah and fought against it and took it. (2 Samuel 12:26-29 ESV)

The ESV translation, following that of the traditional and venerable King James Version (KJV), is fairly literal here, by consistently translating the Hebrew “ir” as “city,” but it is quite confusing. At first, Joab takes “the royal city,” and then reports to David that he had taken “the city of waters” (a minor question, but what is that all about?). David eventually arrives and then takes the city.

So, how can the city be taken eventually by David, if the city had already been taken by his man, Joab?

That does not make a lot of sense.

However, a look at the NIV 2011 translation makes it a lot clearer:

Meanwhile Joab fought against Rabbah of the Ammonites and captured the royal citadel. Joab then sent messengers to David, saying, “I have fought against Rabbah and taken its water supply. Now muster the rest of the troops and besiege the city and capture it. Otherwise I will take the city, and it will be named after me.” So David mustered the entire army and went to Rabbah, and attacked and captured it.

So, the NIV 2011 renders the Hebrew “ir,” what Joab initially captured, as the royal “citadel,” and not the “city” as a whole (The NIV also clarifies that the “city of waters,” from the ESV, is most probably a reference to the city’s water supply). Therefore, Joab first takes the citadel; that is, the city’s military fortification (along with the city’s water supply), and then when David arrives later, David takes the rest of the city. This makes a lot more sense. But is it a correct reading of the text?

Well, modern archaeology has shown us the location of the remains of this ancient citadel in Rabbah, or modern Amman. Though the original fortifications in David’s day are lost, we see that this area holds strategic high ground within the surrounding city of Amman. Take a visual tour here (note that the antiquity of the site goes back even further than what the video claims):

Why is This Important?

How then should this Hebrew “ir,” or “city,” which shows up several times in Joshua 6, be understood with respect to Jericho? Following the clue of the citadel of Rabbah might help.

Based on the small size of Jericho as a “city,” it is probably more appropriate to call ancient Jericho a “military fortification,” or a “military outpost,” if you will. Jericho was not necessarily the huge population center I had imagined from popular lore. Considering the fact that Joshua 6 never mentions any specific non-combatants in Jericho, aside from Rahab and her family, this seems like a reasonable conclusion to make.

But not only is it reasonable, it helps to explain a particular conundrum in archaeological research in Jericho, with respect to the Bible. Contemporary archaeological research has concluded, for the most part, that there was no substantial  population center located in Jericho at the time of the conquest of Canaan. This has led some to further conclude that Joshua’s conquest of Jericho is more fiction than historical fact.2

This last conclusion, based on the data in the ground, is still hotly debated among archaeologists. But the lack of evidence of a large population living in Jericho, during the period specified in Joshua 6, is a problem for those who would traditionally argue that Jericho was a densely populated city. However, if Jericho was not a major population center in Joshua’s day, this particular Bible difficulty is rendered less difficult. A military fort in Joshua’s day would not have left the same type of archaeological footprint as we would expect with a large population center.

By taking a closer look at the “city” of Jericho, we gain a better appreciation for the story of the Bible, instead of just sticking with a traditional view that raises more questions than it answers.


1. See this essay by Richard Hess, in PDF format. Most of the information from this blog post comes from this essay.,

2. Al Mohler, a defender of biblical inerrancy, admits that this is indeed a major difficulty for biblical inerrancy in Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy (kindle location 744). On the other hand, a re-examination of the biblical data comports better with the current state of archaeological discovery.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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