Who Fought the Battle of Jericho?

We’re all familiar with the old Negro spiritual “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.” If you don’t know the song, then look over on YouTube at several dozen renditions, including those by Elvis, Mahalia Jackson, Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) and this choir singing while riding on a subway in Istanbul.

Jericho was a gateway city of Canaan, 8 miles NW of the junction of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. It was here that God would begin the conquest of the Promised Land because of the promise He made to Abraham and the sinfulness of the Canaanites (see Deut 9:4-6, Gen 15:16). The strategic problem raised by Jericho is that it was surrounded by a high wall and shut up tight against the Israelite invasion (Josh 6:1). It was precisely the difficulties of these walled cities, some populated by giants, that had caused the former generation of Israel to doubt God (Num 13:28).

One has to wonder if any shred of those doubts was plagued this new generation as they once again surveyed those walls and thought of those giants? God doesn't seem to go out of His way to allay any fears as He presents to Joshua a battle plan that was unusual at best and wacky at worst (Josh 6:3-5). Israel would walk around the city-- everyone and for a whole week. On the seventh day, they would walk around Jericho seven times, blow their trumpets, and shout-- and walls would come tumbling down! Can you imagine Joshua taking this plan to the Israelite war council, “OK, here’s the plan, guys; these sandals are made for walking!” Did Israel's generals start wondering about their new leader?

Well, Israel walked and shouted and the walls came tumbling down. But it wasn’t Joshua who fought the battle of Jericho; it was God. The battle plan of Jericho taught Israel the same lesson another great battle that also involved trumpets would later teach, “In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her (Jud 7:2). No, Joshua didn’t fight the battle of Jericho at all; God did.

And Joshua would be the last one to argue with that. In chapter 5, Joshua is mulling over the task that lies ahead when he has a visitor. This visitation in Joshua 5:13-15 provides background not just for the battle of Jericho but for the rest of Joshua’s life—

13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
15 The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Joshua here has an experience of God much like Moses’ burning bush. Both he and Moses were told to take off their shoes because they were standing on holy ground. Both Moses and Joshua respond by bowing their faces in worship. Joshua’s visitor here identifies himself as “commander of army of the Lord.” Who would Israel say was their commander? Joshua. But right before the battle of Jericho, God makes sure that Joshua knows who really was in control of things. God was.  Joshua needed that reminder, and so do we.

Tomorrow we'll make some observations of what this story might mean for us today.