People who have traveled to the Holy Land often say they never read the Bible the same way again. This is because they can now picture the places where the events occurred. In a similar way, archaeology allows us to view the places where biblical events occurred and see the things that biblical people saw. In this series, we’ve walked in the footsteps of Joseph, Peter, and Jesus to view the world they lived in. In this article we’ll explore three things Joshua saw when he entered the Promised Land of Canaan.
The Walls of Jericho
When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River under the leadership of Joshua, the first city they attacked was Jericho. This wasn’t just the first city they happened upon; Jericho was strategically located at the entrance to the central highlands of Canaan. Dr. Bryant Wood explains:
“From Jericho one has access to the heartland of Canaan. Any military force attempting to penetrate the central hill country from the east would, by necessity, first have to capture Jericho. And that is exactly what the Bible (Joshua 3:16) says the Israelites did.”1
Excavations at Tell es-Sultan, the site of Old Testament Jericho, reveal that it was an awe-inspiring city, with “walls up to the sky” (Deut. 9:1).
Jericho had not one wall, but two: an inner wall and an outer wall. The outer mud brick wall had been built atop a retaining wall. Between the two walls was a sloped embankment, with an upper wall encircling the inner city. Excavators, Sellin and Watzinger, discovered that the retaining wall was 12-15 ft high, with a 20-26 ft high mudbrick wall on top of that. At the top of the embankment, was another mudbrick wall.2 These walls had been constructed in the Middle Bronze age3, and stood until the destruction of Jericho under Joshua in the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1406 BC4.
Today the remains of these walls can be seen at Tell es-Sultan. Portions of the retaining, or revetment wall are still standing, and some of the fallen mudbricks from the outer wall are still visible at the base. Interestingly, the German excavation team of 1907-09 discovered a portion of the wall on the north side of the city that had not fallen.5 Moreover, there were houses built on the rampart against the outer city wall. This affirms the biblical record, which states that the house of Rahab, which was built against the city wall, was intact after the walls of Jericho fell (Josh. 6:22), implying that that section of the wall did not fall. This may be the area of the city in which Rahab’s house was located.
Visitors to Jericho today, can see the remains of the very walls that Joshua saw when he conquered the city.
The Gate of Ai
Joshua 7 & 8 describe two battles that took place at the fortress of Ai. After an initial defeat, the Israelites succeeded in taking the city and burning it. Joshua ordered that the king of Ai be killed and that his body be thrown at the entrance to the fortress gate and a pile of stones be raised over him (Josh. 8:29).
The location of the fortress of Ai was a matter of debate for many years. However, it appears that that debate has been settled and Ai has been found, thanks to the excavations of the Associates for Biblical Research. From 1995-2017, ABR excavated at Khirbet el-Maqatir, and unearthed a fortified settlement from the time of Joshua that had been destroyed by fire. Khirbet el-Maqatir meets all of the biblical requirements for the site of Ai.6
One of the major discoveries at Khirbet el-Maqatir was the gate system on the north side of the fortress (Josh. 8:11). A four-chambered gate was unearthed, with two of its socket stones found in the gate passageway itself and four others discovered nearby. The bones of the king were not discovered, however, as the gate chambers had been cleared out in antiquity and used for other purposes, including a wine press during the Late Hellenistic/Early Roman era.7
The archaeologists and volunteers who excavated with the Associates for Bibilcal Research were likely viewing the very gate of the fortress of Ai that was conquered by the Israelite army led by Joshua himself (Josh. 8:2).
The City of Shechem
At the end of the conquest, Joshua gathered the tribes of Israel at Shechem to renew the covenant with God. In Joshua 24:25-26 we read, “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD.” (ESV)
Tell Balata was identified as ancient Shechem by a group of German scholars in 1903, and excavations were conducted there in 1913-14 and 1926-36 under the direction of Ernst Sellin. Digs later resumed in 1956 under G.E. Wright and B.W. Anderson, and again in 1973, led by William Dever.8 Among the structures unearthed were the massive, Middle Bronze Age city walls and the Northwest Gate – a triple gate with a narrow opening that only permitted one chariot at a time to get through it.9 A second city gate
on the east side of Shechem was also discovered. Dr. Carl Rasmussen states, “The [East] gate, like the associated Cyclopean Wall, dates to the end of the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1650-1550 BC) and continued in use during the Late Bronze Age.”10 Shechem was destroyed around 1540 BC, likely by the Egyptians,11 but was rebuilt and the Middle Bronze Age fortification system repaired and reused. The massive Middle Bronze age wall still towers over 30 feet high. Joshua would have seen both the wall and the East Gate when he arrived at Shechem to renew the covenant with the tribes of Israel.
On the acropolis of Shechem, excavators discovered a fortress temple, an alter and a large massabah, or “standing stone.” The fortress temple – the largest yet discovered in Canaan – was constructed in the 17th century BC and was in use until Abimelech destroyed the city in the 12th century BC.12 It has been identified as the Temple of Baal-berith mentioned in Judges 9:4, 46. The giant limestone massabah, is estimated to have been 6.6 ft (2m) tall and, although it has been broken, it still stands today at a height of 4.8 ft (1.45m).13 This may, in fact, be the “large stone” in the “sanctuary of the LORD” that Joshua erected at Shechem. Edward Campbell and James Ross conclude: “The stone and the sanctuary may well have been the large massabah and the temple of the Late Bronze age. Certainly these were standing in the early Israelite period and for some time to come. And since the sanctuary is associated with Yahweh, it is probable that Israel used the Late Bronze temple for her own cultic purposes.”14
Many of the sites that Joshua encountered when he led the Israelites into the land of Canaan have been unearthed and portions are visible today. The remains of the places that Joshua saw allow scholars to learn more about the land of Canaan. This helps us understand the biblical text, and the conquest in particular, with greater clarity.
1 Bryant Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” BAR 16:2 (1990): 45. Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/2310-did-the-israelites-conquer-jericho-a-new-look-at-the-archaeological-evidence?highlight=WyJjeXByaW90Il0= (Accessed July 15, 2019).
2 Bryant Wood, “The Walls of Jericho,” Associates for Biblical Research. June 9, 2008. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/3625-the-walls-of-jericho (Accessed July 16, 2019).
3 Lorenzo Nigro, “TELL ES-SULTAN 2015 A Pilot Project for Archaeology in Palestine,” Near Easter Archaeology 79:1 (2016), 14. Online: http://www.lasapienzatojericho.it/Biblioteca/Jericho/TELL_ES-SULTAN_Jericho_2015_A_Pilot_Proj.pdf (Accessed July 16, 2019).
4 Bryan Windle, “Biblical Sites: Three Ways to Date the Destruction at Jericho,” Bible Archaeology Report, May 17, 2019. https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2019/05/17/biblical-places-three-ways-to-date-the-destruction-at-jericho/ (Accessed July 16, 2019).
5 Bryant Wood, “The Walls of Jericho,” Associates for Biblical Research. June 9, 2008. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/3625-the-walls-of-jericho (Accessed July 16, 2019).
6 Bryan Windle, “Biblical Sites: The Lost City of Ai…Found,” Bible Archaeology Report, April 12, 2019. https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2019/04/12/biblical-sites-ai/ (Accessed July 17, 2019).
7 Scott Stripling, “Khirbet el-Maqatir: A Proposed New Location for Ai and Ephriam,” Associates for Biblical Research, March 9, 2015. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/conquest-of-canaan/3705-2014-excavations-at-kh-elmaqatir-a-proposed-new-location-for-ai-and-ephraim (Accessed July 17, 2019).
8 David G. Hansen, “Shechem: It’s Archaeological and Contextual Significance,” Bible and Spade (Spring 2005). Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/2365-shechem-its-archaeological-and-contextual-significance?highlight=WyJzaGVjaGVtIiwic2hlY2hlbSdzIiwic2hlY2hlbSciXQ== (Accessed July 19, 2019).
9 William G. Dever, “Archaeological Sources for the History of Palestine: The Middle Bronze Age: The Zenith of the Urban Canaanite,” The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Sep., 1987), 155. Online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3210059 (Accessed July 19, 2019).
10 Carl Rasmussen, “East City Gate,” Holy Land Photos. http://holylandphotos.org/browse.asp?s=1,2,6,438,477&img=ICSASH04 (Accessed July 19, 2019).
11 David G. Hansen, “Shechem: It’s Archaeological and Contextual Significance,” Bible and Spade (Spring 2005). Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/2365-shechem-its-archaeological-and-contextual-significance?highlight=WyJzaGVjaGVtIiwic2hlY2hlbSdzIiwic2hlY2hlbSciXQ== (Accessed July 19, 2019).
12 Bryant G. Wood, “Abimelech at Shechem,” Bible and Spade (Spring 2005). Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/research/judges-united-monarchy/4042-Abimelech-at-Shechem (Accessed July 19, 2019).
14 Edward F. Campbell, Jr and James F. Ross, “The Excavation of Shechem and the Biblical Tradition,” The Biblical Archaeologist. Vol. 26, No. 1 (Feb., 1963), 11. Online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3211030?seq=11#metadata_info_tab_contents (Accessed July 19, 2019).