Jericho’s Population & Fortifications

Ancient JerichoArcheologist of all stripes – Biblical, secular and otherwise – affirm that the ancient city of Jericho has walls that did indeed come a-tumbling down. They even affirm that the walls tumbled outwards instead of inwards – not at all what you’d expect for a city under siege. You can see the 9-acre archaeological site by punching in “31.870037, 35.443788” in Google Earth or Google Maps. Not too shabby for the world’s oldest continually-inhabited city.

But wait – there’s more!

We know Joshua’s army was somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 men. But what was Jericho’s population?

Item 1: Archaeologists will tell you that the population of an ancient fortified city (like Jericho) is about 100 people per acre. Since the walled city of Jericho encompasses 9 acres, that would put the population around 900 people.

Item 2: Archaeologists will also tell you that when a region is under siege, farmers and residents in outlying villages will hunker down in the fortified city of their region (ie, Jericho). Under these situations, the population effectively doubles to about 200 people per acre. We’re now up to ~1800 for Jericho. In keeping with this assessment, Answers In Genesis’s article on Jericho puts the number somewhere around “several thousand”.

Which makes me say “hmmmmmmmm.” Something’s not adding up.

Consider:

  • Numbers 1:46 puts the war-capable population of the Israelites at 603,550. Pretty decent sized army, I would think. That was before their 40-yr wilderness wandering.
  • The 10 spies convinced these 600,000+ men (and the rest of the Israelites) that they couldn’t conquer the land overflowing with milk and honey (and large fruit) because of their well-fortified cities and the giants in the land (Num 13:28). One wonders why they didn’t think their huge army couldn’t get the job done. Must’ve been some impressive enemies.
  • After refusing to go into the land, God sent them wandering for 40 years. After the 40-yr wandering, the number of 20+yr old men “capable of war” was 601,730. (Num 26:51) Still quite a number of people.
  • The Israelites repeatedly whined about how the Canaanites had cities “fortified up to heaven” (I guess that’s ancient-speak for “fortified out the wazoo”). They also complained how the Canaanites were “greater and taller than we” (Deut 1:28; Josh 14:8; Deut 9:1-2). Another testament to the impressive enemies of the land.
  • When Rahab freaks out about Joshua’s on-coming army, she doesn’t cite their impressive size dwarfing her city. Instead, she talks about how the Lord of heaven and earth was on their side, drying up the Red Sea and demolishing their enemies Og and Sihon. (Josh 2:9-11) One wonders why she never bothers to mention their impressive size. Unless she wasn’t terribly impressed (which would jive with the complaint of the 10 spies afraid of the Canaanites).
  • When Joshua & Co finish dusting up Jericho and go to attack Ai, they initially send only 3,000 men because it was smaller and less populous than Jericho. (Josh 7:3-4)
  • On their 2nd attempt to subdue the city (thanks to Achan), they send 30,000 men to conquer the 12,000 citizens of Ai (that number doesn’t take the children into consideration). (Josh 8:3; 25)

So…

If ittty bitty Ai had 12,000 citizens, how is it that Jericho had only 2,000??

Surely Jericho had upwards of 20,000. Or more!

And how did all 20,000 get cramped into 9 acres?

Methinks some archaeologists might need to rethink this one.

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2 comments to Jericho’s Population & Fortifications

  • Gordon Stanger

    Of course it doesn’t add up, because there is a widespread English mis-translation in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word Eleph is invariably translated as 1000, which is nonsense. Both internal Biblical text, and external evidence (history, archeology, and common sense)makes it clear that eleph must be translated as a much smaller number. That number is nowhere specified, but may be described as ‘a company’, or extended family, or sub-clan, or a comparable grouping.
    Recognize this, and something like 120 OT inconsistencies, from Exodus to Judges (and possibly 1 & 2 Samuuel) suddenly make sense!
    PS, I suspect that the mis-translation arises from a common etymological fallacy, that words retain their exact same meaning over time – which, of course, they don’t, and especially not when the time-span of more than 12 centuries!

    • admin

      Hi Gordon.
      Thanks so much for your feedback!

      You’re correct that the word “eleph” has an interesting history and broad semantic range. And yes, some scholars debate, as you suggest, that it doesn’t mean “1,000”, but rather, something between 5 and 14.
      But even if we were to adjust the number downward to, say 10, I don’t think it neatly resolves the issues at hand.

      Let’s start with the translation:

      – The word ‘eleph’ is frequently used as both a ordinal and cardinal, and would make no sense if ‘eleph’ was a value less than 100. Phrases like “…commanders of thousands [eleph], hundreds, fifties, and tens” and “..of the thousand [eleph] seven hundred seventy and five shekels he made hooks for the pillars” can be found in many passages (Here are a few: Exod 18:21, 25, Exod 38:28, Deut 1:15, 1 Sam 8:12). These verses pretty much necessitate that we conclude Moses uses ‘eleph’ to mean more than 100. (Does anyone believe Moses really said “commanders of tens[eleph] and hundreds[meah] and fifties[chamishshiym] and tens[eser]”?)

      – Hebrew scholars living before the time of Christ translated their Hebrew Bible into Greek. If anyone would know what ‘eleph’ meant, it should be them, as the language was still in wide use, and their scriptures were cherished. They translated Exod 12:37 as “ραμεσση εις σοκχωθα εις εξακοσιας χιλιαδας πεζων οι ανδρες πλην της αποσκευης”, which in English, is 600,000 men of fighting age. Other similar passages were translated to mean ‘thousand’.

      Now let’s look at logistics:

      – I mentioned the city of Ai and their “12,000” occupants (Josh 8:25). The same word, ‘eleph’, is used to describe the “3,000” Israelites who went to attack Ai. Let’s test the “10” rendering for ‘eleph’ and see what happens: 30 Israelites attack a fortified city of 120 people ..and 36 Israelites died in the battle?? (Josh 7:5). How do you get more casualties than soldiers?
      And one wonders: why would people bother to build elaborate fortifications around a town that protects 120 people? (Remember that archaeologists claim Jericho sheltered close to 2,000 people – almost 20x more). I’m not an expert in Bronze age archaeology, but I suspect peoplegroups didn’t bother to build massive fortifications until their numbers were considerably higher.

      As you can see, a simplistic reduction of the number ‘eleph’ to anything less than 100 causes far more problems than it attempts to solve.

      Here’s an article from a scholarly site on archeology that deals with that question:
      http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/04/16/The-Number-of-Israelites-in-the-Exodus.aspx#Article

      And here’s an article from a Jewish site dealing with the same question (various interpretations of ‘eleph’ are presented):
      https://thetorah.com/recounting-the-census-a-military-force-of-5500/

      Thanks!

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