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by Dr. David Livingston

Views of Jericho and 
		Cuneiform from the Legend of Keret

During the conquest of Jericho, have you ever wondered why God told Joshua and Israel to do so many unusual things? Why march around six times? And why seven times on the last day? Why march in a certain order? Why keep quiet, then shout to make the walls fall down? And so on.

Various explanations have been offered. We have a new suggestion. We do not say it is the answer. But it may be provoke some thought.

Jehovah Verses the Gods of Canaan

Our proposed explanation is this. All of Israel's actions were commanded by Jehovah as a travesty, a mockery of a ritual or pageant known to the Canaanites living in Jericho. It possibly was related to the marriage festival of a "divine" king, or had some connection with an annual fertility festival. If so, it should have occurred at the turn of the year - in the spring, possibly April, just when the overthrow of Jericho took place.

The Bible is not a synthesis of other religions. It is in controversy with them. This was the battle of Jericho! And it was not just men fighting men. It was a spiritual battle. There was spiritual wickedness in heavenly places and the "Lord of Hosts" had come to be the Leader (Joshua 5:14).

Divine Kingship and Religion

First, a little background. The kings of the ancient near east were tyrannical god-kings. (See Who Were the Sons of God?). "A tyrant was roughly what we would call a dictator, a man who obtained sole power in the state . . . (He) is not necessarily a wicked ruler, but he is an autocrat . . ." (A. Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants, NY: Harper, 1963, p. 7).

In every place the sons of Ham went, "divine kingship" was established. In Mesopotamia, Cush (or Kish) was the founder; in Egypt, Mizraim. In Canaan, named for one of Ham's sons, it follows that "divine" kings controlled the city-states. On an unpublished Kinglist from Ugarit, described by Virolleaud, each of the kings is designated as il, "the god" (A. Rainey, Biblical Archaeologist Reader #3, p. 92). And, as Rainey points out, legendary king Keret is also called bn il, "son of god."

The prince, the eldest son of Krt, is one "Who sucks the milk of Atherat, Who sucks the breasts of the Virgin Anat." This conception is familiar in Mesopotamian and Egyptian royal ideology, and is expressed in the ivory relief from the royal bed in the palace of Ugarit. Standing thus in a special relationship to God, and indeed himself eventually regarded in popular belief as invested with that "divinity that doth hedge a king," the king in ancient Canaan was regarded as the special channel of divine power and blessing to the community. (J. Gray, The Canaanites, NY: Praeger, 1964, p. 106-7.)

Like Melchizedek, the kings named in the Ugaritic epics represented their people before the deity in a priestly ministry and represented the divine will to the people as ruler of the state. (C. Pfeiffer, Ras Shamra and the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962, p. 38.)

In those kingdoms, religion was the "opiate of the people." It was used by rulers to bind the people's highest loyalties to themselves. So there was plenty of pomp and circumstance, special feast days and rituals during the year to support the religio-politico systems they controlled. One might expect religious feasts and processionals to be performed in Canaan, to some extent at least, as they were in Egypt and Mesopotamia, although very little Canaanite literature has been found to confirm this.

Legend of King Keret

With the discovery of Ugaritic literature at Ras Shamra (in northern Syria) in the late 1920's, we have texts which may be background material for an explanation of the unusual activities in Jericho's conquest. The Legend of Keret (which was found in Ugarit, north of the Land of Canaan) narrates the marriage of a "divine" king. He is repeatedly referred to as bn il, "Son of El," or "Son of God."

Scholars are divided about evenly whether or not this legend was dramatized with religious ritual. There is a good possibility it was with precedents of religious drama in connection with legends in Egypt and Mesopotamia. (That the king in Ugarit exercised distinctively priestly functions and was the chief cult official, see D.M.L. Urie, "Officials of the Cult at Ugarit," Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 1948, pp. 42-47. For Babylonian ritual action descriptions which accompanied drama see Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 331-2. For ritual describing circumambulation of the seat of government in Egypt, see T. Gaster, The New Golden Bough, NY: Mentor Books, 1964, p. 180, n. 55.)

The Keret legend itself may, or may not, have been in use in Jericho at the time it was overthrown. We only mean to use the epic of Keret as an example of the type of activity which might have been going on in Jericho when the Israelites arrived.

Canaanite Religion Similar Everywhere

Canaanite Stelae at Hazor
Stelae from the Canaanite period found in Area C at Hazor. On center stela two hands are upraised toward a moon inside a crescent, indicating the moon was worshipped there.

But Ugarit is a long way from Jericho (approximately 500 miles). Would religious festivals in both places be the same, or similar? Apparently so. W. F. Albright maintains that artifacts, language, religion, and customs were the same from Ugarit (just below modern Turkey) to Southern Palestine (Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, 71-72, 114-118). He says, "There is not the slightest reason to doubt the existence of a uniform higher culture throughout western and southern Syria as well as Palestine, during this whole period" (Jahweh and the Gods of Canaan, NY: Doubleday, 1968, p. 115).

Others concur with Albright (see John Gray, The Canaanites, pp. 127-28). E. Kautzsch in Gesenius' Hebrew Grammer says, "'Canaanite' is the native name, common both to the Canaanitish tribes in Palestine and to those who dwelt at the foot of the Lebanon and on the Syrian coast, whom we call Phoenicians, while they call themselves 'canaan' on their coins. The people of Carthage [in N. Africa] also call themselves so" (p.10, n. 4). The Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon were Canaanite. They used the Canaanite language. So we see that "Canaan" was larger than Palestine, and everywhere Canaanite culture extended, the religio-politico system might be expected to be similar.

We have an example of religious ritual connected with the "divine kingship" system much closer to Jericho than Ugarit is. In Tyre, at a little later time (ca. 1000 BC but also probably before), the king went through the dramatic Enthronement Ritual on New Year's Day each year. The ritual lasted probably eight days. New Year's Day was the greatest day of the year. In the Tyrian Enthronement Ritual on that day, the king of Tyre acted out the resurrection of the god Melcart by going with his retinue of priests and officials to a place east of the city. Then at sunrise, in the first moments of the New Year, he came with majestic procession, attended by hosts of worshippers, through the eastern portal of the temple and ascended the sacred throne. "In all this the king played the role of the god. The king was the god and the god was the king. And having played this role once . . . the king remained ever thereafter a divine being, a god, a god in human form, 'Epiphanes'" (J. Morgenstern, Journal of Biblical Literature LXXX: 69. See also J. M. in Vetus Testamentum 10:152-157.) That the king of Tyre considered himself a god is clearly pointed out in Ezekiel: "Son of man, say unto the prince of Tyrus, Thus saith the Lord God; Because thine heart is lifted up, and thou hast said, I am a God, I sit in the seat of God, in the midst of the seas; yet thou art a man, and not God . . ." (Ezekiel 28:2).

We want to emphasize, though, that there is no evidence whatever that an enthronement ritual (if there actually was one in Canaan) was ever copied in Israel. There was absolutely no concept of "divine kingship" in Israel at any time, although some scholars attempt to transpose that system on Israel.

Even at Ugarit an actual ritual text was found which improves the possibility of establishing parallels between Keret and the fall of Jericho. A. Rainey describes this text in Biblical Archaeologist Reader #3 ( p. 92), "References in ritual texts suggest that the king played some role in formal worship . . . The king is mentioned on a list of offerings to various gods on certain days which seem to have been accompanied by some chant or song . . . At the end of another such list he appears again, apparently to don a ritual costume and visit the dwelling (?) of the gods:

To the places of the gods he goes on foot
The king shall go on foot
Seven times to all of them.

Unfortunately, although large libraries of clay tablets have been found all over the near east, not a trace of a library has yet been found in Palestine. Only scattered tablets and portions of tablets have been found here and there. So, for the time being, the most we can know about the practices of Canaanite religion in the Promised Land will be learned from cult images and objects archaeologists find and from Canaanite religious and ritual texts found outside modern Israel.

Political Situation in Canaan at the Conquest

Canaan was a land of city-states, each a fortress with surrounding villages. During wars, everyone went into the fortress for defense (much as in medieval Europe). The elevated castle-fortresses were mostly small places of only a few acres. It might be postulated that the king and his retinue, with some servants, lived in the fortress; the rest of the populace lived out on the land.

Where the situation is known, each city-state was ruled by a "divine" king, "son" of the patron-god of that city. He was also high priest - making the deadliest form of absolutism, a religious state. Periodical feasts and festivals were all in support of this system. So was the "art," architecture and city-planning.

God had prepared Canaan for conquest. Their very independence of each other's cities made coalitions difficult, and when they tried to unite against Israel they failed to win. After the Conquest, "Canaanite feudalism with 'lord and serf' passed away and a form of democracy with its 'first chosen from among equals' took its place. The house of the patrician disappeared and the house of the common man replaced it" (W.F. Albright, The Excavation of Bethel, p. 48).

Moon God Chief Canaanite Deity at Conquest

Astronauts have walked on the moon, and we have seen its surface on our TV sets. Yet the moon was regarded with mystery from earliest times. Clever men studied its (and other solar bodies') movements and used the knowledge as magic to control superstitious populaces (possibly the purpose of Stonehenge). Ancient cities were dedicated to moon-worship, having the moon as their patron-god. One such was Ur in Mesopotamia (with "Nanna" as patroness). Even in Mesopotamia, the moon was the chief astral deity at this time, according to Thorkild Jacobsen (The Treasures of Darkness, New Haven: Yale Press, 1976, pp. 121-7).

Early in Canaanite religion, the male moon-god, "Yerach," was the chief god of the pantheon. And the female sun-god, "Shamash," was his cohort. Later, these were changed to Baal and Ashteroth. "To judge from Canaanite place-names of the earliest period, such as Jericho and Beit-Yerach, as well as from Non-Semitic personal and place names of the 2nd millenium BC, the cult of the sun-god and moon-god (or goddess) was at its height in very early times and steadily declined thereafter" (W.F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, p. 92, also p. 83).

In Palestine there seem to have been two cities associated with moon worship, both "facing" east. One was Beit-Yerach ("Temple of the Moon") on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. The other was Jericho with the broad Jordan valley extending eastward. The former ceased to be inhabited by ca. 2000 BC. But Jericho was a leading city in Joshua's time (1400 BC) and likely the seat of moon worship then ("Jericho" coming from yerach, the moon). If the moon was the chief of the Canaanite pantheon, it would be a very strategic city indeed!

John Gray supports this when he notes, "The worship of the Moon (Yerach) and his consort Nikkal (Mesopotamian Nin-gal) and the sun goddess (Shepesh) is attested at Ras Shamra (Ugarit) both in mythological texts and in offering-lists." And even in the Land of Israel, "The basalt figure of a seated god adjacent to a sculpture of hands upraised to a crescent and disc in the Late Bronze Age temple at Hazor probably depicts the Moon-god" (The Canaanites, p. 125).

Israel Needed New Evidence of Jehovah's Power

Why do we feel it is necessary to think of the conquest of Jericho as the overthrow of the religious system of the Canaanites, and thus a travesty of their "holy" things? Earlier, the plagues of Egypt had been lowered against the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12, Numbers 33:4). At the time of the Exodus the plagues demonstrated Jehovah's sovereignty over all other gods. A generation which had not witnessed those plagues now needed reassurance of Jehovah's supremacy over the gods of Canaan. (All but three men among those who had witnessed the plagues, died in the wilderness.) While in the wilderness, Israel was given explicit instructions not to serve the gods of Canaan, to make no covenants with them, and to break their images. In other words, destroy the system (Exodus 23:24, 32, 33; Deuteronomy 7:23-26). And Joshua was promised that as Jehovah had done to kings Og and Sihon, so He would do to "all the kingdoms" where he was going (Deuteronomy 3:21).

Following the fall of the Moon-City and its god-king, Israel would have confidence to go and take all the kings of Canaan. They would be "bread" for them (Numbers 14:9). Psalm 2 is a good illustration of God's purposes here in that God, in this Psalm, mocks the rebellion of the heathen. So it will be fitting for Israel to obey the Lord in a manner that will mock the highest and holiest ritual of the Canaanite year at the chief place of worship of their chief god, the Moon.

The Depravity of the Canaanites

To understand why Jehovah told Israel to wipe out the Canaanites, one needs to understand Canaanite religion and customs.

At the heart of Canaanite religion was sex in all its perversions. The land was polluted with indescribable immorality. They were hopelessly lost and incurable. To illustrate:

And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord. Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith; neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion. Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations are defiled, which I cast out before you. And the land is defiled; therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and mine ordinances, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, who were before you, and the land is defiled); That the land spew not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spewed out the nations that were before you. (Leviticus 18:21-28)

On the sacrifice of children:

Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto demons, And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. (Psalms 106:37,38)
When the Lord thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, where thou goest to possess them, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their land, Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after they are destroyed from before thee, and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? Even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God; for every abomination to the Lord, which He hateth, have they done unto their gods. For even their sons and their daughters they have burned in the fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:29-31.)

For the incredible corruption of the gods, see Albright's Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, (pp. 76-77).

The Canaanites lost no time in substituting carnality for the grace of the Babylonian originals. Both in these plaques and in later ones the female organs are accentuated in various ways, nearly all of them more direct and less restrained than was true of Babylonia . . . . The lily and serpent are characteristically Canaanite; the former indicates the charm and grace of the bearer - in a word, her sex appeal - and the latter symbolizes her fecundity. It was only natural that the Phoenicians would attribute to Astarte's two sons, named (according to Philo) "Sexual Desire" (Pothos) and "Sexual Love" (Eros). . . . At its best there can be little doubt that there was a certain amount of aesthetic charm about Canaanite literary and artistic portrayal of these goddesses; in the Keret Epic, for instance, the hero's betrothed is poetically described as having "the charm of Anath" and "the beauty of Astarte." At its worst however, the erotic aspect of their cult must have sunk to extremely sordid depths of social degradation. Besides being patronesses of sexual life these interesting ladies were also goddesses of war. Anath or Astarte is depicted in Egyptian representations of the New Empire as a naked woman astride a galloping horse, brandishing shield and lance in her outflung hands. In the Baal Epic there is a harrowing description of Anath's thirst for blood. For a reason which still escapes us she decided to carry out a general massacre: "With might she hewed down the people of the cities, she smote the folk of the seacoast, she slew the men of the sunrise (east)." After filling her temple (it seems) with men, she barred the gates so that none might escape, after which "she hurled chairs at the youths, tables at the warriors, footstools at the men of might." The blood was so deep that she waded in it up to her knees - nay, up to her neck. Under her feet were human heads, above her human hands flew like locusts. In her sensuous delight she decorated herself with suspended heads, while she attached hands to her girdle. Her joy at the butchery is described in even more sadistic language: "Her liver swelled with laughter, her heart was full of joy, the liver of Anath (was full of) exultation (?)." Afterwards Anath "was satisfied" and washed her hands in human gore before proceeding to other occupations. (See all of pp. 68-94 for fuller details.)

In Mitchel Dahoud's commentary on the Psalms he says,

The immorality of the Canaanite gods, richly illustrated by the Ras Shamra (Ugaritic) tablets, is contrasted with the absolute holiness of Jahweh, in whose sight even the stars are not pure. An unpublished Ugaritic tablet graphically describes the excesses of El, the head of the Canaanite Pantheon, while he is at table. As a result of his intemperance El ends up wallowing "in his excrement and his urine." (Psalms 1, pp. 30-31.)

It seems a marvel that some scholars claim the Hebrews borrowed their concept of God and religion from the Canaanites around them. When they make those claims, one wonders what they think when they read Canaanite literature. To say that Moses (or later "redactors") simply refined the tales of the Canaanites, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians seems farfetched, to say the least.

The first chapter of Romans vs. 18f. describes these early people. One might wonder why Jehovah spared them so long. If the gods to whom they "looked up" were doing these things, how low must the people have fallen? Can any man rise higher than his gods, especially when he has fabricated those gods in his own mind and described them in his literature?

The Legend of Keret and Jericho

Canaanite libation vase
Canaanite libation vase depicting a serpent and a dragon. Serpents were used to symbolize fertility.

Let us now look briefly at the Legend of Keret. It is the epic tale of a king who needs an heir to the throne. As Keret weeps in his chamber, El appears to him in a dream and gives him instructions to sacrifice, and then take an expedition to get his wife and, through her, have a son. First Keret provides a great feast for all the people. Then the expedition sets out in order: men of war first, the people following, then the trumpeters last. All are warned to keep quiet until the last day.

Two six-day intervals are recorded in the epic, with the climax on the seventh day in both periods. A tremendous noise is made at dawn on the seventh day, just before arriving at the city (Udum) of the future queen (Hurriya). Two messengers are sent to dicker with Pabel, king of Udum, for his daughter. Pabel offers silver and gold in place of her. But Keret complains that this will not help solve the problem of an heir. Finally Pabel consents, Keret gets a wife, takes her home and has a son. There is more to the epic, but this seems to be the heart of it.


Probably some interesting parallels have already been noticed between the Legend of Keret and the fall of Jericho. Now let us consider the Biblical account.

The city and king of Jericho were "given" to Joshua (6:2). The promise to Joshua had been that he would take the kings of the land, "because Jehovah, the God of Israel, fought for Israel" (Deuteronomy 3:21; 7:24; Joshua 10:24-25, 42: 11:12). The complete list of the 31 kings which were defeated is found in Joshua 12:9-24.

Why is the emphasis on destroying the kings? The answer may be that to kill a "divine" king was to kill the "son of god," thus paralyzing a city's religio-political system. For Israel, it was evidence that their God was real and sovereign.

The time was the beginning of the New Year (Joshua 4:19), time for the New Year's Festival. "Ba'al was enthroned on the 14th day of Hiyan in the spring [!]" (Fisher and Knutson, Journal of Near Eastern Studies #28:166). Compare this date with the dates in Joshua and it is clear they refer to the same time. In other words, it may be possible that the Canaanites in Jericho were ready to perform, or may have just finished an annual spring ritual involving a "divine" king.

Then Israel held a great feast - the Passover! (This is, for the Israelites, a time when they celebrate God's deliverance from Egypt; it has traditionally been a season of deliverance, a time for messiahs to arise and God to deliver them; Jews today look to this time as a likely one for the coming of the Messiah.) Two spies were sent to see whether the city could be taken and they were sheltered by Rahab, who apparently was already a believer.

After the spies' returned, the people began to march with an order similar to that of the Legend of Keret (Joshua 6:9). Once a day for six days, seven times on the seventh. There seems to be a consensus on the part of a number of scholars that these events are too similar to be just coincidences. T. Gaster (in Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament. NY: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 412) says, "The Biblical writer is modeling his account upon a ritual ceremony. . ." (his emphasis). "Keret was instructed to let six days go by before making his demands on Pabil . . . Similarly the Israelites marched around the city on each of six days before they took the city" (C. Pfeiffer, The Journal of Hebraic Studies, Vol. 1:2, 1970, p. 11). "It is apparent . . . that the Ugaritic author adopted his scheme from Mesopotamian literature, which was well known in Ugarit" (S.E. Loewenstamm, "The Seven Day Unit in Ugaritic Epic Literature," IEJ, 15:3. 123, 1965.)

All kept quiet until the last moment. Then, with trumpets, there was a great shout and the walls collapsed. The king was slaughtered with the people. What was more, God told Israel not to touch the silver and gold; it was His. (It may, or may not, be coincidental that Pabel had tried to barter with it.) Aachan lost all by stealing some of it along with a Babylonian robe (adereth shinar). (Was this a priest's ceremonial garment?)

Finally, Joshua cursed Jericho saying, "Cursed be the man before (in defiance of?) the Lord, that riseth up and buildeth this city of Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it." Hiel foolishly disobeyed and the curse was fulfilled (1 Kings 16:34). Was he trying to revive divine kingship?

To summarize some of the parallels:

    Joshua 6:   Keret A  
1.   No one went out or came in   lines 111-113  
2.   King and mighty men "given" to Joshua      
9.   Men of war first   86-88;  
    All the people   85-104  
    Trumpets   92-93  
10.   No noise until the last day   116, 119-120  
14.   Six day march   106-108  
15.   Early on the seventh day   118  
    Seven times on seventh day   114-115 (two seven day periods mentioned)
16.   Shout   119-122 (Engnell: "sham fight," p. 168)
19.   Gold and silver are "devoted"   126-127,138-139  
25.   Rahab saved (Israel "got" a woman)   142-153  
    She became mother of a king   152-153  
    She had saved the two messengers   124-125,136  


Parallels between the Legend of Keret and the Jericho story seem so remarkable that we wonder if this may suggest an explanation for the unusual actions at Jericho. That is, that the Israelites were mocking the chief god of Canaan at the height of Jericho's most important annual religious rituals.

One final parallel may be the most interesting of all. It confirms the unity of Old and New Covenants (the Tanakh and the B'rit Hadasha). This parallel is the salvation of Rahab. She had hidden the spies, and in that sense one could say they "got" her. When Jericho fell, Rahab was saved and, later, through her, Israel got a son - for Rahab was the ancestor of King David. Even more, David's son was Messiah. Much later Rahab's name appears in Jesus' genealogy (Matthew 1:5). The name "Jesus" (the same name as Joshua who fought this battle at Jericho and led this mockery of the Canaanite pageant), means "Jehovah Who Saves." Once again a Messiah, a Son of God, arises out of Passover through Rahab and later makes the New Covenant (B'rit Hadashah) at Passover.

The Lord will not be mocked! He had promised to send his "Angel" before the Israelites (Exodus 23:20,23; 33:2). And He did. As "Prince of the Lord of Hosts" (Joshua 5:13-15), He gave total victory to those who trusted Him. He admits no rivals - Jericho FELL! He made it clear that all other gods are nothing more than figments of man's imagination. Ignoring Him, or refusing to surrender to and serve Him, will inevitably lead to judgment and destruction.

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© 2003 David Livingston