The book of Joshua continues the history of the Hebrew people that was written by historians in King David's court. The central story of the Hebrews, as presented in the biblical history, is their escape from slavery in Egypt. The Book of Exodus ends with the people of Israel camped at the shores of the Jordan River. Forty years previously, they had crossed the Red Sea, where Pharaoh's army was drowned. They have wandered in the Sinai desert for forty years before coming to this place. Moses, their leader, has died, and the new leader of the Hebrews is Joshua, son of Nun, who had been Moses' assistant.
According to the story, the land beyond the Jordan River was the Promised Land, land that had been given to the Hebrews by God. But even as the Hebrews prepared to cross the River and lay claim to the land, called Canaan, they knew it was not empty. People of other tribes and nations lived there.
The stories in the book of Joshua tell how the Hebrews conquered the people of Canaan and took their land for their kingdom. It was centuries between the time of the Exodus and the reign of David. Some of the stories are historically factual and others are legends and folktales. And they are nationalistic mythology, putting forth a narrative that says God ordained and supported the Hebrews' coming to power over all the cities and people of Canaan. Therefore, these self-aggrandizing legends depend, to some extent, on the dehumanization of the defeated Canaanites.
The story of the battle of Jericho is the tale of one of the first great battles of Israel's conquest of Canaan. Jericho was a large and important city in the Jordan River valley just west of the river. It was a walled city and no one could enter or leave, so the walls had to come down in order for the city to be conquered.
The story is dramatic, but morally ambiguous. The storyteller explains that Joshua and his troops are told that everything in the city belongs to God, and through God, to them. Joshua sends spies into the city to check it out, and when the King of Jericho becomes suspicious of the strangers, they are hidden by Rahab, a Canaanite woman. She is called a prostitute in the story, although scholars disagree about the translation. Regardless of her occupation, she helps the Hebrew spies, and in so doing, extracts a promise that she and her family will be spared in the coming battle.
Joshua's troops follow God's complicated orders and the walls of the city come tumbling down by non-violent means. It is an inspiring story of how a weaker force can defeat a stronger force through commitment and discipline.
But after the walls come down, the story becomes much more troubling. God requires every person, cattle, sheep, and donkey in the city to be put to death by Joshua's conquering army, with the exception of Rahab and her family, who are spared. All of the wealth of the city is taken by Joshua's army for God; they are not allowed to keep any for themselves. The care and specificity of the writers in including these details may indicate an additional purpose to the narrative. By saying that all the Canaanite residents of Jericho were killed, the story indicates that the Israelites were the ethnically pure descendants of the Hebrews in Egypt. They did not intermarry and have children with the Canaanite people. Through this story, they defend themselves against the charge that they were a plundering conquering people grown wealthy by taking the possessions of others.