Music in ancient warfare usually serves to stimulate, encourage, and organize one’s own fighters or to frighten those of the enemy (see e.g. for Greece, West 1992, 29-30, and for Rome, Wille 1967, 75- 104). Occasionally, however, we find texts in which music is directed towards inanimate objects, especially city walls. This paper will deal with one of the earliest accounts of such an occurrence, the report on the destruction of Jericho’s city walls as described in the sixth chapter of the biblical book of Joshua.
Historical and archaeological evidence casts doubts on the historicity of the passage, but my principal objective is to consider, on the literary level, how we are supposed to understand the crumbling of Jericho’s walls at the sound of ram horns blown by priests and the shouting of the people of Israel surrounding the city. The role of music here takes a middle ground between similar scenarios. On the one hand, we find, for instance, the razing of walls at Athens in 405 BC where pipe players (aulētridai) only accompany the actual labor, which is carried out by the inhabitants of the Peloponnesus (see Xenophon Hell. 2.2.23). On the other hand, there are tales of magic where musical sound by itself facilitates physical movement such as the self-construction of city walls (e.g. Thebes, see Euripides Phoen. 822-824). In the case of Jericho, the relationship between sound and physical movement is not so easy to determine.
Textual analysis and the review of varying interpretations from commentators both ancient and modern provide a rather complex picture. Comparing the Hebrew Masoretic text with the Septuagint version provides some valuable insights, which point to shifting interests within the history of redaction (see Dozeman 2015). Still, the narrative permits various possible causes of the walls’ destruction: was it the increased blowing of the shofar horns (so Origen and Cassiodorus), or the sudden shouting of the people, or the sevenfold circling of the Ark of the Covenant around the city (so Augustine), or the faith and obedience of the people (so Hebrews 11:30-31 and Origen elsewhere)? Present-day scholars either align with the previous explanations or add others, such as the possibility of an earthquake (Boling and Wright 1982), or they believe that the biblical authors attribute the event to divine intervention demonstrating God’s power in support of the people of Israel under their new leader Joshua (e.g. Dozeman 2015, who reads the destruction of Jericho in its final version as a public experience of theophany).
I shall argue that the narrative’s ambiguity regarding the primary cause for the destruction of Jericho’s walls confirms the soteriological intention of the account. All of the components mentioned by the text are relevant for the successful outcome, because only the exact fulfillment of God’s commandment will elicit the divine response of ratifying his part of the covenant. The final blowing of horns constitutes the crucial trigger for the whole people to manifest by clamor their adhesion to and trust in their God and Savior. This interpretation sets the biblical passage apart from either the accidental or magical- mythological employment of music as found in other sources of antiquity.
The Sounds of War