Chapter 8


The Conquest of Ai

    • The Lord told Joshua, “Don’t be afraid or discouraged. Take all of your fighting men with you and go attack Ai- I have given the king of Ai, the city, the land, and the people over to you. You are to deal with Ai and its king in the same way you dealt with Jericho and its king. However, you may keep the plunder and the livestock for yourselves. Set up an ambush behind the city.”

      • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible makes this important point, “Unlike other nations, who went to war to gain wealth, Israel served as God’s agent of judgment upon the Canaanites; the plunder and livestock were incidental.”

    • Guzik writes, “It is often the most difficult to regain lost ground such as Ai. When we have failed at some point in our Christian lives, we need to know how to get back on track…What is past is past. We must deal with it before God in repentance and dying to self, and then look forward to what He has for us right now…God wants us to use our failures in a good way, to use them as a foundation for great victory in the LORD.”

    • Guzik adds, “God allows them to keep the spoil from the city of Ai. How foolish the sin of Achan seems now! He could have had all his heart desired if he only waited on the LORD for it.”

    • So Joshua and all the fighting men set out for Ai. Joshua selected 30,000 of his best men and sent them out by night with the following orders: “Hide in ambush close behind the town and stay ready. The rest of the people and I will approach the city. When the people of Ai come out to oppose us like they did last time, we will run away. They will chase us, allowing us to draw them away from the city because they will think we are running away from them like we did before. While we are running from them, come out of ambush and take possession of the city, because the Lord your God has handed it over to you. Then, set the city on fire. I have given you your orders- do what the Lord has commanded.

    • Joshua sent them out and they went to the ambush site, between Bethel and Ai on the west side of Ai, and waited. But, Joshua stayed with the people that night. Early the next morning, Joshua roused the army and he and the elders marched in front of them to Ai. All the fighting men that were with him went close to the city and set up camp on the north side of Ai. There was a valley between them and the city. Joshua set about 5,000 men in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai. The forces were stationed like this: the main camp was north of the city and the rear guard to the west of the city. Joshua himself spent the night in the valley.

      • The wording of these passages causes some confusion. How many men were in the ambush between Bethel and Ai? 30,000 or 5,000? Were there two groups stationed in ambush numbering 30,000 and 5,000 respectively? Or, were the total troops 30,000 and 5,000 of those were sent to wait in ambush? Commentators take varying positions. I find the case presented by Professor Amos Ehrlich, who takes the most literal understanding of two separate ambush forces, to be quite compelling. The interested reader can refer to his article, “The Wars of Ai” for the details. I highly recommend viewing the article, if for no other reason than to see the incredible photography of the area paired with the biblical text describing the events. Dr. Ehrlicht actually lives near the site. This information pertaining to Ehrlicht is cited at the conclusion of the article:

Valley north of Ai photo via Ehrlicht’s article
        • Dr. Ehrlich is a 30 year resident of Pesagot. As a longtime student of the Bible and fluent in Hebrew, he is adept in translating Hebrew Scripture. He served a long time in the Israeli infantry during the wars; as a soldier he has experience in conceiving battle plans and using the local terrain to advantage. His home overlooks the site of Khirbet Nisya, referred to as Ai in this article; thus, he has had many years to ponder the biblical descriptions of the local geography, noting how they line up with descriptions in Scripture.”

    • As soon as the king of Ai saw the Israelites, he and the men of the city hurried, got up early, and went out to meet Israel in battle at the appointed place facing toward the desert plain. But, he didn’t know there was an ambush waiting behind the city. Joshua and the Israelites ran toward the wilderness, pretending to be beaten. All of Ai’s troops were called together to chase them and were led away from the city. The city was left wide open, there was not one man left in Ai or Bethel that didn’t pursue the Israelites.

      • ESV Archaeology Study Bible notes, “Bethel is suddenly part of the battle account, illustrating the close connection between the destructions of Ai and Bethel.”

      • However, the NLT Illustrated Study Bible does note that “some manuscripts lack or Bethel.”

      • Dr. Ehrlich writes (in the source linked above), “In the morning the sun would blind the eyes of the Israelites in the west, interfering with their ability to fight. The people of Bethel (El Bireh) see the flight from the northern mountain but don’t see the big ambush of 30,000 men, which is hiding near their fields but not near their city. They join the chase. The rest goes according to plan.”

    • Then the Lord told Joshua, “Point the sword in your hand toward Ai, because I will hand the city over to you.” When Joshua pointed his sword, the men in ambush quickly arose, ran into the city, captured it, and immediately set it on fire.

      • Various translations render Joshua’s weapon differently. The ESV Archaeology Study Bible explains why, “The term kidon…is a rare word found in only three contexts (here in the battle for Ai, as one of Goliath’s weapons [1 Samuel 17:6, 45] and in poetic/prophetic texts [Job 41:29; Jeremiah 50:42]). It is translated by most scholars as either javelin/spear or sword. The Septuagint uses a variety of Greek words that mean javelin/spear, burning weapon, sword/dagger, and shield…Based on its context in the Bible, cognates found in other languages, and archaeology, this is probably the typical Near Eastern sickle sword common in the second millennium BC.”

    • When the men of Ai looked back, they saw the smoke of the burning city rising into the sky, and they had nowhere to tun to escape. The Israelites they had been chasing toward the wilderness now turned toward them. When Joshua and the Israelites saw that the ambush had succeeded and the smoke rising from the city, they turned and attacked the men of Ai. The Israelites from the ambush came out of the city, so the men of Ai were trapped between Israelite forces from the front and rear. The Israelites killed them all. There were no survivors and none escaped. However, the captured the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua.

    • When the Israelites had finished killing everyone that had chased them out into the open country, they went back and killed everyone who was left inside the city. The entire population of Ai was killed, men and women, a total of 12,000. Joshua did not lower his outstretched sword until he had completely destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. In accordance with the command that the Lord had given to Joshua, the Israelites only kept the livestock and plunder for themselves.

    • Joshua burned the city of Ai and left it a permanent mound of ruins, as it is to this day. He hung the king of Ai on a tree until evening. They took his body down from the tree at sunset, as Joshua had commanded, threw his body at the entrance gate of the city and piled a large heap of rocks over it, which remains to this day.

      • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “This treatment of Ai’s commander resembles that of the five Amorite kings in 10:26-27. This is not the mode of execution, but the treatment of the corpse after execution used on enemy leaders, especially those whom the victor wishes to use as an example.”

Joshua Renews the Covenant

      • Before we head into this section of the text (8:30-35), I’d like to make you aware that it could very well be placed out of historical order. I’ll include a couple of competing views and urge the reader to weigh the arguments. Dr. Michael Heiser does an excellent job of summing up the facts:

        • There are two other text versions of the book of Joshua witnessed by manuscripts at Qumran. The ceremony at Ebal is in a different place in all three versions of Joshua! In the Masoretic text (MT), which our Bibles follow, it’s at 8:30-35, which has befuddled scholars for a very long time since it makes absolutely no sense in terms of the geography and military strategy. In the Dead Sea Scroll material of Joshua, it is located just before the observances of circumcision and Passover, between 5:1 and 5:2, which makes perfect sense. In the LXX, it is found just after the notice of a Canaanite coalition that came against the Israelites, after 9:2.”

      • What does Heiser mean when he says that the placement in the MT makes no sense geographically?

        • Unless you know the geography, you don’t see the problem. The location of Mount Ebal is 70 miles from Ai/Jericho!  Why on earth would Joshua march the nation 70 miles? Not only would this disrupt the entire military strategy, but it makes no sense to go to Ebal AFTER beginning the conquest, when Moses had instructed the covenant renewal when they entered the land.”

      • Heiser also includes additional evidence that the MT does not preserve the accurate placement in his citation of Dave Howard:

        • At this juncture in the text, one of the most important divergences from the Masoretic manuscript traditions upon which our Bible translations are based is found in the Qumran scrolls. In one short fragment, portions of Josh 8:34-35 and an editorial transition not found in any other extant Bible manuscript immediately precede Josh 5:2. The portion is very fragmentary, but it is almost certain that all of 8:30-35 preceded 5:2. This shows a radically different order and arrangement from the majority Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible upon which almost all Bible translations are based today. . . . Thus, the evidence from Qumran that Joshua and the Israelites fulfilled these instructions immediately after the crossing is very important. This evidence is buttressed by Josephus’s account (the first-century Jewish historian), who mentions the building of an altar immediately after the crossing. If the original manuscripts of Joshua did have this covenant renewal ceremony between 5:1 and 5:2, then this shows the Israelites attempting to obey Moses’ commands as closely as possible. This fits in very well with the following two episodes in chap. 5: the ceremonies of circumcision and Passover. Both of these (or all three) show the continuing attention in the book’s early chapters to the command-fulfillment pattern we have observed and to the Israelites’ ritual proper preparation before they began their military encounters (NAC, Joshua, p. 145).”

      • Now, while I am not completely in agreement with Heiser on his definition of “inspiration” of Scripture, I do think these points on the placement of this section of Joshua are extremely valid and should not be ignored. Personally, I do not believe this upsets a more conservative view of inspiration (as Heiser indicates- although he may have a more extreme view in mind than what I am considering conservative). We have already acknowledged that Joshua was likely edited in some form or fashion by a later individual due to the frequent use of etiology (phrases like “to this day”) which clearly refer to a later time when the book was being compiled in its present form.

      • The ESV Archaeology Study Bible reconciles this information in the following way, “The text of 8:34-35 is found before 5:2 in the earliest manuscript (Dead Sea Scroll 4QJos). In the Septuagint, 8:30-35 follows 9:1-2, which is similar to 5:1. Some critical scholars propose that 8:30-35 was a later addition. The various biblical manuscripts illustrate that the books of Joshua and Judges collated various historical accounts into a unified narrative…Since this account of the covenant renewal is a religious ceremony, it was placed near the front of the account of the conquest. It is apparent that that this event took place after the conquest of the land, especially as the text mentions sojourner as well as native born among those at Schechem. In the written account of these events, we have both narratives preserved in the biblical manuscripts- the original account placing the event in its historical timeline and this account preserving the ancient Near Eastern genre of ‘conquest account.’ The author of Joshua wants to place all covenant texts at the beginning of the account of the conquest. It makes sense then to collate circumcision, the first Passover, the first battle, covenant cleansing of community sin from the battle of Ai, and the covenant renewal at the beginning of the account of the conquest of the land. Most modern readers are not accustomed to this method of ancient writing.”

        • My note: I don’t agree that the presence of sojourners makes it “apparent” that these events took place after the conquest. See the NLT Illustrated Study Bible note at the end of the chapter notes which defines “foreigner” differently than the commentators of the ESV Archaeology Study Bible appear to.

    • Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses had commanded the Israelites, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses: an altar of uncut stones, stones that have not been shaped by iron tools. Then they sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings on it to the Lord. And there, in the sight of all the people, he copied the law of Moses, which he had written.

Photo of altar on Mount Ebal via
      • The ESV Archaeology Study Bible writes, “Just north of the city of Schechem in the Samarian highlands, archaologists made an important discovery on Mount Ebal in the late 1980’s…Archaeologists believed this settlement to be an Israelite cultic sanctuary…a large rectangular structure measuring 24 by 29 feet was built of unhewn stones, with two large rooms attached. The excavators determined that this rectangular structure was an altar, proposing that it was the very altar God commanded the Israelites to build on Mount Ebal once they entered the Land of Promise (Deuteronomy 27:4-8).”

      • The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible includes information on the same archaeological discovery with an additional note, “The main animals killed there (for sacrifice) were cattle, sheep, and a local species of deer; no pigs were slaughtered at the site.”

      • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “Joshua fulfilled Moses’ command to set up stones and coat them with plaster (Deuteronomy 27:2-8). After the plaster hardened, the instructions (Hebrew torah) would permanently be on public display at the first location where Israel formally worshiped the Lord after entering the land. The public display of laws occurred in other places; the best known example is the famous Code of Hammurabi, which that king set up in Babylon.”

    • All of Israel- both native born and foreigners- with their elders, officers, and judges stood in two groups. One group stood in front of Mount Gerizim and the other group stood in front of Mount Ebal. Each group faced the Levitical priests carrying the ark of the Lord’s covenant, which were between the two groups. This was all done according to the commands that the Lord’s servant Moses had given to them earlier for blessing the people of Israel.

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible adds, “The town of Shechem, located between Mount Gerizim to the south and Mount Ebal to the north, guarded the pass between the two mountains…With every Israelite involved and the Ark positioned in the valley between the two groups, this ceremony was a promise to keep the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai.”

    • Then, Joshua read aloud to the entire assembly of Israel- men, women, children, and foreigners among them- every single word written in the book of the law, blessings and curses included. There was not one word left out of all that Moses had commanded.

      • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “OT religion was not just for the men of Israel; the entire assembly included the women and children. The foreigners who lived among the Israelites included people who came out of Egypt with Israel in the Exodus (Exodus 12:38; 48-49). These converts had accepted the Lord as their God and joined Israel when they say the great things God had done for Israel.”