Today we’ll be studying Joshua chapter 8. We’ll see The Destruction of Ai.
And of course, by dropping into the 8th chapter of this book, we’re assuming that we know what’s preceded us thus far. What have we seen so far in the book of Joshua?
In the first 2 chapters of this book we saw Joshua being encouraged to take leadership of Israel and take them into God’s promised land for them. What about chapers 3 and 4? That was where Joshua and all Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. What happened next in chapters 5 and 6? Well, what’s the first city that Israel captured in the land of Canaan? Jericho. That’s what we saw in those chapters. The conquest of Jericho. And then last time in chapter 7 what did we witness? Chapter 7 is sort of like the proverbial glue holding together the story of Jericho’s conquest with the story of Israel’s military activies regarding the city of Ai.
So chapters 5 through 8 are fairly closely related. Let’s think about it. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with Israel’s victory against Jericho. The Lord gave detailed commands to Joshua regarding Israel’s tactics and approach. And I believe that these tactics weren’t the “best practices” of those days. Right? They weren’t like the advised way to attack an enemy city, naturally. We have an ROTC program here at UW-Whitewater and at Maranatha Baptist University. No one is teaching those students in their military classes that to penetrate your enemy’s defenses all you need to do is just go around blowing trumpets for 7 days and that’ll do it! God gave Joshua these tactics, at least in part, to show that it wasn’t by their might or power or wisdom that they would win victories against their enemies. It was God’s invisible hand and outstretched arm that would win the victory.
So Israel defeats Jericho with God’s help. Then they just naturally move on to the next city on their way to where they’re headed. And Joshua in chapter 7 sends spies to scope out Ai. The spies return and tell him that only a few thousand troops are needed. This Ai is a small-time city. No need to have all the men of war go up against it. So Joshua (maybe?) and about 3,000 men from Israel go up and fight Ai… and they lose. But why? Achan took some stuff that God said Israel shouldn’t take. But shouldn’t God have warned his people?… I think he did. But he did so silently, not audibly. What should have warned Joshua that things weren’t the same as they were at Jericho? Well, where was God’s instructions? Where were the commanded tactics for conquering Ai like Joshua had received with Jericho? They didn’t come. The Lord was absolutely silent to Joshua.
Is it not terrifying when God is silent to us? It’s true that sometimes darkness veils his lovely face, as the song says. Behind dark clouds of harsh providence beams his loving and kind countenance toward those of us who are accepted in the Beloved one. But don’t let that reality dull you to the fact that God’s silence is meant to speak to you. And you would do well to do like Joshua did – no, don’t despair like he did. But seek the Lord. Fall before him. Plead his mercy and his son’s death on your behalf. He’s ready to make the matter known to you. And then make things right, like Israel did. And do you know what will happen? God won’t be distant. He’ll lead you with his righteous right hand. He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Draw near to God and he’ll draw near to you. So, let’s see God doing this again with Joshua in 8:1-2.
[8:1 ¶ And the LORD said unto Joshua, Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land: 2 And thou shalt do to Ai and her king as thou didst unto Jericho and her king: only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves: lay thee an ambush for the city behind it.]
Listen to those words of comfort. “Fear not.” “Don’t be dismayed.” “I have given into thy hand.” God is again with his people. They took care of the sin problem in their midst. And now he’s ready to work with them again.
Now, I want to point out a few things. First, whom did God say was supposed to go up against Ai? Joshua and all the people. That’s different from what Joshua did in his own strength, isn’t it? Joshua sent about 3,000 people up to Ai the first time. And there’s some question in my mind as to whether Joshua himself went up against Ai. I think he may have stayed behind. But God’s ways are different from ours, aren’t they? God says all the people go this time.
God also reveals that he’s given all of Ai into Joshua’s hand. And he says that Joshua will do to the king of Ai just as he did to the king of Jericho. Don’t tell me you don’t remember what happened to the king of Jericho! You don’t remember? Good. Because we weren’t actually told what happened to the king of Jericho when Israel invaded that city. So actually we’ll have to find out what Joshua and Israel did to the king of Jericho by watching what they do to Ai and its king later on in this passage. So stay tuned.
Now, do you remember what the Israelites were allowed to take when they attacked Jericho? Absolutely nothing. They had to kill and burn all living beings and give all the inanimate objects to the Lord. But what about with Ai? What could they take in Ai? They could actually take the spoil and the cattle this time. So that’s different. By the way, again, how could Joshua have known what was off-limits the first time he sent people to attack Ai? The Lord is the one who was calling the shots regarding what could and could not be taken by the Israelites for spoil. How Israel needed God’s direction! How we need his direction…
And lastly we just need to note the tactics involved in this attack. With Jericho, the battle tactic was to march around the city once a day for 6 days, march 7 times on the 7th day and blow 7 horns and shout. This time God mixes it up a little and has Joshua put men in ambush. The men were to lay in wait behind the city. We’ll see what side of the city that was on in just a little while.
So Joshua then takes what the Lord commanded him and he puts it into practice. Let’s read verses 3 through 9.
3 ¶ So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai: and Joshua chose out thirty thousand mighty men of valour, and sent them away by night. 4 And he commanded them, saying, Behold, ye shall lie in wait against the city, even behind the city: go not very far from the city, but be ye all ready: 5 And I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city: and it shall come to pass, when they come out against us, as at the first, that we will flee before them, 6 (For they will come out after us) till we have drawn them from the city; for they will say, They flee before us, as at the first: therefore we will flee before them. 7 Then ye shall rise up from the ambush, and seize upon the city: for the LORD your God will deliver it into your hand. 8 And it shall be, when ye have taken the city, that ye shall set the city on fire: according to the commandment of the LORD shall ye do. See, I have commanded you. 9 Joshua therefore sent them forth: and they went to lie in ambush, and abode between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai: but Joshua lodged that night among the people.
So Joshua and all the people start preparing to attack Ai. And how many men does Joshua choose to lie in wait behind Ai? 30,000! That’s a good bit more than the original 3,000 that went up against Ai at the beginning. And these are just the men lying in wait! Not to mention the rest who are with Joshua and will be going up to Ai with him. So, Joshua sends these 30,000 men away by night.
And actually, most of the verses we just read are Joshua’s conversation with these men he’s sending away under the cover of night. Before they leave he tells them how this is going to work. They’re going to hide themselves behind Ai. We learn that this is actually west of the city of Ai. The west side of Ai is considered its back part. So you’d assume that its front is which direction? East. We’ll consider whether that’s the case or not in a little while. So the 30,000 men go into hiding on the west of Ai between Ai and Bethel, which would have been northwest of Ai. And somehow 30,000 men are going to remain hidden there for a day or so. A number of Bible scholars have pointed to this unlikely event – hiding 30,000 men in between two cities. And they think this is unlikely to have actually happened. Some have even proposed that there are two descriptions of the conquest of Ai in this chapter and they’re contradictory or at least competing with one another. I don’t think we need to go that way. Listen, in the book of Joshua we’re not talking about what’s likely. We’re talking about what is possible. And with God, how many things are possible? Yeah, all things. The walls of Jericho falling was unlikely to have happened. This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. The Jordan River drying up is completely unbelievable… unless you believe that there is a God who created all things and sustains all things and can do whatever he wants in heaven and on earth. So, 30,000 men hiding between two cities is unlikely. But it is possible with God.
So these 30,000 were to lie in wait. Meanwhile, Joshua and the other Israelites were going to come to Ai and pretend to flee before them as they did the first time. When the people of Ai come out to chase the fleeing Israelites that’s when the ambush arises from their position and enters the city and immediately burns it with fire.
This is the Lord’s command, Joshua says. And it’s also Joshua’s command. “See I have commanded you” he says. With that authoritative message, the 30,000 depart to the west side of Ai and Joshua spends the night with the rest of the people. I assume this is still at their camp in Gilgal, near the Dead Sea.
Let’s see what happens on the next day. Verses 10 through 13.
[10 ¶ And Joshua rose up early in the morning, and numbered the people, and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. 11 And all the people, even the people of war that were with him, went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city, and pitched on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between them and Ai. 12 And he took about five thousand men, and set them to lie in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city. 13 And when they had set the people, even all the host that was on the north of the city, and their liers in wait on the west of the city, Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley.]
So, Joshua rises early in anticipation of the day’s battle. He and the people go up to Ai. Again, they’re starting at Gilgal which is at or below sea level. They’re traveling northwest into the hill country. They are literally “going up” – elevationally – just as the text says.
Now, verse 12 is a little confusing. Joshua already sent 30,000 men to lie in wait behind the city of Ai. But here it says he sent 5,000 men. Well, which is it? Some commentators have proposed that actually Joshua sent only 5,000 men and that the reference to 30,000 men previously is a scribal error. They say this would explain better how this number of men could be hidden for a day or two without being noticed. But there’s a problem with this. There’s no textual evidence of a scribal error here. Plus, I understand that hiding 5,000 men is going to be easier than hiding 30,000. But really, hiding 5,000 men I’m sure presents its own difficulties.
So, here’s what I think is happening in this section. Joshua orignally sent 30,000 men to hide behind Ai at night time. Then the next morning Joshua and all Israel go up to Ai from Gilgal. On the way, Joshua decides to send 5,000 more men to hide behind the city. Why send 5,000 more men? I’m really not sure. Maybe he saw that they didn’t need as many men fleeing as they needed men in ambush. But this is what happens.
Then Joshua and all Israel (minus now the 35,000 that are behind the city) come to the north side of Ai. North? I thought the front of Ai was on the east. I mean, its back was on the west. I’m not sure where the entrance to Ai was. It very well may have been on the east of the city. The text doesn’t say this isn’t the case. But Joshua and all Israel decided to camp on the north side of the city. That’s all we know. And there’s a valley on the north side of the city between Israel and Ai.
And lastly, when the 35,000 were settled on the west and the rest of Israel on the north, then Joshua went down into the valley and spent the night there. Did all Israel go with him? It doesn’t specifically say they did. It seems that he went down alone into the valley.
When the Israelites fought Jericho, do you remember what they met with as far as resistance? Israel really met with no resistance. Ai is a different story. For as small as they are, Ai proved to be fairly feisty. Let’s witness that in verses 14 through 17.
[14 And it came to pass, when the king of Ai saw it, that they hasted and rose up early, and the men of the city went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at a time appointed, before the plain; but he wist not that there were liers in ambush against him behind the city. 15 And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them, and fled by the way of the wilderness. 16 And all the people that were in Ai were called together to pursue after them: and they pursued after Joshua, and were drawn away from the city. 17 And there was not a man left in Ai or Bethel, that went not out after Israel: and they left the city open, and pursued after Israel.]
So the king of Ai wakes up and sees Israel again. So he gathers all his troops and they pursue Israel. And at this point, Israel is fleeing from before the Aiites (I saw that in a commentary this week) as they did before. But the secret is that there are Isralites behind the city! But, shhh, don’t tell the king of Ai! So Israel flees into the wilderness. The wilderness (or dessert) would have been east of Ai. So everyone is running to the east into the dessert. And the king of Ai wasn’t reserved about doing this. He sent not only all the people of his city after Israel. He also called up all the men in Bethel to join him and chase after the fleeing Israelites. And the result was that not a man was left in either of these two cities. In their zealous haste, they just all left and the city was wide open.
Hmm… Enemy cities left empty. Men in ambush near by. I wonder what happens next… Verses 18 through 23.
[18 ¶ And the LORD said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thine hand. And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand toward the city. 19 And the ambush arose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand: and they entered into the city, and took it, and hasted and set the city on fire. 20 And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and, behold, the smoke of the city ascended up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that way: and the people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon the pursuers. 21 And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city, and that the smoke of the city ascended, then they turned again, and slew the men of Ai. 22 And the other issued out of the city against them; so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side: and they smote them, so that they let none of them remain or escape. 23 And the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua.]
How did the men in ambush even see Joshua lifting up his spear? Have you ever wondered that? Because here’s the situation geographically. Joshua and Israel start off in the valley north of Ai. The men in ambush are on the west side of the city. Then apparently Joshua and Israel flee eastward into the wilderness. And then at some point Joshua raises his spear and the people behind the city can see it and take it as their cue to enter the city of Ai and set it on fire. Here’s my theory. Remember the mention of the valley to the north of Ai? Well, I’m not sure how deep that valley was or how high the land was on either side of that valley. But could it be that Joshua got up onto the hill on the north side of that valley so that the folks on the west of the city could see him? It’s possible. Perhaps this is why Israel didn’t start the fight on the east of the city where perhaps the gate to the city was. If Joshua was on the east of the city, the people on the west would have had a very difficult time seeing him.
In verse 26, which we haven’t read yet, we’re told that Joshua didn’t let his hand down for the entire battle. And that’s given as the reason for Israel’s victory. Does this scenario remind you of another battle scene in the Old Testament? Remember when Amalek (I’ll just mention one more time that he’s the anscestor of Haman!) came and fought against Israel after they left Egypt? At that time Joshua was actually the one leading the battle against Amalek. And what was Moses doing? He was up on a hill holding up the rod of God. As he kept his arms up Israel won. When he let his arms down, Israel started losing. And now Moses’ replacement, Joshua is in the place of his old mentor. And now he’s the one holding up the spear and seeing his people win a victory.
And isn’t it amazing again what we’re seeing here in a battle scene? It’s not military strength or ingenious man-made tactics that win the battle. God does give them tactics and plans to attack the city and they are pretty ingenious. But ultimately God sees fit to use something as typically powerless as a raised spear to win the victory. If this battle was just men against other men, that spear should be used to thrust people through, not held in the air. But the battle is the Lord’s.
Now, this is one exciting scene, isn’t it? Joshua raises the spear. The men in ambush come out and enter the city and burn it with fire. Then the fleeing Israelites see the fire and turn back against the Aiites. The men of Ai must be completely confused at this point. They look back and see their city on fire. And that’s not all. Men are issuing out of their burning city and they’re not friendly. So Ai finds itself in the middle of Israelites. And all the men of Ai are slaughtered. Except for the king of Ai. Remember, we’re still waiting to figure out what happens to him. And when we figure out what happened to him we’ll also know (at least generally) what happened to the king of Jericho.
Now, the Israelites aren’t quite finished with Ai yet. Let’s read verses 24 through 29.
[24 ¶ And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. 25 And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. 26 For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. 27 Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua. 28 And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day. 29 And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcase down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.]
We have a few things to mention here. First, you maybe thought that once Israel destroyed all the men of Ai in the field and in the wilderness that that was the end of Ai. After all, the text gave us the impression that not a person was left in Ai. But the text just actually says that there wasn’t a man left. In other words, there were no men of war left in the city to defend it. Were there older men there? Possibly. Were there women? Yes, definitely. Children? They’re not mentioned specifically. But you can be pretty sure that anywhere there are men and women together, there will be children. And so these are the people still in the city that’s at least partially burning. And they’re the ones whom Israel destroys after killing the soldiers in the field.
The Israelites kill all the people according to God’s command. Likewise, they take the spoil. And that’s OK this time. And finally we see what the Israelites do to the king of Ai. They hang him. But they don’t leave his body on the tree over night. That would violate the command of God. So they take his body down from the tree and throw it into the gate of the burned city and they heap stones over his body. This is similar to what they did to Achan. And we didn’t know, but this is actually the kind of treatment that the king of Jericho received.
So, Israel entered Canaan. They took Jericho. They took Ai. And now they’ll go perhaps 20 miles north of Ai to a place where they have business to attend to. Let’s finish the chapter with verses 30 through 35.
[30 ¶ Then Joshua built an altar unto the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal, 31 As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel. 33 And all Israel, and their elders, and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, as well the stranger, as he that was born among them; half of them over against mount Gerizim, and half of them over against mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them.]
This is an event that Moses commanded Joshua and all Israel several times. When they came into the land they need to find Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal and pronounce the blessings and curses for keeping or breaking the Law. Joshua was also supposed to write the Law on stones and recite it in front of Israel.
So, we’re at the end of the first 8 chapters of the book of Joshua. I took note of Pastor Fuller’s Wednesday night Bible Doctrines message. He encouraged us several times to read the Bible looking for God’s character and what’s true of him. Let’s try to practice that with the stories of Jericho and Ai in Joshua. What have we seen about God in this section?
We could point to so many things. Let me mention just a few. First, God keeps his promises. He promised Israel this land that they just entered. He promised it to Abraham hundreds of years prior to giving it to his descendants. God’s promise might seem slow to happen. But the Lord always keeps his promises. Not just to his people in the Old Testament. But to you, too.
And the opposite side of that coin is that God keeps his promises of punishment for disobedience. Remember Achan. Remember the failure God’s people experienced because of his sin. God doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished. We are thankful he’s punished his own son for our sins. But disobedience is still serious to the Lord, even (and especially) when it comes from his children. As New Testament believers, we should be comforted by the fact that where sin abounds, grace much more abounds. But we also need to take the advice from the apostle Paul that we shouldn’t continue in sin so that grace may increase. How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
So sin does bring consequences. And more often than not they are quite unpleasant. But what did we see today in chapter 8? We saw that once the sin is dealt with, God is happy to give his people victory. God is profuse in his assistance to his people. He really does want to bless. But sin gets in the way and prevents his blessings. Blessings that our God would otherwise be quick to show us.
Let’s get ready for next week. If Israel caused fear in the hearts of the citizens of Canaan by simply crossing the Jordan River, how do you think the inhabitants are feeling now? Well, we’ll see some more fear. Have you noticed though how many ways that fear has been manifested thus far? Jericho? They closed everything up and hid. Ai? They came out and attacked. And we’ll see yet another reaction in our next lesson – deception – with the Gibeonites.