Israel's failure in its first assault upon Ai was the result of sin in the camp. One soldier had, in the previous assault upon Jericho, disobeyed God's command not to take plunder from the city. As a result, he robbed the whole nation of God's help and blessing when they went to war again, and they suffered a humiliating defeat, with the loss of 36 lives. As we pointed out, the lesson for the church today is that it cannot hope to succeed in its war against powers of darkness holding the lost in bondage unless it purges itself of all sin the camp. Only a pure church can be a victorious church. But Israel discovered the reason for their loss and, being zealous to find God's favor again, disposed of the ill-gotten spoil and removed the sinner from their midst. The treacherous soldier, Achan, and his whole family were put to death.
Now Israel was ready to mount another attack on the city of Ai. It was urgent to move quickly lest the news of Israel's defeat reach the surrounding nations of Canaan and embolden them to unite and swarm ferociously upon the discouraged tribes.
Now the Lord spoke to Joshua again. He saw this servant as someone who had just learned a hard lesson—that the price of success is perfect obedience to God's direction. Skipping just one detail of his marching orders is dangerous.
In two ways Joshua was a changed man. One way was good; the other was bad. The good effect of failure was to make him more humble. The bad was to rekindle fear. To show His approval of Joshua's renewed humility, God addressed Him in a loving manner full of reassurances. To deal with the fear, God reemphasized that obedience is the path of certain triumph. He repeated the encouraging words that He spoke back when Joshua took command: "Fear not, neither be thou dismayed" (cf. Josh. 1:9). And to further build the man's confidence, He added that victory at the city of Ai would be as complete as it was at the city of Jericho. Yet there would be one difference. The people would be permitted to keep whatever spoil they could find.
The Lord also gave Joshua a plan of attack. They were to divide their forces into two contingents. One would attack the city frontally. The other would lie in ambush beside the city.
Joshua did not delay to implement God's directions. He immediately arose from his place in the middle of night and mustered his troops. Now he chose out a much larger force to attack Ai. Instead of three thousand, he would use thirty thousand, including "mighty men of valor." From these he selected a small fraction amounting to only five thousand and dispatched them to station themselves near Ai before the coming of dawn. The city gate was on the north side, but they gathered on the west side, between Ai and its close neighbor, the city of Bethel. No doubt all the residents of both cities had by now joined together within Ai for mutual defense. After marching the ten miles from Jericho to the new target of attack, the contingent of three thousand settled down as close as possible to the west side of the city walls and went into hiding by taking whatever cover was offered by the countryside.
Before they departed, Joshua told them their role in the coming battle. They were to lie near the city, keeping themselves unseen, while Joshua and the main force of soldiers came against the gated entrance of the city on its north side. Joshua knew that as before, the defenders would respond with aggressive counterattack, flooding out of the city to meet Israel in the open field. To encourage this foolhardy rush away from a good defensive position, Joshua may have led into their view a force that seemed no larger than the three thousand who attacked earlier. Joshua informed the ambush party of five thousand that as the Canaanites were streaming out of their city, he would order his men to retreat. Indeed, they would pretend to fly away in fear, so that the men of Ai would give chase. That would be the signal for the ambush to rise up and seize the city, then to set it on fire.
After the ambushers left to take up positions, the rest of Israel's army lay down to sleep. The narrative at this point appears condensed. A causal reading might suggest that the attack came the next day, but it is more likely that the next day was devoted to marching and setting up camp. At the head of the troops went Joshua and the elders of the people. Upon arrival, they pitched their tents north of the city, across the valley running below the city gate. The place chosen was designed to make Israel's army as conspicuous as possible. It was apparently twilight before all arrangements were completed, with the forces north and west fully staffed and strategically positioned. Then, after night fell, Joshua went down into the midst of the valley and waited there until morning.
Meanwhile, the king of Ai could not help but observe the force assembling north of the city gates, although the whole mass may not have come into view. Their gradual approach to the city and their unhasty maneuvers as they built their camp served as a distraction for the people of Ai. Their attention was so riveted on the frightening storm rising from the north that no one was peering into the west, where a deadly ambush was lurking.
The king of Ai could not conceive of any strategy better than the one which had brought victory a few days before. So, as soon as the next sunrise made enough light to see, he and his meager force went on the attack. Joshua and his men, if you will pardon the vernacular, turned tail and ran. It was not true fear, of course, but pure sham. It was a trick, a form of deceit. Earlier in these lessons, when we discussed at length the ethics of Rahab's lie to protect the spies, we pointed out that God repeatedly in the Old Testament authorizes the use of deceit in warfare if the result will be to save the lives of innocent people.
The king of Ai, in a spasm of foolish overconfidence, summoned all his warriors from the city to take up the chase of fleeing Israelites. So, in a short time, the city was emptied of defenders. Joshua's forces had been instructed to continue their pretense of flight toward the wilderness until they received the prearranged signal to stop.
Joshua himself was waiting for a signal—this from the Lord Himself. When the Lord saw that no one was left within Ai to offer resistance, He commanded Joshua to stretch out his spear toward the city. Presumably, Joshua had not joined the retreat, but had remained out of sight, perhaps somewhere off to the northwest, far from the path of either army. The raised spear was a signal to the ambushers to rise up and invade the city now empty of any defenders who could stop them. As soon as the men in hiding saw their leader raise his weapon, they surged forward into the city and, with all haste, began to burn it down. They did not wait until they slew the people remaining inside or until they plundered the houses. They went to work immediately on the task of setting everything on fire, so that the Israelites could turn the tide of battle. Soon flames were soaring into the sight of both armies over in the wilderness. The soldiers of Israel could see that their forces had stormed the city, and the forces of Ai could see that Israel had laid an ambush behind them. Now the Canaanites were trapped. The larger Israelite force that had been pretending flight now turned around and mounted a vicious counterattack. Behind them they could run to no shelter because another force of Israelites were emerging from the city and attacking their rear. All they could do is stand and fight. But they were surrounded by a stronger force closing in, and the Israelites had no interest in permitting surrender or taking captives, so before long, all the Canaanites were killed. There was one exception. The Israelites took their king alive, not because they wanted to spare him—only because, as we will see, they wanted to make him an example for the other kings in the region. The king was delivered to Joshua.
When every soldier of Ai lay dead on the ground, the men under Joshua's command swept into the city and searched every building and cranny for any inhabitants still alive and eliminated them all by the sword. The slaughter was complete. The final toll of casualties was twelve thousand men, women, and children. Throughout the concluding phase of the battle, from the moment that Israel sprang an ambush until the moment that the last soldier walked out of the city after it was reduced to complete desolation, Joshua held his spear aloft, pointing toward the city as if to signify the doom that God had decreed upon it.
Yet not everything in the city was destroyed. At the battle of Ai, unlike the battle of Jericho, God authorized Israel to take whatever spoil they could find. Probably this city had little actual treasure inside, but it did offer cattle, a valuable commodity to a nation that, after taking up residence in the land, would support themselves mainly by farming. Once the city was cleared of spoil, Joshua commanded his men to go through it again and systematically tear down and burn any structures still standing. After their work, the city was properly described as nothing but a "heap;" that is, a heap of rubble. It was still a heap at the time the Book of Joshua was written, and evidently the destruction was so thorough and final that archaeologists today are not even sure where the city was located, except that it lay a short distance east of Bethel. The site of Bethel has been identified.
The king of Ai was not slain with the sword but hanged from a tree until evening. Hanging was considered a more shameful way to die, because the victim's body was made a public spectacle. Perhaps Joshua assumed that the battle had been watched from afar by spies, lurking in rocky coverts unfamiliar to the men of Israel. He wanted these spies to carry home news not only of Israel's victory, but also of the king of Ai's disgraceful death. His intent was to demoralize the enemies he would meet in future battles. After evening fell, the body had to be taken down in compliance with the law of Moses (Deut. 21:22-23). Then it was cast before the ruined gate of Ai and buried under a heap of stones, which would serve as a solemn warning of what would happen to any other king who imagined that he could oppose Israel. This heap was also still visible when the Book of Joshua was written.
After Israel had secured a fairly large swath of territory on the west side of the Jordan River, stretching out perhaps for a radius of twenty or thirty miles beyond Jericho, Joshua felt that the nation could afford the brief delay necessary to accomplish one of the Lord's commands relayed by Moses. After the nation came to the threshold of Canaan and sat encamped on the east side of Jordan, Moses made several final appearances to the people. In one of these not long before his death, he gave the nation several tasks to perform when they crossed the river and entered the land. These are described in Deuteronomy 27 and 28.
The first was to inscribe the law—presumably, the Ten Commandments—on great plastered tablets of stone and set them up on Mt. Ebal, which was in the hill of country of Canaan about twenty-five miles north-northwest of Jericho (Deut. 27:1-4). Creating permanent documents by inscribing letters on large whitewashed stones was an Egyptian technique familiar to a nation recently come from Egypt.2
The second task was to build an altar to the Lord made of stones never touched by any shaping tool of man (Deut. 27:5-8). Such stones were dictated by a provision of the Mosaic law (Exod. 20:25) with the obvious purpose of preventing the Israelites from decorating their altars with graven images in violation of the Second Commandment (Exod. 20:4). The two kinds of offerings that Moses prescribed for the newly built altar were burnt offerings and peace offerings, the same ones presented to the Lord when the law was given at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 20:21-24). Their repetition at Mt. Ebal was doubtless intended to remind Israel of their continuing obligation to honor the Ten Commandments if they wished to enjoy God's blessing while they occupied the Promised Land. The meaning of these future sacrifices was clearly spelled out by Moses himself (Deut. 27:9-10).
To comply with Moses' direction to perform these tasks, Joshua's first step was to conduct the nation on a northward march upward into the hills until they reached Mt. Ebal. Having accomplished this transfer of the great multitude under his leadership, Joshua built an altar and presented the required sacrifices (Josh. 8:30-31). Next, he created the monument displaying the Ten Commandments (Josh. 8:32). Lastly, he fulfilled the more complicated task that Moses had laid out for the nation when they came to the mountain (Deut. 27:11-13). He had said that the tribes should divide into two groups. Six tribes should stand on Mt. Ebal and six should stand on the adjoining mountain, Mt. Gerizim. If tradition is correct in its identification of these two mountains, they are both conspicuous peaks, Ebal at 1500 ft. and Gerizim at 1400 ft., that face each other across a central valley. The acoustical properties of the landscape are excellent. Sound sweeps readily along the slopes joining the two peaks.3 The tribes on Ebal would stand there to curse, and the tribes on Gerizim would stand there to bless.
Exactly what procedure Moses expected and Joshua performed is uncertain from the text. The directions given in Deuteronomy and the the record of the actual ceremony given in Joshua are not specific enough to leave us a clear picture, so we must venture some surmises. From Joshua we know that after the tribes including all their officials had positioned themselves on the mountains, the Levites stood in the intervening valley with the ark in their midst. So, on one side of the ark was a sea of faces looking down from the ascent to Mt. Ebal, and opposite to them was another sea of faces looking down from the ascent to Mt. Gerizim.
Then, from Deuteronomy we infer that the whole body of Levites attending the ark recited in loud voices all the curses we read in Deuteronomy 27:15-26. There are twelve curses, one for each tribe, as it were. Perhaps Moses was emphasizing that none of the tribes should imagine itself immune to grave sin. After each curse rose with echoing force from the Levites speaking in unison, the tribes on Mt. Ebal responded with a strong "Amen."
Then the Levites spoke a series of blessings, although in neither Deuteronomy nor Joshua do we learn precisely what these were. Perhaps they were the four blessings appearing in Deuteronomy 28:3-6, although these make a much shorter list than all the curses. In verses 7 to 14 of the same chapter we find another six discrete promises that may have been included among the blessings, making a total of ten. After each blessing we may imagine that all the people on Mt. Gerizim responded with a strong "Amen." Finally, according to the Book of Joshua, Israel's leader Joshua himself stood in the center near the ark and completed the ceremony by reading "all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all the Moses commanded which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel" (Josh. 8:34-35). It would seem that he must have read aloud a good portion of Moses' writings. A good guess is that he read the whole Book of Deuteromony, which presents itself as Moses' final address to the nation (Deut. 1:1), giving a summary of its experience under his leadership and reviewing the whole body of law that God wanted Israel to observe.
In Israel's successful campaign against the city of Ai, we find four practical lessons, together giving us some basic requirements for successful Christian living.
- The Lord prohibited the nation's soldiers from taking possession of any treasure found in Jericho. All of it had to be deposited in the sanctuary. But He allowed them to spoil Ai and afterward all the other cities in their path of conquest. Why the distinction? Because the riches of Jericho were like firstfruits, and firstfruits always belong to the Lord. The people of Israel were required to bring the initial gleanings from every harvest to the Tabernacle or Temple (Exod. 23:19). Likewise we in the Church Age are required to give the Lord a first portion from all our earnings and increase (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 9:7). The general rule for God's people in every dispensation appears in Deuteronomy (Deut. 16:17). It has always been understood that our standard for a minimum gift is the tithe; that is, one tenth off the top, as it were. We should automatically skim off the first ten percent of our income and give it to the Lord. Then as the Spirit prompts us to help meet specific needs in ministry or among the poor, we should give more. Our first application of Joshua 8 is therefore appropriately numbered the first, because it tells us that to please God and enjoy spiritual prosperity, we must give Him our firstfruits, and beyond that, if we wish God to be generous toward us, we should likewise be generous. We cannot outgive God (Luke 6:38).
- The nation's humiliating setback at Ai was, in part, a result of Joshua's failure to consult God beforehand. He did not ask God whether He was pleased with the nation's performance at Jericho, nor did he seek God's direction on how he should proceed against Ai. He pulled the ship's throttle to full speed ahead without seeking orders from the captain. Naturally, the ship ran onto a reef and nearly wrecked. The lesson for us is that we must seek the Lord's guidance day by day. The most familiar statement of our duty is the beautiful psalm, Psalm 23. The Lord's role as shepherd means that we must allow Him to walk ahead and show us the right path. To remind ourselves that we are but sheep who dare not take a step without divine guidance, we should memorize some of the many texts that teach us our need for God's leading (Ps. 25:9; 48:14; 73:24; Isa. 42:16; Luke 1:79; John 16:13).
- The fundamental reason for the nation's failure at Ai was, however, sin in the camp. As always, sin hurts not only the sinner, but others as well who may be entirely innocent. The whole nation underwent humiliating defeat and 36 men were killed because one man, Achan, secretly stole forbidden treasure. The lesson for us is that we as a church cannot expect our witness to have a powerful impact on our community if this body of believers is contaminated by unconfessed sin. I am not referring to the minor faults of human nature. We are all weak human beings incapable of scaling the heights of moral perfection. By sin, I mean the kind that the world would view as scandalous, the kind that Paul defines in several texts (1 Cor. 6:9–11; Eph. 5:3). It is a lamentable fact that gross sin not only cripples the testimony of the church, but also creates victims among the innocent, just as Achan's sin cost lives. A similar cost follows even lesser kinds of sin. For example, if in a Providentially arranged meeting with a lost person, I fail to share the gospel, what do I lose? Some heavenly reward, no doubt. But what does the other person lose. He loses a chance for eternal life. Let us therefore as brothers and sisters in Christ accept our fundamental obligation to keep sin out of the church, and if it appears, to deal with it by following the process that Jesus lays out in Matthew 18 (Matt. 18:15-17).
- After victory at Ai, the nation suspended its campaign of conquest and went off into the mountains so that they might reexamine God's Word. How rich in meaning this was! It teaches us that as we go through the battles of life, we should regularly step aside and restudy the book of strategy that will guarantee victory in the next battle. We should start every day with devotions, including both prayer and Bible reading, and as the day unfolds, we should remember and apply whatever we read in the morning. If, as we seek to recall the portions of God's Word bearing on a present decision, we find that they have become a bit foggy, we should find and read them again. Never proceed without divine guidance. Always take up the Bible as your lantern for the path ahead.