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6. Victory at Ai (Josh. 8:1-33)

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The story of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land follows a bit of a roller coaster ride in these first few chapters as victory at Jericho is followed by defeat at Ai, then that defeat is followed by victory at Ai. I suppose this sequence serves to underscore the absolute terms in which God views sin. If his people separate themselves to him and keep themselves pure, then He blesses them and gives them victory. But the converse is also true - if they act independently of him and defile themselves, then He punishes them with defeat by their enemies. Our God is a holy God who cannot look upon sin (Habakkuk 1:13). In order for us to claim God’s presence and power among us, we need to keep ourselves pure, separate from sin (cf. Lev. 19:2; Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16; 2:9-10).

This principle is powerfully displayed for our instruction in the defeat of the Israelites at Ai. Ai was just a small town and Israel was a mighty nation. But size and military might are of no benefit when they disobey God. Nonetheless, as we saw in Joshua 7, when sin is judged and removed from the congregation (7:24-26) God is gracious and forgiving (Ps. 86:5; 1 Jn. 1:9; Heb. 10:17) and ready to restore us. That’s the overall theme of this study: When we repent, God is ready to forgive and to display his power in us and through us.

Notice the first difference in this attack and the previous attack on Ai…

I. Victory Is Only Possible When We Hear from God (8:1-13)

God speaks words of encouragement and instruction (8:1-2). After the removal of sin from the midst of the Israelites, the Lord turned from his burning anger (7:26) and fellowship is restored, the first evidence of which is divine guidance: The Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid or discouraged. Take all the troops with you and go attack Ai. Look, I have handed over to you the king of Ai, his people, city, and land” (8:1).

Unlike the last attack on Ai which was characterized by independence on the part of the Israelites and the absence of divine guidance, thus ending in defeat (7:5), now Israel has cleared themselves of sin in their midst (7:16-26). Now, God renews his communication with, and encouragement of, Joshua. Now, the guilt of Achan’s sin has been dealt with. Now, Israel can proceed with their possession of the land. Now, all the troops are engaged in the battle against Ai, whereas previously it was only a few thousand (7:3). Now, the Lord promises Joshua victory. Now, fear and discouragement are banished.

Whenever we are confident that our actions are rooted in God’s instructions and with his endorsement we do not need to be afraid or discouraged. In fact, in this case, God assures them of victory for He says: “I have handed over to you the king of Ai, his people, city, and land.” What a word of encouragement this must have been to Joshua after the previous devastating defeat at Ai. Now he could go forward with courage and confidence. Now the Israelites could take up again their responsibility of possessing the land in the full assurance that God is with them and that they are acting on His instructions and in His power.

God gives two short and simple instructions: First, “Treat Ai and its king as you did Jericho and its king, except that you may plunder its spoil and livestock for yourselves” (8:2a). As with their attack on Jericho, they are to destroy Ai and not spare any lives, but unlike their attack on Jericho they are permitted to keep for themselves the spoils of victory such as material goods and livestock. Second, as to the method of their attack, the only instruction the Lord gives to Joshua is, “Set an ambush behind the city” (8:2b). How Joshua puts this instruction into practice is described in 8:3-13.

First, Joshua instructs the ambush contingent (8:3-9). Based on God’s plan, Joshua and all the troops set out to attack Ai. Joshua selected thirty thousand of his best soldiers and sent them out at night (8:3). There has been considerable debate by scholars about the number of troops, given the fact that Ai was a small town of about 12,000 people. We will look into this further below.

As he sends them out, 4 He commanded them, “Pay attention. Lie in ambush behind the city, not too far from it, and all of you be ready. 5 Then I and all the people who are with me will approach the city. When they come out against us as they did the first time, we will flee from them. 6 They will come after us until we have drawn them away from the city, for they will say, ‘They are fleeing from us as before.’ While we are fleeing from them, 7 you are to come out of your ambush and seize the city. The Lord your God will hand it over to you. 8 After taking the city, set it on fire. Follow the Lord’s command—see that you do as I have ordered you.” 9 So Joshua sent them out, and they went to the ambush site and waited between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai. But he spent that night with the people (8:4-9).

So the first step in Joshua’s military strategy is that the 30,000 ambush troops will take up their position “behind the city” (to the west of the city as viewed from Gilgal near Jericho where these instructions were being given) but “not too far from it.” They are to pay rapt attention to the details of the operational plans as follows: Joshua and the people with him will approach the city (on the east side) in plain view so that its inhabitants come out to fight them (8:5). As they did on the previous occasion (7:4), the Israelites will flee from them, not, this time, because they are overpowered but to lure the Ai army out of the city (8:6). Once they have drawn them away from the city (going eastward), the ambush troops are to come out of their position behind Ai (on its west side), take control of the city and then set it on fire (8:7). This, Joshua says, is “the Lord’s command – see that you do as I have ordered you” (8:8).

Second, Joshua moves the people and the rest of Israel’s troops (8:10-13). Joshua himself stays that night with the rest of the people, presumably at Gilgal, and early the next morning they move from there to Ai: 10 He and the elders of Israel led the people up to Ai. 11 All the troops who were with him went up and approached the city, arriving opposite Ai, and camped to the north of it, with a valley between them and the city (8:10-11). So, now there are two Israelite encampments – the ambush party to the west of Ai and the rest of the people with Joshua camped near Ai, separated from it by a valley.

Another detail is pertinent: Now Joshua had taken about five thousand men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city (8:12). This is where further confusion arises about the number of troops (two contingents or one; 30,000 in total or 30,000 plus 5,000), their location, and their responsibilities. My analysis is as follows:

1. As to the total number of troops, the primary argument against it being 30,000 is that this seems like a lot of soldiers to attack the small town of Ai. One solution that has been proposed is that “thirty thousand troops” should be translated “thirty chiefs” or “thirty officers.” Maybe, but this proposal seems to me to swing to the opposite extreme of insufficient troops for the task assigned to them.

2. As to their geographical location, the three references to it are similarly described as “behind the city” (8:4) and “between Bethel and Ai” (8:9, 12) and “to the west of the city” (8:13). Given the proximity of Bethel and Ai, these geographical descriptions could easily refer to the same location.

3. As to their responsibilities, both sets of troops are assigned the same task - to “ambush” the enemy (8:2, 3-4, 7, 9, 12). One very slight distinction is that Joshua “selected” the 30,000 from his “best soldiers” (8:3); whereas of the 5,000 men it says that he “had taken” them (8:12). What isn’t clear is whether he “had taken” the 5,000 from the 30,000 or from the people who were camped with him to the north of Ai (8:11). The wording and sequence pushes me toward the view that there was probably a single ambush group with two separate responsibilities – the larger group assigned to ambushing and destroying Ai (8:3-9) and the smaller group assigned to ambushing and destroying Bethel (8:12) whose troops evidently came to the aid of Ai (8:17).

Evidently, the narrator understood the difficulty of describing this military maneuver and for that reason included a summary verse to clarify this very issue as to who was stationed where and for what duty: The troops were stationed in this way: the main camp to the north of the city and its rear guard to the west of the city (8:13a) - the main body of troops with Joshua to the north of Ai, separated from it by a valley (8:11) and one ambush contingent to the west of Ai. That night Joshua went into the valley (8:13b). This is the final step in preparation for the next day’s attack. Presumably, the people and troops with Joshua accompanied him into this valley that separated them from Ai on its north side (8:11) so that they would be in full view from the city the next day.

First, then, victory is only possible when we hear from God (8:1-13). And…

II. Victory Is Only Possible When We Follow God’s Plan (8:14-29)

Having taken up their battle positions, everything is set for God’s plan of attack to be executed.

Step 1: 14 When the king of Ai saw the Israelites, the men of the city hurried and went out early in the morning so that he and all his people could engage Israel in battle at a suitable place facing the Arabah. But he did not know there was an ambush waiting for him behind the city. 15 Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten back by them and fled toward the wilderness. 16 Then all the troops of Ai were summoned to pursue them, and they pursued Joshua and were drawn away from the city. 17 Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel, leaving the city exposed while they pursued Israel (8:14-17).

It appears that there was some sort of coalition between the armies of Ai and Bethel, both of whom left their cities defenseless as they chased the Israelite troops eastward from Ai. The ambush trick worked perfectly! You would think that maybe the king of Ai would have twigged that something was up when the Israelites ran away without so much as a single act of combat. Of course, he did not know there was an ambush waiting for him behind the city (8:14) nor that the Israelites were pretending to be beaten. Evidently, he was so confident from previously defeating Israel that he didn’t stop to give it a thought. As Joshua told the ambush troops, “They will say, ‘They are fleeing from us as before’” (8:6) and that’s exactly what happened. Step 1 of the plan worked flawlessly.

You can understand how nerve racking this would have been for the Israelites were it not for God’s assurance that he had “handed over” to them “the king, his people, city and land” (8:1). Even with that assurance, it would surely have taken great courage to stand in plain view of the enemy and feign defeat by running away.

Step 2: 18 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Hold out the javelin in your hand toward Ai, for I will hand the city over to you.” So Joshua held out his javelin toward it. 19 When he held out his hand, the men in ambush rose quickly from their position. They ran, entered the city, captured it, and immediately set it on fire (8:18-19). This is the turning point in the narrative of this wonderful victory. The Lord spoke again to Joshua. At the first God told Joshua the plan and Joshua followed the plan. Now God tells Joshua how to execute the plan. And again, Joshua obeyed God’s instructions explicitly. Clearly, the ambush troops did their job, lying in wait until all the troops from Bethel and Ai had left the cities to chase after Israel, at which time the Israelite troops ran, entered the city, captured it, and immediately set it on fire (8:19).

Joshua’s holding out of the javelin reminds us of Moses’ holding out of the rod over the waters of the Red Sea, doesn’t it? There is no inherent power in the javelin – it was merely a signal to the ambush troops to come out of hiding and take the city. But even so, a lifeless rod or javelin becomes a powerful weapon when wielded in obedience to God and in God’s power. This is the key to success in the Christian life – obedience to God.

The total destruction of the city of Ai also reminds us of the total destruction of Ziklag when David was on the run from Saul. You will remember that he convinced Achish, the king of Gath, to allow him and his men to join the Philistine army in their attack on Israel at Jezreel. When the Philistine commanders rejected him, David and his men returned to Ziklag only to find that, while they were away, the Amalekites had attacked and utterly destroyed the city by fire and had kidnapped everyone in the city – their wives and children. This is what can happen when you do not take your instructions from the Lord – you get ambushed by the enemy!

And so it happened at Ai. The Israelite ambush troops ran from their hiding position and without any opposition entered the city, captured it and immediately set it on fire. The entire city was a sitting duck to the ambush. God’s plan was simple but its results were nothing short of miraculous – just like at Jericho and the Red Sea.

Step 3: 20 The men of Ai turned and looked back, and smoke from the city was rising to the sky! They could not escape in any direction, and the troops who had fled to the wilderness now became the pursuers. 21 When Joshua and all Israel saw that the men in ambush had captured the city and that smoke was rising from it, they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. 22 Then men in ambush came out of the city against them, and the men of Ai were trapped between the Israelite forces, some on one side and some on the other. They struck them down until no survivor or fugitive remained, 23 but they captured the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua (8:20-23).

What a shock this must have been for the Ai troops when they realized that they had been duped! After destroying the city, the ambush troops then chased after the men of Ai while the rest of the Israelites with Joshua turned back towards the men of Ai. In this way, the men of Ai were trapped between the Israelite ambush forces behind them and Joshua with his troops in front of them. The tables were turned – the army of Ai looked back and saw their defeat (8:20) and the Israelites saw their victory (8:21). The pursuers (Ai) became the pursued and the pursued (Israel) became the pursuers, such that the Ai troops could not escape in any direction, and the troops who had fled to the wilderness now became the pursuers (8:20). Consequently, the Israelites forces annihilated the men of Ai until there were no survivors or escapees, except for the king of Ai whom they brought to Joshua (8:22-23).

It all took place in living color, scene by scene right before their eyes. God’s work done God’s way will always prevail. Victory is assured when we hear from God and follow his plan.

Step 4: 24 When Israel had finished killing everyone living in Ai who had pursued them into the open country, and when every last one of them had fallen by the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the sword. 25 The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand—all the people of Ai. 26 Joshua did not draw back his hand that was holding the javelin until all the inhabitants of Ai were completely destroyed. 27 Israel plundered only the cattle and spoil of that city for themselves, according to the Lord’s command that he had given Joshua. Joshua burned Ai and left it a permanent ruin, still desolate today (8:24-28).

Again, like Moses, Joshua held his javelin high throughout the process until all the inhabitants of Ai were completely destroyed. Then Israel took for themselves all the livestock and the spoils of the city in accordance with the Lord’s permission (8:2). After plundering the city, stripping it of its goods and livestock, Joshua burned Ai and left it a permanent ruin, still desolate today. The ruins of the city would be a permanent reminder for all to see of the consequence of not bowing to the God of Israel.

As the story continues to unfold, the author repeats and escalates his description of the extent of the slaughter and the destruction of Ai, leaving the reader in no doubt about the finality and superiority of God’s power and the totality of Israel’s victory: The men of Ai were captured and struck down (8:21), no survivor or fugitive remained (8:22), everyone living in Ai was killed (8:24a), every one of them fell by the sword (8:24b), the total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand – all the people of Ai (8:25).

Step 5: One thing remained – the execution of the king of Ai, whose body Joshua 29 hung…on a tree until evening, and at sunset Joshua commanded that they take his body down from the tree. They threw it down at the entrance of the city gate and put a large pile of rocks over it, which still remains today (8:29). The spectacles of the destroyed city and the king’s body hanging on a tree were clearly intended to stress the utter humiliation of Ai as the enemies of God’s people.

Just as Israel heaped stones over Achan’s body after stoning him to death for his sin (7:25-26), so now they heaped a pile of rocks over the king of Ai’s body at the entrance of the city, a constant public testimony to Israel’s military superiority by the power of Israel’s God as they sweep through the land taking possession of it. Israel’s God is not to be trifled with. Israel may have suffered defeat previously because of their own sinfulness, but when they walk in step with God they are invincible.

Victory is only possible when we hear from God (8:1-13). Victory is only possible when we follow God’s plan (8:14-29). And…

III. Victory Is Only Possible When We Are Fully Committed to God (8:30-35)

After their ignominious defeat in chapter 7 followed by their resounding victory in chapter 8, Israel consequently renews their commitment to their covenant relationship with God. 30 At that time Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal to the Lord, the God of Israel, 31 just as Moses the Lord’s servant had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses: an altar of uncut stones on which no iron tool has been used. Then they offered burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed fellowship offerings on it (8:30-31).

Is it not true that victories in our Christian lives should be celebrated and acknowledged by worshipping the Lord? Surely, we should praise God for every blessing, receiving it as a good and perfect gift from Him (James 1:17). Joshua and the Israelites certainly did. Following their great victory, Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal and all the Israelites joined Joshua in a congregational act of worship, commitment, and obedience to the God of Israel. They offered burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed fellowship offerings on it (8:31b). And there on the stones of the altar, exactly in accordance with Moses’ instructions (Deut. 27:1-8), 32 Joshua copied the law of Moses, which he had written in the presence of the Israelites (8:31-32).

All Israel participated in this glorious celebration of thanksgiving to God. All Israel - resident alien and citizen alike – with their elders, officers, and judges (their religious and civic leaders) stood on either side of the ark of the Lord’s covenant facing the Levitical priests who carried it. Half of them were in front of Mount Gerizim and half in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the Lord’s servant had commanded earlier concerning blessing the people of Israel (8:32-33).

God had instructed Moses to build an altar of stones on Mount Ebal, with all the words of the law written on them, after they crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, the land which God had given them (cf. Deuteronomy 27:1-8, 12-13). But Moses was prevented from doing so because God barred him from entering the land for rebelling against God when he struck the rock rather than speaking to it in order for it to produce water (cf. Num. 20:1-12). Thus, it is Moses’ successor, Joshua, who here fulfills this command from the Lord.

This is a congregational celebration of Israel’s covenant relationship with God. God is in their midst, symbolized by the ark of the Lord’s covenant at the center of the gathering. This was an acknowledgement of their renewed commitment to the God of Israel, who had led them in glorious victory by his mighty hand. They were his people and he was their God. The significance of this covenant renewal, taking place just as Israel enters the Promised Land, is undoubtedly to set the stage for the rest of their military campaigns as they take possession of the land.

Afterward, their commitment to God is reinforced as Joshua 34 read aloud all the words of the law – the blessings as well as the curses – according to all that is written in the book of the law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read before the entire assembly of Israel, including the women, the dependents, and the resident aliens who lived among them (8:34-35). When we read the word of God we need to pay attention to the blessings as well as the curses, the commandments as well as the prohibitions, the things that bring honor to God as well as the things that bring dishonor to God, those things that elicit his approbation as well as those things that elicit his repudiation.

Remember, we cannot recall what the word of God says if we have not read it! And even when we have read it, our memoires often fail us. And even when our memories do not fail us, we often neglect what we know to be true. For those reasons we need to be constantly reminded of what the word of God says and how it applies to our lives. That’s why it is so important for us to read the Scriptures for ourselves and to be instructed in the Scriptures by teachers whom God has gifted to do so. This means that, in addition to our private devotional and study times, we need to attend a good, Bible believing church where the word of God is faithfully and accurately taught, and where we can be well instructed in the truth of God and its application to our lives. You cannot do that in isolation – this is a congregational activity. The word of God is vital for living an obedient, God-honoring life, for it undergirds and guides our worship of God and our covenant relationship to Him.

Final Remarks

Do you see the significance of the sequence of this narrative and how its theological principles apply directly to our lives? First, victory is only possible when we hear from God (8:1-13). Second, victory is only possible when we follow God’s plan (8:14-29). Third, victory is only possible when we are fully committed to God (8:30-35). God’s word is never out of date or irrelevant. Even events as far removed from our experience as this victory at Ai contain principles that guide and encourage us in our own lives.

As we noted earlier, God’s work done God’s way will always prevail - victory is assured when we hear from God and follow his plan. In its context, the overriding truth of this passage is that when we repent, God is ready to forgive and to display his power in us and through us. And he surely did so for Israel.

May we live our lives in obedience to God’s word, in the intimacy of our living relationship with Him through the Lord Jesus Christ, and in unswerving faithfulness to his guidance, provision, and protection until that day when He calls us home, when all the battles and disappointments and sorrows of this life will be over and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life

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