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7. Victory at Ai (Joshua 8:1-35)


How often God must engineer defeat before He can engineer victory. Sometimes success comes through the back door of failure. As we begin this chapter, I am reminded of a couple verses in Psalm 119. “Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word” (vs. 67); and “It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes” (vs. 72).

In this chapter we again see the grace of God and the truth of restoration. Defeats never have to be the end. They may in fact be the beginning if we will just respond to the grace of God as a loving and caring heavenly Father who works to produce spiritual growth and Christ-like changes in us. This doesn’t minimize the consequences of sin, however. In the Ai incident, God’s name had been dishonored, people lost their lives, and a family died the sin unto death. The momentum Israel gained was temporarily lost and God’s people were filled with gloom and despair.

The story of Ai is a message of warning. It reminds us that sin cannot be tolerated in the Christian life. It hinders the blessing of God from the standpoint of productive Christian living. Sin grieves and quenches the Spirit.

The story of Ai is also a proclamation of hope. It reminds us that blessing and productivity can come when sin is confessed and dealt with.

The Call to Battle

1 Now the LORD said to Joshua, “Do not fear or be dismayed. Take all the people of war with you and arise, go up to Ai; see, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, his people, his city, and his land. 2 And you shall do to Ai and its king just as you did to Jericho and its king; you shall take only its spoil and its cattle as plunder for yourselves. Set an ambush for the city behind it.”

Comfort From the Lord (vs. 1a)

With the sin of Achan judged, God’s favor toward the nation was restored. The next thing we read concerns God’s new revelation to Joshua to both encourage him and give him directions for victory. The first words Joshua heard were “Do not fear or be dismayed.” Joshua had heard these words before. These are special words to encourage God’s people when facing the enemy:

  • These were the words Moses spoke in Kadesh-barnea as he sent out the 12 spies (Deut. 12:21).
  • These were also the words Joshua heard from Moses 40 years later as he turned the reins of leadership over to Joshua who would then be responsible to take the nation into the land of promise (Deut. 31:8).
  • Then, Joshua would hear similar words directly from the Lord as He commissioned him to lead the people into the land (Josh. 1:9).
  • Later, Joshua would use these same words to encourage the nation in the face of their enemies, and they would be used on three other occasions when Judah would be facing the enemy and terrible odds (Josh. 8:1; 10:25; 2 Chron. 20:15, 17; 32:7).

This serves to remind us that God is a God of comfort who wants to comfort and encourage us through His Word (cf. Isa. 40:1; 2 Cor. 1:3f; Rom. 15:4).

Directions From the Lord (vss. 1b-2)

With God’s blessing assured through the words of comfort, a few specific directions are given.

(1) Don’t make the same mistake twice: God’s word to Joshua was to use all the fighting men of Israel. Though the primary cause of the defeat at Ai was Achan’s sin, a secondary cause was underestimating the enemy, overestimating themselves, and presuming on the Lord (cf. 7:3-4). So they are now told to take all the fighting men and to go forth at God’s command trusting in the fact it was God who would give them victory.

(2) Turn the place of defeat into the place of victory: Notice what happens here. Joshua is told to again go up and attack Ai. He is to return to the place of defeat, and now, because Joshua and the people are rightly related to the Lord, God promised they could turn the place of defeat into a place of victory.

(3) The basis of victory is always the same: The words, “just as with Jericho” reminds us that victory at Ai would not only be as complete as that at Jericho, but that as with Jericho, it would come by the power of God regardless of the strategy used. God wants our places of defeat turned into places of victory. We are not to live with defeat or accept it as the norm for the Christian life. But as always, victory comes through faith in God’s presence and provision.

(4) The spoils of victory promised—the irony of God’s blessing: In verse 2 Joshua was told that the spoils of Ai and its livestock could now be taken by Israel. As the first fruits of the land, Jericho had been placed under the ban, but this was not the case with Ai. What irony! Achan’s dissatisfaction, unsuppressed by patience and trust in the Lord for his needs, actually caused him to miss precisely what he longed for and much more. He wasted his life. “If only Achan had suppressed his greedy and selfish desires and obeyed God’s word at Jericho he would later have had all his heart desired and God’s blessing too. How easy it is to take matters into our own hands and go ahead of the Lord!”43 The path of obedience and faith is always best.

(5) A change in strategies (vs. 2b): The strategy used with Ai differed entirely from that employed at Jericho. This is highly instructive for us in ministry, in spiritual battles, or in the way God leads us. “The Israelites did not march around the walls of Ai seven times, nor did the walls fall miraculously.”44 Israel was now directed to conquer the city through normal combat.

Principle: We should not expect God to work the same way or lead us always the same way. We need to be open and sensitive to the various ways God may lead. As the Sovereign God of the universe, He is never limited to one particular method to accomplish His purposes. When my wife and I were in seminary the Lord provided for our needs in numerous ways. Sometimes He worked in ways that seemed almost miraculous. Other times, He worked more through natural means and methods, but behind it all was the sovereign working and care of the Lord.

The Strategy for the Battle

3 So Joshua rose with all the people of war to go up to Ai; and Joshua chose 30,000 men, valiant warriors, and sent them out at night. 4 And he commanded them, saying, “See, you are going to ambush the city from behind it. Do not go very far from the city, but all of you be ready. 5 Then I and all the people who are with me will approach the city. And it will come about when they come out to meet us as at the first, that we will flee before them. 6 And they will come out after us until we have drawn them away from the city, for they will say, ‘They are fleeing before us as at the first.’ So we will flee before them. 7 And you shall rise from your ambush and take possession of the city, for the LORD your God will deliver it into your hand. 8 Then it will be when you have seized the city, that you shall set the city on fire. You shall do it according to the word of the LORD. See, I have commanded you.” 9 So Joshua sent them away, and they went to the place of ambush and remained between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai; but Joshua spent that night among the people.

10 Now Joshua rose early in the morning and mustered the people, and he went up with the elders of Israel before the people to Ai. 11 Then all the people of war who were with him went up and drew near and arrived in front of the city, and camped on the north side of Ai. Now there was a valley between him and Ai. 12 And he took about 5,000 men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city. 13 So they stationed the people, all the army that was on the north side of the city, and its rear guard on the west side of the city, and Joshua spent that night in the midst of the valley.

The strategy for the capture of Ai was ingenious (vss. 3-9). It involved placing an ambush behind (west of) the city. God Himself told Joshua to do this (vss. 2, 8). The outworking of this plan involved three detachments of soldiers. The first was a group of commando-type warriors who were sent by night to hide on the west side of the city. Their mission was to rush into Ai and burn it after its defenders had deserted it to pursue Joshua and his army as they had previously done. This unit is said to have numbered 30,000. The presence of large rocks in the region made it possible for all these men to remain hidden, yet, this seems like an excessively large number of soldiers for this particular mission. Regarding the 30,000 Ryrie points out,

A seemingly large number for an ambush. It has been suggested that “thousand” should read “chief.” If so, Joshua sent 30 chiefs on a commando-type ambush.45

The second contingent was the main army which walked the 15 miles from Gilgal early the next morning and camped in plain view on the north side of Ai. Led by Joshua, this army was a diversionary force to decoy the defenders of Ai out of the city.

The third contingent was another ambush numbering 5,000 men who were positioned between Bethel and Ai to cut off the possibility of reinforcements from Bethel to aid the men of Ai.46

The Description of the Battle

14 And it came about when the king of Ai saw it, that the men of the city hurried and rose up early and went out to meet Israel in battle, he and all his people at the appointed place before the desert plain. But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city. 15 And Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten before them, and fled by the way of the wilderness. 16 And all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and they pursued Joshua, and were drawn away from the city. 17 So not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who had not gone out after Israel, and they left the city unguarded and pursued Israel.

18 Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand.” So Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city. 19 And the men in ambush rose quickly from their place, and when he had stretched out his hand, they ran and entered the city and captured it; and they quickly set the city on fire. 20 When the men of Ai turned back and looked, behold, the smoke of the city ascended to the sky, and they had no place to flee this way or that, for the people who had been fleeing to the wilderness turned against the pursuers. 21 When Joshua and all Israel saw that the men in ambush had captured the city and that the smoke of the city ascended, they turned back and slew the men of Ai. 22 And the others came out from the city to encounter them, so that they were trapped in the midst of Israel, some on this side and some on that side; and they slew them until no one was left of those who survived or escaped. 23 But they took alive the king of Ai and brought him to Joshua.

24 Now it came about when Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the field in the wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them were fallen by the edge of the sword until they were destroyed, then all Israel returned to Ai and struck it with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000—all the people of Ai. 26 For Joshua did not withdraw his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. 27 Israel took only the cattle and the spoil of that city as plunder for themselves, according to the word of the LORD which He had commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it a heap forever, a desolation until this day. 29 And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening; and at sunset Joshua gave command and they took his body down from the tree, and threw it at the entrance of the city gate, and raised over it a great heap of stones that stands to this day. (NASB)

The plan worked like clockwork (vss. 14-22). When the king of Ai saw Israel’s army he took the bait and pursued the Israelites who pretended to retreat in fear as they had done before. This left city of Ai unguarded. At the Lord’s command, Joshua stretched out the javelin in his hand and, with this as a signal, the troops hidden in ambush on the west side ran to the city and set it on fire. This left the men of Ai surrounded with no place to flee for now Joshua and his men with the 5,000 hidden in ambush all turned to fight the men of Ai. “But before they could gather their wits they were caught in a pincer movement of Israelite soldiers and were destroyed.”47

After killing all Ai’s soldiers, Israel’s army reentered the city and killed all its inhabitants (23-29). The dead soldiers and citizens totaled 12,000. Plunder was taken from the city as God had said they could do (vs. 2). The city was made a heap of ruins.

Ai’s king, who had been previously spared, was hanged on a tree until evening and then buried beneath a pile of stones (cf. Achan’s similar burial, 7:26). The king’s body was taken off the tree at sunset because of God’s command (Deut. 21:22-23; cf. Josh. 10:27). Thus Israel, having been restored to God’s favor, became victorious over the city of Ai. Out of their failure came not only a second chance but a great victory along with some much needed lessons. Though we should never seek to fail, failure can be the back door to success for God is willing to forgive and restore us if we will deal with our sin as prescribed in the Word.

The Pilgrimage After the Battle

30 Then Joshua built an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, in Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the sons of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of uncut stones, on which no man had wielded an iron tool; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And he wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written, in the presence of the sons of Israel. 33 And all Israel with their elders and officers and their judges were standing on both sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, the stranger as well as the native. Half of them stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the LORD had given command at first to bless the people of Israel. 34 Then afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel with the women and the little ones and the strangers who were living among them.

After the victory at Ai Joshua did what seemed to be foolish humanly and militarily-speaking (30-31). To us it would seem best to immediately pursue the military campaign and move quickly ahead to capture and take control of the central sector of the land. But no, Joshua led the Israelites on a spiritual pilgrimage for a special time of worship. Why? Moses had commanded it (Deut. 27:1-8) because of what this event would stand for in the lives of the Israelites.

Again this illustrates the principle of first priorities: our capacity in life is always dependent on our spiritual capacity and orientation to the plan of God. Many Christians continually face defeat in their walk because they fail to take time to get alone with the Lord and reflect on Him and to put on their spiritual armor.

Therefore, without delay Joshua led the entire nation—men, women, children, and cattle—from their camp at Gilgal northward up the Jordan Valley to the place specified by Moses, the mountains of Ebal (Josh. 8:30) and Gerizim (v. 33) which are at Shechem. This was a march of about 30 miles and evidently was not difficult or dangerous because they passed through an area that was sparsely populated.

The Israelites did face a possible confrontation with the men of the city of Shechem, a fortress guarding the entrance to the valley between these mountains. Perhaps the Shechemites remained shut up in their city, fearful because of what they had heard about the victories of Israel, or perhaps Israel conquered this city on the way. Campbell points out: “Of course the Bible does not record every battle of the Conquest and the record of the capture of Shechem may have been omitted. On the other hand, the city at this time may have been in friendly hands or it may simply have surrendered without resistance.”48

But we might ask, why was this location chosen? These mountains are located in the geographic center of the land and from either peak much of the Promised Land can be seen. Here then, is a place that represented all the land, both at the time of entrance into Canaan and also when Joshua’s leadership was coming to a close (cf. 24:1). With his leadership drawing to a close, Joshua again gathered all the tribes to Shechem and challenged the people to renew their covenant vows to the Lord.

James Boice writes:

The Mountains, which are about three thousand feet above sea level or one thousand feet above the valley between them, are quite barren. The valley is often green, and at one place where the mountains come close together there is a natural amphitheater. F. B. Meyer describes it as a place where the mountains are hollowed out “and the limestone stratum is broken into a succession of ledges ‘so as to present the appearance of a series of regular benches.’” It is “a natural amphitheatre … capable of containing a vast audience of people.” This amphitheater was the people’s destination, and it was here that they camped out for the ceremony.49

This place has outstanding acoustical properties and one person standing on one mountain can be easily heard by someone standing on the other mountain.

The ceremonies here involved three things. Campbell comments on these:

First, an altar of uncut stones was erected on Mount Ebal and sacrifices (consisting of burnt offerings and fellowship offerings; cf. Lev. 1; 3) were offered to the Lord. Jericho and Ai, in which false gods of the Canaanites were worshiped, had fallen. Israel now publicly worshiped and proclaimed her faith in the one true God.

Second, at this same place, on Ebal but perhaps referring to different stones, Joshua also set up some large stones. On their surfaces he wrote a copy of the Law of Moses. How much of the Law was inscribed is not stated. Some suggest only the Ten Commandments were written, while others think the stone inscription included the contents of at least Deuteronomy 5-26. Archaeologists have discovered similar inscribed pillars or stelae six to eight feet long in the Middle East. And the Behistun Inscription in Iran is three times the length of Deuteronomy.

Third, Joshua read … the Law to the people. Half of the people were positioned on the slopes of Mount Gerizim to the south, the other half were on the slopes of Mount Ebal to the north, and the ark of the covenant surrounded by priests was in the valley between. As the curses of the Law were read one by one, the tribes on Mount Ebal responded, “Amen!” As the blessings were likewise read the tribes on Mount Gerizim responded “Amen!” (Deut. 11:29; 27:12-26) The huge natural amphitheater which still exists there made it possible for the people to hear every word and with all sincerity Israel affirmed that the Law of the Lord was indeed to be the Law of the land.50

So, Mount Ebal stood for cursing and Gerizim stood for blessing. This event between the two mountains formed a huge object lesson. What happened to the Israelites in the land, the history of Israel, was going to depend on where they lived, as it were—on Mount Ebal, in disobedience and under the curses, or on Mount Gerizim, in obedience and under God’s blessing.

Campbell writes: “From this point on the history of the Jews depended on their attitude toward the Law which had been read in their hearing that day. When they were obedient there was blessing; when they were disobedient there was judgment (cf. Deut. 28). It is tragic that the affirmations of this momentous hour faded so quickly.”51 The truth of this object lesson had already been demonstrated in the victory of Jericho and the defeat and victory at Ai. When there was obedience to the Law of God, there was victory, but when there was disobedience, it resulted in defeat. But there is more here that we should think about for no one can fulfill the law. We are also reminded in this object lesson of God’s grace and provision. The ceremony that was enacted teaches us more than the principle that obedience brings blessing and disobedience brings cursing.

What happens first in this ceremony before the writing and reading of the Law? An altar made of uncut stones was erected for the purpose of burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings, sacrifices which point to the person and work of Christ and God’s solution to the curse of the Law through substitutionary sacrifice (8:31). Note three important principles:

(1) The first thing God did was to point to grace and His solution for sin by faith. On this occasion both the importance of the Law and the future of Israel, based on their response to the Law, was held before them. It was at this time that the solution to the problem of sin and failure was the first thing set before them. Why? Because all fall short of perfect obedience to the Law.

The same was true at Sinai: at the same time God gave the Ten Commandments and the judgments, He also gave the ordinances, the sacrifices. At the same time He gave them Moses, He gave them Aaron the high priest. It was as if God were saying, “thou shalt not, but I know you will and here is your way to escape condemnation.”

(2) Moses gave the command to build the altar on Mount Ebal, the place where the curses for disobedience were to be read. But why this place instead of the place that represented blessing for obedience? Because the altar was for sinners. It was for those who acknowledge their sin and who would come not as righteous, but as sinners to the place of sacrifice.

Remember the words of the Samaritan woman of John 4? The Samaritans built an altar on Gerizim, not Ebal. The choice of Gerizim for the altar suggests they came to God not as sinners but rather in their self-righteousness (cf. John 4:20). But the Lord’s words to the Samaritan woman exposed her spiritual ignorance, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know …” (vs. 22), and then uncovered her sin, “… You have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband …” (vs. 18).

(3) The altar was constructed of uncut stones without any human workmanship. This was a complete negation of humanism and salvation (or spirituality) by works. It shows that human beings can add nothing to the work of God for salvation or for spirituality. It is all by grace through the work of God in Christ. This becomes a strong reminder that:

  • We must recognize our sinfulness and come to God as sinners (Rom. 3:23).
  • We must come to the place of sacrifice, the cross, acknowledging our need of another to die in our place.
  • We must repudiate our human works for salvation: recognize there is nothing we can do or add to the work of God’s substitute for our sin, the person and work of Christ.

The worship at Mount Ebal focused the people on the Law of God as that special revelation of God that was so crucial to their future well being as the people of God. The Law pointed the nation to those righteous statutes that would enable Israel to be a holy nation, a special redeemed people, a people of God’s own possession and a light to the nations (see Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 4:1-8). The Law pointed Israel and all men to those moral statutes that are so vital to justice and law and order within nations. But it did more. It demonstrated the holiness of God and by virtue of man’s inability to keep the Law, it showed man his sin which separates him from God. Through the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the priesthood, it pointed forward to a suffering Savior, the Lamb of God, who must die for man’s sin that they might have a relationship with God and be the people of God in a fallen world.

But how quickly their commitment to this special revelation of God faded from their minds, for in the very next book of the Bible, Judges, we read about that which characterized the nation during the time of the judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

We are no different today in our country. Though our nation was founded on the precepts of Scripture as the moral Law of God, we have basically turned away from the Bible to do that which is right in our own eyes. Because we have rejected God’s Word and deny its relevance, we have turned to our futile imaginations (Eph. 4:17f). As a result, we have become like those Isaiah cried out against who are not only experiencing the perversions of our own depraved thinking, but also the judgment of God on our society:

20 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And clever in their own sight! 22 Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine, And valiant men in mixing strong drink; 23 Who justify the wicked for a bribe, And take away the rights of the ones who are in the right! 24 Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes stubble, And dry grass collapses into the flame, So their root will become like rot and their blossom blow away as dust; For they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts, And despised the word of the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 5:20-24).

Just a casual glance at our society today provides clear evidence that we are in desperate need of spiritual and moral revival and a return to our godly roots as given to us by our forefathers. The moral breakdown in society and in our leadership, especially for a nation with our beginnings, is beyond imagination. We are so much like Israel in this regard. I agree with Campbell who says:

The survival of our society may well depend on the willingness of all the people, the leaders in Washington and the citizens across the land, to allow the absolutes of God’s Word to become the law of the land. And Christians must lead the way. You and I must commit ourselves daily to the task of cleansing and purging the “Achan” from ourselves. We must commit ourselves to becoming people of purity, faith, and integrity, inside and out, publicly and privately. Then—and only then—will we be ready to march against the enemy fortresses that stand in our path—and win the victory.52

43 Campbell, Joshua: Leader Under Fire, p. 68.

44 Campbell, p. 68.

45 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded Edition, Moody Press, Chicago, 1995, p. 343.

46 Campbell, p. 69.

47 Campbell, p. 69.

48 Campbell, p. 70.

49 Boice, Joshua: We Will Serve the Lord, Revell, New Jersey, 1989, p. 89.

50 John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, Editors, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Victor Books, Wheaton, 1983,1985, electronic media.

51 Walvoord/Zuck, electronic meida.

52 Campbell/ Denny, p. 129.

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