Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Battle of Ai

Posted by foryourfaith on September 13, 2011


With Jericho captured, according to the Biblical account, Joshua sent scouts into the Judean hill country to the west to reconnoiter the territory around the city of Ai. They returned with an optimistic report and advised Joshua that a token force of some two or three thousand should be ample to capture the town. Their optimism was ill-founded. The 3,000 men who were sent out “broke before the people of Ai, who killed some thirty-six of them and pursued them from the town gate as far as Shebarim, and on the slope cut them to pieces” (Joshua 7:4-5).

At this the Israelites lost heart. In desperation, Joshua and the elders of Israel went to the Ark of Yahweh to seek an oracle. They were told that one of their number had brought bad luck upon them by stealing something from the accursed city of Jericho, thus violating the rules of “holy war” whereby all booty belonged to Yahweh.

By a process of elimination, the culprit was discovered. He was certain Achan of the tribe of Judah, who had stolen a fine robe, 200 shekels of silver and a gold ingot weighing 50 shekels. The unfortunate man was led away from the camp and stoned to death.

Their confidence now restored, the Israelites decided to renew the attack on Ai. Joshua devised a simple stratagem, designed to draw the city’s inhabitants away from the fortifications so the Israelites could then enter the town.

He picked 30,000 of his best men and carefully explained to them his plan and their part in it: “You must take up a concealed position by the town, at the rear, not very far from the town and be sure you all keep alert! I and the whole people with me, shall advance on the town, and when the people of Ai come out to engage us as they did the first time, we shall run away from them. They will then give chase and we shall draw them away from the town . . . . You will then burst out of your concealed position and seize the town. . . . When you have captured the town, set fire to it” (Joshua 8:4-8).

The select force left under cover of night for their place of ambush west of Ai on the way to Bethel. The following morning Joshua reviewed his main body of troops and then marched towards Ai at their head. They “pitched camp north of Ai with the valley between them and the town” (8:11).

That night, Joshua made a conspicuous sally into the plain to make sure that the people of Ai were aware of the Israelite presence. At daybreak the forces of Ai duly came out to engage the Israelites in battle. All went according to plan. The Israelites retreated eastward along the road to Jericho with the enemy in hot pursuit, leaving Ai undefended.

The time had come for Joshua to give the pre-arranged signal. He raised his sword, pointing it in the direction of Ai and “no sooner had he stretched out his hand than the men in ambush burst from their position, ran forward, entered the town, captured it and quickly set it on fire” (Joshua 8:19). As the men of Ai helplessly watched their city burning, the retreating Israelites turned around and attacked their pursuers. At the same time, the troops who had captured Ai came upon them from the rear. The men of Ai were trapped and “the Israelites struck them down until not one was left alive and none to flee” (Joshua 8:22).

The Israelites then returned to the town and ruthlessly slaughtered the remaining inhabitants. “The number of those who fell that day, men and women together, was twelve thousand, all people of Ai” (Joshua 8:25). The city was plundered and razed to the ground. The king of Ai, who had been captured alive, was hanged from a tree, but before nightfall his corpse was taken down. “It was then thrown down at the entrance to the town gate and on top of it was raised a great mound of stones, which is still there today” (8:29).

The story of the conquest of Ai, so vividly described in the Bible, appears to lack historical foundation. The imposing remains of Ai (identified with modern Et Tell) lie on a hill some ten miles north of Jerusalem. The great Early Bronze Age city was destroyed towards the end of the third millennium BC, about 1,000 years before Joshua, and the site seems to have been completely abandoned at the time of the conquest.

The Joshua narrative as a whole contains many legendary features and presents the conquest as a unitary, pan-Israelite enterprise which is almost certainly an expression of the ideals of the later authors. Many scholars see the Ai story as a typical folk myth, created to explain the presence of the impressive earlier ruins. It may reflect the period of the Judges when unfortified villages were built, probably by the Israelites, on ancient mounds. Other scholars believe that the Biblical account has transposed events from a neighboring site with a different name, perhaps Bethel.

Although the story of Ai cannot, it seems, be backed up historically, it nevertheless presents several interesting features. The poorly-trained and ill-equipped Israelites were obviously no match for the experienced and well-armed Canaanite forces. Whenever the capture of a city is described, the victory is secured by espionage, treachery or clever strategy.

At Jericho the Israelite spies were helped by the prostitute Rahab, while at Bethel a traitor showed the scouts how the Israelites could gain entry to the town. The classic ruse employed by Joshua at Ai was used on another occasion at Gibeah, when the Israelites defeated the Bejaminites (Judges 20: 29-41). Jehoram of Israel suspected the same trick when the Aramaeans raised the siege of Samaria (2 Kings 7:12).

The Book of Joshua presents the conquest of Canaan as the “holy war” par excellence. Yahweh was fighting for the life of his people and the people accordingly were commanded to have faith and conformed to definite rules. Anyone who broke the rules, like Achan, was thought to bring down the “curse of destruction” upon the entire people. The guilty person had to be executed to release everyone from the effect of the curse. The heap of stones piled up to mark the grave of the king of Ai reflects local custom. A similar cairn was built over the tomb of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:17) and the grave of Achan.

A final point of interest concerns the weapon which Joshua wielded when he gave the signal for the ambushing force to attack Ai. The weapon is described in Hebrew as a kidon. The Philistine Goliath also carried a kidon of bronze slung across his shoulders. The word has often been translated “javelin” but a document from the caves of Qumran, which probably dates to the first century BC, seems to describe the kidon as a sword, one and half cubits long (about 27 inches) and four finger-breadths wide.

Another possibility is that the kidon was a type of scimitar. Whatever its precise form, the kidon rarely occurs in the Biblical texts, and except when it is held up by Joshua at the Battle of Ai, it is never found in the hands of an Israelite.


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