Israel destroys city of Ai
God encourages Joshua1 The LORD told Joshua, “Don’t be afraid or discouraged. Attack Ai with all your warriors. Listen to me, I’m going to put the city in your hands. I’ll give you the king, his people, his city, and all the land he owns outside the city. 2 You’ll do to Ai and their king what you did to Jericho and their king. But this time I’m going to let you take from the city whatever you want. You can have their cattle, too. Set up an ambush behind the city.
Joshua plots an ambush3 Joshua and the army got ready to march against Ai. To set the trap for an ambush, Joshua picked 30,000 of his strongest fighting men. He sent them to Ai under cover of night. 4 Joshua gave them these orders: “Eyes on me. This is important. You’re going to ambush the enemy. Hide behind the city, not too far away. Stay on high alert. All of you. 5 I’ll lead the attack on the city. When their men come out, we’ll turn and run like before. 6 They’ll chase us and say, ‘Look, they’re doing it again. Running away.’ We’ll draw them away from the city. 7 When that happens, attack the city. It’s yours. The LORD your God will see to it. 8 When you take the city, set it on fire. Follow the LORD’s orders. And carry out my orders.” 9 Joshua sent the ambush troops on their way. They took a position west of Ai, in the direction of Bethel. Joshua stayed in camp with the rest of Israel.
Israel camps outside Ai10 Early the next morning, Joshua led his main strike force on a march up to Ai. Israel’s leaders came, too. 11 All the warriors with him set up camp north of Ai. There was a small valley between them and the city. 12 Joshua ordered 5,000 men to hide in ambush west of Ai, near Bethel. 13 So, Israel’s main attack group camped north of Ai. Others hid in ambush west of the city. After dark, Joshua walked into the valley near Ai.
Ai attacks14 When the king saw Israel’s army, he mustered his men that night and had them ready for battle early the next morning. He led his men out the front gate, facing east. He didn’t know a strike force lay in ambush behind him and behind the city, to the west. 15 Joshua and the men with him in the main attack force let Ai drive them back into a retreat. 16 When that happen, Ai signaled all defenders in the city to join the chase for the runaway Israelites. That’s how Joshua lured them away from the city. 17 There wasn’t one defender left in Ai or the neighboring town of Bethel. They had all joined the hunt for fleeing Israelites.
Israel springs its trap18 The LORD told Joshua, “Raise your spear and point it to Ai. I’m going to help you take the city now.” Joshua did that. 19 Joshua raised his spear, triggering the ambush. His men charged out of their hiding places behind Ai. They rushed into the city, took control of it, and quickly set it on fire. 20 Ai’s fighting men saw the fire behind them, with the smoke billowing high in the sky. But they couldn’t go anywhere. 21 When Joshua and his men saw the smoke, they realized the ambush had worked and the city had fallen. So, they turned on the fighters of Ai and started killing them. 22 The Israelite strike force that captured and burned the city now rushed toward Ai’s army, trapping their men between two Israelite strike forces. Israelites killed them all. Not one of Ai’s defenders escaped. No one survived.
The king is dead23 Israelites captured the king and kept him alive long enough to take him to Joshua. 24 The Israelites killed every fighter of Ai who had tried to run them down, along with everyone who tried to escape. Then they returned to Ai and finished killing all the people there. 25 Israelites killed 12,000 people of Ai, the entire population. 26 When Joshua raised his spear, triggering the ambush, he didn’t lower it until everyone in Ai was dead. 27 The LORD, earlier, told Joshua that his men could take cattle and anything else they found in the city. So, they did. 28 Joshua left Ai in ruins. It’s still nothing but a pile of rocks and dirt. 29 Joshua ordered his men to kill the king and hang his body from a tree until evening. That evening they tossed his body by the entrance gate into the city he had ruled. They piled stones over him—a huge pile that’s still there today.
Meeting at the twin mountains30 Joshua later built a sacrificial altar to the LORD, Israel’s God. He built it on Mount Ebal. 31 Moses had told him to do it. So, Joshua followed the instructions as they’re written in the Law of Moses. Moses told him to use native stones that had never been chiseled with tools. On the altar Joshua built, Israelites sacrificed burnt offerings along with peace offerings. 32 As Moses had instructed, Joshua wrote onto the stones a copy of the Law of Moses. All the people watched. 33 Everyone assembled in the valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Israel’s leaders—elders, officials, and judges—stood on both sides of the Box of the Law, with the priests who carried it. Everyone was there, whether Israelite or others living among them. Half stood by Mount Gerizim. The other half stood by Mount Ebal. Moses had told them to do this. Moses said they should start by reading the blessings that God promised them for following the law. 34 After that they read the painful consequences of breaking the law. These are preserved in the Law Book. 35 Joshua read out loud every law Moses ever taught. All the people were there, including the women, children, and outsiders living among the Israelites.
There are two mounds of ruins that scholars pitch as contenders for Ai: et-Tel and el-Maqatir. They’re both about a 10-mile (16 km) walk uphill from Jericho—about a half-day march. The walk is almost a one-mile climb, more than a kilometer. Jericho’s elevation is -846 feet (-258 m). The area around the possible sites of Ai are more than 3,000 feet above sea level (one km).
The law of Moses demanded that Israelites kill them all. “When the LORD your God gives them to you, you’ll need to finish them off. After you defeat them in battle, wipe them out by killing them all. Don’t make any peace treaty with them. Don’t show them mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2). Also: “They promised the LORD, ‘If you will let us defeat those people, we will annihilate all Canaanites and decimate their cities” (Numbers 21:2). The Hebrew word for “annihilate” is herem.
This may have been a second ambush located in the same general area as the ambush with 30,000 men (8:3, 9). Or perhaps only 5,000 of that 30,000 remained in hiding there. The other 25,000 may have joined forces with Joshua, to make Israel’s second attack on the city look serious and not a trick to lure Ai’s defenders away.
Joshua’s strike force running away from of the men of Ai suddenly stopped retreating. They started fighting and killing the Ai defenders. Behind Ai’s army were more Israelites: the ambushing strike force. They captured and burned the city and were now charging toward Ai rear guard.
Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal are two mountains side-by-side, separated by a valley that provided a popular route for travelers in Bible times. The mountains were near the center of Canaan. Today, they’re in the Occupied West Bank, which is Palestinian Territory patrolled and increasingly settled by Israelis. In the time of Moses, the area was already sacred to the Israelites. That’s because Abraham, father of what became the Jewish people, camped near there, close to the city of Shechem. And this is where God told Abraham, “I’m going to give this land to you and your family” (Genesis 12:7).
The Law of Moses may refer to the Book of Deuteronomy. That book preserves a series of speeches Moses made to the people summing up what became the Jewish laws from Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, along with teachings from Genesis. The law mentioned here may refer to these instructions of Moses: “When you cross the Jordan River and step onto the land the LORD your God is giving you, set up a stone marker. Use large stones and coat them in plaster. Write on that monument every word of this law” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3).
This was the most common animal sacrifice. Worshipers burned the entire animal. See Leviticus 1.
A peace offering, described in Leviticus 3, is one of several prescribed offerings in Jewish tradition. When Jewish people wanted to give thanks to God for something, such as good health or safety, they would sacrifice a sheep, goat, cow, or bull. They would burn part of the animal, including the kidneys and fat covering the intestines. They would eat the rest in celebration, often with family and friends. It takes a fair number of hungry people to eat a cow. But people were eager to eat meat because it was rare in Bible times for common folks to eat meat, many Bible scholars say.
What “Law of Moses” did Joshua write onto the stones? Scholars don’t agree. The Hebrew word for “law” is tora. Today, Jews call their code of laws the Torah. These are the laws in the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. That would be a lot of words to write onto the plaster-covered monument. Perhaps the law Moses spoke about was the law he outlined in Deuteronomy chapters 12-26. Still, that’s a lot of words for a stone monument. Another possibility might be the foundation of all the laws for the Torah: The Ten Commandments.
Also known as the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-plated box that held the Ten Commandments. It represented the presence of God among the Israelites, traveling with them.
“When you cross the Jordan River, go to the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal. Have these six tribes stand on Mount Gerizim and recite God’s blessings for following the law: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. Have these six tribes stand on Mount Ebal and recite the painful consequences of breaking the law: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali” (Deuteronomy 27:12-13).
Deuteronomy 27:14-26; 28:15-68.
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