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CAPTURE OF AI
The shameful failure of Israel to capture Ai, as related in the previous chapter, having at this time been discovered as due to the treachery of Achan, and that sin having now been punished by the death of the offender, the people of Israel at this point in time are again considered to be in full favor with God as His covenant children. The disastrous failure at Ai had surely taught the whole nation an effective lesson, i.e., that, if they obeyed God, He would bless them, and that, if they did not obey Him, they would suffer.
Every student of this chapter is at once confronted with what is alleged to be a contradiction between the number of 30,000 chosen for the ambush in Josh. 8:3, and the number 5,000 mentioned allegedly for the same ambush in Josh. 8:12. We have read several explanations of this: (1) Keil and other very dependable scholars affirm that a scribal error is responsible, and that the number 5,000 is correct.F1 It is evident that the expedient of finding a scribal error here does not solve the problem, for Cook asserted that, "The error would have been in writing 30,000 instead of 5,000,"F2 but Holmes said, "the error would have been in writing 30,000 for 3,000."F3 (2) Woudstra mentioned the possibility that the 30,000 included the 5,000 later detached for the ambush, but mentioned earlier in Josh. 8:3, as the principal feature of the attack.F4 Holmes, and nearly all critical assailants against the Bible declare unequivocally, "That two accounts have been combined is obvious."F5 Of course, in this explanation, the great hoax of all allegedly higher criticism, the ubiquitous "editor," or the ever-ready "redactor," is identified as responsible for "combining" these allegedly different accounts! But, if any such person combined two accounts to give us this record, what an incredibly stupid, egregious person he must have been! The impossibility of even imagining such a character outlaws this explanation as absolutely untenable! We shall refrain from comment on those "scholars" who are constantly appealing to this very class of "editors" and "redactors." Could anyone in his right mind mention a group of people as being 30,000 in number, and then ten seconds later state that they numbered 5,000?
We do not pretend to know the proper solution of this obvious difficulty, but, in all probability, the difficulty itself lies in the complexity and weakness of the Hebrew style of narrative, with the problem of the Hebrew tenses making it virtually impossible, at times, to determine the chronology of several parallel actions occurring simultaneously. Aside from this one tiny problem, the grand action of this chapter is as clear as broad, open daylight.
We might summarize as follows:
(1) God commanded the deployment of a very large force, "all the people," against Ai.
(2) There was to be an ambush set behind the city.
(3) Another detachment was to protect against any assistance that Bethel might give Ai.
(4) The main body of Israel would make a feint of frontal assault against Ai.
(5) They would, at first, fall back, pretending to flee, before the king of Ai's attack.
(6) Joshua, with his javelin, or spear, situated strategically, would signal for the ambush to enter and burn Ai.
(7) All Israel would at that point turn and crush the men of Ai. Now, the Lord has not given us any detailed report of the orders that went out to the various detachments, nor any of the remainder of the devices by which this complicated strategy successfully destroyed Ai, but nobody can miss the main points of it, which we may be sure include all that Christians of the 20th century need to know about it!
Fear not, neither be thou dismayed
Joshua indeed had much to fear, as Matthew Henry said, The treacherous Israelites were more to be dreaded than the malicious Canaanites!F6 As for the reason why God commanded so many to be involved in the capture of Ai, Calvin thought it was to give all the people a chance to view the struggle as their own, and to reassure the peopleF7 by giving them a close-up view of the coming victory. As Blair put it, In order that the morale of all the people could be restored.F8
Take all the people of war with thee
Keil stated that this merely means the whole army,F9 but even that limitation indicated a tremendous number of people. The armed men of Israel at this point numbered over 600,000 fighting men.F10 With such a vast force under his command, whatever number might have been needed in a given task would have been available.
Due to Ai's location only two or three miles from Bethel, the commentators "have a fit" about the IMPOSSIBILITY of hiding 30,000 men in an ambush between the towns. Well, it is hard to imagine, but we do not know anything at all of the terrain, in fact not even for sure WHERE these places were located. We admire the zeal by which scholars have tried to get the Lord out of a difficulty like this, and perhaps the most plausible job was done by Clarke, who found that, "The Hebrew word [~'eleph] means `chief' or `mighty man of valor,' and which is here rendered thousands."F11 If this should be allowed, then it would reduce the size of the ambush from 30,000 men to 30 men, who if they were the equivalent of squad commanders, would also be accompanied by one hundred or so others. The text itself favors this kind of an understanding, due to the fact of Joshua's having "chosen out" these particular men, which seems unlikely enough with regard to 30,000. If one needs help with this problem, we recommend this view as being as good as any.
Pink's understanding of why so many Israelites were engaged in such various ways in the reduction of Ai stressed the lesson that these events carry for Christians. "God's predestination of an event does not render needless our use of means to bring it about."F12 This principle has reinforcement in the N.T. in the event where Paul had already been assured by the Lord that no lives were to be lost in the forthcoming shipwreck, but when Paul noted the sailors about to abandon ship, he firmly stated that without them many lives would be lost (Acts 27:22-31). Pink also pointed out that Joshua's knowledge of the devices of the enemy were turned to good account in this second effort to take Ai. Joshua knew that the men of Ai would come out and chase them, as they did at first, and that proved to be the key to the winning strategy. Concerning the Christian's war against Satan, "We are not ignorant of his devices" (2 Corinthians 2:11). Just as Joshua here turned the sure knowledge of what the king of Ai would do into a victory for Israel, Christians should be forewarned and ready to frustrate all of the devices of the Devil.
Joshua lodged that night among the people
The critical scholars seize any pretext as an excuse for emending, i.e., changing, the Word of God. Sizoo thought Josh. 8:9 contradicts Josh. 8:13 and proposed emending the text (adding one letter) to make it harmonize with Josh. 8:13.F13 Blair stated that, Such emendations are not necessary, and they serve only to support the contention that here we have TWO parallel accounts of the same incident.F14 Boling also refused suggestions that the text needs emending, writing:
"That night means the night previously mentioned in Josh. 8:3. This is the first of two nights. During this first night, the men who were in the ambush were sent on ahead so as to be already in a concealed position when the main force arrived the next day. There is NO contradiction between Josh. 8:9 and Josh. 8:13; they refer to TWO successive nights. The first night, Joshua spent with the main force; the next night, he was in the valley."F15
This passage clears up the mystery of Bethel absolutely. Bethel and Ai were ONE, having the same king, and all of the men of BOTH places engaged in the battle here, and ALL were put to death! Also, it may be doubted that Ai itself was anything more than the principal fortress of Bethel. We have no idea why the name Ai received so much more emphasis here. "The references to Bethel here are mysterious and cannot be fully explained."F16 The "king of Ai" was also the "king of Bethel." This, if not proved, is certainly made likely by the fact that the Bible flatly declares that Joshua slew the king of Bethel (Joshua 12:16), and if the occasion discussed here is not when that happened, when was it? Could there ever have been a better time for Joshua to destroy Bethel, than this occasion, when not a single man had been left alive? To understand Ai and Bethel as "A city" instead of "TWO cities" clears up everything. It explains why "not a man was left in Ai or Bethel that went not after Israel" (Joshua 8:17).
In this connection, we begin to get a glimpse of what kind of book Joshua really is. It is not a detailed record of everything that happened in the conquest. The events narrated are given for specific reasons, the religious meaning of each one being the principal reason for its inclusion. We became familiar with this characteristic of the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Numbers especially, where the history of an entire forty years for a whole nation covers only a few pages.
Before leaving this passage, we wish to express appreciation for Lilley who rejected the common critical claim of multiple sources here, saying that the problem derives from the type of "narrative method rather than sources."F17
The dramatic picture here is that of the total armies of both Bethel and Ai rushing down the steppes to destroy what they have mistakenly supposed to be the defeated Israelites. What a foolish, headlong rush into disaster! Men wonder how such a thing could happen, but it has happened often. Look at the example of Pharaoh rushing into the sea-bed itself where a quarter of a million of his best troops along with the Pharaoh himself went "gurgling down." We must go a little further and affirm with Pink that the same thing is also going on right this very moment in sinners who have not turned to the Lord:
"Before God destroys the wicked, he gives them a spirit of madness. The rebel against God must not suppose that his previous immunity from Divine punishment has endowed him with security. They are most in danger who are least aware of it. The king of Ai was blind to his own interests; is not the sinner the same? The king failed to take the most obvious precautions. Are not sinners also guilty of the same folly, hastening unto eternity utterly unprepared to meet God?"F18
Stretch out the javelin
Holmes made fun of this outstretched javelin as a signal, saying, It looks like a piece of sympathetic magic.F19 However, totally aside from any miraculous power which might have been released by the Divine command for Joshua to stretch out the javelin, there is the definite possibility that from a strategic elevation (the area was full of such places), the spear with which Joshua signaled the attack, probably had a flag or streamer on it to make it more easily visible from the heights where he stood.F20 Another possibility was mentioned by Blair: Joshua probably gave the signal by reflecting the sun from the wide flat blade of his spear.F21
So they let none of them remain or escape
The literal words here in the Hebrew are: Until there remained to them neither remainder nor fugitive.F22 The extent of the slaughter in the conquest of Canaan must have been one of the most terrible disasters of all history. Israel systematically butchered entire populations of every city that they took.
Joshua drew not back his hand
This means that, According to the common custom of war, the general did not lower the war signal until the conflict was to cease.F23
Another interesting thing here is that the king of Ai's body was taken down at sunset, exactly in compliance with the Mosaic instructions in Deut. 21:22,23. In fact, all of Joshua shows this constant reflection of the Deuteronomic laws and of the commandments of Moses, which Joshua carefully honored at all times. All efforts of Biblical critics to make a portion of Joshua "the original Deuteronomy" are contradicted and made to be, in fact ridiculous, by this constant reflection of the previous Biblical books in the pages of Joshua. Woudstra dealt with the critical postulations that would make the narratives of Joshua out to be "etiological," meaning simply that the stories were invented by some subsequent generation in order to explain the monuments, such as the cairn of stones raised over the bodies of Achan and of the king of Ai. We agree with the firm way in which Woudstra contradicted such false notions:
"The Bible presents a reliable record of what the God of history did in space and time. For this reason, the Israel of Joshua's day had good reason to treasure the memories attached to the monuments of the past ... It was not the monuments that remain `unto this day' that triggered the Biblical narratives. The events recorded in the Bible are the true cause of the monuments."F24
We are given here a brief account of the extensive ceremonies at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, the same ceremonies which had been commanded by Moses himself, and which were designed to establish the law of Moses, meaning the five books of the Pentateuch as the official law of the land of Canaan, now in the possession of Israel. There is absolutely nothing here to suggest that this ceremony was accomplished either in a single day, or in an entire week. The reading of "every word of the law of Moses" would itself have involved a number of assemblies. In this we have renewed evidence of the extremely abbreviated nature of the Book of Joshua.
Here we have a passage that the critics hate. The narrative here is denounced as misplaced, unfitting, and "impossible to be true, since Joshua had not yet conquered central Canaan."F25 What really troubles them is the proof this passage gives of the PRIOR existence of the Mosaic law. It is a vain criticism that the passage does not belong here; "Here is where it is!" Furthermore, it belongs here. As Schaeffer noted, "The victorious Israelites now controlled the northern end of the ridge highway that went south to Jerusalem and Hebron. Having defeated Ai (and probably Bethel), they could march straight to Shechem over an excellent road that had been there for generations."F26
Some of the critics think that Joshua should have waited long afterward for this elaborate ceremony, until all of Canaan had been subdued. However, it was Joshua who was correct in his accurate decision that this great ceremony belongs early in the Conquest, just as soon as it was safe to carry it out. In view of this great ceremony coming exactly here, we must conclude that the two initial victories at Jericho and Ai were not all of the victories Israel had won, but especially important ones. There were 31 kingdoms subdued by Joshua in Canaan, and yet this book contains no account whatever of some of them, including Bethel, which, as we have seen, probably occurred almost simultaneously with the destruction of Ai. "Joshua does not profess to give an exhaustive account of the conquest of Canaan."F27
Alfred Plummer noted that efforts to move this passage to some other part of Joshua, as in the LXX, are unsuccessful, and he also rejected out of hand the allegations of critics that Deuteronomy was a fabrication after the times of Joshua and Moses, affirming that, "On the hypothesis of the genuineness of both writings (Deuteronomy and Joshua), everything fits in naturally enough."F28 Also, in this connection, we appeal to the magnificent writings of J. W. McGarvey in his great work, "The Authorship of Deuteronomy," in which after a thorough and exhaustive examination of all the critical theories, confidently affirmed that, "Beyond all possibility of doubt, Deuteronomy came from Moses."F29 We have the same unlimited confidence with reference to Joshua as the author of the Book we are studying.
This tremendous ceremony took place at the two mountains of Gerizim and Ebal, as Moses had directed in Deut. 27. In order to get to that place, Joshua had to lead all of Israel "past the fortress of Shechem, guarding the valley,"F30 indicating that Shechem was in friendly hands at that time. "Several of the Amarna letters declare that around 1380 B.C., the prince of Shechem was in league with some invading army, likely the Hebrews."F31 There is also the possibility that the Israelites had already subdued it.
"Ebal and Gerizim are only a mile and a half apart, and only 500 yards apart at their base."F32 Gerizim is 2,895 feet above sea level; Ebal is 3,077 feet above sea level; and they rise about 1,300 feet and 1,500 feet respectively above the surrounding valley.F33 The two great bays lying near the base of each mountain provide one of the grandest amphitheaters on earth!
"Through the years, many people have tested this. They have stood on one of the mountains and had other people stand on the other or in the valley. As they read in a loud voice, but without amplification, the other persons were able to hear all that was spoken. It is God's own amphitheater."F34
Then Joshua built an altar
Take a look at that altar. It was built exactly as Moses had commanded in Deut. 27:5ff. This marvelous passage shows the close bond between the Pentateuch and Joshua. The importance of the sacrifices and the ceremonies outlined in this abbreviated paragraph is profound. Israel's right to possess the Promised Land is tied to the proclamation of, and subjection to, God's covenant claims upon his people ... This basic lesson should not be lost.F35
Regarding the Divine commandment for the use of plain, undecorated stones in the building of God's altar, this indicates that the true worship of God never needs to be doctored up and decorated by human "improvements." "Here is a complete negation of all humanism."F36 God's altar was not to be decorated, or have carvings of any kind, and its stones were not even to be smoothed or squared. In the light of this, can it be a mystery why such things as instruments of music do NOT belong in the worship of Jesus Christ?
It is significant that this altar was built, not on the mount of the blessings, but on the mount of the cursings, indicated, perhaps, that it is precisely mankinds sin's that require an altar to be available.
All of the blessings and cursings, as outlined in Moses' instructions for this grand ceremony were carried out exactly as Moses commanded, and for a full discussion of this ceremony, see the final chapters of Deuteronomy, above. "This whole ceremony was a symbolical setting up of the Law of Moses as the law of the land."F37 The curses were pronounced from Ebal on the north side of the valley, and the blessings from Gerizim on the south.
Cook pointed out that this is an exceedingly brief account of the observance of this grand ceremony, only the principal features of it being outlined, so that we may understand that it was completely observed.F38 Of course, most of the commentators rush in to tell us that "not the whole law" was read to the people. Dummelow limited the portion read to the people as consisting of a mere two chapters from Deuteronomy.F39 All such comments deny what is clearly stated here in Josh. 8:35, i.e., that "there was not a word that Moses spoke, that was not read to the people." As noted above, there is no reason whatever to limit this tremendous ritual to a single day, or even to a single week. It has not been too long since Biblical enemies were affirming that "writing did not exist" in those days, but now it is known that the Code of Hammurabi (about 1700 B.C.), containing (1) its prologue; (2) 282 sections; and (3) the epilogue was written on stones, and those stones have now been discovered.F40 Where then does the notion come from that the Law of Moses was too big to be written on stones?
What a glorious event this whole extravaganza must have been to the people of Israel, having come at last to inherit the ancient promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their formal acceptance here of their duties under the covenant was perhaps the grandest moment in the whole history of the Chosen People.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.