In this essay we take up chapter eight, verses 1-29, which tells the story of Israel’s second attack on Ai. With the discovery and death of Achan and his children, God lifted the ban from Israel; and he returned his blessing to her. The Lord told Joshua not to “fear or be dismayed.” Ai would fall to Israel. And the Lord even gave Joshua the tactics he was to use against the town. For this attack Joshua was to use the entire army instead of only 3,000 men; and he was to use an ambush. The Lord directed that the people in the town were to be killed, but the livestock and the valuables were to be given to the people as booty.
The next part of the story contains a textual problem. The textual problem is the difference in the number of the soldiers laid in ambush in verses three and 12 respectively. In verse three Joshua chose 30,000 men to lay in ambush; and in verse 12, he set 5,000 to the task.
There are two ways of dealing with this matter. The first is to assume that two groups of soldiers were placed in ambush. That is possible. The main difficulty with this solution is the ambush group’s role. It was to attack the unprotected town, set it on fire, and then cut off the retreat of Ai’s army. They did not need two groups to do that.
Thus the second solution rejects the idea that two ambush groups were involved. It also rejects the idea that 30,000 troops made up the ambush group, as indicated in verses three. A group of 30,000 was not needed to take the unprotected town and set it on fire. This solution suggests instead that the number, 30,000. given in verse three is incorrect, perhaps because of a copyist’s error.
You will recall that Israel’s first assessment of the town was that two or three thousand troops could take it without any deception at all. Now they were going to trick the town’s people into leaving it unprotected. And a group of 5,000 was more than enough men for that duty. Plus the group is called a “rear guard” in verse 13. Rear guards always were a relatively small number of men.
Obviously the difficulty with this second solution is that it seems to question something recorded in God’s Word. But actually, the matter is not one of questioning something of substance. Numbers are a rather consistent problem in the Old Testament, especially in the historical books. For example, a comparison of the numbers given in the books of Samuel and Kings with those given in Chronicles shows differences that cannot easily be harmonized. And they usually are explained as copyist’s errors. Many scholars believe that is the best solution here. You will have to decide between the solutions yourself.
However large the ambush force was, or how many ambush forces there were, it (or they) hid on the west side of Ai, verses 9 and 12. Then Joshua took the main force and camped on the north side of town, verse 11. In the morning Joshua began an attack with his main force (v. 10); and the army of Ai did the same thing as before. They went out to meet the attacking force (v. 14). Why not? It had worked the last time.
Then Joshua had his army fall back, giving the impression to Ai’s army that Israel was running away, as her army had done during the first attack (v. 15). The Ai army took the bait and pursued Israel’s army (v. 16).
Next, Joshua gave the signal for the group in ambush to attack the open, unprotected town; and they easily took it and set it on fire (vv. 18-20). When the smoke of the burning city began to rise, both armies saw it. That was Israel’s sign to turn again and attack Ai’s army (v. 21). And it brought a realization to the army of Ai that they had been tricked.
The ambush force finished its work in Ai, and then they came out against the rear of the Ai army. Israel’s soldiers thus forced the Ai army to fight on two fronts; and they quickly defeated them, killing every last man (v. 22). Only Ai’s king was left alive (vv. 22-23).
Thus we see what might be called ‘the mop-up” operation. Israel proceeded to kill not only every soldier, but also every inhabitant of the town. The total population, we are told, was 12,000 (vv. 24-26). Then they took the livestock and the other valuables as booty, as the Lord had said. Finally they completed the burning of the city and killed the king (vv. 27-29).
There is an interesting piece of information in verse 17 that easily can be missed, because it is given so fast, without comment. Verse 17 says, “There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel.” The city of Bethel was located fairly near to Ai; and evidently they took part in the battle. This suggests that Israel may have taken Bethel that day as well as Ai.
Turning now to application, I would point to the fact, seen in verses 1-2, that the Lord directed Joshua to use the whole army in the second attack. In other words the Lord did not make the mistake of underestimating the power of an enemy as Joshua had done (v. 1). We can learn form that. In the sanctified life we are at war with the powers of evil; and we must never underestimate their power.
In the next section of the narrative, say from verse three through verse 13, we see the Lord’s strategy. That implies that we need a strategy for living the Christian life. The thing I noticed in these verses was the timing. The Lord’s strategy required precise timing. Once the diversion began, Joshua had to recognize the proper time to signal the ambush group to move into the city; and then the main force had to turn back on Ai’s army at the right time to produce maximum confusion and a crossfire. Not only do we need to have a strategy for Christian living, we need to appreciate the importance of timing.
For example, some husbands respond to a call from God to attend seminary before God has called their wives. They move their families without adequate prayer and preparation for the wives, and I have seen it break their marriages. That cannot be God’s will. Therefore it is not God’s timing. I’m sure you can think of other examples of the importance of timing in the Christian life?
One might find a point of application in the poor decisions by the leaders of Ai. First they made their decision on how to defend their city without proper reconnaissance, which meant that hey were easily set up for the ambush. And then they failed to post a rear guard, which made them vulnerable to attack from the rear. In the Christian life, we must be alert to what is going on around us; and we must be prepared to meet the enemy on any front. The foe we fight is as crafty as he is evil; and constant vigilance is required.