God’s promise to Joshua to help in a second attempt to conquer the Canaanite city of Ai swiftly brought Israel’s leader out of his state of discouragement. Joshua immediately chose thirty thousand soldiers for the strategy he had in mind.
“I’m not sending you to directly attack Ai,” Joshua informed the officers who were to be in command. “Late tonight you are to take your soldiers toward Ai. Guides will show you the way. Do not go close to the city. Go well around it to the west and conceal yourselves in the rugged country between Ai and Bethel, which is a few miles west of Ai. I shall send others before dawn” (Joshua 8:1-8).
It was well after dark when the thirty thousand fully equipped foot soldiers set out to the northwest. Guides led them well off to a safe distance west of Ai. Every effort was made to muffle the stomp, clang and jingle of marching men as they moved into the heights between Ai and the adjoining city of Bethel.
When at last the soldiers reached an area where they could hide, they rested for the remainder of the night. The only fires allowed were small ones hidden under overhanging rocks that would eclipse any show of light.
Joshua remained at the Israelite camp at Gilgal until after midnight. Then he set out with the elders of Israel and officers and the remainder of the soldiers. In the early morning hours they arrived on the north side of Ai. By the time he arrived, it was not far from dawn. There wasn’t any time to be lost in preparing for what had to be done.
“Take five thousand solders and move in close to Ai on the west side before sun-up,” Joshua instructed some of his officers. “Be very careful that no one can be seen from Ai or from the city of Bethel to the west. I shall go with a few thousand to be in the valley just north of Ai when the sun comes up. When the people of Ai discover us, they will rush out to attack and we will flee from them. When you who are hiding west of Ai see me waving a bright banner from the end of my spear, you will know that it is time to rush into Ai and set the city on fire. The huge fire will attract the attention of our pursuers. The 30,000 soldiers on the west and all the troops on the north side of the valley are then to move swiftly in on the confused enemy” (Joshua 8:9-11).
Joshua and his “bait” forces moved down into the valley north of Ai just before dawn.
When light came over the area, guards on the wall of Ai were startled to see that military forces were approaching the city from the north side of the valley. Word was sent to the king of Ai who was still feeling victorious because his soldiers had previously routed what was considered an invincible army.
When the king witnessed the Israelites approaching on the plain, he became very excited. Here, he thought, was a golden opportunity to twice vanquish the dreaded enemy that had invaded Canaan. Any city or nation that could put Israel on the run two times would be regarded as gloriously heroic and powerful. Flushed with the thought of a second victory, the king lost no time in ordering most of his men out to clash with the Israelites before they could reach Ai.
The north gate of the city swung open, and out rushed the howling troops of Ai to head swiftly down into the valley and directly toward the Israelites. Intending to make a great name for himself as the leader of the forces that would overcome the feared Israelites, the king of the city came out with his men. When the two forces were only a few hundred feet apart, the king noticed that the Israelites suddenly came to a halt. It seemed that they were getting ready to make a stand, but when they turned and ran off eastward in the direction of the Jordan River, the ruler of Ai could scarcely believe his eyes.
“We’ve got them on the run already!” one of the king’s officers shouted. “Send a man back to the city!” the king shouted back excitedly. “Tell him that I order every man there, and also the soldiers from Bethel, to join us at once and wipe out the Israelites even if we have to drive them all the way to the Jordan!”
Still at a safe distance away in the valley, Joshua and the soldiers with him continued to move away in feigned flight. When Joshua saw a second regiment pouring out of Ai, he was certain that there couldn’t be many more men, if any, remaining in the city (Joshua 8:14-17).
The time had come for Joshua to wave a bright banner attached to his spear. The signal was seen by sharp-eyed lookouts west of Ai. They motioned to the 5,000 men hiding about and below them. Within minutes the 5,000 Israelites soldiers were racing into the unmanned city.
Already the men of Ai and Bethel were too far away to hear the loud screams of the women and children whom they had left undefended. They were shortening the distance between themselves and the Israelites, and contact and victory appeared to be only minutes away when one of the officers moved close to the excited king and gestured frantically toward the rear.
The king looked around, and his expression of almost gleeful anticipation faded from his face. He gave a signal to halt. The bewildered soldiers came to a stop and looked about to see why they had been ordered to stop. Then all of them saw the smoke and flames belching up from inside the walls of Ai!
“We’ve been tricked!” the king roared. “Get back to the city!”
When Joshua saw the Canaanite soldiers stop and set off in the opposite direction, and saw smoke billowing up from Ai, he again waved the banner he had been holding. The men with him suddenly turned on the Canaanites. The thousands of Israelite soldiers hiding at the north rim of the valley opposite Ai leaped out of hiding and stormed down the slopes at a right angel to the path of the enemy troops racing back toward the cities of Ai and Bethel. The 30,000 in hiding on the west plunged toward Bethel.
Then, out of Ai rushed the 5,000 Israelites who had set the fires in the streets of the city to lure the enemy soldiers back. Joining the other troops they set off directly toward the oncoming troops of Ai and Bethel. At the same time Joshua and the men with him began pursuing the Canaanites westward.
Boxed in on three sides by rapidly approaching troops, the Canaanites had to stand and fight or race madly about trying to find a way of escape to the south. Those who tried to fight were quickly wiped out. Those who tried to flee up the south slope of the valley were overtaken and slaughtered. The only man to be captured alive was the king (Joshua 8:18-23).
Leaving thousands of dead bodies littering the valley, the Israelites converged on Ai and destroyed the rest of the pagans who remained there. Not until then did Joshua lower the banner that waved from his spear.
Things of value were removed from the city, and then it was burned. As for the king of Ai, he was hanged on a tree as a punishment for his gross idolatry. At sunset his body was cut down, tossed on the ground before one of the gates of Ai and covered with a large heap of stones. News of the kings’ disgraceful end was certain to swiftly reach other rulers of nearby cities, communities and nations, and thus add to the fear and terror growing in that region of paganism.
What was more likely to impress the other nations, however, was that twelve thousand Canaanite men and women perished that day (vs. 24-29).
After the victors had returned to Gilgal with their booty and had rested a few days, Joshua declared that a special ceremony would be held in an area several miles north of Ai. All Israel made the journey over rough country, the ark being carried along as usual. The only ones who didn’t go along were a few soldiers to watch over the camp and take care of the animals.
The people congregated on the slopes of two neighboring high points, Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, as Moses had commanded them (Deut. 11:29-30). They watched and listened as the sacred ceremonies took place. An altar was erected on Mt Ebal, of unhewn stones as God had commanded (Ex. 20:25). Burnt offerings and peace offerings were made there. Joshua read to the people the many blessings that would come to them through obedience, and the cursings that would come to them through disobedience. These things were written on the stones of the altar.
The laws from God, given through Moses, were also read to the people in this solemn assembly. The voices of the readers on the mountains rang out with miraculous, far-reaching volume to the more than two million scattered over the area, to remind them of how God wanted them to live, and of the tremendous importance of being obedient (Joshua 8:30-35).
At the end of the reading of the laws, six tribes on Mt. Gerizim summarized God’s blessings for obedience. Then the other six tribes on Mt. Ebal echoed the curses that would surely befall Israel if they broke the law (Deut. 27:1-19).
After the ceremonies the people camped and then started the return trip to Gilgal. Israel made this journey into enemy territory and back without encountering so much as one enemy soldier. However, the movements of the people weren’t unnoticed, and the rulers of the land became more distressed when they heard of this greater penetration into Canaan.
For centuries the small nations of the region of Canaan had warred among themselves and slain one another. Now that a foreign enemy had entered the land, the rulers put aside their differences and decided to pool their fighting forces and put up a united front against Israel. Israel had no knowledge of these particular plans, though Joshua and his officers were aware that such a thing could happen (Joshua 9:1-2).
While this threat to Israel was being organized, several travelers one day approached Gilgal with their burros. Alert Israelite guards went out to stop them, but brought them into the camp to meet Joshua after they requested to visit with the leader of the Israelites.
“We are ambassadors from a distant nation,” a spokesman for the strangers declared. “We have heard how your people have come up from the south to conquer the nations in this part of the world. We have come a long way to meet you and to ask you to promise our nation, because we are peaceful people, that you will not carry on war with us if ever you reach our borders,” (vs. 3-6).
“You men could be from any of the enemy nations close around us,” Joshua told them. “We need proof that you are from this distant nation you have mentioned. Otherwise, it would be foolish to make a promise to you that we would refrain from attacking your nation.”
“We assure you, sir,” the spokesman replied, “that we are not from any enemy nation. We will be your servants. We have been sent here by the leaders and people of our country – a distant one – to tell you that they have heard of the fame of your great God. They are aware of how he dealt with the ruler of Egypt, and how He helped you become victorious over the Amorites and the kings of Heshbon and Bashan. When our people realized how your God helped you in these battles, they knew that it would be foolish to try to stand against you, so they sent us to ask you to promise not to attack a country so respectful of your power and your God.”
“It could be as you say,” Joshua said, “but as genuine ambassadors you should have some credentials or proof of who you are.”
“We were purposely not given any,” was the reply. “Our superiors knew that if we were stopped by soldiers of any of our neighboring nations, and if it were found that we were ambassadors on a secret peaceful mission to Israel, the neighboring nations would then consider our nation an enemy. In fact, for the sake of our country’s safety, we were told not to even mention the name of our people. Our superior’s hope that this matter can be worked out with our remaining completely nameless for the sake of safety, extreme as it seems. Then, if ever Israel arrives at our borders, we shall make ourselves known.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like this, “Joshua murmured to his officers as he shook his head. “I think it’s time to end this conversation and send these men away.”
“Something occurs to me, sir.” The spokesman for the strangers suddenly remarked. “Perhaps we can at least prove that we are from a distant nation if you will examine our clothes and the few things we have with us!”
“Here is something worth considering,” an officer whispered to Joshua. “A careful examination of these men’s possessions might give us some valuable clues as to how far they have come.”
After a minute of thought Joshua nodded his approval. The strangers were taken out to where their burros were tied, and all that these men had was carefully examined by competent officers. A few minutes later the officers reported to Joshua.
“Obliviously they actually have come a long way,” Joshua was told. Their clothes are dusty and stained with days of travel. Their shoes are well worn as from many miles of walking. Even the sacks on their burros are old-looking as from many hours of exposure to wind, sun and dew. Their empty leather wine bottles are dried out and cracked. They brought out what food they had left. It was hard, moldy bread they claimed was freshly baked the day they started out for here” (Joshua 9:7-13).
To Joshua and his officers this seemed fair evidence that these men had come a great distance from a foreign land.
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.