Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And the LORD said unto Joshua, Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land:VIII.
(1) Fear not, neither be thou dismayed.—See Joshua 1:9; Joshua 10:25. In Joshua 1:9, “For the Lord thy God is with thee.” These words indicate the return of Jehovah to the host of Israel, for the prosecution of the war.
Take all the people.—Not merely “two or three thousand,” as before.
Ai.—In Hebrew, Hâ-ai. Ai is intended for one syllable, not two as often sounded in English. It means “the heap” (of ruins apparently). In Joshua 8:28 we read that Joshua made it “an heap for ever” (Tel-ôlâm in Hebrew). Thus its first and last names agree. It is remarked that whereas Palestine is full of “Tels” with other names appended to them (as Tell-es Sultan, and some ten others near Jericho alone), the place called et-Tel by Bethel has no other appendage. It is not the heap of anything, but simply the heap, to this day; and this fact, which is apparently without parallel, seems to fix the site of Ai at et-Tel. (See Note on Joshua 7:2.)
And his land.—The capture of Ai was not simply the capture of a town or fortress, but of the chief town of a territory, the extent of which we are not told. If we knew the circumstances of the time more precisely, we might apprehend the strategical reasons which made it desirable to obtain possession of Ai in particular at this stage of the campaign.
And thou shalt do to Ai and her king as thou didst unto Jericho and her king: only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves: lay thee an ambush for the city behind it.(2) Only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall ye take—i.e., the material spoil, not the persons of the inhabitants. (See Joshua 11:14.) Jericho was treated exceptionally, in that the material spoil was made chêrem, devoted to destruction, as the thing accursed of God.
So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai: and Joshua chose out thirty thousand mighty men of valour, and sent them away by night.(3) And Joshua chose out thirty thousand mighty men.—Some difficulty arises from the fact that thirty thousand men are mentioned as having been sent away with general instructions to form an ambush in the first instance, while five thousand were ultimately posted between Bethel and Ai. Were there two distinct bodies in ambush, or only one? It does not seem possible to answer this question with absolute certainty; but we ought to notice in the first place what the aim of Joshua was. He meant to isolate the town of Ai, taking it in front and flank; but there was another town immediately in the rear, less than two miles off. It was necessary, therefore, to employ a sufficient body of men to close the communications between Bethel and Ai from the first.
And he commanded them, saying, Behold, ye shall lie in wait against the city, even behind the city: go not very far from the city, but be ye all ready:(4-8) Joshua’s general plan of operations is stated in these verses. The following verses explain how it was worked out.
Joshua therefore sent them forth: and they went to lie in ambush, and abode between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai: but Joshua lodged that night among the people.(9) They went to lie in ambush.—Or, they went to the lurking-place; and remained between Bethel and Ai. The ambush itself (Joshua 8:2; Joshua 8:7; Joshua 8:19; Joshua 8:21) is described by a slightly different word.
Among the people—i.e., at Gilgal.
10) Joshua . . . numbered.—Or, rather, mustered the people.
He then went up with the elders of Israel at the head of the main body, and made an imposing demonstration with a large force in front of the town.
And all the people, even the people of war that were with him, went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city, and pitched on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between them and Ai.(11) On the north side.—The lurking-place of the thirty thousand was on the west side, between Bethel and Ai. There is a ravine called the Wady Maheesin which runs nearly east and west, on the north of et-Tel, and probably Joshua’s main body took up a position on the rising ground to the north of this ravine, for it is added, “the ravine (or Gai) was between them and Ai.”
And he took about five thousand men, and set them to lie in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city.(12) And he took about five thousand men, and set them to lie in ambush . . .—Is this a fresh body, or only a portion of the thirty thousand mentioned in Joshua 8:3? It is, of course, possible that the body of thirty thousand, having closed the communications between Bethel and Ai on the first night, and finding that they were more numerous than was necessary, had rejoined Joshua when he came up, and that a small body of five thousand was told off for the service on the next day. But after carefully studying the natural features of the position by the Ordnance map (of which I have been able to enjoy the advantage at this point of my work), I am inclined to think that both forces were employed—the thirty thousand and the five thousand—and for distinct services. There are two ravines, which come to a head between Beitin (Bethel) and et-Tel (Ai). The body of men who were to fire the town of Ai were posted in the one nearer to Ai. The larger body, whose business was to prevent any interference from the side of Bethel, were posted in the ravine next to that city, where they had been from the first. If it be remembered, as was before observed, that Joshua was attacking a fortified town, which was protected in flank by another town, and that it was necessary to be prepared for all contingencies from the first, the meaning of his movements will be apparent.
And when they had set the people, even all the host that was on the north of the city, and their liers in wait on the west of the city, Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley.(13) Joshua went that night into the. . . . valley (Emek).—Not the ravine (or Gai) before mentioned (Joshua 8:11), but a wider and more open part of the valley, probably a little further to the south;· the object being to draw the men of Ai into a pursuit in the direction of the road to Gilgal.
And it came to pass, when the king of Ai saw it, that they hasted and rose up early, and the men of the city went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at a time appointed, before the plain; but he wist not that there were liers in ambush against him behind the city.(14) When the king of Ai saw it. . . . the city went out.—The stratagem succeeded perfectly. Joshua gave them ample time, by his movements in open daylight, to discover what his apparent intentions were, viz., to renew the direct attack upon the city with a larger force. Accordingly, the Canaanites came out before the plain—i.e., in the direction of the plain of Jordan (the Arabah. On this word and Emek and Gai used above, see Stanley, Sinai and Palestine)—intending to drive Joshua down by the way he had come up. And accordingly Joshua and his army fled in that very direction by the way of the Midbar or wilderness—i.e., the mountainous district between Ai and the Jordan valley, and lying in that direction. (Comp. Joshua 7:5.)
And there was not a man left in Ai or Bethel, that went not out after Israel: and they left the city open, and pursued after Israel.(17) There was not a man left in Ai or Beth-el.—Another singular justification of the peculiar strategy of Joshua. The road past Beth-el to Ai had been left open. It passes the north end of the two ravines in which Joshua’s ambush was posted. At the same time, it would have been easy to conceal a chain of sentinels that could observe it and tell the 35,000 men in ambush what was going on, so that if any attempt had been made by the men of Beth-el to protect Ai, it could easily have been frustrated. But no one suspected any danger, and therefore no such attempt was made. The men of Beth-el and Ai took the road that was left open to them and pursued the Israelites, probably down the ancient way past Michmash towards the Shebarim, leaving Beth-el and Ai both unprotected. After they had gone some distance, about a mile or a mile and a half from Ai, this road would bring them past the lower end of the ravine in which the ambush was posted. A second chain of outposts would easily take the signal from Joshua when this point had been passed, and then all was over with the town of Ai.
It is curious that we do not hear of the capture of Beth-el at this time, though it would have been perfectly easy to take it. The king of Beth-el is named in the list of those whom Joshua smote (Joshua 12:16). We read of its capture in Judges 1:22, and of the “entrance into the city” being sought for and betrayed. But that can hardly have been the first capture of the town.
And the LORD said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thine hand. And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand toward the city.(18) And the Lord said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear.—In the capture of Ai, as in that of Jericho, each stage of the process must be ordered by the Lord. In the former case the hand of Jehovah alone does the work. The ark is borne round the walls until they fall down before it. Against Ai, the hand of Israel is employed, and first of all in Israel the hand of Joshua. He seems to have stretched it out, with the light spear or javelin which he carried, somewhat as Moses stretched forth the rod of God over the contending hosts of Amalek and Israel, until the enemy was discomfited with the edge of the sword.
Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua.(27) The spoil of that city Israel took.—The spoil of Ai was assigned to Israel, the spoil of Jericho had been claimed for Jehovah alone.
And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day.(28) An heap for ever.—Heb., Tel-ôlam; modern name, Et-tel.
And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcase down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.(29) And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree.—(See Note on Deuteronomy 21:22-23.) Heb., on the tree. Why “the tree”? It would appear from Joshua 8:2; Joshua 10:1, that the king of Jericho was also hanged; possibly both were hanged on the same tree, and were exhibited, each in turn, as “the curse of God.” But when we read of this treatment of the enemies of Joshua, we cannot but be reminded of the greater Joshua, who fulfilled the curse of God in His own person, and made a show of the “principalities and powers” by triumphing over them in His cross. (Comp. also Esther 9:10; Esther 9:13.)
Jericho and Ai are the only cities of Canaan of which the capture by Joshua is recorded in detail. Their capture stands in the narrative, as it was in fact, a specimen of the whole conquest of the Canaanite cities. Two campaigns in like manner are recorded as specimens of Joshua’s battles with the enemy in the open field. In the capture of Jericho and in the southern campaign, the hand of God is more especially manifested. In the capture of Ai and in the northern campaign, the labour of Israel in the conflict is more prominent. The whole work is thus presented to us in a twofold aspect, as the work of Israel and the work of God.
A great heap of stones.—Not only the death, but the burial of the king of Ai is recorded, as also the burial of the five kings in Joshua 10:27. The same thing was done to Achan (Joshua 7:26), and to Absalom (2Samuel 18:17). This kind of burial is another form of the curse, and is a fitting sequel to the hanging of the body upon the tree.
(30) Then Joshua built.—The word then is not “and” in the Hebrew; as is too often the case where “then” occurs in our English Old Testament. It is a note of time. Josephus places this transaction later. The LXX. places Joshua 8:1-2 of Joshua 9 before this passage. But there seems no reason for moving the transaction from the place where we find it in the text. By the capture of Ai, Joshua had obtained command over the road to Shechem. We hear of no strong place north of Beth-el in that part of the country. From other passages (see on Joshua 17:18) there seems reason to think that a large part of this district was wooded and uncleared. The confederacy of the southern kings had its centre far to the south of this, and there was a considerable distance between Shechem and the strong places to the north. It is in keeping with what we have already observed regarding the purpose of the conquest of Canaan, that the law of the God of Israel should be as soon as possible proclaimed and set up in the heart of the country, to be thenceforward the law of the land. For the enactment that was here carried out, see Deuteronomy 11:26-30; Deuteronomy 27:2, &c. Observe also that the command there given required the work to be done as soon after the passing of Jordan as possible. The possibility of reading the law from this position, so as to be heard by the whole congregation, has been proved by actual experiment.
(30, 31) An altar . . . in mount Ebal . . .—This was explicitly commanded in Deuteronomy. The blessing was put on mount Gerizim, the altar and the curse on mount Ebal. We do not hear elsewhere of any sacrifice on Ebal. But it is certain that God accepted sacrifices in many places in Canaan. (Cf. Exodus 19:24.)