Joshua 8 – Victory over Ai, Israel at Gerizim and Ebal
A. Plans for victory.
1. (1-2) God encourages Joshua and gives him instructions.
Now the Lord said to Joshua: “Do not be afraid, nor be dismayed; take all the people of war with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, his people, his city, and his land. And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its cattle you shall take as booty for yourselves. Lay an ambush for the city behind it.”
a. Do not be afraid, nor be dismayed: Israel was defeated at Ai (Joshua 7:4-5), losing 36 men in battle. But worse than their defeat was that it exposed the truth that God was not with Israel in the battle at Ai. Without God’s continued blessing, presence, and protection, Israel could never hope to conquer Canaan and they would be destroyed in the land. After having exposed and dealt with the sin that led to the loss at Ai (Joshua 7:10-26), Israel could once again receive encouragement from God. Sin practiced and unconfessed made them weak, and deservedly afraid and dismayed. With sin dealt with, they could trust in God’s restoration and put away fear and dismay.
i. The failure of obedience at Jericho (Joshua 7:11, 7:20-21) and the defeat at Ai (Joshua 7:4-5) could, in some way, be put to good use. Properly dealt with, they could serve as a starting place for future victory.
b. Take all the people of war with you, and arise, go up to Ai: It was time for Israel to go back to the place where they were previously defeated. Once again in God’s favor, they could in faith expect a different result.
c. Only its spoil and its cattle you shall take as booty for yourselves: Graciously, God would allow Israel to keep spoil from the city of Ai. This makes the sin of Achan seem even more foolish and tragic. Had he obeyed God at Jericho, he could have received spoil from the battle at Ai.
i. God did not allow Israel to take spoil or booty from Jericho. Yet this was allowed in most of the battles after that. “Although this was the custom for most battles, its specification signifies a break with the practice regarding the plunder of Jericho. There everything became devoted. This divine instruction signifies a flexibility on the meaning of the ban, which could be interpreted by God according to the particular needs of the people. Since everything captured belonged to God, he could also choose to give some of it back to Israel.” (Hess)
d. Lay an ambush for the city behind it: God gave Joshua a plan for conquering the city of Ai. It was up to Joshua and the armies of Israel to follow God’s plan.
2. (3-8) Plans made for an ambush upon Ai.
So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai; and Joshua chose thirty thousand mighty men of valor and sent them away by night. And he commanded them, saying: “Behold, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind the city. Do not go very far from the city, but all of you be ready. Then I and all the people who are with me will approach the city; and it will come about, when they come out against us as at the first, that we shall flee before them. For they will come out after us till we have drawn them from the city, for they will say, ‘They are fleeing before us as at the first.’ Therefore we will flee before them. Then you shall rise from the ambush and seize the city, for the Lord your God will deliver it into your hand. And it will be, when you have taken the city, that you shall set the city on fire. According to the commandment of the Lord you shall do. See, I have commanded you.”
a. Joshua chose thirty thousand mighty men of valor: In the first battle against Ai, Joshua sent only 3,000 soldiers (Joshua 7:4). For the second battle, he sent 30,000 mighty men of valor. Joshua obviously trusted in God but was also willing to use every resource and the best resources available to him.
i. All the people of war means all the 30,000 who would take part in this battle. “As Ai was but a small city, containing only twelve thousand inhabitants, it would have been absurd to have employed an army of several hundred thousand men against them.” (Clarke)
b. Behold, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind the city: Though God gave Joshua the general plan for battle (Joshua 8:2), He left it up to Joshua’s experience and sanctified common sense to lay out the specific ways the plan would be carried out.
i. “God also hath his stratagems; he seemeth sometimes to retire, that he may come upon his enemies with the greater advantage. At the end of all the present troubles will be the ruin of the Antichristian faction, and we shall see the Church in her more perfect beauty.” (Trapp)
3. (9-10) Joshua stays with the people.
Joshua therefore sent them out; and they went to lie in ambush, and stayed between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai; but Joshua lodged that night among the people. Then Joshua rose up early in the morning and mustered the people, and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai.
a. Joshua lodged that night among the people: Joshua was especially near his people during this crucial time of trying to regain victory. The people needed to know he was near, and they needed to follow his leadership.
i. As an anticipation of Jesus Christ, Joshua was with his people even as Jesus promised to be with His people to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
b. Joshua rose up early in the morning and mustered the people: The second battle of Ai would be fought with initiative and energy. There was no attempt to delay the battle for any reason.
i. “He is much noted for his early rising: his vigilance being equal to his valour.” (Trapp)
ii. “It would appear that Joshua spent the night with the people, across the valley from Ai (Joshua 8:9, 11), but late in the night he got up and went into the valley in preparation for the day’s events (Joshua 8:13).” (Howard)
B. Victory at the second battle of Ai.
1. (11-13) Preparations for the second battle of Ai.
And all the people of war who were with him went up and drew near; and they came before the city and camped on the north side of Ai. Now a valley lay between them and Ai. So he took about five thousand men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city. And when they had set the people, all the army that was on the north of the city, and its rear guard on the west of the city, Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley.
a. All the people of war who were with him went up and drew near: In the second battle of Ai, Israel took the initiative. They didn’t wait for Ai to bring the battle to them; they brought the battle to Ai.
b. Joshua went that night into the midst: Joshua took active, personal responsibility in the second battle of Ai. At Jericho, there was no special role Joshua played, except to make sure that the people of God obedient to God’s commands. At the first battle of Ai, Joshua sent men to the battle, not going himself (Joshua 7:3-5). After the defeat at the first battle of Ai, Joshua would not make the same mistake again. He was in the midst of this military action.
2. (14-17) The ambush works; the fighting men of Ai leave the city.
Now it happened, when the king of Ai saw it, that the men of the city hurried and rose early and went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at an appointed place before the plain. But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city. And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them, and fled by the way of the wilderness. So all the people who were in Ai were called together to pursue them. And they pursued Joshua and were drawn away from the city. There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel. So they left the city open and pursued Israel.
a. When the king of Ai saw it, that the men of the city hurried and rose early and went out against Israel to battle: The men of Ai used the same strategy against Israel as worked in the first battle of Ai (Joshua 7:4-5).
i. Believers sometimes observe that Satan, the enemy of God’s people (Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 5:8) will continue with a strategy against God’s people until it doesn’t work anymore. This is why it is always important to resist the devil, his agents, and his strategies.
ii. “Careful preparations for war, such as those described here, were used as an illustration of discipleship by Jesus. He reminded his disciples of the need to count the cost of following him (Luke 14:31–33).” (Hess)
b. And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them: God directed Joshua to use a completely different strategy against Ai. This feigned defeat would lead to victory for Israel.
i. Not a man left in Ai or Bethel: “The proximity of Ai to Bethel may have encouraged the army of Bethel to come to the aid of Ai. The Israelite ambush had to be hidden from the main road to keep the troops coming from Bethel from discovering them.” (Madvig)
3. (18-20) The trap is carried out against Ai.
Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the spear that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the spear that was in his hand toward the city. So those in ambush arose quickly out of their place; they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand, and they entered the city and took it, and hurried to set the city on fire. And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and behold, the smoke of the city ascended to heaven. So they had no power to flee this way or that way, and the people who had fled to the wilderness turned back on the pursuers.
a. Stretch out the spear that is in your hand: Moses, the predecessor to Joshua, often exerted God’s victorious power with a hand or rod stretched out (Exodus 9:22-23, 10:12-13, 10:21-22, 14:21). Here, God told Joshua to do the same thing. The spear extended toward Ai was an illustration of the power God had over the Canaanite city. The Bible often uses the figure of God’s outstretched hand or arm as a demonstration of His power (Exodus 15:12, Deuteronomy 4:34, 5:15, 7:19, 9:29, Psalm 136:12, 138:7).
b. They entered the city and took it, and hurried to set the city on fire: The plan worked perfectly. With the fighting men of Ai out chasing the Israelite army, the city was exposed.
i. Set the city on fire: “Probably this means no more than that they should kindle a fire in the city, the smoke of which should be an indication that they had taken it.” (Clarke)
4. (21-29) The complete defeat of Ai.
Now when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city ascended, they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. Then the others came out of the city against them; so they were caught in the midst of Israel, some on this side and some on that side. And they struck them down, so that they let none of them remain or escape. But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua.
And it came to pass when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness where they pursued them, and when they all had fallen by the edge of the sword until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned to Ai and struck it with the edge of the sword. So it was that all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand; all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as booty for themselves, according to the word of the Lord which He had commanded Joshua. So Joshua burned Ai and made it a heap forever, a desolation to this day. And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until evening. And as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his corpse down from the tree, cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city, and raise over it a great heap of stones that remains to this day.
a. They struck them down, so that they let none of them remain or escape: The victory and God’s judgment was complete at the second battle of Ai. Because of God’s faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s obedient response to God, this was not a partial victory.
i. “The tables are turned. The same expressions that earlier described Ai’s success and Israel’s defeat are now used to enhance Joshua’s leadership in reversing the apparent defeat.” (Clarke)
ii. “The story of the taking of Ai is one of brilliant military strategy. Thus again the fact was brought into prominence that in prosecuting the work of Jehovah there must ever be a recognition of the value and use of the best in human reason.” (Morgan)
b. Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the spear: In Exodus 17:8-16, Joshua was the general leading the army of Israel that benefited from the outstretched arms of Moses in prayer in the battle against the Amalekites. Here, Joshua is the one who inspires Israel to victory with his outstretched arm.
i. “Joshua maintained his arm outstretched, with his sword in his hand, until the defeat of Ai was complete. This shows that the outstretched sword was more than a signal to start the battle (see Joshua 8:18): it was also a symbol of God’s presence and help in the battle.” (Howard)
c. Until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai: According to God’s command, Israel showed no mercy to the people of Ai. This was part of Israel’s unique role as God’s instrument of long-deserved judgment of the Canaanites, and as just repayment for Ai’s victory in the first battle (Joshua 7:5).
i. By spiritual analogy, God’s people must remain unsparing in the battle against the flesh and against the devil and all his agents.
ii. The king of Ai he hanged on a tree: “He had gone out at the head of his men, and had been taken prisoner, Joshua 8:23; and the battle being over, he was ordered to be hanged.” (Clarke)
iii. “The king’s body was taken down at sundown, in accordance with the injunction in Deuteronomy that a body could not remain exposed overnight (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Here again, Joshua was observing the law as closely as possible.” (Howard)
d. According to the word of the Lord which He had commanded Joshua: So far, Israel’s experience was an illustration of their future story, and the spiritual history of many Christians. This cycle will be especially prominent in the book of Judges.
·Obedience followed by victory.
·Victory followed by blessing.
·Blessing followed by pride and disobedience.
·Disobedience followed by defeat.
·Defeat followed by judgment.
·Judgment followed by repentance.
·Repentance followed by obedience.
·Obedience followed by victory, and the cycle continues.
C. Blessings proclaimed from Mount Gerizim, curses from Mount Ebal.
1. (30-31) An altar built at Mount Ebal.
Now Joshua built an altar to the Lord God of Israel in Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses: “an altar of whole stones over which no man has wielded an iron tool.”And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings.
a. Now Joshua built an altar to the Lord God of Israel: This was in fulfillment of what God commanded in Deuteronomy 11:29-32 and Deuteronomy 27-28, especially Deuteronomy 27:1-8. The Lord told Israel to come to Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. At Ebal, they were to build an altar, sacrifice to the Lord, and read the law.
i. The blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 27-28 were not only announced by Moses to Israel on the plains of Moab. According to God’s command, they were also ceremonially read to all Israel at Gerizim and Ebal, the hills of blessing and curses. Six tribes stood at each mountain.
·At Gerizim (blessing): Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin.
·At Ebal (curses): Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.
·In between them: the ark of the covenant.
ii. “Ebal and Gerizim are about a mile and a half apart at the top but only about 500 yards apart at the bottom. Gerizim reaches to approximately 2,895 feet above sea level, Ebal to 3,077 feet. This means that Gerizim stands about 800 feet above the valley and Ebal about 1,000 feet.” (Schaeffer)
iii. The altar to the Lord God of Israel and the sacrifices on it were at Mount Ebal, the hill associated with curses. That was where it was needed, and that was where God provided for the failure of His people: through the sacrificial system.
b. And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings: This was an appropriate act of worship and consecration to God, following a great victory. Israel was careful to give God the thanks and the glory for their triumph at the second battle of Ai.
i. Even the altar built at Ebal would not display the glory of man, because it was not made with an iron tool used to engrave the stones. They were whole stones, not beautified by man. The altar displayed what God made, not what man made.
ii. “It is interesting that a thousand years later the Samaritans built their altar on Gerizim, not Ebal. So when the woman of Samaria told Jesus, ‘Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem,’ she was pointing to Gerizim (John 4:20). Jesus responded by turning her away from that mountain (as well as from Mount Zion) to himself and his coming sacrifice.” (Boice)
2. (32-35) Blessings read from Mount Gerizim, curses from Mount Ebal.
And there, in the presence of the children of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. Then all Israel, with their elders and officers and judges, stood on either side of the ark before the priests, the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, the stranger as well as he who was born among them. Half of them were in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them.
a. He wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written: In this act of obedience, we see Joshua as a man of the Book, obeying the command of Joshua 1:8. We also see Israel as a people of the Book ordering their lives after God’s word.
i. “The word ‘stones’ has an article in Hebrew and refers to special stones covered with plaster that Moses had commanded to be prepared for this purpose (Deuteronomy 27:4).” (Madvig)
ii. “The Israelites just picked up field stones and piled them together. Then somebody covered these big stones with a coating that could be easily etched or painted quickly with a brush as was done on the shards. Someone carefully wrote the Ten Commandments in this coating.” (Schaeffer)
iii. They obeyed God and gave attention to His word at a cost or inconvenience. The distance from Ai to Ebal and Gerizim was a long way to move all the tribes of Israel, from 20 to 25 miles (32 to 40 km).
iv. “Surveys and excavations on Mount Ebal have revealed a site there, on the third highest peak, that the excavator suggests could be identified with Joshua’s altar.” (Hess) There was evidence of burnt animal offerings at this altar, but no religious figurines (idols).
b. The stranger as well as he who was born among them: This means that among the group considered the nation of Israel were those who were born as Gentiles yet had come under the law and covenant of the God of Israel. These were strangers by birth but living among the covenant people.
i. In between Ebal and Gerizim was Shechem, a significant city that is not mentioned in this part of Joshua. Shechem has a long history with the covenant people of God, tracing back to the time of Abraham.
ii. The lack of mention of any battle with the people of Shechem suggests the possibility that they surrendered to Israel, denied their Canaanite gods, and submitted to the God of Israel as Rahab had done (Joshua 2:8-14, 6:25). This is also suggested by the mention of the stranger (Joshua 8:33) and the strangers (Joshua 8:35) in this immediate context.
iii. “‘Aliens and citizens alike’ were included in Israel and participated in the covenant renewal. The religion of Israel at its best has always been a missionary religion. From the time of the Exodus, aliens who chose to live with Israel and worship her God were assimilated into the nation as, for example, Rahab and her family (cf. 1 Kings 8:41–43).” (Madvig)
iv. “In this sense, these aliens were true ‘converts’ to faith in Israel’s God. Indeed, the Old Greek translates the Hebrew term here with the Greek word proselutos, which forms the basis of the English word ‘proselyte’ (i.e., one who converts). This shows—as does the story of Rahab—that Israel’s faith was not a closed system: it was open to outsiders.” (Howard)
c. Half of them were in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal: This was an appropriate place to do this, and the whole nation could hear this reading of the law. The area has a natural amphitheater effect because of the contour of the hills.
i. This event was suggestive of many enduring spiritual principles.
·There is a choice between blessing and cursing for humanity, especially for the people of God.
·Often the curses seem more significant than the blessings.
·Atonement is needed on the ground of curses, and God has made provision for this atonement, rooted in the sacrifice of an innocent victim.
ii. This event, at this place, showed that Israel controlled the middle of the land of Canaan and the highlands. This set them in a good strategic position to conquer the rest of the land of Canaan.
iii. “The strategic aspect of the battle moves Israel from the ‘edge’ of Canaan on the plains of Jericho to the centre of the hill country. From the strategic region of Bethel and Ai, Israel would be poised for the forthcoming events to the north (Joshua 8:30–35; 11) and to the south (Joshua 9–10).” (Clarke)
d. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel: This focus on God’s revealed word was the foundation for Israel’s future security and blessing. When they stayed attentive and generally obedient to God’s word, they were blessed.
i. “He caused them [all the words of the law] to be read by the Levites (Deuteronomy 27:14), and haply the sense to be given, as Nehemiah 8:8.” (Trapp)
ii. The time and attention given to the blessings and curses of the law at Gerizim and Ebal reflect the heart of Moses in his plea to Israel, calling them to obey God and be blessed instead of inheriting the curses promised to disobedient Israel: I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
iii. “We see in the reading of the blessings and curses not only a continuity of the authority of the written, propositional Scriptures, but also an emphasis on the fact that bare knowledge is not enough. It was not that the Pentateuch gave these people knowledge, and that was the end of it. This knowledge demanded action.” (Schaeffer)
iv. “Thus every precaution is taken to ensure obedience to the Divine precepts, and consequently to promote the happiness of the people; for this every ordinance of God is remarkable, as he ever causes the interest and duty of his followers to go hand in hand.” (Clarke)