Joshua 8:1-29 - Battle of Ai Apologetic

Joshua 8 provides for us the OT’s most detailed description of an Israelite battle (Monson).
  • But is there any evidence that it ever happened?
  • “For the past few decades all but the most conservative biblical scholars have considered the Joshua account [of the Conquest] to be historically unreliable” – John Monson.
  • Today I want to provide a few reasons why we can consider our text historically reliable.

We will quickly go over some of the highlights of the text.
  • Its message is straightforward enough.
  • And then we will get to the apologetics angle. 


Joshua 8:1–2 (ESV) — 1 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land. 2 And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.”

Two things have happened that would give Joshua pause.
  • (1) He lost the first battle of Ai because of Achan’s breaking the “cherem” put on Jericho.
  • (2) Israel itself had been brought under a “cherem” because of Achan’s actions.
  • However, with Achan’s execution and the destruction of the stolen items, Yahweh’s ban on Israel is lifted.
  • Yahweh reassures them – “do not fear and do not be dismayed” (vs. 1).

God makes clear that this time Ai will be defeated.
  • And as with Jericho, it is fundamentally because – “I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land” (vs. 1).

Ironically, when God orders His ban (cherem) on Ai, He makes a minor adjustment.
  • Unlike Jericho, at Ai the Israelites can “take as plunder” the “spoil and its livestock” (vs. 2).
  • Had Achan only contained his covetousness?
  • Our sin stands in the way of God’s blessings.

Finally from our introductory verses God lays out the strategy.
  • It is to be an ambush – “lay an ambush against the city, behind it”.

Joshua explained God’s strategy to Israel in verses 3-7 as follows:
  • A large number of troops will “lie in ambush” behind the city of Ai (vss. 3-4).
  • Then Joshua and the men with him will “approach the city” (vs. 5).
  • And when the men of Ai “come out against us just as before, we shall flee before them” (vs. 5).
  • This move will “draw them away from the city” (vs. 6).
  • Then the Israelite soldiers hiding behind the city will “rise up from the ambush and seize the city” (vs. 7).

In verses 9-23, the strategy Joshua described in verses 3-7 is implemented.
  • Within these verses the battle is described in great detail.
  • And it will be in the details that we find reasons to accept the historicity of Joshua.
  • We will come back to them shortly.

Verses 24-29 are brutal.
  • killing all he inhabitants” (vs. 24)
  • fallen by the edge of the sword” (vs. 24)
  • all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai” (vs. 25)
  • devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction” (vs. 26)
  • hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening” (vs. 29)
  • “took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate” (vs. 29)

We addressed the issues raised by this violence in our God Sanctioned War lesson.
  • Please refer to back that lesson for the relevant info.


So back to the question we raised at the beginning.
  • Are there reasons to believe this battle is historical?
  • For as we have discussed over and over, the Christian faith is not a blind faith.
  • God’s work in history to restore and redeem was not done “in a corner” as Paul says.
  • “The God of the Bible acts in time and space” – John Monson.

Some Problems:
  • (1) Timing – “The destruction and decline of Late Bronze Age cities occurred later than the commonly accepted thirteenth-century-BC date [1200 BC] of Joshua” – Monson.
  • Problem – Once this became evident, any evidence formerly associated with supporting the Conquest was in doubt.
    • BTW – Many conservative scholars now argue for a 15-century-BC date.
  • (2) Archaeology – “Excavations at Jericho and Ai, two cities that Joshua burned with fire, did not yield what was felt to be the necessary evidence of a Late Bronze Age destruction” – John Monson.
  • Problem – Archaeological evidence is “held up as the scientific arbiter” – Monson.
    • If there is no archaeological evidence then it didn’t happen (or so the saying goes).

The Reactions:
There is little disagreement “that there emerged a new phenomenon in the highlands of Palestine” centered on a god called Yahweh – Monson.
  • “A group of people entered Canaan bringing with them the cult of this otherwise unknown deity” – Alan Millard.
  • The “transition from thirteenth-century-BC Late Bronze Age urban city-states to twelfth-century-BC villages on the so-called highland frontier seemed to correlate quite well with the local emergence of Israel, however that emergence might be conceived” – Monson.

But the Biblical account of an Israelite Conquest as the reason for it was discarded.
  • It came to be seen as a made up story about Israelite origins.
  • One written during the Babylonian exile.

Instead, the following theories are now put forward (Monson):
  • 1) Peasant-Revolt Hypothesis – The Israelites were “nothing more than Canaanites who rebelled against their overlords” – Monson.
  • 2) Ebb & Flow Hypothesis – The Israelites arose as simply a “cultural change” occurring with the “long-term ebb and flow between pastoralists and a sedentary population in Palestine” – Monson.
  • 3) Ruralization Theory – Israel emerged as Canaanites left “collapsing city-states” and moved into “compounds and villages in the adjacent highlands” – Monson.

BTW – Alan Millard points out that an exhibit in the British Museum calls Israelites “pastoral Canaanites”.

The bottom line is that, as we said in our introduction –
  • “For the past few decades all but the most conservative biblical scholars have considered the Joshua account [of the Conquest] to be historically unreliable” – John Monson.

So where does that leave us?
  • If we wanted to do an episode of Bible Secrets Revealed we would be in great shape.
  • We could stop here and sow the seeds of doubt about the orthodox view of Israel’s origins.
  • But there is more to the story.

“The biblical account of Israel’s entry into Canaan should be accepted as a legitimate historical source” – Monson.
  • In fact, there are “compelling reasons why one should engage rather than dismiss these relevant biblical texts” – Monson.

There are a number of reasons for this.
  • We will summarize only (3) and dive deeper into the third one.

Literary Genre –
  • “We must be willing to acknowledge that the biblical text is a cultural artifact” – John Walton.
  • “The form and content of Joshua, as well as the events that it describes (replete with battles, destructions, and geographical descriptions), are reminiscent of the late second millennium BC” – Monson.
  • “When Joshua is viewed as a piece of Near Eastern military writing, and its literary character is properly understood, the idea of a group of tribes coming to Canaan, using some military force, partially taking a number of cities and areas over a period of some years, destroying (burning) just three cities, and coexisting alongside the Canaanites and other ethnic groups for a period of time before the beginnings of monarchy, does not require blind faith” – James Hoffmeier.
  • We also addressed this issue in our lesson on OT Polemical Theology.

Archaeology –
  • Books and books have been written on the archaeological evidence of Israel’s Conquest by both sides.
  • Most conservative scholars concede that the archaeological evidence for the Conquest is sparse – especially Jericho and Ai.

The issues are complicated.
  • Dating the Exodus and Conquest.
  • Dating the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age.
  • Understanding sites with multiple occupations.
  • The actual location of villages cited in the Bible.
  • The meaning of the Biblical texts themselves in describing the Conquest.

John Monson sums it up as follows:
  • “It is true that archaeological evidence is scattered, random, and incomplete, just as the Bible’s record is selective, ancient, and theologically oriented. Any attempt to relate these two sets of information is fraught with challenges—and this is especially so in the case of Israel’s entry into Canaan. There are perceived contradictions between text and archaeology but also reasonable congruencies.”
  • “The book of Joshua’s account of the Israelite entry into Canaan does overlap with archaeology, albeit in broad strokes.”
  • And absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
    • King David example

I recommend reading a couple of books to better understand the archaeology and historicity of the Exodus and Conquest.
  • Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith
  • Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention

Geography –
  • “The geographical rootedness of the text points to a real story in a real place” – John Monson.
  • Deuteronomy and Joshua in general and our text in particular provide us with “detailed descriptions of regions and terrain that match very precisely the geographical realities of Canaan as a whole and lend credibility to the battle accounts” – Monson.
  • Geographical features are “recorded with such frequency and specificity that they give the accounts a strong sense of authenticity. One must ask why such details would be recounted were the story merely etiological [origins] or contrived” – Monson.

And this brings us back to Joshua 8:9-23.
  • “The geographical data recorded in the campaigns that follow the fall of…Ai are so specific that they are presented in a case study below” – Monson.
  • This geographical data is the “glue” for reconciling the Biblical account and archaeology – Monson.

The Geographical Details – 9-23:
  • Some Israelite soldiers laid an ambush “between Bethel and Ai” (vss. 9, 12)
  • To the “west of Ai” or “west of the city” (vss. 9, 12, 13)
  • Joshua and his decoy troops “encamped on the north side of Ai” (vs. 11).
  • This was the “main encampment that was north of the city” (vs. 13)
  • And there was a “ravine between them and Ai” (vs. 11)
  • That night Joshua left the decoy troops and moved his position to a more strategic location.
  • He “spent that night in the valley” (vs. 13)
  • Not the ravine between Ai and the decoy troops
  • In the morning, the king of Ai saw the decoy troops across the ravine and sought to engage them at “the Arabah” (probably the Rift Valley) (vs. 14)
  • They would not have seen the ambush troops (to their South) or Joshua (to their Southeast).
  • The decoy troops then retreated to “the wilderness” (vs. 15) – back towards the Jordan.
  • The Canaanite soldiers of “Ai and Bethel” chased the Israelites (vs. 17)
  • The men hiding in ambush attacked Ai when Joshua “stretched out his hand” (vs. 19)
  • They could see Joshua from his position “in the valley
  • The plan worked – Ai and Bethel were defeated.

The details of Joshua’s 2nd battle with Ai reveal “a sophisticated, well-orchestrated battle…in which Joshua exploited every geographic feature of the region and planned every detail, down to the maneuverability of his forces and the time of day to attack” – John Monson.
  • And the exact way Joshua exploited the geography “could only occur in this region’s unique terrain” – Monson.
  • The battle fits “precisely the geography of the region of Ai” – Monson.
  • In other words, the location of the region of Ai, Bethel, the troop movements and the hill and valleys as described in the Bible fit the reality.

For example –
  • Joshua  8 “provides a key detail: ‘That night Joshua positioned himself ‘within the valley’’ (Josh. 8:13). If this expression is understood to be [the ravine from verse 11], then Joshua’s position can be identified clearly as a small hill just south of the modern village of Deir Dibwan, a place from which one has an unhindered view of the entire area. From this hill ‘within the valley’ Joshua could direct the battle, since he had visual contact with both his ambush team and his main force, and he could also see The Ruin, the enemy’s camp, and their movements” – John Monson.

The Finale:
There is disagreement among scholars as to the exact locations of Ai and Bethel.
  • David Livingston, e.g., has a different take than John Monson on the locations.
  • These disagreements point to the complexities of the issues.

There is also disagreement on the meaning of “Ai”.
  • Some, like Monson, are adamant that it means “The Ruins”.
  • Others, like Livingston say no it was not a heap of ruins but an occupied village at the time of Joshua.
  • One’s take on this question lays down the presuppositions for where Ai could be located.

However, most seem to agree that Ai functioned as a military outpost for Bethel – its sister city.
  • This is because Bethel occupied a main crossroads area and was strategically important.
  • In Genesis, e.g., we see that even Abraham came through Bethel.
  • So the strategy against Ai was as much a strategy to take Bethel.

Finally –
  • “The detailed descriptions argue against the idea that the story was manufactured or that its origins can be dated to the first millennium BC. To the contrary, the text of Joshua and its ancient Near Eastern literary setting both showcase the geography and give the sense of a very ancient and authentic battle plan” – John Monson.

Think about this:
  • Make up a battle in Suffolk that took place 700 years ago that accounts for the displacement of the Native Americans and the arrival of some new tribe a strange new god.
  • You have to get all the details right – geography, place names, etc.
  • You have to avoid leaving any anachronistic evidence behind – “Driver” or “Holland”, e.g.
  • And you don’t have Google and books to help you.

Cumulative Case:
We will let John Monson have the final word:
The biblical account of Israel’s entry into Canaan, when it is placed within its literary, cultural, and geographical context, is more reasonable as a second-millennium historical event than any of the alternatives proposed to date. The Bible’s account of Joshua’s entry into the land is far more compelling and in line with available evidence than are the stale verdicts of historical criticism. It is not a matter of “proving the Bible” or defending traditional views in knee-jerk fashion. At issue is the degree of openness to reasonable reconstructions even if they challenge the “orthodoxy” of modern criticism that is largely negative toward the historicity of the biblical text. Cumulative evidence that yields strong probabilities in favor of the biblical text is far more convincing than nonevidence.