As soon as Achan’s crime is punished by his death God reassures Joshua and the people, exhorts them to be courageous and cheerful, and for the second, time to undertake the expedition against Ai in the confidence, reposing on His promise, that the king of Ai and all that appertains to him—his people, city, and land—has been given in Joshua’s hand.
In this second venture, the Lord and not Joshua takes the initiative. These are His orders to Joshua. All the people and thus not merely a two or three thousand will do battle with the adversary. The city is to be captured by a tactical trap. Its inhabitants, including the king, are to be slain; but Israel will take to themselves the cattle and the spoils according to the commandment of God.
By this introductory step, the Lord let it be known that He and not Joshua is the real captain of Israel’s armies. It seems that Joshua had not sufficiently kept this in mind. He had been guilty of undue haste, of taking matters out of the hand of the Lord. Without Waiting for orders, he had sent forth spies from Jericho to Ai for the purpose of exploration. The advice of the spies had been that, whereas the inhabitants of Ai were but few, a few thousand warriors would be sufficient to overcome its military force. It therefore would be bootless, they said, to make all the people to labor thither. To these spies the warring of God’s warfare was somewhat of an ordeal, a burdensome task to be avoided. The victory over Jericho had come exceedingly easy. Consequently, the thought seems to have taken root in their soul that, whereas the battle was the Lord’s, they could afford to stand’ aside now and play the role of passive onlookers. But in this they were sorely mistaken.
Assuredly, the battle was and would continue to be the Lord’s. Their faith had conquered and would continue to conquer the world. But this could only mean that, in the strength of their redeemer God, they must do battle with the adversary, and thus strive to enter in. The advice of the spies was bad therefore and should, not have been adopted. Joshua should have consulted with the Lord. And this he failed to do. Assuredly, the principal reason of Israel’s defeat was Achan’s theft. But might this disaster not have been worked by the Lord also to rebuke the inordinate forwardness of Joshua and the lack of zeal and wrong passiveness on the part of the people?
In further prosecuting the war with Ai, Joshua, under the direction of God, now puts into operation a stratagem, i.e., a trick for misleading the enemy. An ambush—a post of troops in wait, concealed for the purpose of attacking an enemy by surprise—is stationed on the west side of the city between Bethel and Ai, while the main body of the assaulting force pitches on the north side of it, on a mountain and thus in full view of the enemy. There is some obscurity in the narrative. Verse 3 of chapter 8 does not seem to agree with verses 12, 13. At verse 3 it is stated that 30,000 men are placed in concealment; according to verse 12 they are duly 5,000. “And Joshua chose out thirty thousand mighty men of valor, and sent them away by night. And he commanded them saying, Behold, ye shall lie in wait against the city, even behind the city.” (vs. 3). “And he took about five thousand men, and set them to lie in wait between Bethel and Ai.” (vs. 13). Further, according to verse 13, the troops to lie in wait were sent out already on the evening before; in verse 13, on the contrary, these same troops betake themselves to their place of concealment on the morning of the battle. If only we were in the possession of all the particulars of this engagement, these contradictory statements could be reconciled, which means that the contradictions are not real but only apparent, There is certainly nothing that compels us to maintain that they are real. Doubtless the whole force amounted to thirty thousand of which five thousand armed the ambush. It is not likely that thirty thousand men could conceal themselves in a valley (there was a valley between them and Ai, (vs. 11), so as to be invisible from the city. Verse 17 says that “there was not a man left in Ai or Bethel that went not out after Israel.” From this statement it would appear that the men of Bethel left their city and went into Ai.
The full plan for the capture of the city is this: The ambush will be concealed west of the city in the valley. Ai will be attacked from the north, possibly from the East, by the main force under the direct command of Joshua. The king of Ai will go out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, confident of victory. Joshua will give a signal to the men lying in concealment; whereupon these men will break forth into the city abandoned by the enemy and set it on fire. At sight of the flames, the pursuers will turn and rush back to save their city; then the main force of Israel will turn likewise and thus the enemy will be caught between the two sections of the army and be destroyed. The plot was entirely successful. All the inhabitants of Ai in the field were slain. Thereupon the Israelites returned to Ai and smote it with the edge of the sword. The number slain, both men and women, were twelve thousand. The city itself was burned and made a heap, a desolation forever, “even till this day.” The king of Ai was hanged on a tree. At sunset his carcass was taken down and cast at the entering of the gate of the city. Upon it was raised a great heap of stones.
The question has been raised whether the employment of stratagem (craft in war) was consistent with the dignity of God. It was this, assuredly, as God, Himself, had ordered it. The craft here employed thus belongs to the legitimate science and art of military command. It was not properly deception. For it was not the breaking of a promise previously given the adversary, but simply the execution of a plan of action that had been adopted for this particular war. To denounce the craft as sin is to be obliged to maintain that, in war, a general finds himself under the moral necessity of revealing to the enemy all his contemplated strategic movements. The parties to a war do not expect this of each other. Each knows that it is a part of his business to watch the other and to imagine his real purpose. If the one or the other is too careless to watch, he must suffer the consequences. But when conditions have been reached on both sides, when promises have been made, and treaties Signed, the case is altogether different. Then the enemy has a right to expect that he will not be misled. A word of honor has been given. A pledge has been made. And to disregard this pledge is a heinous sin.
We now come to Ebal and Gerizim, Joshua builds an altar to the Lord God of Israel in Mount Ebal. It was an altar of whole stones, over which no man had lifted up any iron. So it was written in the book of the law. The action its thus a fulfillment of the command given to Moses. (). Upon the altar thus erected burnt and peace offering are sacrificed unto the Lord. Thereupon Joshua writes upon great stones, whitewashed with lime, a copy of the law of Moses, the commandments proper, in all likelihood, with their warnings and admonitions. The inscription itself, according to some, may probably have been effected not till after the ceremony was completed, being reported here by anticipation. But this view militates against the statement that it was done “in the presence of the children of Israel.” The sacred narrative continues, “And all Israel, and their elders, and officers, and their judges stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, which bare the Ark of the covenant of the Lord, as well the stranger as he that was born among them, over against Mount Gerizim, and half of them over against Mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel” ( ). Thus the position of the people was such that the priests with the Ark of the covenant stood in the midst of the valley, between Ebal lying on the north and Gerizim lying on the south, but half the people over against Gerizim, therefore on Ebal, and the other half over against Ebal, therefore on Gerizim. (After this had been arranged Joshua caused to be read all the words of the law, the blessing and the cursings. We learn from Deut. 27 that the curses are directed against idolatry, contempt of parents, removing a neighbor’s landmark, inhumanity toward the blind, strangers orphans ‘incest and sodomy, murder, and finally against the transgression of the law in any manner. Blessings are promised in the city and on the field (ch. 28), on all births, on the basket and the kneading trough, on going out and coming in; a blessing in particular on their arms in contest with their enemies, a blessing on the position of Israel among the nations.
From Deuteronomy we learn that the tribes grouped on Gerizim embraced Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. On Mount Gebal stood Reuben, Gad and Ashur, Zebulon, Dan and Napthali. The priests were stationed between, and read out the blessings and the curses in the audience of the people. When blessings were read out the tribes on Gerizim responded with Amen. When curses were read out those on Ebal did the same. “It was” in the language of one writer, “beyond question or comparison the most august assembly the sun hate ever shone upon. . . The loud-voiced Levites proclaimed from the naked cliffs of Ebal, ‘Cursed is the man that maketh any graven image, an abomination to Jehovah.’ And then the tremendous Amen! tenfold louder from, the united congregation, rising and swelling and re-echoing from Ebal to Gerizim and from Gerizim to Ebal, Amen! and even so, let him be accursed.”
But the whole ceremony can be understood properly only in the light of the final discourses of Moses contained in the book of Deuteronomy. The substance of these discourses is that the people of Israel hearken unto the statutes and judgments “which I teach you for to do them,” that they may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of their fathers giveth them. The people are told that the end of the law is obedience and therefore exhorted to hear and to observe to do lit, to love the Lord their God with all their heart, to teach His words to their children, and to write them upon the posts of their houses and upon their gates. They shall beware lest they forget the Lord, which brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, when He will have brought them in the promised land of their abode and have filled their houses with all good. They shall fear the Lord and is ware by His name and phall not go after other gods. They shall not tempt the Lord as they tempted Him at Massah. They shall do that which is right and good. They shall surely smite the nations inhabiting the promised land. They shall make no marriages with them. Instead they shall cleanse the promised land from all defilement of their abominable idolatry. For they are a holy people unto the Lord. They shall know that the Lord keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him; and repayeth them that hate Him to their face to destroy them. If they hearken unto these judgments they shall be blessed above all people. They are exhorted to obedience with regard’ to the Lord’s dealings with them in the past. They are warned lest, after the Lord shall have destroyed their enemies and brought them in to possess the land, they glory in themselves, in their own righteousness instead of in the Lord. Let them understand that the Lord giveth them the land not for their own righteousness; for they are a stiff-necked people. This He shows them by recalling their past rebellions. Their minds are directed to God’s doings in the past in renewing with them the covenant at Sinai, the covenant they had broken, through His restoring the two tables, and hearkening to Moses’ prayer for them. And what now does the Lord require of them but to fear Him, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him and to serve Him with all their heart and soul. The Lord is their praise. He has done for them these great and terrible things which their eyes have seen. And now He has made them as the stars of heaven for multitude. Therefore they shall love the Lord their God. Their eyes have seen all the great acts of the Lord which He did. Let them therefore keep all His commandments. If they do, He will prosper them in the land of Canaan. If they forsake the Lord, His wrath will be kindled against them, and lie will shut up the heaven that there be no rain. Blessing and curse is set before them; blessing for them if they obey, but curse if they obey not.
The entire collection of exhortations of these final discourses of Moses is summed up in two statements: (1) “Ye shall therefore keep my judgments and my statutes; which, if a man do, he shall live in them.” And (2) “Cursed is he that confirmeth not all the words of the law to do them.” The book of Deuteronomy set forth the doing of God that consisted in His placing the people of Israel, the church of the Old Dispensation, under the law. In this book the law is added to, imposed upon, the promise. In the 27th chapter of this book, Moses set forth the commandments of which the solemn ceremony just depicted was the fulfillment. What Moses had enjoined was now performed by Joshua because the conquest of the land has been virtually, though not actually (but according to some interpreters actually) completed. The Lord has thus fulfilled His promise made unto he Fathers. He has redeemed Israel and planted them in the promised land—His land—having driven before them their enemies. So the blessings are now read out and the tribes shout Amen. The curses, too, are read out, and again the tribes shout Amen! It means, certainly, that Israel assumes full responsibility and the full blame for all his past and future transgressions of the law and thus declares that in visiting upon them their sins Jehovah is just.
Will Israel walk in the way of the Lord’s commands? Will he keep God’s covenant? Israel cannot. Walking in the way of the commandment presupposes life. And Israel is by nature dead in sin because he must be. The command of Lord, “Do and live” as it comes to fallen man, places him under the necessity of atoning his own guilt and thereby delivering himself from the curse of the law. But all that man can do is to increase his guilt. Thus in shouting out their amens, the people of Israel signed their own death sentence. The people will transgress. The law entered and sin abounded.
Moses, being a prophet, foresaw and foretold their apostasy. “But Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked:. . . . And they provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they Him to anger. They sacrificed unto devils, not to God; to gods whom they knew not, to new gods that came newly up, whom your fathers feared not. Of the rock that (begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee” (). Being a prophet, Moses also foresaw and foretold their doom, the curse by which they were finally driven into exile because of their sins. “And when the Lord saw it, he abhorred them, because of the provoking of his sons, and of his daughters. And he said, l will hide my face from them, and I will see what their end shall be: for they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith. They have moved me to jealousy with that which is no God; they have provoked, me to) anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. For a fire as kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundation of the mountains. I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine errors upon them. . . .I will scatter them into corners. . . .And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast: them into another land, as it is this day”. ( ; ).
But being a prophet, Moses also spoke of the remnant according to the election, the people to whom the law was the schoolmaster to Christ and who were thus delivered by Christ from the curse of the law. This people Moses blesses in his song (ch. 33). Upon this people the blessings read out by Joshua descended. They were God’s saints in Israel. And Christ was their righteousness and redemption.
There is the question of the place which this narrative of the ceremony on the Ebal and Gerizim has in the Bible. These two mountains are several days journey from Bethel and Ai. Because it would have taken several days for the people of Israel to march all the way to these mountains and then to march back to Gilgal, many have come to believe that this passage has been inserted out of its proper place, and would appear to be in place later, perhaps after ch. 9:23. It is said, further, that it is not likely that before the complete conquest of Canaan, Joshua could have undertaken such a celebration, and besides, we find him still, (chs. 9, 10) in the south of Palestine. But it is a question whether any weight should be allowed to this. It may be that the camp at Gilgal, spoken of at ch. 9:6, is not the Gilgal near Jericho but another place of that name near Shechem. Mention is made in Scripture of another Gilgal near Bethel (). But if Joshua had removed the encampment thither, it is strange that the author in some way gives no intimation of the fact. There is still another explanation. It is possible that Joshua subdued the central part of the country before encountering the confederacy of Adonizedec at Gibeon and Bethhoran.