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:
Israel had beheld the greatness of the power of their God in the destruction of the great city of Jericho, and they followed it immediately by falling into two grievous errors. The one and most serious was their failure to guard against theft the plunder which was found in Jericho and which had been dedicated completely as a sacrifice unto God. The result of this was that Achan stole of the goods which belonged to God and because of their negligence the whole nation was held guilty. The second was an easy assumption on the part of the Israelites that, since God was fighting for them with His great and irresistible power, there was no need for them to put forth any more than a token effort against the armies of the Canaanites; God was sure to give them the victory in any case. Presumptuously they sent forth only 3,000 men against the city of Ai. But because of their errors God gave them over to a humiliating and discouraging defeat. Left to the children of Israel was the painful task of re-evaluating their position.
First there was the need of searching out and destroying the corruption which had crept into their nation. With the guidance of God, through the means of the lot, this was done until at last the finger was laid upon Achan. Because of the seriousness of his sin, justice demanded a severe punishment so that he and his household were stoned until dead and burned with fire.
With a new consciousness of their fallibility, the children of Israel then turned to God for instructions as to how they should proceed against Ai. In acknowledgment of their children found humility God answered them with promising words of encouragement. “Fear not,” He said to Joshua, “Neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given unto thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land: 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.”
Joshua and the children of Israel had learned the evil of taking God for granted. This time plans proceeded much more carefully. They had learned that, while at Jericho Jehovah had shown how capable He was of utterly destroying the strongest defenses of the enemies. He had no intention of merely going before them and obliterating the strength of the Canaanites completely while the children of Israel stood by and watched. Israel indeed would be given the victory but only through the means of going out and fighting in behalf of their nation and their God. If they were to proceed successfully against the city of Ai, they would have to send forth a complete force of soldiers who were ready themselves to fight, and not a mere detachment with no intentions but to observe what Jehovah would do. Thus the force which Joshua separated this time consisted of no less than 30,000 men, as many as could possibly maneuver successfully in the confinements of the valley of Ai. All through the night he prepared them for the coming battle.
First he separated a special detachment of 5,000 men upon whom the main strategy of this campaign would rest. Following the suggestion which the Lord had given to him, Joshua instructed them thus, “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: and I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city: and it shall come to pass, when they come out against us, as at the first, that we will flee before them (for they will come out after us), till we have drawn them from the city; for they will say, They flee before us, as at the first: therefore we will flee before them. Then ye shall rise up from the ambush, and seize the city: for the LORD your God will deliver it into your hand. And it shall be, when ye have taken the city, that ye shall set the city on fire: according to the commandment of the LORD shall ye do. See, I have commanded you.”
The strategy outlined by Joshua was well advised. It took into consideration the new confidence and boldness which had come to the men of Ai since they defeated Israel in the first battle. For the first time in many months the inhabitants of Canaan had found a reason to believe that maybe Israel was not invincible after all. Instead of cowering in their city as before, even the inhabitants of the neighboring Bethel had come out to bolster the forces of Ai and share in the final victory over Israel. With this new confidence it would be easy to convince these men of Canaan that Israel was turning in retreat once again and so lure them out of the defense of their city. Slowly Jehovah was schooling Joshua and his people in the strategy of battle. Henceforth they must be a fighting people, using all of their wisdom and strength to uphold the cause of God against these wicked nations.
Through the night the various portions of Joshua’s army moved to their respective positions. The 5,000 men circled wide through the hills until they were lodged well hidden among the fields and trees behind the city. Meanwhile the vast majority of the soldiers under Joshua took up their position in front of the city with little attempt at concealment. To all appearances they were prepared to make a head-on attack upon the city just as had been done previously. The only difference apparent to the men of Ai was the much larger force which Israel was sending against them.
With the coming of dawn Joshua mustered the forces with him to begin the attack upon Ai. But the king of Ai had seen the approach of Israel so that he and his men were ready. With them the feeling was quite different than the previous time. Then they looked forward to the battle with a feeling of helpless desperation. Now, even before the much larger force of Israelites, they felt quite confident. They had rooted the army of Israel once; they could do it again, and after all they too had the additional forces of Bethel. Hardly had the battle begun when they began to press hard upon the Israelites with confidence. Just as before they felt the army of Israel wavering and then give way before them. Soon Israel was turned in open retreat. Even more the men of Ai were determined to make this the last time that Israel would come against them. With their full force they would press them hard away from their city, past the remains of the city of Jericho, and on into the swollen tide of the Jordan until their strength was utterly destroyed. With the heady feeling of a great victory within their grasp, the army of Ai gave itself to pursuit without another thought to the defenseless city which they left behind them. In fact, so infectious was this thrill of impending victory that every able-bodied man of both Ai and Bethel poured forth from their cities and joined in the pursuit pf the fleeing army of Israel. The gates of their cities they left hanging wide open without even a guard to close them.
While all this was taking place Joshua had made his way to a hill from which he would be visible to the forces hidden on the other side of the city. From it he first made sure that the slowest of the men of Ai and Bethel had left their defenseless cities far behind; then he turned and with a sweeping gesture pointed his javelin toward the city. From their hiding place the 5,000 men of Israel rose up and fell upon the city. Soon roaring flames of fire were belching from its houses, and clouds of black smoke darkened the sky above the city. But so busy were the men of Ai in their pursuit that they did not even notice, until, that is, they saw the men of Israel throwing back expectant glances over their shoulders. Then the men of Ai looked too. The bellowing clouds of smoke were enough to tell them the whole story. There was no use to turn back, for no safety was to be found in their city any longer. Nor could they continue in their pursuit. The men of Israel who just before had appeared so timid and frightened now loomed before them as an impenetrable wall. It was as though suddenly all of their strength melted within them. There did not even remain to them strength to try to flee. In those moments as they cowered waiting for the descent of the judgment of justice, those men knew as never before the power and greatness of Israel’s God. So was it also with the people who still remained within the city. They poured forth straight into the hands of the army of the Israelites. Feeling themselves justified and the strength of their God once more firmly established, the army of Israel put their enemies to death. From his height above the battle, Joshua urged them on until every last man was destroyed. Moreover, as a sign of the curse that had fallen upon this city, Joshua commanded that the body of Ai’s king should be hung upon a tree suspended between heaven and earth until evening. When finally it was taken down, it was buried under a heap of rubble, a monument to the curse of God which rested upon the wicked inhabitants of Canaan. The spoil of Jericho had been dedicated to Jehovah as the first fruits of the land of Canaan. Now, with Ai, the children of Israel also began to enter their wealth.
The spoil of this city, as that of the many others that would follow, was there to be divided among them. In coming unto the promised land, they came unto prosperity and wealth.
Having had its first taste of actual victory in battle, the children of Israel arrived at another important juncture in their entrance into the land of promise. Fittingly it was marked by a great ceremony of thanksgiving and dedication to their God. They had arrived at Ebal and Gerizim, two mountains concerning which Moses already had given them specific commandment. Upon the sides of the two mountains Joshua arranged all of the people of Israel, six tribes upon each mountain. First he built an altar of twelve stones in the valley between the mountains, and then he raised in the valley a huge white stone. While Israel watched, he inscribed upon the stone the words of the law of God. Then finally he took the book of Moses and read it to the people. Last of all he came to that portion of Moses’ writings which had been intended for this situation. Having heard all of the law of God, Israel was presented with the blessings an cursings of the law which Moses had penned by divine revelation. It was a solemn and impressive occasion. From the valley below the blessings of God were read to the people. As the echo of each one died from the valley, all the thousands of people upon Mt. Gerizim answered back, “Amen.” Then the cursings were read, and this time those upon Ebal answered, “Amen,” over and over again. The children of God had entered Canaan, and the law of God with its blessings and cursings would be their guide even unto the end.