The Deception of Ai

A wonderful victory was accomplished at Jericho. Under God’s guidance, the walls of the city had fallen down. The people of that city, together with all their possessions, had been destroyed. Israel had seen the power of God whereby He would defend His people and give unto them the promised land of Canaan. 

In the light of such a victory the capture of the next city, Ai, appeared certain. After all, God was on their side. Besides, the city was comparatively insignificant and very small (it numbered about 12,000 inhabitants). The spies, sent out to view the city, had so reported to Joshua: “Let not all the people go up; but let about two or three thousand men go up and smite Ai; and make not all the people to labor thither; for they are but few.” Accordingly, about three thousand men had been sent out to capture the city. But Israel’s army was defeated, thirty-six of them being smitten. And “the hearts of the people melted, and became as water,” for apparently the promise of God had failed. 

Then it was, after Joshua comes to God in earnest prayer, that God revealed that Israel had sinned. The cause of the sin, Achan, was found out and punished according to the law of God. 

Once more Israel is to go up against Ai. Now, however, God gives to Joshua the positive assurance of victory. The city and its inhabitants must be destroyed, but the spoils were to be given to Israel. What is more, God gives to Joshua the exact plan of attack. Of 30,000 men, 5,000 were sent to lie in ambush on the west side of Ai between this city and, the neighboring city of Bethel. The following day Joshua and the remaining men were to approach Ai and then feint flight, as previously the 3,000 of Israel were forced to flee. Then, upon the signal of Joshua, the men in ambush were to set on fire the exposed city of Ai. Afterward the two forces of the Israelites were to meet, thus trapping and destroying the army of Ai (together with the men of Bethel) which was located between their two forces. 

The plan, as set forth by God Himself, is completely successful. From here Israel, with Joshua as its leader, enters further into the land of Canaan and defeats and destroys the wicked nations of the land. 

It is particularly with the second attack of the children of Israel against Ai that we are concerned. Two incidents of that attack stand out clearly. First of all, there were men placed in ambush to the west of the city; and secondly, Israel pretends flight from the army of Ai. These two things are the occasion for this article. The title, “The deception of Ai,” implies a charge. Ai was deceived, God commanded this deception, hence God then is guilty of deceiving. Possibly the charge could be stated: God is guilty of commanding that which is inconsistent with His perfect being. Deception, after all, is that which misleads, deludes, or even cheats. How is it ever possible that God could command His people to act under anything as corrupt as that implied in deception? 

We can not, however, question the fact that God is truth and there is in Him no lie whatsoever. If the “deception” of Ai is brought up in order to question the veracity of God, then there would be no point in continuing the discussion further. Such a person would plainly be denying the inspiration of the Word of God; hence arguments from Scripture would be of no avail, and mere human arguments would easily be discredited. Scripture plainly teaches that God is truth. “This then is the message which we have heard of him and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). 

We must say then that what God commanded Joshua to do at Ai was certainly right; it was in perfect harmony with His Holy Being. Upon that basis alone can we continue. This does not mean that the question is removed. Although the question may not be the veracity of God, we may still have the question as to how the “deception” of Ai is to be harmonized with that veracity. That there is such harmony we can never doubt. 

The answer to the question concerning the “deception” of Ai depends first of all whether or not war is right. There is no war in the new heavens and new earth for “. . . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:3). 

That there is war on this earth is a self-evident fact. The history of the world is a history of wars and rumors of wars. And wars are caused by, or are the result of, sin. “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” James 4:1

Principally that warfare is the war of the devil and his seed against the woman and her seed. Of this God had spoken immediately after the fall (Gen. 3:15). Throughout the history of the world that warfare is revealed. “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17). It is a warfare, therefore, in which the wicked try to crush Christ first of all, and following from that, they try to crush His church. 

There is most surely a righteous warfare. Christ Himself fights: “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war.” Rev. 19:11. Michael and the angels fight the devil and his angels. Rev. 12:7Jude 1:9. And the church is always called to fight the warfare of faith against the devil, the world, and its own flesh. 

So the tribes of Israel were to enter into the promised land of Canaan and bring war upon its inhabitants. Moses, shortly before his death, repeated to Israel the promise of God: “The Lord thy God, he will go over before thee, and he will destroy these nations from before thee, and thou shalt possess them: and Joshua, he shall go over before thee, as the Lord hath said.”Deut. 31:3. The battles of Israel too were principally battles of faith. They overcame only through the power of the Lord. For though they fought physical battles, it was always God that gave them the victory. That fact is evident throughout’ their long history Israel lived in the time of type and shadow. Their battles, though also battles of faith, were typical of the spiritual battle of the church in the midst of the world. 

Proceeding from the fact that warfare is proper for the child of God, as it is conducted according to the command of God, we can also see the strategy which Israel employs at Ai at the command of God was also proper. Warfare, if conducted properly, involves the wise deployment of forces in order to attain the prescribed goal. That is true in the spiritual warfare as well as a physical warfare. This is often called the stratagem, or strategy of warfare. Both opponents are very well aware that the other one intends to use its forces to the best advantage. Properly speaking therefore, one could not call this deception in its generally understood sense. The enemy is not deceived concerning the intention, but is unaware of the way that intention is to be carried out. That naturally must be the case. No general is going to inform the enemy concerning his plan of attack, nor could the fact that he keeps his plans secret make him guilty of deception. 

Such was also true concerning the command of God to Israel. If Israel were commanded to approach the city as friends and allies, and then (after they had thus gained entrance into the city) smite it with the edge of the sword, they would have been guilty of the lie, of deception. But such was not the case. Ai knew the intention of Israel, but they did not know how God would command Israel to carry out that intention. God Who is the Righteous God does not deceive in this evil sense of the word, but in righteousness He does defeat the wicked and gives His people the land. 

There is yet one question which arises in connection with this same incident. Why did God work in this way? Was it not generally true that God taught His people that it was not their might but rather the power of His arm that defeated the enemy? It was God, not Israel, Who caused the walls of Jericho to fall down. God showed that with the band of 300 with Gideon He gave the victory over an innumerable host of the Midianites. Why is it that now God does not work in the same way? Could not God have dealt with Ai as He did with Jericho? The fact was that the total number of inhabitants of Ai numbered only about 12,000. It has been estimated that there were then probably only 3,000 fighting men—possibly less. Yet at the command of God at least 30,000 Israelites were sent against Ai—a force 10 times the size of that located in this little city. Besides, they were deployed in such a way as to take that city by surprise. The preparations are of such a nature that one would almost begin to think that Ai had many more men than Israel. One wonders why Israel could not have met this army head-on. Or else, why does not God simply destroy the city with fire from heaven? 

There is no question about what God could have done. The reason that God commanded Joshua to proceed in this particular way was undoubtedly for the sake of Israel itself. In the first place we must bear in mind the former attempt of Israel to capture Ai. Then, evidently without consulting. God, only 3,000 men had been sent against Ai. Israel had followed the advice of the spies: “Make not all the people to labor thither.” One receives the impression that they thought it too much to fight as a nation. After all, they had just captured Jericho, that large city. God had given them the victory. Surely now with a few men God will also give them the victory over Ai. This seems not to be a confession of faith that God can give victory whether there be many or few, but it appears rather to be spiritual laziness. Why should all the people enter the fight when they could get by with few? 

God teaches Israel otherwise. Certainly it is not of man but of God that the victory comes. Yet it is exactly because the church has the victory of God through Christ that the church must and does fight. And in that fight the church uses all of the means that God gives unto them. There is no room for laziness in the warfare of faith. The church must know that there is always a fight in the midst of the world, and the church is always in the “thick of the fight.” That fight continues even until the end of time. So God teaches Israel, and us, that the battle is one in which the whole church is involved—it can not be delegated to a few as was their intention.

Secondly, we must also remember (God certainly knew) that “the hearts of the people melted, and became as water.” Surely such gives evidence of a lack of trust in the promise of God. Nevertheless, it would appear that Israel had much reason to fear; not merely of Ai, but of all the surrounding nations. If God had departed from them, would not these nations come upon them and destroy them as wolves among the sheep? No, we may not try to excuse this lack of trust. But God also remembers the frailty of His people, and He leads them as a father does his children. Because of their fear, as well as to teach them that the whole church must fight, He commands them to send forth so large a number against the small city of Ai. In this way He is not teaching them that now they must rely on the arm of flesh, on the numbers of men, in the fight with the wicked. Rather, and it is very plain throughout the account, God teaches His people that it is He who directs the battle from beginning unto the end; and it is He Who gives His people the victory even as He assures His people that the victory is theirs before they ever enter into the battle. 

Can we not then declare with the Psalmist: “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart . . . . My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever . . . I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all thy works.” 

—G.V.B.