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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Joshua 8

Verse 1


The shameful failure of Israel to capture Ai, as related in the previous chapter, having at this time been discovered as due to the treachery of Achan, and that sin having now been punished by the death of the offender, the people of Israel at this point in time are again considered to be in full favor with God as His covenant children. The disastrous failure at Ai had surely taught the whole nation an effective lesson, that, if they obeyed God, He would bless them, and that, if they did not obey Him, they would suffer.

Every student of this chapter is at once confronted with what is alleged to be a contradiction between the number of 30,000 chosen for the ambush in Joshua 8:3, and the number 5,000 mentioned allegedly for the same ambush in Joshua 8:12. We have read several explanations of this: (1) Keil and other very dependable scholars affirm that a scribal error is responsible, and that the number 5,000 is correct.[1] It is evident that the expedient of finding a scribal error here does not solve the problem, for Cook asserted that, "The error would have been in writing 30,000 instead of 5,000,"[2] but Holmes said, "the error would have been in writing 30,000 for 3,000."[3] (2) Woudstra mentioned the possibility that the 30,000 included the 5,000 later detached for the ambush, but mentioned earlier in Joshua 8:3, as the principal feature of the attack.[4] Holmes, and nearly all critical assailants against the Bible declare unequivocally, "That two accounts have been combined is obvious."[5] Of course, in this explanation, the great hoax of all allegedly higher criticism, the ubiquitous "editor," or the ever-ready "redactor," is identified as responsible for "combining" these allegedly different accounts! But, if any such person combined two accounts to give us this record, what an incredibly stupid, egregious person he must have been! The impossibility of even imagining such a character outlaws this explanation as absolutely untenable! We shall refrain from comment on those "scholars" who are constantly appealing to this very class of "editors" and "redactors." Could anyone in his right mind mention a group of people as being 30,000 in number, and then ten seconds later state that they numbered 5,000?

We do not pretend to know the proper solution of this obvious difficulty, but, in all probability, the difficulty itself lies in the complexity and weakness of the Hebrew style of narrative, with the problem of the Hebrew tenses making it virtually impossible, at times, to determine the chronology of several parallel actions occurring simultaneously. Aside from this one tiny problem, the grand action of this chapter is as clear as broad, open daylight.

We might summarize as follows:

(1) God commanded the deployment of a very large force, "all the people," against Ai.

(2) There was to be an ambush set behind the city.

(3) Another detachment was to protect against any assistance that Bethel might give Ai.

(4) The main body of Israel would make a feint of frontal assault against Ai.

(5) They would, at first, fall back, pretending to flee, before the king of Ai's attack.

(6) Joshua, with his javelin, or spear, situated strategically, would signal for the ambush to enter and burn Ai.

(7) All Israel would at that point turn and crush the men of Ai. Now, the Lord has not given us any detailed report of the orders that went out to the various detachments, nor any of the remainder of the devices by which this complicated strategy successfully destroyed Ai, but nobody can miss the main points of it, which we may be sure include all that Christians of the 20th century need to know about it!

"And Jehovah 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; 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: set thee an ambush for the city behind it."

"Fear not, neither be thou dismayed ..." Joshua indeed had much to fear, as Matthew Henry said, "The treacherous Israelites were more to be dreaded than the malicious Canaanites!"[6] As for the reason why God commanded so many to be involved in the capture of Ai, Calvin thought it was to give all the people a chance to view the struggle as their own, and "to reassure the people"[7] by giving them a close-up view of the coming victory. As Blair put it, "In order that the morale of all the people could be restored."[8]

"Take all the people of war with thee ..." Keil stated that this merely means "the whole army,"[9] but even that limitation indicated a tremendous number of people. The armed men of Israel at this point numbered over "600,000 fighting men."[10] With such a vast force under his command, whatever number might have been needed in a given task would have been available.

Verse 3

"So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up to Ai: and Joshua chose out 30,000 men, the mighty men of valor, and sent them forth by night. And he commanded them, saying, Behold, ye shall lie in ambush, against 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; and they will come out after us, till we have drawn them away from the city; for they will say, They flee before us as at the first: so we will flee before them; and ye shall rise up from ambush, and take possession of the city: for Jehovah your God will deliver it into your hand. And it shall be, that when ye have seized upon the city, that ye shall set the city on fire; according to the word of Jehovah shall ye do: see, I have commanded you. And Joshua sent them forth; and they went to the ambushment, and abode between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai: but Joshua lodged that night among the people."

Due to Ai's location only two or three miles from Bethel, the commentators "have a fit" about the IMPOSSIBILITY of hiding 30,000 men in an ambush between the towns. Well, it is hard to imagine, but we do not know anything at all of the terrain, in fact not even for sure WHERE these places were located. We admire the zeal by which scholars have tried to get the Lord out of a difficulty like this, and perhaps the most plausible job was done by Clarke, who found that, "The Hebrew word [~'eleph] means `chief' or `mighty man of valor,' and which is here rendered thousands."[11] If this should be allowed, then it would reduce the size of the ambush from 30,000 men to 30 men, who if they were the equivalent of squad commanders, would also be accompanied by one hundred or so others. The text itself favors this kind of an understanding, due to the fact of Joshua's having "chosen out" these particular men, which seems unlikely enough with regard to 30,000. If one needs help with this problem, we recommend this view as being as good as any.

Pink's understanding of why so many Israelites were engaged in such various ways in the reduction of Ai stressed the lesson that these events carry for Christians. "God's predestination of an event does not render needless our use of means to bring it about."[12] This principle has reinforcement in the N.T. in the event where Paul had already been assured by the Lord that no lives were to be lost in the forthcoming shipwreck, but when Paul noted the sailors about to abandon ship, he firmly stated that without them many lives would be lost (Acts 27:22-31). Pink also pointed out that Joshua's knowledge of the devices of the enemy were turned to good account in this second effort to take Ai. Joshua knew that the men of Ai would come out and chase them, as they did at first, and that proved to be the key to the winning strategy. Concerning the Christian's war against Satan, "We are not ignorant of his devices" (2 Corinthians 2:11). Just as Joshua here turned the sure knowledge of what the king of Ai would do into a victory for Israel, Christians should be forewarned and ready to frustrate all of the devices of the Devil.

"Joshua lodged that night among the people ..." The critical scholars seize any pretext as an excuse for "emending," changing, the Word of God. Sizoo thought Joshua 8:9 contradicts Joshua 8:13 and proposed "emending the text (adding one letter) to make it harmonize with Joshua 8:13."[13] Blair stated that, "Such emendations are not necessary, and they serve only to support the contention that here we have TWO parallel accounts of the same incident.[14] Boling also refused suggestions that the text needs emending, writing:

"That night means the night previously mentioned in Joshua 8:3. This is the first of two nights. During this first night, the men who were in the ambush were sent on ahead so as to be already in a concealed position when the main force arrived the next day. There is NO contradiction between Joshua 8:9 and Joshua 8:13; they refer to TWO successive nights. The first night, Joshua spent with the main force; the next night, he was in the valley."[15]

Verse 10

"And Joshua arose up early in the morning, and mustered the people, and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. And all the people, even the men of war that were with him, went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city, and camped on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between him and Ai. And he took about 5,000 men, and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city. So they set the people, even all the host that was on the north of the city, and their liers-in-wait that were on the west side of the city; and Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley. And it came to pass, that when the king of Ai saw it, that they hasted and rose up early, and the men of the city went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at the time appointed before the Arabah; but he knew not 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. And all the people that were in the city were called together to pursue after them: and they pursued after Joshua, and were drawn away from the city. And there was not a man left in Ai or Bethel, that went not out after Israel: and they left the city open, and pursued after Israel."

This passage clears up the mystery of Bethel absolutely. Bethel and Ai were ONE, having the same king, and all of the men of BOTH places engaged in the battle here, and ALL were put to death! Also, it may be doubted that Ai itself was anything more than the principal fortress of Bethel. We have no idea why the name Ai received so much more emphasis here. "The references to Bethel here are mysterious and cannot be fully explained."[16] The "king of Ai" was also the "king of Bethel." This, if not proved, is certainly made likely by the fact that the Bible flatly declares that Joshua slew the king of Bethel (Joshua 12:16), and if the occasion discussed here is not when that happened, when was it? Could there ever have been a better time for Joshua to destroy Bethel, than this occasion, when not a single man had been left alive? To understand Ai and Bethel as "A city" instead of "TWO cities" clears up everything. It explains why "not a man was left in Ai or Bethel that went not after Israel" (Joshua 8:17).

In this connection, we begin to get a glimpse of what kind of book Joshua really is. It is not a detailed record of everything that happened in the conquest. The events narrated are given for specific reasons, the religious meaning of each one being the principal reason for its inclusion. We became familiar with this characteristic of the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Numbers especially, where the history of an entire forty years for a whole nation covers only a few pages.

Before leaving this passage, we wish to express appreciation for Lilley who rejected the common critical claim of multiple sources here, saying that the problem derives from the type of "narrative method rather than sources."[17]

The dramatic picture here is that of the total armies of both Bethel and Ai rushing down the steppes to destroy what they have mistakenly supposed to be the defeated Israelites. What a foolish, headlong rush into disaster! Men wonder how such a thing could happen, but it has happened often. Look at the example of Pharaoh rushing into the sea-bed itself where a quarter of a million of his best troops along with the Pharaoh himself went "gurgling down." We must go a little further and affirm with Pink that the same thing is also going on right this very moment in sinners who have not turned to the Lord:

"Before God destroys the wicked, he gives them a spirit of madness. The rebel against God must not suppose that his previous immunity from Divine punishment has endowed him with security. They are most in danger who are least aware of it. The king of Ai was blind to his own interests; is not the sinner the same? The king failed to take the most obvious precautions. Are not sinners also guilty of the same folly, hastening unto eternity utterly unprepared to meet God?"[18]

Verse 18

"And Jehovah said unto Joshua, Stretch out the javelin that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thy hand. And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city. And the ambush rose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand, and entered the city, and took it; and they hasted and set the city on fire. And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and, behold, the smoke of the city ascended up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that way: and the people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon their pursuers. And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city, and that the smoke of the city ascended, then they turned again, and slew the men of Ai. And the others came forth out of the city against them; so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side: and they smote them, so that they let none of them remain or escape. And the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua."

"Stretch out the javelin ..." Holmes made fun of this outstretched javelin as a signal, saying, "It looks like a piece of sympathetic magic."[19] However, totally aside from any miraculous power which might have been released by the Divine command for Joshua to stretch out the javelin, there is the definite possibility that from a strategic elevation (the area was full of such places), the spear with which Joshua signaled the attack, "probably had a flag or streamer on it to make it more easily visible from the heights where he stood."[20] Another possibility was mentioned by Blair: "Joshua probably gave the signal by reflecting the sun from the wide flat blade of his spear."[21]

"So they let none of them remain or escape ..." The literal words here in the Hebrew are: "Until there remained to them neither remainder nor fugitive."[22] The extent of the slaughter in the conquest of Canaan must have been one of the most terrible disasters of all history. Israel systematically butchered entire populations of every city that they took.

Verse 24

"And it came to pass when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness, wherein they pursued them, and they were all fallen by the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all Israel returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not back his hand, wherewith he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of Jehovah which he commanded Joshua. So Joshua burnt Ai, and made it a heap forever, even a desolation, unto this day. And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until the eventide: and at the going down of the sun Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree, and cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city, and raised thereon a great heap of stones, unto this day."

"Joshua drew not back his hand ..." This means that, "According to the common custom of war, the general did not lower the war signal until the conflict was to cease."[23]

Another interesting thing here is that the king of Ai's body was taken down at sunset, exactly in compliance with the Mosaic instructions in Deuteronomy 21:22,23. In fact, all of Joshua shows this constant reflection of the Deuteronomic laws and of the commandments of Moses, which Joshua carefully honored at all times. All efforts of Biblical critics to make a portion of Joshua "the original Deuteronomy" are contradicted and made to be, in fact ridiculous, by this constant reflection of the previous Biblical books in the pages of Joshua. Woudstra dealt with the critical postulations that would make the narratives of Joshua out to be "etiological," meaning simply that the stories were invented by some subsequent generation in order to explain the monuments, such as the cairn of stones raised over the bodies of Achan and of the king of Ai. We agree with the firm way in which Woudstra contradicted such false notions:

"The Bible presents a reliable record of what the God of history did in space and time. For this reason, the Israel of Joshua's day had good reason to treasure the memories attached to the monuments of the past ... It was not the monuments that remain `unto this day' that triggered the Biblical narratives. The events recorded in the Bible are the true cause of the monuments."[24]

Verse 30

"Then Joshua built an altar unto Jehovah, the God of Israel, in mount Ebal, as Moses, the servant of Jehovah commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man had lifted up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt-offerings unto Jehovah, and sacrificed peace-offerings. And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel. And all Israel, and their eiders and officers, and their judges, stood on this side of the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, that bare the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, as well the sojourner as the home-born; half of them in front of mount Gerizim, and half of them in front of mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of Jehovah had commanded, at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners that were among them."

We are given here a brief account of the extensive ceremonies at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, the same ceremonies which had been commanded by Moses himself, and which were designed to establish the law of Moses, meaning the five books of the Pentateuch as the official law of the land of Canaan, now in the possession of Israel. There is absolutely nothing here to suggest that this ceremony was accomplished either in a single day, or in an entire week. The reading of "every word of the law of Moses" would itself have involved a number of assemblies. In this we have renewed evidence of the extremely abbreviated nature of the Book of Joshua.

Here we have a passage that the critics hate. The narrative here is denounced as misplaced, unfitting, and "impossible to be true, since Joshua had not yet conquered central Canaan."[25] What really troubles them is the proof this passage gives of the PRIOR existence of the Mosaic law. It is a vain criticism that the passage does not belong here; "Here is where it is!" Furthermore, it belongs here. As Schaeffer noted, "The victorious Israelites now controlled the northern end of the ridge highway that went south to Jerusalem and Hebron. Having defeated Ai (and probably Bethel), they could march straight to Shechem over an excellent road that had been there for generations."[26]

Some of the critics think that Joshua should have waited long afterward for this elaborate ceremony, until all of Canaan had been subdued. However, it was Joshua who was correct in his accurate decision that this great ceremony belongs early in the Conquest, just as soon as it was safe to carry it out. In view of this great ceremony coming exactly here, we must conclude that the two initial victories at Jericho and Ai were not all of the victories Israel had won, but especially important ones. There were 31 kingdoms subdued by Joshua in Canaan, and yet this book contains no account whatever of some of them, including Bethel, which, as we have seen, probably occurred almost simultaneously with the destruction of Ai. "Joshua does not profess to give an exhaustive account of the conquest of Canaan."[27]

Alfred Plummer noted that efforts to move this passage to some other part of Joshua, as in the LXX, are unsuccessful, and he also rejected out of hand the allegations of critics that Deuteronomy was a fabrication after the times of Joshua and Moses, affirming that, "On the hypothesis of the genuineness of both writings (Deuteronomy and Joshua), everything fits in naturally enough."[28] Also, in this connection, we appeal to the magnificent writings of J. W. McGarvey in his great work, "The Authorship of Deuteronomy," in which after a thorough and exhaustive examination of all the critical theories, confidently affirmed that, "Beyond all possibility of doubt, Deuteronomy came from Moses."[29] We have the same unlimited confidence with reference to Joshua as the author of the Book we are studying.

This tremendous ceremony took place at the two mountains of Gerizim and Ebal, as Moses had directed in Deuteronomy 27. In order to get to that place, Joshua had to lead all of Israel "past the fortress of Shechem, guarding the valley,"[30] indicating that Shechem was in friendly hands at that time. "Several of the Amarna letters declare that around 1380 B.C., the prince of Shechem was in league with some invading army, likely the Hebrews."[31] There is also the possibility that the Israelites had already subdued it.

"Ebal and Gerizim are only a mile and a half apart, and only 500 yards apart at their base."[32] Gerizim Isaiah 2,895 feet above sea level; Ebal Isaiah 3,077 feet above sea level; and they rise about 1,300 feet and 1,500 feet respectively above the surrounding valley.[33] The two great bays lying near the base of each mountain provide one of the grandest amphitheaters on earth!

"Through the years, many people have tested this. They have stood on one of the mountains and had other people stand on the other or in the valley. As they read in a loud voice, but without amplification, the other persons were able to hear all that was spoken. It is God's own amphitheater."[34]

"Then Joshua built an altar ..." Take a look at that altar. It was built exactly as Moses had commanded in Deuteronomy 27:5ff. This marvelous passage shows the close bond between the Pentateuch and Joshua. The importance of the sacrifices and the ceremonies outlined in this abbreviated paragraph is profound. "Israel's right to possess the Promised Land is tied to the proclamation of, and subjection to, God's covenant claims upon his people ... This basic lesson should not be lost."[35]

Regarding the Divine commandment for the use of plain, undecorated stones in the building of God's altar, this indicates that the true worship of God never needs to be doctored up and decorated by human "improvements." "Here is a complete negation of all humanism."[36] God's altar was not to be decorated, or have carvings of any kind, and its stones were not even to be smoothed or squared. In the light of this, can it be a mystery why such things as instruments of music do NOT belong in the worship of Jesus Christ?

It is significant that this altar was built, not on the mount of the blessings, but on the mount of the cursings, indicated, perhaps, that it is precisely mankinds sin's that require an altar to be available.

All of the blessings and cursings, as outlined in Moses' instructions for this grand ceremony were carried out exactly as Moses commanded, and for a full discussion of this ceremony, see the final chapters of Deuteronomy, above. "This whole ceremony was a symbolical setting up of the Law of Moses as the law of the land."[37] The curses were pronounced from Ebal on the north side of the valley, and the blessings from Gerizim on the south.

Cook pointed out that this is an exceedingly brief account of the observance of this grand ceremony, only the principal features of it being outlined, so that we may understand that it was completely observed.[38] Of course, most of the commentators rush in to tell us that "not the whole law" was read to the people. Dummelow limited the portion read to the people as consisting of a mere two chapters from Deuteronomy.[39] All such comments deny what is clearly stated here in Joshua 8:35, that "there was not a word that Moses spoke, that was not read to the people." As noted above, there is no reason whatever to limit this tremendous ritual to a single day, or even to a single week. It has not been too long since Biblical enemies were affirming that "writing did not exist" in those days, but now it is known that the Code of Hammurabi (about 1700 B.C.), containing (1) its prologue; (2) 282 sections; and (3) the epilogue was written on stones, and those stones have now been discovered.[40] Where then does the notion come from that the Law of Moses was too big to be written on stones?

What a glorious event this whole extravaganza must have been to the people of Israel, having come at last to inherit the ancient promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their formal acceptance here of their duties under the covenant was perhaps the grandest moment in the whole history of the Chosen People.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 8". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.