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In view of Israel’s defeat, God’s encouraging words were necessary to strengthen Joshua’s resolve (cf. Joshua 1:9). God promised to give victory, but He specified the strategy. This time the Israelites could keep the spoil themselves. "You shall take only" (Joshua 8:2) means, "Only you shall take."
3. Victory at Ai 8:1-29
When the people had dealt with the sin of Achan as God commanded, Israel was ready to engage the enemy again.
Out of the 40,000 Israelite soldiers, Joshua chose 30,000 for this battle. Of these he sent 5,000 to hide in ambush west of the town. The remaining 25,000 (double the population of Ai, Joshua 8:25) approached Ai from the north. "Took" (Joshua 8:12) makes better sense if read "had taken."
Evidently men from Bethel, Ai’s neighbor, joined with the men of Ai to repulse Israel’s attack (Joshua 8:17). These two cities had apparently made a treaty for mutual defense.
Stretching out his javelin (Joshua 8:18) was Joshua’s prearranged signal to his men in ambush to attack. It symbolized that victory came from the Lord (cf. Exodus 14:16; Exodus 17:8-12).
Joshua carefully obeyed the Lord’s directions given here and previously in the Law. He killed all the inhabitants of the town, utterly destroyed Ai, and killed the king whom he also hanged on a tree until sunset (Numbers 25:4; Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Too, he erected a memorial pile of stones at the former gate of the city (cf. Joshua 7:26).
This section, in contrast to the previous one, shows that God gives victory when His people acknowledge their dependence on Him by trusting Him and obeying His Word.
"It is interesting to note again that this first victory in the Hill Country was in the region of Ai and Bethel, exactly where some of the most significant promises had been given to Abraham and Jacob hundreds of years earlier, (. . . Genesis 13 and 28.10-22). In addition to the strategic nature of the region, these earlier promises may have played a part in Joshua’s decision to begin his campaign precisely here. Joshua’s bold move toward this part of the Hill Country may have been just what was needed to unify the Canaanites in the Bethel region. Up to this point they appear to have been in disarray in the face of the Israelite threat (Joshua 5:1). What better place to make their stand than here at the entrance to the strategic region of Bethel and the Central Benjamin Plateau?" [Note: Monson, p. 170.]
One writer observed similarities between Joshua 7:1 to Joshua 8:29 and Deuteronomy 1:19 to Deuteronomy 3:11; Deuteronomy 9:7 to Deuteronomy 10:11; Judges 10:6 to Judges 11:33; and Joshua 20:1-9. He concluded that the biblical writer used similar motifs and terminology in these passages to impress on his readers by repetition three major lessons. First, Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land was not a sure thing but depended on her obedience to God. Second, defeat in the land need not be final and irreversible. Third, to regain the land the people had to deal with the guilty in Israel, and they had to return to obeying the Lord. [Note: Christopher Begg, "The Function of Josh. 7, 1-8, 29 in the Deuteronomistic History," Biblica 67:3 (1986):420-34.]
4. Renewal of the covenant 8:30-35
Israel had now obtained a substantial enough foothold in the land to journey north to Shechem to carry out God’s instructions concerning the renewal of the covenant in the land (Deuteronomy 27). Shechem stood about 30 miles north of Ai. It was a significant place for this ceremony because it was there that God first told Abraham that He would give him the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:7). Also, Jacob had buried his idols there (Genesis 35:2). Moreover Shechem had always been a busy site because of its geographical situation at a crossroads in northern Palestine.
"The story of the building of an altar on Mount Ebal and of the solemn reading of the blessings and curses of the covenant at that site is strategically important for understanding the message of the Book of Joshua. . . . In unmistakably clear symbolism the reader is told that the right of possessing the promised land is tied to the proclamation of, and subjection to, God’s covenant claims upon his people (and upon the world)." [Note: Woudstra, p. 144.]
Mt. Ebal is the northern of the two mountains with an elevation of about 3,085 feet, and Mt. Gerizim is the southern at 2,890 feet. The order of events the writer recorded here varies slightly from the order Moses gave in Deuteronomy. Probably the order here represents what actually took place. This ceremony established Yahweh as "the God of Israel" (Joshua 8:30) in the sight of the Canaanites as well as the Israelites. It amounted to Israel’s declaration of dependence. The people offered burnt and peace offerings on Mt. Sinai when God first gave the Law to Israel. Their offering again here recalled the former incident and shows that this ceremony constituted a covenant renewal. [Note: See Adam Zertal, "Has Joshua’s Altar Been Found on Mt. Ebal?" Biblical Archaeology Review 11:1 (January-February 1985):26-42; Aharon Kempinski, "Joshua’s Altar-An Iron Age I Watchtower," Biblical Archaeology Review 12:1 (January-February 1986):42, 44-49; Adam Zertal, "How Can Kempinski Be So Wrong!" Biblical Archaeology Review 12:1 (January-February 1986):43, 49-53; Hershel Shanks, "Two Early Israelite Cult Sites Now Questioned," Biblical Archaeology Review 14:1 (January-February 1988):48-52; and Milt Machlin, "Joshua and the Archaeologist," Reader’s Digest 137:821 (September 1990):135-40.]
"The method of plastering stones and then printing on them came originally from Egypt; thus, the letters were probably painted in red. So we can imagine large whitewashed monoliths with red Hebrew characters spelling out the Ten Commandments, and possibly the blessings and curses of the Law as well (cf. Deuteronomy 28). This structure was the first public display of the Law." [Note: Hughes, p. 101.]
"This made it palpable even to strangers entering the land what God was worshipped in it, and all excuse for error was taken away." [Note: John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Joshua, p. 133.]
"The religion of Israel at its best has always been a missionary religion." [Note: Madvig, p. 294.]
The extent of the passages from the Mosaic Law that the people copied on the stone monuments is not clear from this passage. Deuteronomy 27 seems to imply the Ten Commandments. "The blessing and the curse" (Joshua 8:34) may be a synonym for "all the words of the law" (i.e., the Ten Commandments), rather than a reference to the specific blessings and curses listed previously and recited here (Deuteronomy 28). However, another possibility is that "the blessing and the curse" may refer to Deuteronomy 28. Some scholars believe the Israelites inscribed the whole Book of Deuteronomy on a stone. This is possible since the Behistun Inscription, also written on a stone monolith in Iran, is three times the length of Deuteronomy.
This ceremony confronted all the Israelites-men, women, and children-with the demands of their covenant God as they began this new phase of their national history. Obedient response would guarantee future rest, prosperity, and happiness in the land.
It is important for God’s people to declare their allegiance to His revealed will publicly among the unbelievers with whom we live (cf. Acts 1:8). This helps them understand why we live as we do, and it brings glory to God when His people then proceed to live upright lives and demonstrate His supernatural power (cf. Matthew 5:16).
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Joshua 8". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent