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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


(ay' i) a city located two miles from Bethel, was the site where Abram built an altar, and Joshua and Achan suffered ruin. Ai is also spelled Aija, Aiath, and Hai. Ai means “ruin” (or possibly “heap”) in the Hebrew language. The city was almost the ruin of Joshua's leadership (Joshua 7:1-9 ); it was the ruin of Achan and his family (Joshua 7:16-26 ); and it suffered complete ruin (Joshua 8:1-29 ). Several hundred years before Joshua, Abram built an altar on a hill just west of Ai which was also near Bethel (Genesis 12:8 ). He then returned to the location after visiting Egypt (Genesis 13:3 ). The prophets later referred to Ai as a symbol of the power of God who provided victory for his obedient people. Isaiah noted the Assyrian army marching by Ai on his way to Jerusalem, but promised God would stop their progress (Isaiah 10:28 ). Jeremiah used the ruin of Ai as a warning to the Ammonites, who had occupied Israel's territory (Jeremiah 49:3 ). Residents of Bethel and Ai returned from Exile with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:28 ).

Although the existence of Ai is well documented, its exact location is debated. The general location of the city is known to be about 10-12 miles north of Jerusalem in the central hills of Palestine. This would be about the same distance from Jericho. William F. Albright identified Beitin as the city of Bethel and then concluded that et-Tell (a site one mile southeast of Beitin) was biblical Ai. Excavations conducted in the 1920s (John Garstang), 1930s (Judith Marquet-Krause and Samuel Yeivin), and 1960s and 1970s (Joseph Callaway), however, produced some disturbing evidence in light of Albright's 1939 proposal. It seems that et-Tell was first occupied as early as the fourth millennium (3200-3000 B.C.) and continued to thrive until the end of the third millennium (2200 B.C.). The problem is that the site has no evidence of being inhabited during the next 1000 years which includes the time of the Israelite invasion. Callaway found a small village without defense walls lasting from 1220 to 1050 B.C. This has resulted in some speculations concerning Albright's theory and the Bible story.

The suggestions for solving this problem are basically three: (1) the Bible contains an inaccurate or legendary story built on the earlier fame of the city; (2) the Israelites actually destroyed Bethel (not Ai), but the twin cities (see Ezra 2:28; and Nehemiah 7:32 ) were considered to be the same, or (3) further archaeological evidence will reveal a different site for Ai. Because of the Bible's historical accuracy, many scholars today dismiss the first idea. The second and third proposals, however, will require further archaeological evidence before this dilemma is solved.

Ai's meaning goes far beyond its mysterious location. At Ai, Israel learned they could not take a city known as the ruin if they disobeyed God. Victory did not lie in military strength or wise leadership. It lay in God's presence. Israel also learned they had hope after defeat. Confession of sin and punishment of offenders helped restore God's favor. The victory at Ai (Joshua 8:1 ) frightened the other Canaanites (Joshua 9:3; Joshua 10:2 ) and helped Israel to further victories. Israel learned to live with a punishing as well as a promising God.

Gary C. Huckaby

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Ai'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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