The Israelites Conquer Ai

Joshua 8

[Author’s note: This map and article assume that Ai was located at Khirbet al-Maqatir and Bethel was located at al-Bira. It is beyond the scope of this article to present all the convincing reasons for these assumptions, but they are well summarized in the following articles: “Traditional Site of Bethel Questioned,” “Location of Biblical Bethel and Ai Reconsidered,” and “The Khirbet el-Maqatir Excavations.” The expected locations for Roman mile markers are also included on this map, which confirm that al-Bira is located precisely at the twelfth mile marker from Jerusalem, as Eusebius and Jerome both asserted. All other maps in this Atlas have been recently updated to use these same locations for Ai and Bethel.

Soon after the Israelites entered the Promised Land and captured the city of Jericho, they sent a force of only three thousand men to capture the much smaller fortified town of Ai (Joshua 7). They suffered defeat, however, and the Lord revealed to them that this happened because a man named Achan had taken some of the devoted items from Jericho. So Joshua took Achan and his family to the Valley of Achor and executed them there (see Israel Enters the Promised Land map). Later the Lord told Joshua to attack Ai again, because this time he was going to give them the town. It appears that Ai, which had a direct line of sight to the more powerful city of Jerusalem to the south, must have served as a sort of early warning outpost for the larger city. Thus, capturing Ai was critical to staging an effective battle campaign throughout southern Canaan. So Joshua advanced with thirty thousand troops during the night and camped north of the city, and he positioned a force of five thousand men in ambush between Bethel and Ai, just to the west of Ai. The men in ambush were also just east of the mountain where Abraham had pitched his tent centuries earlier (Genesis 12:8). Joshua himself spent the night in the valley between Ai and the main Israelite camp. Early the next morning, the king of Ai led all the inhabitants of the town in an attack on the main camp of the Israelites, who feigned retreat into the wilderness. After the Israelite army had drawn the people of Ai away from the town, the Israelites hiding in ambush rose up and captured Ai. They set the town on fire, sending a signal to the the main army of Israelites to turn back upon the forces of Ai. The Israelites completely destroyed the people of Ai and reduced the town to a burning heap of ruins.

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