They got knocked down…will they get up again? That is the question at stake for Israel at this point. You may recall from Joshua 7 that the Israelites faced their first defeat in the Conquest Era when trying to take Ai. They had not taken the whole of the people into that battle (Joshua 7:4) but the ones who went failed because they went without the power of God.
Joshua 8 tells of the return to Ai and its subsequent destruction. God gives Joshua instructions on setting up an ambush for Ai and then destroying it. It’s a classic “fake retreat” ambush—part of the army is in hiding and the rest goes up as if in a normal assault. When the evident troops retreat, they are pursued and the hidden warriors then come out and attack the undefended city. Then, the “retreating” forces turn and attack, leading to ultimate destruction.
It is worth noting that this time, God permits the people of Israel to plunder from the city. The people are still to be put to the death, but the Israelites may keep the material possessions. The deaths are a continued part of God’s judgment on the people of Canaan, promised in Genesis 15:13-16, but there is little clarity about why the command shifts regarding the material wealth. Perhaps Jericho had been a test, and having failed that test and seeing God reinforce the lesson, the people can now be trusted.
The chapter wraps up with the Israelites fulfilling the requirements of Deuteronomy 27 by going to Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. There, they build an altar and restate the covenant between Israel and God, specifically using the covenant name (YHWH) and reminders of the Law of Moses. And we see a recurrence, at least in the CSB, of one of my favorite Bible terms: “aliens” in v. 35. (It’s in reference to those in the community who were not born in it.)
Here is where I would draw the meaning from this passage: Joshua 8:1. God commands Joshua to take “all the people of war” and go up to Ai. That’s a substantial contrast to 7:3, where Joshua is advised that there is no need “wear out” all the people going up to Ai.
But God had not given the conquest to some of the people of Israel. Even the Reubenites, Gileadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who all settled on the eastern side of the Jordan River, had sent their warriors to be part of the conquest. (Numbers 32 has that story.)
The contrast here is between the earthly wisdom of Joshua’s advisors and the heavenly command. The earthly wisdom may make sense, in terms of military strategy and logistics. But the heavenly command is another matter entirely: the people were attempting to think for the Lord, and He had not given them that task.
Their task was to obey what He had already said.
We would be prudent to apply the lessons here to more than just the conquest and destruction of enemy cities. In fact, given that the struggle of the Christian is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12-18), we probably won’t be destroying any enemy cities any time soon.
Instead, let us consider the task that God has given us. After all, one critical point in understanding part of Scripture as Christians is that we have the entire Bible to draw from. While I do love a good book study and some nice Biblical Theology, we do not have to understand what God said through Scripture by taking just one verse in isolation. (Which often leads to bad results, anyway!)
The task that God has given us, as Christians, is found in His commission to the Apostles in Matthew 28:18-20 and echoed in Mark, Luke-Acts, and we can see the heart of it throughout the text. There is a world full of people who need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a world full of people who need to see the love of God in action in the lives of Believers. And there are churches that need to be houses of prayer, worship, fellowship, discipleship, and compassion.
But that task is not for us to farm off on to a few others. It is not for us to determine that a few need to labor while most of the people rest, even though that is honestly the way we do it in most churches. Look around the typical church, and you’ll notice Enterprise syndrome. Not the rental car company, but the spaceship. The Enterprise had a crew of hundreds….but except for 3 expendable red-shirted guys, the same 12 people did all the work, every episode.
Take a church that claims 576 members, but averages 145 in attendance—and then expects that fewer than 50 people will do most of the work. We fall into the trap of the Israelites at Ai in Joshua 7. Let’s just have a few folks do the work, even though God has given the task to the whole body.
Across the board, we need to see this: 1) we are to labor together, supporting one another; 2) that some people have specialties does not mean we send them off alone, but rather that we support them fully or we don’t send them; 3) the command of God is more important than the wisdom of men. Now, the latter may complement each other and when it does, then use the wisdom. When it doesn’t, though, keep the focus on the commands.
It is, after all, the responsibility of the Commander to deal with the outcome of His orders.
First: there are some studies that suggest the Ai (and Jericho) narratives primarily refer to the taking of military fortifications more than ordinary cities. I would wait to make that assertion (it’s still very tenuous and only mentioned in a couple of things I’ve read) until there is more study. It does shift the ethical problem: the “women and children” who were to be killed would have been far fewer than a city and would have had a definite attachment to the military might of the city. However, if that is the case, such a command would not be necessary. Nor would Jericho (Joshua 6) be as it was described. Is it possible that Ai was more of a fort than a city? Yes. But beyond that, I would defer to other sources.
Second: “Ai” means “ruin” in Biblical-era Hebrew. It may have been called “Bobville” before it was destroyed, and simply came to be remembered as a ruin.
Third: catch the similarity between Joshua 8:35 and how Exodus records the obedience in building the Tabernacle and furnishings. “Not a word” left unfollowed.