Bible Commentaries
Joshua 8

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

Verse 1

CAPTURE OF AI, Joshua 8:1-29.

1. Fear not Joshua had need of reassurance and encouragement after the disasters and humiliation which Israel had suffered for the sin of Achan. As shines the sun emerging from behind a thunder cloud, so the returning mercy of Jehovah upon the camp of Israel.

Take all the people of war with thee How different from the counsel of the spies, (Joshua 7:3,) “Let not all the people go up, but let about two or three thousand men go up.” The Lord could, indeed, have given Ai into the hands of two or three thousand as easily as to all, but he would not encourage Israel in a rash, imprudent dependence on Omnipotence. It appears from Joshua 8:3 that the expression all the people of war, like the oft-recurring phrase, “all Israel,” is not to be taken in its widest import. It is probable that the whole camp was put in preparation, and the whole force was reviewed, and thirty thousand of the most suitable were detached for this expedition, while the rest of the army was held in reserve.

Go up to Ai The march from Jericho to Ai was actually an ascent, but the term go up is often used in a military sense of an advance against a city or nation where the advance is not an actual ascent.

Have given The conquest of Ai was a foregone conclusion in the Divine mind. Compare Joshua 6:2, note.

Verse 2

2. Only the spoil thereof… shall ye take The spoils of Jericho had been devoted wholly to the Lord, as the first fruits of the conquest of Canaan. But the spoils of Ai and of the other conquered cities (Deuteronomy 6:10-11) are now to be appropriated unto the conquerors. The people and their king are to be slain and their city subverted. There was, henceforth, to be no temptation to the sin of Achan. Had he waited obediently and refrained from the accursed thing he might now have innocently enriched himself. So sin generally misses the mark.

Lay thee an ambush If war itself is ever justifiable, it is right to use the mind as well as the hand, strategy as well as brute force. It is certain that a contest of wit is as proper as a contest of muscle. Says Calvin: “Those are pronounced the best generals whose success is due less to force than to skilful manoeuvres. It is, of course, understood that neither must treaties be violated, nor faith broken in any other way.”

Behind it As Joshua was east of Ai, the ambuscade, by a flank movement up one of the numerous ravines, was to be made on the west side of the city. See note on Joshua 8:9.

Verse 3

3. Joshua arose… to go up That is, set himself about the preliminary arrangements necessary for the march.

Chose out thirty thousand There is some apparent confusion in the details of this movement of Joshua. Some eminent commentators think that the entire army of more than six hundred thousand fighting men (Numbers 26:51) was engaged in this enterprise. The difficulties of this interpretation are: (1) the impossibility of handling advantageously so vast a body of soldiers in a country cut up by deep and narrow mountain gorges; (2) The exposure of the camp left behind them; (3) The presence of so vast an array before Ai would so appal the inhabitants that they would not venture to sally out and attack it; (4) The extreme difficulty of hiding so large an ambuscade as that of thirty thousand men not very far from the city. Some expositors have even supposed that there were two ambuscades, one of thirty thousand and the other of five thousand. But if so, Joshua 8:9; Joshua 8:12 would argue that both were in the same place, namely, “between Bethel and Ai,” on the west side of Ai, and this is hardly supposable. Further, in Joshua 8:19; Joshua 8:21 mention is made of only one ambush. The other theory is, that this number of men were all who were engaged. These were divided into two corps one of five thousand for the ambush and the other of twenty-five thousand for the feigned assault. The latter theory being more reasonable, and involving less difficulties, is assumed by us. [On this hypothesis the order of events must be understood as follows: Joshua, having made all necessary arrangements, arose early one morning, and, accompanied by the elders, went up with the thirty thousand men who were, in this siege, all the people of war, and encamped on the north side of Ai. Joshua 8:10-11. This march occupied the day, so that it was evening when they approached Ai. That same night Joshua sent the five thousand men to lie in ambush on the west side of the city, (Joshua 8:4; Joshua 8:9; Joshua 8:12,) but he and the twenty-five thousand remained en-camped in the valley north of Ai. Joshua 8:13. The next day the king of Ai, not knowing Joshua’s stratagem, hasted out early with his people to attack the Israelites, but was caught in the snare prepared to deceive him, and he and his people and city were utterly ruined. On the apparent confusion of the narrative, see remarks in the Introduction on the style of the Hebrew historians.]

And sent them away by night A portion of them, five thousand in number. A part is here loosely put for the whole. See Joshua 8:12, rendering the verb took, had taken, as does the Vulgate.

Verse 4

4. He commanded them That is, the five thousand who were to form the ambuscade. To these the words from this verse on through Joshua 8:8 are addressed. But of course all these plans for the battle were also made known to the rest of the army.

Verse 5

5. All the people The soldiers are often spoken of by Homer as “the people.”

We will flee This was no uncommon stratagem for decoying the garrison of a walled town into the open fields. See Livy’s description of the capture of Fidenae by the Romans, book i, chap. 14. There is always danger of military disorganization on the part of the soldiers making this movement, unless they are let into the secret of the commander, as they were in the present instance.

Verse 6

6. For they will come out after us So infatuated are they over their recent victory that our greater numbers will not be likely to awe them from coming out against us.

They flee before us, as at the first It is a wise general who makes a former defeat aid him in securing a future victory.

Verse 8

8. Ye shall set the city on fire We are not to understand that the entire city is to be immediately destroyed by fire, for in that case there would be a loss of the promised spoil. A part of the city was set on fire as a signal, and the smoke was to signify to Joshua that it was time to stop the reigned retreat and return to the city. Afterwards the entire city was pillaged and destroyed.

According to the commandment of the Lord This is found in the second verse, “as unto Jericho.”

See, I have commanded you Be impressed with the fact that this is a momentous military order, and on your perfect obedience victory hinges.

Verse 9

9. Between Bethel and Ai This region is greatly cut up with gorges and ravines, “and,” says Dr. Thomson, “as I passed from Bethel towards Michmash, (southeasterly,) I could easily understand how Joshua’s ambush of five thousand men could be hid between Ai and Bethel.”

[On the west side of Ai A short distance west of Et-Tel, says Captain Wilson, “and entirely concealed from it by rising ground, is a small ravine well suited for an ambush, one of the branches of the main valley, which runs close to Et-Tel, and protects its northern face the same into which the army of the Israelites descended the night before the capture of the city. On the hills to the north, beyond the valley, Joshua encamped before making his final arrangements for the attack, (Joshua 8:11,) and it seems probable that he took his stand at some point on the hillside while the battle was raging, for there is a most commanding view over the whole scene, not only up the lateral valley, in which the ambush was placed, but also down by the way of the wilderness. Joshua 8:15. He would thus be able at the same time to control the feigned flight of the Israelites, and signal the ambush (Joshua 8:18-19) to rise up quickly and seize the city.”]

Joshua lodged that night among the people That is, among the twenty-five thousand who encamped for the night on the north side of Ai in the valley. Joshua 8:11; Joshua 8:13. The night here mentioned is to be understood as identical with that mentioned in Joshua 8:3; Joshua 8:13.

Verse 10

10. And Joshua rose up early This must be regarded as a repetition of Joshua 8:3, after the custom of oriental historians.

Numbered the people Reviewed the troops (thirty thousand) with whom he intended to capture Ai.

Went up From the Ghor, or Jordanic Valley, to the interior of Palestine. there is a steep ascent. Compare note on Luke 10:30. Ai was distant from Jericho about fifteen English miles.

And the elders As a council of war. Joshua’s impetuous and rapid movements were attended by a wise senate.

Verse 11

11. A valley between them and Ai The Hebrew reads the valley, the article intimating that it was well known. It was the main valley, of which the ravine in which the ambush was laid was a branch. See note on Joshua 8:9.

Verse 12

12. And he took about five thousand The Hebrew has no separate form for the pluperfect tense, hence we are justified in rendering an indefinite past tense by the pluperfect when the context requires it, as the Vulgate has rendered this had taken and had set.

Verse 13

13. Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley That is, the valley on the north of Ai. Joshua 8:11, note. This movement was executed very late in the night, probably just before the dawn of day, when he was descried by the watchmen approaching the city in front.

Verse 14

14. At a time appointed In Judges 20:38, the same word is translated an appointed sign. This makes good sense here; but Gesenius and Furst both say that it is here to be rendered, an appointed place in Joshua’s line, upon which the attack was to be made. This place is mentioned immediately afterwards as the plain, that is, the Arabah, the desert, which is spoken of in Joshua 8:15 under the name of the wilderness.


Made as if they were beaten The original simply reads were beaten. Keil renders it suffered themselves to be beaten.

The wilderness The eastern slope of the mountains of Judah towards Jericho and the Dead Sea. Captain Wilson says that on the east of Et-Tel “the ground, which at first breaks down rapidly from the great ridge that forms the backbone of Palestine, swells out into a small plain three quarters of a mile broad, before commencing its abrupt descent to the Jordan valley.”] 16. And all the people That is, all capable of military service. We read in Joshua 8:24 that some were killed in the city.

Verse 17

17. Or Bethel This small city, three miles distant on the west, had probably concentrated its military strength at Ai, as the next probable point of attack by Joshua after the conquest of Jericho; for we cannot conceive of their separate and concerted action, with a large undiscovered ambuscade between them. Our interpretation is confirmed by the next statement, and they left the city not cities open. We have no further mention in this book of the conquest of Bethel, except that its king is in the list of those subdued by Joshua, in chap. Joshua 12:16. “It was not taken at that time, and seems long to have resisted the invaders. At last it fell before the arms, not of the little tribe of Benjamin, within whose territory it was included, but of the powerful house of Joseph, who attacked it from the north, and who thus acquired possession of it. Judges 1:23-25.” Stanley.

Verse 18

18. The Lord said As there were probably no facilities for consulting the Lord by means of the urim and thummim, we infer that there was an immediate communication to Joshua of this divine command.

Stretch out the spear This was the concerted signal for the ambush to arise and seize the city. The Hebrew word for spear has been variously explained. See note on 1 Samuel 17:6. The translator of the Vulgate, and several others, have rendered it shield. Others suppose that a shield was elevated on the spear. Gesenius suggests that the spear supported a small flag, like that of the modern lance. This could be seen by the distant liers in wait, who were, doubtless, instructed to watch for the signal.

Toward the city An act symbolical of the terrible blow which was now to ruin it forever.

Verse 19

19. And set the city on fire Not only for its destruction, but also for a signal to the army which was feigning a retreat to turn upon their pursuers, whose place of safety was now cut off. In Joshua 8:28 the burning of the city occurs after the pillage, but that is to be understood of the completion and consequence of what the ambush had begun.

Verse 20

20. And they had no power to flee [Literally, there was not in them two hands to fly. Keil makes the word rendered two hands mean on both sides, that is, it was not in them to flee on either side, or in either direction. But this explanation hardly holds good in connection with the expression בהם , in them. We prefer, therefore, the common version, which takes hands metaphorically for capability, power for action or flight.] They were appalled by the revelation of the plot, and stupified by sudden terror. Their wives, children, houses, and possessions were in the hands of a merciless foe, and they themselves were in a ravine completely shut in before and behind by Joshua’s army.

Verse 22

22. They let none of them… escape Considering the Israelites’ superior numbers, their advantage in the strife, and the panic of the men of Ai, their total destruction was an easy matter. Rarely in those times were prisoners taken in battle. The sword devoured utterly.

Verse 23

23. And the king of Ai they took alive Kings were anciently spared in battle, either to grace the triumph of the victor, or for the accomplishment of some political end, or, as in this case, for a more formal and impressive execution. The king of Bethel (Joshua 12:16) was, perhaps, killed in this battle, and left among the common dead, so that no special notice of his death is here recorded.

Verse 24

24. Smote it with the edge of the sword The non-combatant population, without regard to age or sex, were indiscriminately slain. For several considerations in justification of the total excision of the Canaanites, see note on Joshua 6:21.

Verse 25

[ 25. Twelve thousand Some expositors have argued that these twelve thousand were only the military force of Ai; but this would imply a population of fifty or sixty thousand; a number far too large for a comparatively small city among the hills. Compare chap. Joshua 7:3. This verse clearly affirms that the twelve thousand included all that fell that day, both of men and women.]

25. Joshua drew not his hand back The uplifted spear was not only a signal for the assault of the city, but also for its continuance till the conquest was completed. We see no good reason for regarding this act as symbolic of prayer, as was the lifting up of Moses’ hands when Israel fought with Amalek. Exodus 17:11.

Verse 27

27. A prey unto themselves Joshua’s army was now, like Sherman’s on his grand march to the sea, a moving column cut off from its base of supplies. Hence it must live upon spoils.

Verse 28

28. A heap for ever [The word translated heap is תל , Tel, and strikingly confirms Capt. Wilson’s identification of the site of Ai with the mound still bearing, after the lapse of ages, the name Et-Tel, the ruined heap. Compare note on Joshua 7:2.] Because the meaning of Ai is a heap of ruins the Rationalists build up a theory that the history of its conquest is a myth, growing out of ruins of unknown origin. But the city destroyed by Joshua may have taken the name of Ai or Hai, the ruins, from the ruins of a more ancient city out of which it may have been built.

Unto this day This clause seems awkward, coming immediately after for ever, but it shows that the word for ever sometimes has a limited reference. Perhaps, however, the historian, or some later editor, meant by the former clause, closing with for ever, to express Joshua’s purpose to make Ai a perpetual desolation, and by the latter clause to indicate its fulfilment. The name of Ai appears again, after a thousand years, as inhabited. Nehemiah 11:31. But it was probably on another site, just as there were an Old and a New Troy, an Old and a New Tyre.

Verse 29

29. The king of Ai he hanged For the reason, see note on Joshua 8:23.

On a tree The Septuagint says, on a double tree, which the Vulgate renders, a fork-shaped gibbet.

Until eventide This was in accordance with the law, (Deuteronomy 21:23,) “that the land be not defiled.” Among the ancient Israelites hanging alive seems not to have been practiced, but, as Deuteronomy 21:22, implies, the victim was first slain and then hanged. Comp. Jos 10:26 ; 2 Samuel 4:12.

At the entering of the gate Probably the dead body was cast into a pit. Thus the Septuagint translates this passage.

A great heap of stones See note on Joshua 7:26.

Verse 30

30. Mount Ebal The mountain, nearly eight hundred feet high, which rises in steep, rocky precipices on the north side of the narrow valley in which lay the city, Shechem, and which was confronted on the south by Mount Gerizim. See on Joshua 8:33, and on John 5:4.

Verses 30-35


[This passage is one of those peculiarly interesting narratives of sacred history which serve to bind the Bible to the hearts of devout believers. But the whole account has been hastily pronounced by some critics an interpolation by a later hand, the main argument being that Joshua had not yet carried his conquests as far north as Mount Ebal. It is possible, indeed, that the narrative may have been inserted here out of its proper place, (for chronological order seems not to have been sought after by our author,) and to a critic’s eye it might appear more appropriate, as some suggest, at the close of chap. 11. But the criticisms which make the passage an interpolation, or hold it to be out of place here, are based on uncertain and unwarrantable assumptions, and there are several considerations which make it more probable that the narrative is in its proper chronological order. Joshua improved the first possible opportunity to obey the commandment of Moses, which required Israel, “on the day when they passed over Jordan,” (Deuteronomy 27:2,) to do what is here recorded. Of course the commandment, literally understood, imposed an impossibility, for Mount Ebal could not be reached by the Israelitish camp on the very day they crossed the Jordan. The spirit and import of the commandment were that the first possible opportunity be taken for it. Jericho and Ai were the centers of two powerful kingdoms that lay directly in the way from the Jordan to Mount Ebal, and these must first be conquered. Then, as the miraculous passage of the Jordan had so awed the Canaanites that Joshua could circumcise the people and celebrate the passover unmolested in the plains of Jericho, so the destruction of Ai enabled him to proceed at once to Mount Ebal, and without opposition erect the memorial altar there. Keil supposes that after this the camp of Israel was pitched at the Gilgal which lies about half way between Bethel and Mount Ebal. But see note on Joshua 9:6. Keil’s hypothesis is unnecessary, especially as no account at all is given of the march of Israel either to or from Mount Ebal, and it is therefore as easy to suppose they marched back to the Jordan Gilgal as to the mountains of Ephraim.]

Verse 31

31. An altar of whole stones That is, stones on which no tool of iron had been used to chisel down or polish. According to the law of Exodus 20:25, a stone altar must not be built of hewn stones, for the touch of an iron tool upon it was regarded as a pollution. And an unhewn stone would the better symbolize that Living Stone, (1 Peter 2:4.) cut out of the mountain without hands, (Daniel 2:45,) which has become the head of the corner, (Ephesians 2:20,) and certainly owes none of its excellence to human culture or polish.

Verse 32

32. He wrote there upon the stones Whether these stones were the same as those of which the altar was built, or others, erected solely for the purpose of inscription, is not positively determined either by this passage or that of Deuteronomy 27:2-8. But the more probable opinion, and the one adopted by most expositors, is that it was a separate monument of stones on which the law was written. According to the original command, (Deuteronomy 27:4,) the stones were to be smeared with cement, and the words to be written upon it. At first thought this would seem to lack the chief quality of a memorial, durability. But travelers in the east assert that such inscriptions are as lasting as those cut in the rock. Says Dr. Thomson: “A careful examination of Deuteronomy 27:4; Deuteronomy 27:8, and Joshua 8:30-32, will lead to the opinion that the law was written upon, or in, the plaster with which these pillars were coated. This could be done, and such writing was common in ancient times. I have seen numerous specimens of it certainly two thousand years old, and still as distinct as when they were first inscribed on the plaster. In this hot climate, where there is no frost to dissolve the cement, it will continue hard and unbroken for thousands of years, which is certainly long enough. The cement on Solomon’s pools remains in admirable preservation, though exposed to all the vicissitudes of climate, and with no protection. The cement in the tombs about Sidon is still perfect, and the writing entire, though acted upon for perhaps two thousand years by the moist damp air always found in caverns.” Respecting the mode of writing on the cement, he says: “What Joshua did, therefore, when he erected these great stones at Mount Ebal, was merely to write in the still soft cement with a stile, or, more likely, on the polished surface, when dry, with red paint, as in ancient tombs.”

A copy of the law of Moses The chief difficulty which critics have here is in the size of the work, if the whole of the Torah, or Mosaic law, is to be deemed as thus inscribed. The Hebrew word for copy is mishneh, ( משׁנה ,) and signifies a repetition, a duplicate, “an apograph next to the original.” The Septuagint and the Vulgate translate it by the word Deuteronomy, which, though literally meaning a repetition of the law, had already acquired a narrower signification. Several Rabbins make the incredible statement that the whole law, word for word, was written on the monuments, in seventy different languages, that all the people of the earth might be able to read it! Clarke and Bush suppose ‘“that only a copy of the blessings and curses, recorded in Deuteronomy 27, 28, was written.” But Keil well says, “To limit ‘the law’ to the blessings and curses is out of the question, for these are not ‘the law.’ but motives added to impel, or rather adjure, the people to keep the law inviolate.” [The opinion of Grotius seems at first very plausible, that the Decalogue is meant, for it contains the essence of the whole law, all else being accessory to it. But against it is the insuperable objection, that to call” the words of the covenant” “the ten words,” (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13,) which are ever associated with “the two tables of the testimony” to call these a copy of the law of Moses would be inexplicably strange. In the absence of any specific statement it is impossible to decide the question positively, but we incline to the view of Hengstenberg, Keil, and others, that the so-called “second law” is meant, which is embodied in Deuteronomy, between Deuteronomy 4:44, and Deuteronomy 26:19, omitting, of course; the exhortations and historical incidents with which it is now associated in the Book of Deuteronomy. This would be the essence of all the law of Moses.]

Verse 33

33. As well the stranger The entire body of Israelites, by descent and by adoption, were present. The latter were more commonly called proselytes, but sometimes strangers.

Over against Mount Gerizim The multitude did not stand on the summits of the mountains, but on their slopes. That they could all hear when thus standing is sufficiently attested by modern travellers. Says Stanley: “The vale of Shechem is far from broad, not exceeding in some places a few hundred feet.” [Says Tristram: “The acoustic properties of this valley are interesting. A single voice might be heard by many thousands, shut in and conveyed up and down by the enclosing hills. In the early morning we could not only see from Gerizim a man driving his ass down a path on Mount Ebal, but could hear every word he uttered as he urged it on; and, in order to test the matter more certainly, on a subsequent occasion two of our party stationed themselves on opposite sides of the valley, and with perfect ease recited the commandments antiphonally.”] Dr. W.M. Thomson writes, respecting this impressive scene: “This was, beyond question or comparison, the most august assembly the sun ever shone upon. I never stand on the narrow plain, with Ebal and Gerizim rising on either hand to the sky, without involuntarily recalling and reproducing the scene. I have shouted to hear the echo, and then fancied how it must have been when the loud-voiced Levites proclaimed from the naked cliffs of Ebal, ‘Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto Jehovah;’ and then the tremendous AMEN, tenfold louder, from the mighty congregation, rising and swelling, and reaching from Ebal to Gerizim and from Gerizim to Ebal.”

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Joshua 8". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.