Joshua is officially the worst at picking spies. If you ever need to choose someone to spy for you, ask Joshua for his advice and then do the exact opposite. Seriously, this guy has not made a single solid decision since he took over leadership. (Perhaps this is all to reinforce that he really, really, really is the leader because of divine mandate and not because of any personal qualities – because look! Look at how inept he is!)

So Joshua picks a couple of spies to go check out Ai. When they return, they go on and on about how puny and weak Ai is, and swear that only 2,000-3,000 soldiers are needed. When Joshua has doubts, they convince him to send few men because it’s just such a burden to trudge a whole army (plus accompanying families and cattle) all the way up to Ai for a larger assault. Playing it safe within the anchoring the spies have set, Joshua sends a full 3,000 soldiers up to take Ai. Just to reinforce the confidence he has in this mission, he sends them off without any battle plan to speak of beyond “just smash yourselves against the city gates until they give up.”

Predictably, the attack fails and 36 Israelite soldiers are wounded.

But wait! This wasn’t because Joshua and his spies totally underestimated their enemy! This wasn’t because they launched an attack with far too few soldiers! And it certainly had nothing to do with the lack of a battle plan! Obviously, it must be because one among them had sinned, and that person’s sin caused God to turn away from the whole nation.

Thus begins an incredibly creepy chapter in which they essentially draw lots to work through which tribe contains the sinner (Judah), which family (the Zerahites), which household (Zabdi’s household), and, lastly, which individual (Achan). It turns out that Achan had kept some booty (a few shekels, a bar of gold, and a mantle) from Jericho, which had been expressly forbidden. To purge his sin from the Israelite nation, Achan, his children, his cattle and flocks, and all his possessions are taken to the Valley of Achor. There, they are stoned, burned, and then stoned again for good measure. This is how the valley got its name – Achor means “trouble.”

If any of that doesn’t sound like human sacrifice then you might not be paying attention.

If the story sounds familiar, there may be a reason. As David Plotz points out:

The rest of the chapter unfolds like Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery.” (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “The Lottery” is intentionally modeled on Chapter 7.) Slowly, with an ominous, telescoping rhythm, Joshua seeks the offender.

The whole story is rather strange coming so soon after Deut. 24:16, which is quite clear that “parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents.” It feels like an older story, something from the Exod. 20:5 tradition, that snuck by while our scribe was working a late night.

Of this, Collins says:

The story is presumably older than Deuteronomic law. According to Exod 20:5, the Lord punishes children for the iniquity of their parents even to the third and fourth generation, and this was the traditional idea in Israel, roughly down to the time of the Deuteronomic reform of the Babylonian exile. The doctrine of individual responsibility is an innovation in Deuteronomy 24. It is most strongly articulated in Ezekiel 18. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.102)

There’s some confusion about Achan’s parentage. In Josh. 7:1 and Josh. 7:18, he is Achan son of Carmi. In Josh. 7:24, he is Achan son of Zerah.

The Second Attempt

Achan may be dead, but Joshua is still playing it safe the second time around. Rather than the 3,000 soldiers he sent the first time, he’s now sending a full 30,000 soldiers (to fight a town that only has 12,000 inhabitants, according to Josh. 8:25).

Illustration from the Morgan Bible of the Israelites being repulsed from Ai

Illustration from the Morgan Bible of the Israelites being repulsed from Ai

He’s also going in with a plan. He hides 30,000 men behind the city, ready for an ambush. How one hides such an army is something of a mystery, but let’s just assume that they had cardboard painted “trees” they could each hide behind, and that some lookout from Ai wondered how that forest grew overnight and, hey, did that tree just sneeze?

Meanwhile, Joshua sent 5,000 soldiers to assault the gates as he had in the first, failed attempt. The citizens of Ai, probably thanking their gods for sending them such easy pickings, head off in pursuit. While they chase the decoy army around, the real army marches in through the back door.

Joshua stretches out his javelin, reminiscent of Moses needing to keep his hands raised while Joshua fights the Amalekites in Exodus 17. He keeps his javelin in the air until the battle is over. Unlike Moses’s trick, however, Joshua’s has the plausible effect of signalling to the ambushers that it’s time to attack.

The soldiers of Ai realize their mistake when they turn around to see their city burning and belching out 30,000 Israelite soldiers to catch them in an inescapable pincer attack.

It’s all rather mid-2000s historical epic.

Strangely, Bethel sneaks into the narrative once, when the soldiers of Ai rush out in pursuit of the faux-routing army: “There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel, who did not go out after Israel” (Josh. 8:17). Bethel is not mentioned again, and there’s no reason given for their soldiers to have joined in.

According to my study Bible: “Many scholars hold that this story is not really an account of the battle for Ai, but for Bethel, since otherwise the book of Joshua contains no account of the capture of this important site” (p.270).

If that’s true and, perhaps, two separate stories were stitched together, it may be that a confused scribe included Bethel’s army in this one passage because his sources said that Bethel was somehow involved, while making the editorial choice of putting the spotlight on Ai.

As for why the shift to Ai may have happened in the first place, it seems that the story may be an attempt to explain a ruin:

Ai has also proven to be a puzzle. Excavations conducted at this site by Joseph Callaway between 1965 and 1975 demonstrated that the mound was unoccupied from 2400 to 1200 B.C. It is possible that it was used as a military outpost by the nearby city of Bethel, which does show evidence of destruction in the thirteenth century, but there was no settlement at Ai such as that described in Joshua. Its name, which means “the ruin,” may have led the Israelites to attach it to Joshua’s list of conquests. (Victor Matthews, Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.47)

Finishing up, the king of Ai is hanged from a tree until evening, then his body is buried under a heap of stones set at the entrance to the city, a memorial that “stands there to this day” (Josh. 8:29).

The Altar

In the middle of all this action, we get a sudden veer left into cultic territory, when Joshua decides to fulfil some stuff that Moses had commanded in Deuteronomy 27.

He builds an altar on Mount Ebal, makes a burnt offering and a peace offering, the writes the law of Moses on the altar stones. That done, the people are divided into two groups – one half to stand before Mount Ebal and the other half to stand before Mount Gerizim. Once they are positioned, Joshua reads out the words of the law, including the blessings and the curses, for all the Israelites and whatever sojourners have decided to follow them can hear (rather odd phrasing given that the Israelites are, themselves, still sojourners).

Of this passage, my study Bible says: “Since this section interrupts the narrative of the conquest (note how naturally 8.29 connects with 9.3), it is probably not original here” (p.273).

As Abbie from Better Than Esdras points out:

You may notice that Josh is a bit behind schedule- God said to do it “on that day you cross the Jordan” but they’ve razed two cities before getting around to this. One possibility is that this is a bad editing job: this story should have been placed earlier in the text. (Another possibility is that I’m simply interpreting “on that day” too literally. Must get around to learning Hebrew!)

While I still have the URL in my pasting clipboard, definitely read Abbie’s post about this episode. She goes into quite a bit of detail comparing the text from Deuteronomy 27 and the passage here in Joshua 8, and it’s all very interesting.