“The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land’ ” (v. 1).
Israel failed in its first attempt to capture the city of Ai because Achan of the tribe of Judah, during the battle of Jericho before the first assault on Ai, took some of the gold and silver of Jericho, which was devoted to the Lord. This put the curse of God on Israel, so Joshua put Achan and his family to death in order to remove God’s curse (Josh. 7). That cleared the way for a second attempt at capturing Ai, which the Israelites had to destroy in order to make further inroads into the Holy Land.
Although the Israelites had not been permitted to take any of the treasures from Jericho for themselves, God allowed His people to take livestock and other plunder from Ai as long as they did to the king and people of Ai as they did to the inhabitants of Jericho (8:1–2). Today’s passage describes the second assault on Ai, when Israel captured and destroyed the city. The Israelites took Ai through an elaborate deceit. According to God’s instruction, a force of about five thousand Israelites hid west of the city, while twenty-five thousand were stationed to the north. When the people of Ai saw the Israelites to the north, their men went out to fight, and Joshua and the Israelite army pretended to flee. This allowed the Israelites west of the city to ambush the remaining people in Ai and burn the city to the ground. The fighters from Ai looked back to see the city burning and found themselves caught between the main Israelite force and the soldiers that ambushed the city. Ai’s army was subsequently destroyed, and the king of Ai, the last man to survive the battle, was taken to Joshua (vv. 3–23).
But the king of Ai did not survive for long, for Joshua killed him and hanged him on a tree, taking his body down before sunset according to the law of God (vv. 24–29; see Deut 21:22–23). Hanging the body on the tree taught several lessons. First, it was a sign to the Israelites that God’s curse was on the Canaanites and that the Lord remained determined to expel them from the land, since a body hanged on a tree was cursed by God. Second, it was a warning to any other Canaanites who might have seen it that they would meet the same fate if they did not leave the land. Finally, it was a reminder to Israel of the severe consequences of resisting the Lord. Persistent, impenitent disobedience leads to death whether or not one is part of God’s covenant people. After all, the Israelite Achan, no less than the king of Ai, was killed for breaking God’s law.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Being a member of the visible covenant community does not mean that one will necessarily escape God’s curse. God will destroy His enemies, and His enemies include those who profess to follow Him and yet do not come to saving faith, demonstrating the reality of their faith by obeying the commandments of the Lord. We must possess faith, not merely profess it, and we must prove that faith by obeying the Lord lest we end up like Achan or the king of Ai.