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Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons - London) DD
Commentary on The Book of Joshua - chapters 5-8.
In this section the men of Israel are circumcised, and this is immediately followed by the observance of the Passover. It is then that the initial invasion begins. First Jericho is taken, and then an Israelite contingent moves up the pass to capture Ai, only to be driven back because of their arrogance in taking only a limited number of soldiers for the purpose. As a consequence of this defeat the sin of Achan is discovered in that he had kept for himself what had been dedicated to YHWH. Joshua having repented of his presumption, and Achan having been dealt with for his blasphemy, Joshua takes the whole army back up the pass. Ai is captured, and the army of Bethel defeated. Joshua then arranges a covenant ceremony at Shechem.
Chapter 5. Circumcision and Passover - The Captain of YHWH’s Host.
The Canaanites must have been devastated to learn of the passage of the children of Israel across the Jordan, something which they had probably seen as impossible at that time because it was in flood. Meanwhile Joshua is ordered to circumcise such of the people of Israel as were uncircumcised, so that they might eat the Passover. Having done as he was bid the Passover was immediately observed. At this point because the people of Israel now had a sufficiency of corn from the land, the manna ceased.
Joshua was now considering how he and his forces could take the walled city of Jericho, when a stranger appeared who said that he was the captain of the host of YHWH. This stranger then encouraged him, and directed him as to what to do next with regard to the conquest of the land, and particularly of Jericho.
The News of What Had Happened In The Crossing Of The Jordan Totally Disheartened Their Waiting Enemies, And Meanwhile Joshua, In Obedience To YHWH’s Command, Circumcises All The Males Who Are Uncircumcised (5.1-9).
5.1 ‘And so it was that when all the kings of the Amorites, who were beyond Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that YHWH had dried up the waters of Jordan from before the children of Israel, until we were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel.’
News of the crossing of Jordan had reached the ears of the Amorites and the Canaanites east of Jordan, that is those in Canaan itself. The fact that the Canaanites are described as ‘by the sea’ suggests that at this stage the Philistines had not yet settled there (contrast Joshua 13.2-3; Judges 3.3). The news devastated them. This confirmed all that they had heard about the God of these people, and His amazing power. As a consequence they were filled with fear and lost heart, terrified at the prospect that they must now face. God had thus sent His hornet to prepare the way (Exodus 23.28; Deuteronomy 7.20 compare Joshua 24.12) as He had promised. These descriptions were intended to signify all the peoples in Canaan, both the Canaanites who were the plain dwellers and the Amorites who were mountain dwellers.
‘Until we were passed over.’ The ‘we’ indicates that the writer was alive at the time of the crossing of the Jordan, and there is no sound reason for doubting that almost the whole book comes from his hand. It would probably be some priestly scribe to whom Joshua committed the task of recording the victories of YHWH, no doubt under his supervision.
5. 2 ‘At that time YHWH said to Joshua, “Make yourself knives of flint and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.” ’
This did not mean circumcising for a second time those who were already circumcised (see verse 7), but reintroducing circumcision as something to be carried out on those who had not been circumcised during the journey through the wilderness and what followed.
Circumcision was an ancient rite practised in both Egypt and Canaan, and Abraham, having arrived from the north, was told to adopt the practise as a sign of YHWH’s covenant with him (Genesis 17). No one who was uncircumcised was to be allowed to eat the Passover (Exodus 12.44, 48). Thus Abraham circumcised the whole of his family tribe ‘the first time’. Then from Abraham to the Exodus the rite of circumcision on the eighth day after birth was carried out on every male child as a continuation of that ceremony. But the journey from Egypt had interrupted the rite, for no circumcision took place in the wilderness. Thus it had to commence as a group matter ‘a second time’. It had possibly not been seen as helpful for people to be circumcised while constantly travelling due to the days of soreness that followed, and we must presume that Moses considered that YHWH Himself had given them a dispensation from it for the period.
Joshua used flint knives for the performance of the rite, even though it was at a time when the use of metal was well known and metal knives were to hand. It is clear from this that the ceremony was seen as so sacred, and so ancient, that the original methods had to be followed. Moses’ failure to circumcise his son had led to almost fatal illness until the situation was remedied (Exodus 4.24-26). A flint was also used there. The use of flint knives, freshly prepared from new flints, meant that the knives were naturally the equivalent of having been sterilised, which metal knives would not have been.
Circumcision was an ancient institution not limited to the family tribe of Abraham and was practised in Egypt in the Old Kingdom period. But there it was carried out during boyhood rather than at infancy. A sixth dynasty Egyptian tomb relief depicts a boy being circumcised, probably with a flint knife, and two prisoners of a Canaanite king depicted on a 12th century BC Megiddo ivory, were also circumcised. But it is clear that in Abraham’s family tribe circumcision was not practised up until Genesis 17, and it was not generally practised in Mesopotamia from where Abraham came. Modern medicine has shown the value of circumcision in protecting the health of those who live in semi-desert conditions as it helps to prevent foreign bodies becoming trapped under the foreskin.
5.3 ‘And Joshua made for himself flint knives, and circumcised the children of Israel at the hill of the foreskins.’
The action is depicted as Joshua’s but he would no doubt be assisted by able and worthy men. The flint knives had to be fashioned and then all the uncircumcised males circumcised. During this period they would have been vulnerable (see Genesis 34.25). But YHWH had put such fear in the hearts of the Canaanites that they had nothing to be concerned about.
‘At the hill of the foreskins.’ Literally ‘Gibeath-ha-araloth’. A name given to a hill where the practise was then carried out. It was possibly where the remnants were buried.
5.4-5 ‘And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised. All the people who came out of Egypt who were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came out of Egypt. For all the people who came out were circumcised. But all the people who were born in the wilderness by the way, as they came out of Egypt, they had not been circumcised.’
The first ‘all the people’ is a generalisation. Joshua and Caleb at least were present and were exceptions. The point is rather to explain why so many were uncircumcised.
All the circumcised males of twenty years old and upwards sentenced by YHWH to die, had died during the forty years, but many of those under twenty who would also have been circumcised would still be alive. However, those born in the wilderness journeying had not been circumcised. It need not specifically mean that no one was circumcised after the leaving of Egypt, only that it was not the general practise. This lack of circumcision would also be true of the children of the mixed multitude (Exodus 12.38), many of whom would not have been circumcised even in Egypt (although circumcision may have been required of any who joined the covenant community). Thus those present with Joshua included many older men who had been circumcised and possibly some older men, and certainly a large number of younger men and boys, who had not. These were the ones to be circumcised as the covenant was renewed on entering the land.
The reason for not circumcising their infants during the journey from Egypt may well have been because of the discomfort it would cause for everyone when they were journeying day by day. They would have been continually accompanied by infants in pain and discomfort who were being subjected to the extreme rigours of the journey. The fact that it had to take place on the eighth day (Leviticus 12.3) meant that it could not be left for a convenient time.
‘By the way, as they came out of Egypt.’ Compare Deuteronomy 24.9; 25.17. Once again we have evidence how well Joshua knew the words of Moses.
5.6 ‘For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the people who were men of war, who came out of Egypt, were consumed because they did not obey the voice of YHWH, to whom YHWH swore that he would not let them see the land which YHWH swore to their fathers that he would give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
This is to explain the situation for those unaware of it. All who were over twenty years old at the first abortive entry into Canaan thirty eight years before, had been sentenced to die in the wilderness, with one or two notable exceptions (Numbers 14.28-35). This was because of their disobedience on that occasion, and their refusal to enter the land of Canaan when God told them to. Thus He had sworn that they would not see the land which had been promised to them when they left Egypt (Numbers 14.23). ‘Milk and honey’ represented staple foods and sweetness, a sign of the desirability of the land. But it was only a desirable land when it had sufficient rain. Thus its desirability depended on God’s provision.
5.7 ‘And their children whom he raised up in their stead, them Joshua circumcised, for they were circumcised, because they had not circumcised them by the way.’
Here it is specifically stated that those who were now to be circumcised were those born ‘by the way’ i.e. on the journey, that is, those who replaced the condemned generation and had not been circumcised.
These rather complicated verses were trying to explain briefly, to those who later assumed circumcision as practised on the eighth day after birth, the reason why a circumcision ceremony was necessary. They were trying to present succintly a very complicated situation. We must not overpress the detail. Such circumcision, following the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai, brought all who had come out of Egypt within the covenant. All became ‘sons of Jacob’.
5. 8 ‘And so it was that when they had finished circumcising all the nation, they stayed in their places in the camp until they were whole.’
Having undergone the rite of circumcision all the males under forty were in some discomfort and had to rest up in the camp. It has been questioned whether a general would have carried out such an operation on his troops in such a situation, but he knew that the people of Jericho were afraid and remaining in their city, that there was no evidence of any other troop movement through the hills, and that YHWH had just revealed His power by the crossing of the Jordan. Thus such a necessary operation in order to celebrate the first Passover in the land was quite reasonable in such a situation.
5.9a. ‘And YHWH said to Joshua, “This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you.” ’
The general idea was that circumcision had now finally made them a circumcised nation, as a free people within the covenant, in their own land. They were now YHWH’s people in YHWH’s land.
‘The reproach of Egypt’ may signify:
5.9b. ‘For this reason the name of the place is called Gilgal to this day.’
The name Gilgal means ‘a rolling’. Thus it is here seen as referring to the rolling away of the reproach of Egypt. This is almost certainly the taking of an old name and giving it a new meaning, for there were already a number of Gilgals in Canaan, or it may less probably mean that this was a new name given for this reason, used earlier because it had become the name of the place at the time of writing.
Israel For The First Time Observe The Passover In The Land Which YHWH Has Promised To Them (5.10-12).
5.10 ‘And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and they kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening, in the plains of Jericho.’
There are six mentions of the keeping of the Passover in the Old Testament, Exodus 12; Numbers 9.2-5 (at the first movement towards the land); 2 Chronicles 30.15-17 (Hezekiah’s revival); 2 Kings 23.21-23 (Josiah’s revival); Ezra 6.19-22 and here. They are all important occasions. But there is no good reason for doubting that it continued to be observed every year. As Numbers 9.2-5 demonstrates that the Passover was observed in the wilderness it would seem that the requirement for circumcision (Exodus 12.48) was suspended when they were ‘by the way’ (on their journey), (although it may have been because at that stage, within two years of leaving Egypt, only infants would have been uncircumcised). There was in fact no specific provision in the Law of Sinai about circumcision in relation to the Passover, and the only previous provision in respect of the Passover was for slaves and new adherents to be circumcised before they could observe the Passover, for the aim of the provision about circumcision in Exodus 12.44, 48 was so that only those dedicated to YHWH should partake. It simply assumed true Israelites were being circumcised in accordance with the provisions in Genesis 17. Thus when circumcision was seemingly suspended for Israelites during the period in the wilderness the proviso there would no longer be a suitable test. It would only apply once they were in the land and being circumcised once again. Deuteronomy 16 demonstrates that the final intention was that Passover should be celebrated at the central sanctuary and that the ritual was flexible.
5.11 ‘And they ate of the produce of the land on the morrow after the passover, unleavened cakes and parched corn, on the selfsame day.’
That is they celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread the next day with unleavened cakes and parched or roasted corn which was the produce of the land. It was a day of triumph. The grain needed to make these cakes, and the corn, may have come from storeplaces in the plain of Jordan whose owners had taken shelter in Jericho. The amount was unimportant. It was the fact that mattered. The rules in Leviticus 23.10-14 would not apply because they had not reaped a harvest. They still also had the manna which did not cease until the next day.
‘The produce (of the land).’ The particular noun for ‘produce’ (‘avur) is only used here and in the next verse. It was used in this context probably because its consonants connect with the word for ‘cross over’ (‘avar) referring to the crossing of the Jordan.
‘The morrow after the passover.’ This may be 15th or 16th Nisan, the former a Sabbath. But it does not say when the corn was collected. The womenfolk could have collected it from abandoned storeplaces while the men were recuperating.
We do not know whether the wheat harvests had been collected in by the Canaanites by this time. The ever-threatening presence of the Israelite army may well have hindered it so that it was only partly collected. And if it was fully collected much would have been available outside the city in the storehouses.
5.12 ‘And the manna ceased on the morrow after they had eaten of the produce of the land, neither had the children of Israel manna any more, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.’
Manna was ‘wilderness food’. The ceasing of the manna was the final sign that their wanderings were over. From now on they would eat of the good things that the promised land provided. So the crossing of the Jordan, followed by circumcision indicating a new birth for the nation (compare Isaiah 48.1 ‘are come forth out of the waters of Judah’, where the ‘breaking of the waters’ at birth may well have been in mind), together with the celebration of Passover, the feast of deliverance, now resulted in full provision for the future.
For this compare Exodus 16.35 where it was declared that after forty years the manna would cease when they reached the borders of Canaan.
Joshua Encounters The Captain Of YHWH’s Host (5.13-15).
5.13 ‘And so it was that when Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man opposite him, with his sword drawn in his hand, and Joshua went to him, and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” ’
Joshua was probably on a surveying expedition to look at the possibilities for attacking and capturing Jericho when he came across an armed man with sword drawn. So he challenged him whether he was a man of Israel or a Canaanite. Possibly he saw him as one who may have come out to challenge an Israelite champion to single combat as Goliath would later (1 Samuel 17.4).
‘With his sword drawn in his hand.’ This is central to the thought. Compare Numbers 22.23, 31 where it was the Angel of YHWH Himself Who stood with a drawn sword in His hand. Once he learned a little more about the man, this vision would probably spring to Joshua’s mind. In Scripture the drawn sword is an instrument of impending judgment (1 Chronicles 21.16; Ezekiel 21.2-5; also Ezekiel 5.2, 12; 12.14; Isaiah 21.15). This figure was therefore indicating that YHWH was about to bring His awful judgment on the Canaanites, as represented here by Jericho. YHWH Himself would fight against Jericho, but against Jericho as the being the first of all the cities in Canaan (compare 2 Samuel 24.16-17; 1 Chronicles 21.16). In the words of Ezekiel 21.9, ‘a sword, a sword, it is sharpened and also furbished. It is sharpened that it may make a slaughter, it is furbished that it may be as lightning.’
5.14a ‘And he said, “No, but as Captain of the host of YHWH am I now come.” ’
To Joshua’s astonishment the man replied that He had come as Captain of YHWH’s host. At the mention of YHWH’s host Joshua’s mind may well have gone back to the ‘ten thousands of holy ones’ described by Moses (Deuteronomy 33.2). So he may have seen this Man as having come, with YHWH’s hosts backing Him, to fight alongside Israel and bring God’s judgment on Jericho, with Jericho being seen as representative of all the Canaanites, because their iniquity was now full (compare Genesis 15.16). It indicates that the cry of Canaan’s deep sinfulness, with its distorted religion, sexual perversions and child sacrifices, had reached to heaven.
We can compare this to some extent with Elisha who was also surrounded by the invisible host of YHWH (2 Kings 6.17), and his vision of the chariots of God who were there to fight on behalf of Israel, the ones who were Israel’s true chariots (2 Kings 2.12). In both cases the idea was of God’s power behind His chosen servant. Compare also the angels of God who met with Jacob on his return to Canaan, ‘God’s host’ (Genesis 32.1-2). But the drawn sword stresses that here the emphasis was on judgment rather than protection.
Alternately, however, and possibly preferably if not as spectacularly, we may see ‘the host of YHWH’ as referring to ‘My hosts, My people, the children of Israel’ (Exodus 7.4) with the idea being that this man was claiming to be their supreme general, indicating that He was therefore Joshua’s superior officer, the Captain of the host of Israel, ‘the Angel of YHWH’ in contrast with Joshua, ‘the servant of YHWH’, and that He had come to lead them with the sword of judgment already drawn. In this case we have the picture of Israel as YHWH’s avenging host under YHWH’s direct command who must now bring judgment on Canaan for its evil ways.
5.14b. “And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and performed worship, and said to him, “What does my Lord say to his servant?”.’
Compare Balaam’s response to the Angel of YHWH, ‘he bowed his head and fell on his face’ (Numbers 22.31). Joshua’s act of worship demonstrated that he now knew that this was the Angel of YHWH, YHWH Himself revealed in human form. He was aware of His numinous presence, and, filled with awe, he yielded to Him in total submission. “What does my Lord say to his servant?”
5.15 ‘And the Captain of YHWH's host said to Joshua, “Put off your shoe from off your foot, for the place on which you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.’
Compare for this incident Exodus 3.5 where Moses too was told to remove his shoes for the same reason. And like Moses Joshua, aware that he was in a heavenly presence, and that nothing earthly must contaminate the place, removed his shoes. His clothing had been ‘sanctified’ prior to crossing the Jordan (3.5). But while YHWH was being revealed there the ground was ‘holy’, as Sinai had been when YHWH appeared on it. No human being dared therefore be there except with His express permission, and no man made materials must touch the sacred earth.
We note that there was no direct reply to Joshua’s question. No reply was needed. The drawn sword was God’s answer. They were to go forward in His name, seize the country and destroy and drive out the evil Canaanites, accomplishing in one stroke two vital things, the inheritance of the land by Israel as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19.6) and God’s judgment on, and annihilation of, sin and iniquity. This was the vision. Both were equally important. It was the failure to do the second which would prevent the fulfilling of the first. We may be inclined to draw most help from this passage from the idea that God is with us, but we must not overlook the drawn sword, expressive of God’s hatred of sin. That is a warning that sin must not be treated lightly. Thus was renewed Joshua’s intimate experience of YHWH (Exodus 24.13; 33.11).
Chapter 6. The Taking of Jericho With the Help of YHWH.
In this chapter Joshua is assured that, although Jericho was completely closed in, so that there was no obvious way in which Israel could enter it, it would be delivered into his hands. He was therefore directed, along with his army, to march round the city every day for six days, accompanied by seven priests bearing the ark of YHWH and sounding seven rams’ horns. On the seventh day they were to go round it seven times in the same way, and the consequence would be that its wall would fall.
Joshua communicated this order to the priests and the people, and they did as they were commanded. This obedience also included carrying out other instructions that YHWH gave them, in particular that the city, and all that was in it, should be devoted to YHWH and nothing spared, except Rahab and her family and their possessions.
As YHWH had promised their mission was successful. All in the city were destroyed, and the city itself was burnt with fire, while all the gold, silver, bronze, and iron was brought into the treasury of the house of YHWH. Also as promised Rahab and her father's household were saved alive, and the chapter ends with an adjuration from Joshua, which cursed any man who should attempt to rebuild the city.
YHWH’s Instructions Concerning The Taking Of Jericho (6.1-5).
6.1 ‘Now Jericho had closed the gates and were shut in because of the children of Israel. None went out and none came in.’
The news of the advance of the Israelite army across the Jordan had resulted in the people of Jericho shutting the city gates permanently. Those who lived around would have moved into the city for safety and it would be crowded. But none would now leave it until the Israelite army had passed. Their hope lay in the walls of that city, which, while it was not a very large one, was very strong. They knew that with their small numbers they were no match for the Israelites. But they had plenty of food, for the wheat harvest had been gathered in. The whole pear-shaped mound was only four hundred metres (four hundred and thirty eight yards) long and two hundred metres (two hundred and nineteen yards) wide at its widest point and the city would probably not have occupied the whole mound.
What could happen to someone found outside the city is illustrated in Judges 1.24. It reads innocently enough but the man was probably given the choice of betraying the city or enduring a most horrific time. He would probably have ended up betraying the city anyway.
The archaeology of Jericho has produced a confusing picture. Garstang’s results were questioned by Kenyon, and Kenyon’s results, based on doubtful premises, have also been seriously questioned datewise (consider for example the criticisms of Bryant Wood). The matter is at present in abeyance. So little has been excavated that nothing can be accepted as demonstrated one way or the other. But whatever the case the fact that it was unoccupied for over four hundred years from this time would have meant that few remains from this time could be expected to survive, due to weathering and predators. Thus it is doubtful if the archaeological questions related to this period will ever be solved. It was an ancient city going back to 8th millennium BC, having even at that early time a stone revetment wall and at least one round tower with a built in stairway. I was there in 1957 just after their discovery by Kenyon’s team and vividly remember the great excitement at what was then a totally unexpected find. There are also remains of huts by the spring which go back even further.
6.2 ‘And YHWH said to Joshua, “See, I have given into your hand Jericho, and its king, and the mighty men of valour.” ’
The problem for Joshua was how the Israelites could breach the walls with the means that they had at their disposal. Spears and swords would have had little effect on them. But as he was pondering the situation YHWH promised him that it was given to him by YHWH, and that its king and its soldiery would shortly be in his hands. What was to happen would be decisive for the future. As the news of it spread around (9.3) the Canaanites would realise that it was pointless to remain shut up in their cities as Yahweh could soon demolish their walls. It affected their whole military strategy. This may explain why they always left their cities to face Israel.
6.3 “And you shall surround the city, all the men of war, going about the city once. Thus shall you do for six days.”
Each day for six days the men of war were to surround the city. It would not take long, for the mound was not large (see above). The purpose was to terrify the occupants, and also possibly to bring home to the Israelites the difficulty they would have in breaching the wall. The men of war were probably the younger men of war most suited to battle. Each time they came the inhabitants would prepare themselves for an attack. And each time they would leave without attacking. It must have been an eerie time for the inhabitants, especially in view of the silence of their enemy. They would have expected yells and threats.
‘Surround.’ The word often means precisely that although in Psalm 48.12 it specifically means ‘march round’, and it is used elsewhere of making progress in one way or another (e.g. Exodus 13.18; Numbers 21.4; 36.7, 9; Deuteronomy 32.10). The descriptions, with the armed men before, followed by the priests with the Ark, followed by the remainder of ‘the people’, demonstrate that here as well the ‘surrounding’ was by marching round.
6.4 “And seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams' horns before the Ark, and the seventh day you shall surround the city seven times, and the priests will blow with the trumpets.”
Seven was the number of divine completeness among many nations. It was seen by all as a sacred number. Something sevenfold was total. (In Sumerian religious literature seven, along with three, were the only numbers ever used even though they were a highly numerate nation. And it was from Sumer that Abram came). Included in the surrounding of the city was the presence of the Ark. This demonstrated to all that what was to happen would be the activity of YHWH, invisibly present with His troops. The blowing of the trumpets and the silence of the soldiers would draw all eyes to the Ark. We are left to imagine the growing fear and dread in the hearts of the inhabitants.
6.5 “And it shall be that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when you hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, every man straight before him.”
On the seventh day, once the city had been surrounded seven times, a long distinguishing blast was to be made on the trumpet of ram’s horn. Then all the people (probably indicating all the men of war) were to shout with a great shout and the walls would collapse so that all the armed men could go straight before them into the city. Horns always symbolise power (they are the effective armament of both domestic and wild beasts) so that here there may be in the ‘seven rams’ horns’ the idea of expressing the divine perfection of the power of YHWH.
The long blast on the ram’s horn was possibly to symbolise the trumpet sound of YHWH as in Exodus 19.16, 19; 20.18, introducing His power revealed in what was about to happen. In Psalm 47 the sound of the ram’s horn indicates the going forth of YHWH as King (Psalm 47.5-7), a psalm which also links it with the people’s shout of triumph (verse 1, 5), when He goes forth to subdue the nations and to grant an inheritance to His people (verses 3-4), resulting in His reign over all things. Jericho was but the beginning of the revelation of His power.
Joshua Issues YHWH’s Instructions To The Priests And The First Day’s March Around The City Occurs In Complete Silence (6.6-11). .
6.6 ‘And Joshua, the son of Nun, called the priests and said to them, “Take up the Ark of the covenant, and let seven priests bear seven trumpets of rams' horns before the Ark of YHWH.”
YHWH had given his instructions to Joshua, possibly through a dream, or possibly within the Tabernacle where Joshua, like Moses, was prone to go (Exodus 33.11) as the chosen of YHWH. Joshua now passed them on to the priests. Note the switch from ‘the Ark of the Covenant’ to ‘the Ark of YHWH’. Now that it was going into battle the emphasis was on YHWH, the God of battle.
6.7 ‘And they said to the people, “Pass on, and surround the city, and let the armed men pass on before the Ark of YHWH.”
Some manuscripts have ‘he said’. So these words were either those of the priests or of Joshua himself. Either way they came from Joshua either directly or indirectly. Verse 8 would support ‘he’, but as the more difficult reading ‘they’ may well be correct.
The instruction was given to march round the city, surrounding it, the armed men leading the way followed by the Ark of YHWH. ‘The people’ taking up the rear. The latter may possibly also have included women and children so that all would see the demonstration of the power of YHWH on their behalf, (but not necessarily. It may be that only armed men were involved, both leading the way and following. The Hebrew definite article regularly simply means ‘those I am talking about’). The armed men to the front may have been the Transjordanian troops (4.12-13), ‘the people’ the troops from the remainder, who would also have included older men who wanted to be involved.
6.8. ‘And so it was that when Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams' horns passed on before YHWH, and blew with the trumpets, and the Ark of the covenant of YHWH followed them.’
Joshua having given his instructions to the people, whether directly or through the priests, the seven priests with the rams’ horns ‘passed on before YHWH’. Here ‘the Ark of YHWH’ is replaced by ‘YHWH’ Himself, for YHWH is seen as sitting on His moveable battle throne, borne by the priests, ready to reveal His power against the enemy (compare Ezekiel 1.16, 19 where the heavenly equivalent of the Ark is seen as having heavenly wheels). The seven trumpets of rams’ horns meanwhile sounded out the power of YHWH. In the description of the Ark both the covenant and YHWH Himself are now given prominence. It was because they were His covenant People that Jericho, and the whole land, ha been given to them.
6.9 ‘And the armed men went before the priests who blew the trumpets, and the rearward went after the Ark, blowing with the trumpets as they went.’
YHWH’s instructions were followed obediently. The armed men led, followed by the Ark and the priests blowing the rams’ horns, followed by the people, until the city was surrounded. The watchers on the walls waited apprehensively for what would come next.
In the last phrase ‘the priests’ is, as shown above, not there in the Hebrew. It is to be assumed. The point is that while it was the priests who blew the rams’ horns all were seen as participating. This emphasises the importance of the action. The sevenfold horns were depicting the power of YHWH about to be revealed.
6.10 ‘And Joshua had commanded the people saying, “You shall not shout, nor let your voice be heard, neither shall any word proceed out of your mouth, until the day I bid you shout, then shall you shout.” ’
The people were ordered not to make any sound while they marched. They were to march in total silence, without shouting, without talking, without a murmur. There was to be absolute silence, until Joshua gave the order and then they were to shout loudly. This would have an unnerving effect on the watchers who would have expected taunts and battlecries. The latter would have enabled them to shout back and build up their own resistance, but shouting at a silent enemy was a waste of energy. The silence stressed the presence of YHWH among them. In His presence none dared speak (Habakkuk 2.20). It also demonstrated that the result was the work of YHWH (Exodus 14.14). Their shout would declare His triumph (Psalm 47.1).
6.11 ‘So he caused the Ark of YHWH to go round the city, going about it once, and they came into the camp, and lodged in the camp.’
Note that the stress here is on the Ark of YHWH. It was the presence and power of YHWH, the God of battle, which would make the difference. Then once they had all gone round the city they all returned to the camp and spent the night there.
A Similar Procedure Is Followed For The Next Five Days (6.12-14).
6.12-13 ‘And Joshua rose early in the morning, and the priests took up the Ark of YHWH, and the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams' horns before the Ark of YHWH went on continually (‘going they went’) and blew with the trumpets, and the armed men went before them, and the rearward came after the Ark of YHWH, the priests blowing with the trumpets as they went.’
As was his regular practise Joshua rose early in the morning. The people would be roused too. There may have been the intention to miss the heat of the day. Notice again that the Ark was central. All was secondary to that. The procession was as before, repeated in full for emphasis. The Ark of YHWH is mentioned three times in order to emphasise it presence.
6.14 ‘And the second day they surrounded the city once, and returned to the camp. So they did six days.’
This was the second day, and what was done on this day and on the first day was done also for the next four days. The Ark of YHWH, borne by the priests, went round the city. The seven priests blowing the rams’ horns went before it. And the armed men led the way and the people followed at the tail.
The Special Procedure On The Seventh Day. They March Round The City Seven Times, A Great Shout Is Given, The Walls Fall, The Spoils Are Devoted To YHWH, The City Is Burned, Rahab and Her Family are Saved, A Curse Is Put On Jericho (6.15-27).
6.15 ‘And so it was on the seventh day, that they rose early at the dawning of the day, and went round the city in the same way seven times, only on that day they went round the city seven times.’
This was not necessarily the Sabbath, but certainly one of the seven days must have been the Sabbath. Thus the Sabbath law was abrogated for this event. The sevenfold circling, the divinely perfect circling, was to demonstrate that the divine power of YHWH was now about to be revealed. This sevenfoldness would have had deep significance both for the Israelites and for the people shut up within the city. Once the men of the city realised that they were marching round seven times on the seventh day of marching the hearts of the men in the city would have grown cold within them. The sevenfoldness would have made them realise- that this fearsome God was about to act. And the men of Israel would have been aware of the same.
6.16 ‘And so it was at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, that Joshua said to the people, “Shout, for YHWH has given you the city.” ’
This was possibly the long blast of verse 5. Then, in contrast to the previous total silence, they were to give a loud shout. The shout was to be a shout of expectation of triumph. It was in order to indicate that YHWH had given them the city!
6.17a “And the city shall be devoted, it and all that is in it to YHWH.”
This ‘devotion to YHWH’ would regularly happen to a first conquest. It was seen as the firstfruits. The idea was that it became sacred to their God. Therefore all living things had to be put to death as ‘devoted’ (cherem) to Him, while all possessions were separated to the treasury of God. Not a single living thing was to be spared. Not a single possession was to be appropriated to private use. All was YHWH’s. Joshua interpreted all this so literally that he would even put a curse on anyone who in the future tried to rebuild the city itself (verse 26). One reason for this was as a symbolic act demonstrating the consequences of idolatry (Deuteronomy 13.10-17). Jericho here stood for the idolatry of the land.
The practise of ‘devoting’ to a god was a common one. We can compare the words of the King of Moab on the Moabite stone, ‘And Chemosh said to me: "Go! Take Nebo against Israel." And I went by night and fought against it from break of dawn till noon. And I took it and slew all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and pregnant women, because I had devoted it to Ashtar-Chemosh. And I took from there the altar-hearths of YHWH and I dragged them before Chemosh.” Note again the use of ‘seven’ with its implication of divine completeness, and the dual name of the god (Ashtar-Chemosh, similar to YHWH Elohim). Note also the reference to YHWH. ‘The altar-hearths of YHWH’ suggests that this was a religious sanctuary which may well have been the reason why it was ‘devoted’.
6.17b “Only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all who are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent.”
One exception was to be made. Rahab and her family, with their possessions, would be spared because of her assistance to the Israelite spies. Although ‘devoted’ to YHWH she was redeemed by her actions in aiding YHWH’s servants.
6.18 “And you, under any circumstances, keep yourselves from the devoted thing, lest having devoted it you take of the devoted thing. So would you make the camp of Israel devoted and bring trouble to it.”
They are then given a severe warning. They were devoting the city to YHWH and all were therefore to ensure that they did not take for themselves anything that they had ‘devoted’, for by bringing something devoted into any part of the camp of Israel they would make that part of the camp also ‘devoted to YHWH’ and all in it would have to be slain.
6.19 “But all the silver and gold, and vessels of brass and iron, are holy to YHWH. They shall come into the treasury of YHWH.”
These things were mentioned as the most valuable and desirable, even these were to be seen as devoted to YHWH. But, as the people well were aware, everything in the city was devoted and belonged to YHWH exclusively. Nothing must be retained for personal use. Their idols should be destroyed in fire (Deuteronomy 7.25). Anything of value would go into the treasury in the Tabernacle for religious use (compare Numbers 31.54), probably after passing through fire or water (Numbers 31.22-23). This would contribute to the lack of archaeological artefacts as all would be gathered up that much more carefully because they were YHWH’s. At this time vessels of iron would have been imported. The Israelites did not know how to work iron. They would thus have been very valuable.
6.20a ‘So the people shouted when they blew with the trumpets, and so it was that when the people heard the trumpet-sound, the people shouted with a great shout.’
Note the concentration on the noise made. The trumpets sound and the people shout. ‘The trumpet-sound’ is literally ‘the sound of the trumpet’, the singular drawing attention to the sound rather than the trumpets. This was the long blast of verse 5. Now the city would recognise that the moment had come for them to put up stout defence. But they did not realise what was about to happen. It must have shaken them to the core.
6.20b ‘And the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.’
The wall fell down flat. What caused the wall to fall flat? The basic answer was, YHWH. Whether it was by an earthquake or tremor, or by resonance from the noise made which reacted on unstable walls possibly crowded with defenders, it was to be seen as at the instigation of YHWH. Thus it was not to be a matter of breaching the walls and then forcing their way through, something for which they were not equipped, but simply one of going straight forward and clambering over the fallen stones. The relatively few defenders, numbering in hundreds (even though crowded with people from the surrounding countryside), and numbed by what had happened, had no chance against the much larger Israelite force, numbering probably around six hundred military units (Exodus 12.37).
6.21 ‘And they devoted (utterly destroyed as an offering to YHWH) all that was in the city, both men and women, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.’
Warfare is ever a dreadful business. Even practically speaking invaders dared not leave men alive in their rear who could attack them from behind when they went on, while, in a day when life was cheap, to leave the women and children alone and undefended would have been unacceptable. Death would be seen as preferable. But here there is more to it than that. Jericho was the firstfruits of their inheritance, and therefore dedicated to YHWH. And they were carrying out God’s judgment on the particular wickedness of the Canaanites, their debased idolatry and their sexual perversions, wickedness which if it was not destroyed would in the end prove harmful to them (as later it did). None could be allowed to live. They were under the judgment of God. The slaughtering of the animals, which they would have liked to keep, demonstrates that it was not just blood lust.
6.22 ‘And Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the country, “Go to the prostitute's house and bring out from there the woman, and all that she has, as you swore to her.” ’
In the excitement of victory Joshua did not forget the oath sworn to Rahab. His sensitivity was revealed in sending to her the two men whom she knew, and his wisdom was revealed in giving her some protection at a time when she might have been very vulnerable. She was relatively safe in the house with its token on the window, but once outside it she would be a target for any overexcited soldier.
This suggests that, although it was on the wall, her house had been preserved, or at least not badly damaged, a further evidence of the hand of YHWH.
6.23 ‘And the young men, the spies, went in, and brought out Rahab, and her father and her mother, and her brothers, and all that she had. All her kindred also they brought out, and they set them outside the camp of Israel.’
As they had sworn to do the two spies ensured the safety of Rahab and all her wider family who had gathered in her house. We note, however, that ‘they set them outside the camp of Israel’ in a camp of their own. They could not enter the camp for they were ‘devoted’ and were idolaters, and thus defiling (compare Leviticus 13.46; Numbers 5.3; 31.13, 19). Thus they must be kept separate until they had undergone some cleansing ritual, including the renunciation of idolatry, and, if necessary, circumcision (although they may have already been circumcised) and incorporation into the congregation of Israel. This was presumably required of them (see verse 25).
6.24 ‘And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was in it, only the silver and the gold, and the vessels of brass and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of YHWH.’
This was a purifying ritual, devoting all to YHWH. Even the latter were probably burned for purification before being put into the treasury (Numbers 31.22-23).
‘The house of YHWH.’ Compare Judges 19.18; 20.18; Genesis 28.17; 1 Samuel 1.7; Exodus 23.19; 34.26. The ‘house of YHWH’ was the place where He was to be approached, in this case the Tabernacle. As Genesis 28.17 makes absolutely clear ‘house’ here does not necessarily signify a building.
6.25 ‘And Joshua saved alive Rahab the prostitute, and her father's household, and all she had, and she dwelt in the midst of Israel even to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.’
Note the emphasis on ‘saved alive’. Thus was fulfilled the oath that they would live (see 2.13-14). They did not remain long outside the camp for they became members of the congregation of Israel. ‘Dwelt in the midst of Israel’ can signify Canaanites dwelling among the Israelites in disobedience to God’s command (9.7; 13.13; 16.10), but that hardly applies here. It must signify acceptance. (Perhaps however her family were given the option to move on and out of the country - compare the man in Judges 1.26 - for they are not mentioned).
‘Even to this day.’ A clear indication that this was written while Rahab was alive. Alternatively we may read ‘she’ as signifying the whole family, but in context that is an unnatural reading (‘she’ means Rahab in both the other cases).
6.26 ‘And Joshua charged them with an oath at that time, saying, “Cursed be the man before YHWH who rises up, and builds this city Jericho. He will lay the foundation of it with the loss of his firstborn, and with his youngest son he will set up the gates of it.” ’
Having devoted everything to YHWH Joshua now devoted the mound itself to YHWH. He put on it a curse, that a city should not be rebuilt on it (Deuteronomy 13.16), in the strongest terms he could think of. The loss of a firstborn and of a youngest son were both seen as appalling tragedies, the former especially to a man, the latter to a woman. This later remarkably came to fruition over four hundred years later when someone did rebuild it (1 Kings 16.34). (This was unlikely to refer to a recognised sacrificial ritual otherwise it would not have been seen as unusual). Indeed Joshua may have intended it to be seen as signifying that the man’s whole progeny would be destroyed one by one as the building progressed, from eldest to youngest.
Such a curse on a ‘devoted’ city was seen as having great effect well beyond the bounds of Israel. The same happened to Troy and Carthage which were deliberately left desolate. It is only ‘the wicked man’ who ‘dwells in cities that have been cut off, in houses which no man will inhabit’ (Job 15.28).
This does not mean that no one ever lived there, for settlement did possibly take place there (Judges 1.16; 3.13 - although these may have been in tents at the oasis - 18.21; 2 Samuel 10.5; 1 Chronicles 19.5), but the idea was that it was not to be rebuilt as a city. (For the record New Testament Jericho was not situated on the old site).
6.27 ‘So YHWH was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land.’
At what had happened fear spread throughout Canaan. The name of Joshua was on every tongue. Or was it the name of YHWH? In the final analysis it was both. But far more important was the fact that YHWH was ‘with him’.
Chapter 7 The Sin of Achan and Failure at Ai.
Because of the sin of Achan, the next advance, which was on Ai, was a disaster. When their units advanced on Ai, the children of Israel were defeated and put to flight by ‘the men of Ai’. This gave Joshua and the elders of the people great cause for concern, both on behalf of Israel and for the name of YHWH. This concern was expressed by Joshua in prayer to God, and YHWH then informed him of the reason for it. Then He also gave him directions as to how to discover the guilty person, and as to how the man was to be punished. Joshua followed these directions assiduously, and the person who had offended was discovered, and confessed, and on that he and all that he had, along with the things which he had taken, were burnt with fire.
Achan Steals What Has Been Devoted To YHWH Bringing Wrath On Israel (7.1).
7.1. ‘But the children of Israel committed a trespass with regard to what was devoted, for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of what was devoted, and the anger of YHWH was kindled against the children of Israel.’
Before the story of Israel’s first defeat in the land which follows, we are given the reason for it. God had been disobeyed in the most dreadful way. Achan had secretly stolen from YHWH something from Jericho, something in other words that had been ‘devoted’ to Him by the whole of Israel, and the result was that there was ‘a devoted thing’ in the camp of Israel for which the whole of Israel had to take blame. This was the principle of community responsibility whereby the many must share the guilt of the one (from our standpoint it would be on the grounds that his failure was due to their wider failure in failing to provide the right moral background). It was their responsibility to ensure that it did not happen and that YHWH received His due. Thus the trespass was committed by the whole of Israel.
Unaware Of What Achan Has Done Joshua Sends Out Scouts To Survey The City At The Top Of The Pass Leading Inland From Jericho (7.2-3).
7.2 ‘And Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is beside Bethaven, on the east side of Bethel, and spoke to them saying, “Go up and spy out the land.” And the men went up and spied out Ai.’
Meanwhile, unaware that a ‘devoted thing’ was hidden in the camp, scouts were sent by Joshua through the defile in the mountains to discover the next obstacle before them and they came across Ai. It was not seen to be very large. Only three military units were seen as necessary to take it (verse 3), thus, say, one hundred and fifty men (taking a normal unit as possibly around fifty). Military units were split into ‘tens’, ‘hundreds’ and thousands’ (Judges 20.10). We might translate ‘families, wider families, sub-clans’ for in ancient days these number words rather indicated tribal and sub-tribal units. It was only later that they would finally indicate the numerical value given to them today (and even then military units do not tend to reach the number indicated. For example a Roman ‘legion’ and ‘century’ never attained these numbers in practise. The names were simply technical). Thus there would be units of a few (the family - a ‘ten’), larger units over this (the wider family group - a ‘hundred’), and even larger units (the sub-clan - a ‘thousand’). See the divisions in 7.17-18.
Ai had quite possibly been deliberately set up and inhabited as a semi-permanent township, and as an established forward post for Bethel. This establishment as a reinforced defence post, making use of its ancient walls, may well have been directly in anticipation of Israel’s invasion, which was expected fairly shortly from the Jordan valley. For this invasion must have been anticipated for some time as news filtered through of the approach of this fierce marauding people who were advancing in such numbers. It possibly contained specially trained fighting men/farmers, with their families, under a martial leader called its ‘king’. But its importance for Israel lay in the fact that it stood between the Israelite army and the final ascent to Bethel and the hill country.
Bethaven was used as a synonym for Bethel in Hosea 4.15; Amos 5.5. It meant ‘house of iniquity’ (seen by the prophets as a more suitable term for a Bethel taken up with idolatry), but from the description here it was probably an outer sub-town of Bethel. (See Joshua 18.12. 1 Samuel 13.5; 14.23 may have been another Bethaven).
Ai always carries the definite article ‘ha ay’ - ‘the ruin’. The present ‘city’ was thus seemingly a small township, established within the ruins of what was once a great city, making use of the ancient walls. Its total population was small. They were ‘but few’ (verse 3), at the most a few hundred, including women and children. It had its own ‘king’ and cattle (compare Genesis 19.20 with 14.2 for a parallel king over another very small town). How permanent the settlement was we do not know. They may well have moved here from Bethel some time before, occupying it in readiness to face the Israelite menace. Its identification is not certain.
Et-Tel is the more popular identification (being nearest to Jericho and having a name meaning ‘the mound’), but Tel Nisya (sometimes spelt Nusieh) is also suggested and has a number of things in its favour. The former (Et-Tel) has revealed no evidence of long term occupation at this period, but if its occupation was short term for defensive purposes in view of the approaching Israelites, such evidence would not be expected, especially as it was then unoccupied until a hundred or so years later. Ravages of weather and predators would soon remove any evidence of limited occupation. The latter (Tel Nisya) does, however, have evidence of such occupation and the contours of the land around would allow a large number of men to be hidden. In the former case Bethel would be identified with Tel Beitin, in the latter case it would be identified with Birah.
That it was described as containing ‘few’ demonstrates that its population was much less than that of Jericho, which itself was (as we know from the size of the mound alone) less than two thousand.
Bethel. If Tel Beitin was Bethel the city dated back to the Middle Bronze age. Both Abraham and Jacob were at times in the vicinity of Bethel (Genesis 12.8; 13.3; 31.13; 35.7). Both saw it as religiously important. Jacob even appropriated its name for the place where he had his vision and looked on it as a sanctuary. The Middle Bronze age city was prosperous but destroyed about 1550 BC. It was then rebuilt with well built late Bronze age houses, until this in turn was disastrously destroyed in late 13th century BC, to be followed by an Iron age city which marked a definite cultural change. It is tempting to see this as having been as a result of occupation by Israel (either here or in Judges 1.22-24) but archaeology is difficult to apply with certainty. They were tumultuous times, and we are not sure whether this site was Bethel or not. As the Amarna letters reveal it would be a mistake to think of Canaan as a land at peace until the Israelites arrived. There was constant warfare.
It may be significant that Bethel is not said to have been taken by Joshua although its army was defeated by him along with that of Ai (8.17). So we are faced with two possibilities. One is that it was captured along with Ai. The great conflagration that destroyed it then being the reason why it was lumped with Ai in grim humour as ‘the ruin’. The other is that Joshua may have been satisfied with rendering Bethel powerless by defeating and decimating its army without at this stage taking the city itself. At this time occupation was not a priority. Immobilising the enemy was. It is not likely that he slew its king at this time (12.16) or he would have been dealt with as the king of Ai was dealt with.
7.3 ‘And they returned to Joshua, and said to him, “Do not let all the people go up, but let about two or three eleph men go up and smite Ai, and do not make all the people toil up to it, for they are but few.” ’
The scouts did not see Ai as a large obstacle. They recommended sending only three units up to deal with it in view of its very small population. It was a long hard climb of over a thousand metres in height (three thousand feet) and over twenty four kilometres (fifteen miles) in distance. In their view that matter could be dealt with by an effective, but limited, fighting force.
The Attack On Ai Proves A Failure (7.4-5).
7.4 ‘So there went up there of the people about three eleph men, and they fled before the men of Ai.’
The three military units sent to take Ai soon discovered that it was tougher than they had expected. The men there were experienced fighting men, ever being the first to meet invasion that came over the Jordan and through the hills. In consequence the self-confidence of the Israelite contingents was badly dented for they were soundly beaten and had to flee.
7.5 ‘And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty six men, for they chased them from in front of the gate even to the quarries (or Shebarim), and smote them on the descent, for which reason the hearts of the people melted, and became as water.’
The men of Israel reached the gates of ‘the city’ no doubt full of confidence, and they may well, after what had happened at Jericho, have expected some remarkable event in their favour. But they were to receive a dreadful shock. For the armed men of Ai, realising that they would be somewhat exhausted after the hot climb, sallied out in force and smote them, driving them from in front of the entrance to their ‘city’ and down the descending way, during which pursuit they killed thirty six of them, for they chased them some considerable way. Shebarim means ‘that which is broken’, thus possibly quarries. There is probably also a hint here that the men of Israel were ‘broken’.
On hearing of the defeat the hearts of the people of Israel were filled with fear and they lost all courage. So quickly can men’s confidence be dented when something goes wrong. They had anticipated an easy victory and had instead lost thirty six men. After the victory of Jericho they could not understand it. Nor could Joshua.
At this point we may stop and ask what the people of Ai would now do. They now knew that it was the intention of Israel to enter the hill country. They also knew that the force that they had defeated was only a small part of Israel’s striking force. News would certainly have reached them of the much larger force encamped at Gilgal. They must thus have known that Israel would soon be back in much larger numbers. Contact would certainly be made with Bethel and it would seem from subsequent descriptions that Bethel supplied a large contingent of armed men to assist them. It would be in both their interests. This is the only real explanation of why the king of Ai was willing to leave the city to attack the large force that later arrived in the valley. He would hardly have done it with a ‘few’ men unless he was confident of a backup force that he could instantly call on. Without it he would have remained within the walls of Ai.
Joshua’s Response Is To Cry To YHWH In Order To Discover The Reason For Their Failure (7.6-9).
7.6 ‘And Joshua tore his clothes, and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of YHWH until the evening, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust on their heads.’
Meanwhile Joshua was desperately concerned to discover what had gone wrong. The tearing of clothes in a formal way was an ancient method of expressing grief and distress (compare Genesis 37.29; 44.13; 2 Samuel 1.11). As was dust on their heads (Job 2.12). Joshua knew that something was amiss. He could not understand why YHWH had not acted for them. So he and the leading men of Israel spent the remainder of the day prostrated before ‘the Ark of YHWH’. Why had the God of battle failed them? While the Ark had not been taken up the ascent it was probably outside and uncovered in view of the battle about to take place.
7.7-9 ‘And Joshua said, “Alas! O Lord YHWH, why have you at all brought this people over Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to cause us to perish? Would that we had been content and dwelt beyond Jordan. Oh YHWH, what shall I say after that Israel have turned their backs on their enemies? For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and will surround us, and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?” ’
Joshua’s prayer covered a number of points:
Note the reference to the Amorites and then the Canaanites. Both names could be used to describe all the inhabitants of the land, but as here could distinguish the mountain dwellers from those who dwelt in the plains. The reference to the Amorites is particularly poignant. It was Amorites whom they had destroyed on the other side of the Jordan, a place which now looked increasingly attractive, but was second best. But at this point Joshua was ready to settle for second best. However we must recognise that his prayer was intended to challenge YHWH about His covenant promises. It was not all negative. And we must recognise that he was in a state of total confusion. He just did not know what to make of it.
Note also his concern for the name of YHWH. With His people blotted out where would He be? There would be none to honour His name (see Isaiah 49.3).
YHWH’s Stern Reply And Instructions On How To Remedy The Situation (7.10-15).
7.10-11a ‘And YHWH said to Joshua, “Get yourself up. Why do you lie on your face? Israel has sinned.” ’
After they had been at prayer for some while and evening came YHWH spoke to Joshua. Perhaps it was by a voice that could be heard, or possibly it was by words impressed on the brain, but either way the message was clear. It was no good praying, for ‘Israel had sinned’. Until that was dealt with prayer would be in vain. What was required was not prayer but action.
7.11b “Yes, they have even transgressed my covenant which I commanded them, yes, they have even taken of what was devoted, yes, they have also stolen, and also dissembled, and also they have even put it among their own stuff.”
Why had YHWH not responded in accordance with the covenant? It was because Israel had broken it. They had disobeyed YHWH their Overlord. He had ‘commanded the covenant’, they had received it. Now they had broken it. Notice the growth in the level of crime. Taken what was devoted (a breach of the covenant), stolen it (a further breach of the covenant), lied about it (another breach), and appropriated it for selfish use (the final breach of covetousness). When the covenant had been so torn apart how could they expect Him to act on their behalf? This was a reminder that God required obedience. Without that men can expect nothing. Serving God is not a soft option.
‘Taken of what was devoted.’ This must in itself have made Joshua’s heart grow icy cold. Such a crime was almost beyond imagination. That which had been made holy to YHWH had been taken by profane hands. That which all knew to be YHWH’s own possession had been misappropriated by a man. And it had been hidden in the camp. That meant that the camp itself was profaned. The only place for such a thing was in the Tabernacle under the care of the priests.
We must remember that Achan had known what he was doing. He knew the seriousness of the sin. He knew that what he was doing put him beyond the pale. But it was just that in a moment of madness he had believed that God would do nothing about it, and this was partly a fault in the community which in one way or another had given this impression. But God is not mocked. What a man sows, he reaps.
The crime affected the whole of Israel for in the end sin is a community affair. If the community was thinking and behaving rightly, and had right attitudes, the individuals would have too. Laxness in the community leads to laxness in individuals. Thus each shares in the others sin. In this case also it is difficult to believe that no one was aware of Achan’s sin. And yet they did nothing about it. The Israelites would not have thought this through but their doctrine of corporate responsibility was based on it.
‘Dissembled.’ This suggests that he had been challenged about it, and had lied. It is probable that such a challenge would be officially made to all participators in the ‘devoting’ because the offence would be so serious.
7.12 “That is why the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies because they are become devoted. I will not be with you any more until you remove the devoted thing from among you.”
Because the devoted thing was among them they too were devoted to destruction. Thus they received no assistance against their enemies. Indeed that was why they had turned their backs on them. The only way to change the situation was to remove the devoted thing from the camp, and this would include all who were directly affected by it. Achan had brought his family into his sin. Some of them no doubt knew about it but did nothing. But all would suffer for his sin. We need to remember that in the end our sins and attitudes directly affect others.
‘I will not be with you any more until you remove the devoted thing from among you.’ ‘You’ is in the plural. Here YHWH changes his approach to speak as though directly to the people, both to make the words more vivid and to remove any suggestion that Joshua is himself in view. Such sudden changes in person occur fairly regularly elsewhere.
7.13 “Get up, sanctify the people and say, ‘Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow, for thus says YHWH, the God of Israel, there is a devoted thing in your midst, Oh Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies, until you take away the devoted thing from among you.’ ”
So Joshua was commanded to rise and do something about it. YHWH would assist in the search for the devoted thing which was such a curse to them, but they must first sanctify themselves to prepare for His drawing near. This probably meant washing their clothes, bathing with water, waiting in their tents until the evening and abstention from sexual relations and from anything unclean. They were also to be made aware of the seriousness of the situation. It may well also have included special sacrifices and offerings on their behalf at the Tabernacle.
‘YHWH, the God of Israel.’ This phrase occurs previously only in Exodus 5.1; 32.27. It was used at particularly solemn moments. In Exodus 5.1 it was at the time of Moses’ very first demand to Pharaoh in YHWH’s name. In Exodus 32.27 it was used in the giving of the command to the Levites to slay Israelites caught in idolatry when Moses came down from Sinai. It became prominent in the book of Joshua, in the historical books and especially in Jeremiah.
7.14 “In the morning therefore you will be brought near by your tribes, and it shall be that the tribe which YHWH selects shall come near by families, and the family which YHWH shall select shall come near by households, and the household which the Lord shall take shall come near man by man.”
We do not know quite how the method of selection would proceed but in one way or another they would be brought near before YHWH in the Tabernacle (compare Exodus 22.8-9; 1 Samuel 10.19-21). This may have been by the use of Urim and Thummim, or some other method of sacred lot (Proverbs 16.33, compare 1 Samuel 14.41-42), possibly by names written on lots (see also Numbers 17.1-8). Or Joshua may have received personal illumination. It was clearly a method that required gradual application. Presumably the ‘coming near’ was in the person of the leaders, first of the tribes, then of the sub-tribes in that tribe, then of the wider families, then of the family household (the ‘thousands, hundreds and tens?’). Once the family household was reached each member would be required to come near before YHWH until the culprit was discovered.
The whole of Israel would stand round the Tabernacle watching in awe and waiting as the decisions were reached, while the priest, or Joshua, moved in and out.
7.15 “And it shall be that he who is taken with the devoted thing shall be burnt with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of YHWH, and because he has wrought folly in Israel.”
Anything devoted had to be burnt with fire. By taking the devoted thing the culprit had made himself and all that he had part of ‘that which was devoted’. Thus all must be burnt with fire to remove contamination from Israel, and to remove the devoted thing from the camp of Israel. Sadly that may have included not only all his possessions but also his close blood relations (7.24). They would share his tent and it is doubtful whether he could have dug a hole and hidden what he did in the tent without them knowing. They would therefore be seen as guilty through complicity.
Note the two charges. He had broken the covenant of YHWH and he had wrought folly in Israel. It was wrong both towards God and towards man, both religiously and morally. ‘Wrought folly in Israel’ was a standard phrase for a heinous and grievous wrong (Genesis 34.7; Deuteronomy 22.21; Judges 20.10).
While we do not have to defend the actions of God, especially in such a pivotal and vital situation as this, it should be noted that ‘all that he has’ was open to interpretation. Joshua and Israel interpreted it to include all blood relations because that would be the interpretation put on it by the custom of the times, and because they would be seen as guilty of complicity in the crime, but that is not strictly what YHWH said. In these cases God’s purpose is often expanded on by man’s own ideas. However we must recognise that by his action Achan had aligned himself with Jericho, and thus condemned his blood relations just as Rahab had aligned herself with YHWH, thus saving not only herself but also her blood relations. It is interesting that his wife or wives were not said to be included, although it may be that she was already dead.
The Guilty Party Is Discovered And Dealt With (7.16-26).
7.16. ‘So Joshua rose up early in the morning, and brought Israel near by their tribes, and the tribe of Judah was selected.’
Joshua always rose early on special occasions. Perhaps it was in order to pray before acting. Or perhaps he was concerned to obey YHWH as quickly as possible. (How good it would be if we also were so eager to do God’s will). And he brought Israel near, by their tribes. Perhaps he had twelve sticks with their tribal names on and these were tossed in some way by the priest. Perhaps he went through them one by one saying ‘Is this the one?’ with the priest tossing the Urim and Thummim to see if it gave a ‘yes’ reply. The method of selection bit by bit demonstrates that it was not a direct word from God to Joshua. But whichever way it was the lot fell correctly and Judah was selected.
7.17-18 ‘And he brought the family of Judah near, and he selected the family of the Zerahites. And he brought the family of the Zerahites near, man by man, and Zabdi was selected. And he brought near his household man by man, and Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah of the tribe of Judah was selected.’
We notice here that the same word is used for the ‘family’ of the full tribe of Judah (some manuscripts, also LXX and Vulgate, have ‘the families’, probably in order to remove the difficulty of the original text) and the ‘family’ of the Zerahites, a sub-tribe. This demonstrates that such terminology was not at this time rigidly fixed. Note also that Achan is related back through his grandfather to Zerah and Judah. Attention is drawn to the fact that the selection process had worked perfectly.
Some manuscripts and versions have ‘by households’ after ‘the family of the Zerahites’ instead of ‘man by man’, but the latter is the more difficult reading and the former a more obvious correction to tie in with verse 14.
7.19 ‘And Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give, I pray you, glory to YHWH, the God of Israel, and make confession to him, and tell me now what you have done. Do not hide it from me.” ’
This was a stern legal adjuration. To ‘give glory to YHWH’ in such circumstances was to be open with the truth (compare Jeremiah 13.16; John 9.24). He was to confess to YHWH by telling the judge. By doing so he would bring glory to YHWH whose representative the judge was. The whole truth was to be told. Nothing must be hidden.
Normally a man could not be adjured to condemn himself. But here Achan was already condemned because of his selection by YHWH. Whether he confessed or denied he would be executed. By admitting his fault he would be bringing glory to the One Who knew about his sin even before he admitted it.
7.20-21 ‘And Achan answered Joshua, and said, “Truly I have sinned against YHWH, the God of Israel, and these are the things that I have done (literally ‘thus and thus have I done’). When I saw among the spoils a beautiful robe of Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge (‘a tongue’) of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them, and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it.” ’
Achan admitted his guilt. He knew the awfulness of what he had done and that there could be no mercy. To take a devoted thing was the most extreme of crimes and was to treat God high-handedly (Numbers 15.30; Deuteronomy 17.12). He admitted that while sacking the city he had come across a ‘beautiful robe from Babylon’ (Shinar). This would have been a fine quality imported robe of great value, the kind that would be rare indeed among the continually travelling Israelites, the kind found only in rich men’s houses and much to be desired. Also two hundred shekels (about twenty kilograms) weight of silver and ‘a tongue of gold’ weighing 50 shekels (half a kilogram). These are the two commodities that men have lusted after almost from the beginning, measures of wealth and prestige. A ‘tongue’ probably referred to a specific shape. A neo-Babylonian inscription also refers to ‘one tongue of gold, its weight one mina’.
Notice the advancing levels of sin, ‘I saw -- I coveted -- I took -- I hid.’ This is the progress taken by all sins of the flesh and reflects the sin in Eden (where the same verbs are used - see Genesis 3.6-7; compare also 2 Samuel 11.2-8). We must learn to close our eyes to sin immediately we are tempted, or even run away (‘flee youthful desires’ - 2 Timothy 2.22). Then covetousness will not blossom. But Achan’s look lingered, then covetousness grew, and finally he could resist no longer and he took. And he had hidden them in the earth in the middle of his tent, the gold wrapped in the robe, the silver hidden beneath it, implicating his family in what he had done (he would not have returned from battle unnoticed by his family). And they had been stolen from God.
Shinar was the old name for Babylonia (see Genesis 10.10; 11.2; 14.1,9; Isaiah 11.11; Daniel 1.2; Zechariah 5.11). Such a robe bears witness to the regular trade between Mesopotamia and Canaan, as caravans wended their way towards Egypt and back again (compare Genesis 37.25). Canaanite sophistication would ever be a temptation to the more basic Israelites.
7.22 ‘So Joshua sent messengers and they ran to the tent, and behold, it was hidden in his tent, and the silver under it.’
Joshua immediately insisted on the stolen items being produced. They were part of what was devoted and must therefore be carefully dealt with. The men he sent went with haste. All were aware of the awfulness of the situation and desirous of removing the curse from Israel as soon as possible. They found the gold, wrapped in the robe, and the silver, too bulky to wrap, buried under it.
7.23 ‘And they took them from the midst of the tent, and brought them to Joshua and to the children of Israel, and they poured them out before YHWH.’
The recovery of these devoted things not only concerned Joshua but the whole of Israel. All were involved and concerned for their recovery. All would benefit. ‘Poured them out’ may give an indication that their restitution to YHWH was seen as a kind of offering (Leviticus 8.15; 9.9 compare especially 2 Samuel 15.24 where the Ark was ‘poured out’ before David when he fled, a kind of offering to him by his loyal subjects). They were restored to their rightful place.
7.24 ‘And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep and his tent, and all that he had, and they brought them to the valley of Achor.’
No one, least of all Achan, was in any doubt as to what would happen next. Their contact with the devoted thing rendered them all ‘devoted’. Note the order of descending value. The initial devoted things first, then the blood relatives, then the livestock, then his home, then everything else.
Note that ‘All Israel’ were involved. This deeply affected them all. In the Hebrew ‘All Israel with him’ comes at the end of the sentence. It is placed there for special emphasis to stress their involvement, a device witnessed elsewhere (e.g. Genesis 2.9). We would show this by putting it in capital letters or italics.
The sons and daughters were possibly those who knew what he had done and had connived in it. They were guilty of complicity. They may well have helped to hide the devoted items. And by hiding in his tent what was devoted he had necessarily involved them all. But even the livestock were affected. They too had become ‘devoted’ by his actions. All were now YHWH’s. (Interestingly no wife is mentioned. Perhaps she was dead. Or perhaps she had known nothing about the affair).
‘The valley of Achor.’ Possibly we should translate ‘low lying plain of Achor’. El Buqei‘a is suggested as a possibility. It would be seen as an abandoned place, a place to be avoided. Making it ‘a door of hope’ later would be a sign of YHWH’s love and compassion (Hosea 2.15; Isaiah 65.10).
7.25 ‘And Joshua said, “Why have you troubled us? YHWH will trouble you this day.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. And they burned them with fire and stoned them with stones.’
Joshua’s declaration was not vindictive. It was a public declaration of the reason for what was being done, a judicial statement of his sentence. Achan was receiving what he had done to others, an eye for an eye. He had brought down great trouble. He must receive great trouble. All Israel participated in the carrying out of the sentence, although not literally. But those who hurled the stones acted on behalf of all.
Achan’s execution is mentioned first as being that of the main culprit, then is described the method of dealing with the remainder. The last part of the sentence is very summarised and we are not told what applied to what. The robe, the gold and the silver would be burned, after which the gold and silver may have been placed in the treasury. The livestock were slain first, and then burned. The other guilty parties would be stoned and then burned. The burning was necessary because all was ‘devoted’ and had to be purified in fire (compare Numbers 31. 22-23; Deuteronomy 13.16).
The sentence may seem harsh to us. It would not have done to Achan. There are eventful times in history when response to something like this has to be severe for the sake of the future. Those who have the privilege to live at times when God comes very close and acts very openly and vividly, thereby live in times of greater responsibility. We can compare Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10), Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5.1-6).
7.26 ‘And they raised over him a great heap of stones, to this day, and YHWH turned from the fierceness of his anger, for which reason the name of the place was called the valley of Achor to this day.’
The heap of stones, partly gathered from the stones hurled in execution, was a witness (4.21-22; Genesis 32.48). It testified to the holiness and severity of God, and yet of His mercy shown to the children of Israel as a whole. Compare the heap of stones piled over the body of the king of Ai (8.29), an everlasting reminder of YHWH’s triumph over disaster. And it warned of what would happen to those who treated YHWH and His covenant lightly. They remained there ‘to this day’. These constant references to ‘to this day’ confirm that the Book was written not too long after the events.
‘And YHWH turned from the fierceness of his anger.’ Compare Deuteronomy 13.17. This language is anthropomorphic. It meant that the barrier that man had erected against God was now again broken down. Thus God no longer had to deal with them in judgment. He was able once more to show mercy and act for them without endangering man’s recognition of the awfulness of sin.
‘For this reason the name of the place was called the valley of Achor to this day.’ ‘Achor’ comes from the same root as the word for ‘trouble’ in verse 25. Thus ‘the valley or plain of troubling’ was a reminder of the troubling of Israel. Whether it was renamed at this time, or simply had its name given a new meaning, is unimportant. What mattered was what it meant for the future. And the name lasted ‘to this day’. Then they all returned to their camp at Gilgal.
Chapter 8. The Defeat of Ai and Bethel.
Joshua was now encouraged to go up and take Ai, and he was also directed as to how to go about it. Accordingly he set an ambush on the west side of it, whilst he and the rest of the army advanced upwards towards its gates. When the king of Ai saw them, he made a sally against them, and the Israelites, pretending that they were beaten, then withdrew, with the men of Ai pursuing them. On this occurring the ambush rose and entered the city and set fire to it. As soon as the smoke was observed by Joshua and Israel, they turned back on their pursuers, and with the ambush sallying out of the city in their rear, they destroyed them. Then they slew all the inhabitants, took the spoil, burnt the city, and hanged its king. After this Joshua built an altar at Ebal, where he wrote the law on stones, and read the blessings and the curses in it before all Israel. His purpose was in order to demonstrate that failing to keep the covenant would be seen as being a great crime, like the crime of Achan. Both wre accompanied by cursing.
Preparations Are Made For The Seizing Of Ai (8.1-9).
8.1 ‘And YHWH said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid, nor be dismayed. Take all the people of war with you and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land.” ’
We have in this chapter the record of the capture of Ai and the defeat of the combined forces of Ai and Bethel (8.17). At this stage the capture of Ai was seen as a most vital element in the campaign. It barred the way to the hill country. The importance given to it and the way in which it was seen suggests that the account was recorded not long after the event itself before things were viewed from a wider perspective. It was their second victory and opened up the hill country.
Being aware of YHWH speaking to him again must have been a great relief to Joshua. Things were now back to normal and they could go ahead aware that YHWH was with them. His anger was no longer directed at them. We may tend to assume that YHWH spoke to Joshua constantly but this was not the case. Such revelations were spared for special occasions.
‘See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land.’ God spoke in terms of Joshua’s understanding at this point. God knew that Bethel was the more important city. At this stage Joshua did not. Joshua did not need a history and geography lesson. He needed assurance in terms of what he knew.
Again we have echoes of Deuteronomy (just as we previously had echoes of Exodus). See Deuteronomy 1.21; 31.8; 2.14,16; 2.24; 3.2. Joshua was soaked in the language of the Scriptures.
8.2a ‘And you will do to Ai and her king what you did to Jericho and her king. Only its spoil and its cattle you shall take for a prey for yourselves.’
The assurance was that it would be total victory. And the added assurance was that they could now begin to accumulate wealth from the land. YHWH had received His portion at Jericho, a token of what they owed to Him as their overlord. Now they could retain spoils for themselves. Compare on this verse Deuteronomy 2.35; 3.6 onwards.
8.2b-4 ‘ “Set up an ambush for the city, behind it.” So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up to Ai, and Joshua chose out thirty eleph men, the mighty men of valour, and sent them out, and he commanded them, “Look, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind the city. Do not go very far from the city, but be ready, all of you.” ’
YHWH directed tactics. YHWH told him that they were to hide soldiers behind the city, probably making their way there by night. These were to lie in hiding, not far from the ‘city’, until after the frontal assault of the ‘city’. Then we are told that Joshua commanded exactly what YHWH had commanded. The way of obedience had also been restored.
‘Thirty eleph men.’ Ten times more than the three eleph sent before. Complacency had been replaced by common sense. This thirty military units was possibly about fifteen hundred men sent to lie in ambush.
These were to go up prior to the main advance (note that ‘arose --- to go up’ rather than ‘arose and went up’ signifies preparation preparatory to movement). This would take some time. It was an upward climb of over twenty four kilometres (fifteen miles).
Later he would set a further ambush of ‘about five eleph men’ to the west of the city (verse 12). This may have been in order to strengthen the previous force, or in order to give a further prong to the attack. It may have been in case something had prevented the first contingent from taking up its position (no signal from them may have been spotted). This time he was taking no chances. He was no longer overconfident in Israel’s own prowess. And possibly at that stage he had become aware of Bethel looming in the distance.
Some read the text as signifying that the thirty eleph were Israel’s total force of which five eleph were put in ambush, but this does not readily appear from the text, nor does it tie in with the fact that they had forty eleph Transjordanian troops (4.13). We may roughly measure this as indicating that Israel had about fifteen thousand troops, of which fifteen hundred were in the first ambush, and five hundred in the second. (It is to some extent guesswork as we do not really know what an eleph would represent at this time).
8.5-6 “And I, and all the people who are with me, will approach the city, and it shall be that when they come out against us, as they did the first time, we will flee before them, and they will come out after us, until we have drawn them away from the city, for they will say, ‘They flee before us, as they did the first time.’ So will we flee before them.’
Joshua and the forces of Israel would then attack from the front, and when themselves attacked, pretend to flee. Again the repetition, in this case of ‘we will flee’, is distinctive of ancient literature. There may, however, be the subtle point that the first fleeing is to draw them on, the second to draw them further on once they have begun the chase. The aim was to get them a good way from Ai.
8.7 “And you will rise up from the ambush, and take possession of the city. For YHWH your God will deliver it into your hand.”
At a signal from Joshua, made by raising his spear (verse 19) on some high point, for which they would be on the lookout, they would then move in and take possession of Ai. And they need not fear for YHWH would be with them and make them successful. For ‘YHWH your God’ compare ‘YHWH the God of Israel’ (7.13, 19) a favourite title of Joshua’s.
8.8 “And it shall be, when you have seized the city, you will set the city on fire. You will do according to the word of YHWH. See I have commanded you.”
Once the city was taken it was to be set on fire. This would both act as a signal and would begin the fulfilment of YHWH’s instruction to ‘devote’ the city and its citizens, but not the cattle (verse 2).
8.9 ‘Joshua therefore sent them out and they went to the ambush site and settled in between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai. But Joshua lodged that night among the people.’
So the battle plan was laid out and the first part carried out. The men in the ambush would hopefully arrive at the appointed place during the night and settle in. They would then wait a day and a night while everything else was getting in place. Some commentators, who have never fought a battle in their lives, grumble over Joshua taking too long about the attack, but this time he was taking no chances. They had plenty of time.
‘Settled in between Bethel and Ai.’ This may have been the first time that they were really aware of Bethel. It may have been a message sent back about it that prompted Joshua to send them five eleph more men.
‘Joshua lodged that night among the people.’ Joshua remained in the camp at Gilgal. He wanted to give the ambush plenty of time to get into place, and he wanted to settle his own somewhat discouraged troops for what lay ahead.
The Battle For Ai (8.10-29).
8.10 ‘And Joshua rose up early in the morning, and mustered (numbered) the people, and he and the elders of Israel went up before the people to Ai.’
As usual he rose early. There was a hard climb and they wanted an early start. Then the troops were mustered and set in their units, after which Joshua and his captains led the way up to a point near Ai, followed by their troops. ‘People’ here clearly means men of war (verse 11).
8.11 ‘And all the people, the people of war who were with him, went up, and drew near, and came before the city, and pitched on the north side of Ai. Now there was a valley between him and Ai.’
The army made the ascent and camped to the north of Ai with a valley between them and Ai. Notice the stress on the slow approach - ‘went up, drew near, came before, pitched on the north side’. They were feeling the effects of the climb. Some commentators would have him attack at once, but he wisely rested his men. But he did it within sight of the city so that they would realise what was happening and anticipate a frontal assault.
It was at this time that he was able to survey Bethel, something which made him set a further five eleph men in ambush. He wanted to protect all sides.
8.12 ‘And he took about five thousand men, and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city.’
These were probably a further precaution rather than to increase the previous ambush. It may well have been in case of an attack from Bethel because he had recognised more clearly the threat posed by it. What he had probably not realised was that armed men from Bethel had already reinforced Ai (verse 17). (Troop deployments are often a mystery to readers when viewed without a recognition of all the factors).
8.13 ‘And they set the people, all the host that was on the north of the city, and their liers in wait (literally ‘their heel’) who were on the west of the city. And Joshua moved that night into the midst of the valley.’
This probably refers to the officers putting the main army in order ready for battle, and the preparing of the group of five eleph. It is clear that we are to see the thirty eleph as remaining in secret and therefore not at this stage involved in operations. Then the main army moved down into the valley during the night. Their ‘heel’, the five eleph, were set by their officers for whatever was to be their part in the battle. ‘Heel’ may indicate a rearguard, or those who would provide reinforcements when needed.
8.14 ‘And so it was that when the king of Ai saw it, they hastily stirred themselves and rose up early, and the men of the city went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at the time (or place’) appointed, before the Arabah. But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city.’
The king of Ai responded as expected. Becoming aware of their movement into the valley during the night, he and his officers roused his troops and came out to battle. After his previous victory he was full of confidence. ‘At the place appointed’ may mean the place that Joshua had selected for battle, a place suitable for carrying out Joshua’s plans. Or it may mean the time that Joshua had expected and arranged for.
‘Before the Arabah.’ It is difficult to know what this means. The Arabah is the Jordan rift valley. Thus it may have been a point from which the rift valley could be seen, or from where the way down to it could easily be reached. In his confidence the king may have been seeking to ensure that he could prevent escape that way.
This was probably a preliminary sortie to test out the now much larger enemy forces. As we have suggested earlier, and as appears from what follows, he now also had troops from Bethel to call on, as yet hidden from the eyes of Joshua. But the king was not aware of Joshua’s trap and made no provision for it.
8.15 ‘And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them, and fled by the way of the wilderness.’
Joshua wanted them well away from their strongpoint and so he and the army pretended to be beaten, probably after a minor skirmish, and retreated into barren land, probably the rugged territory between Ai and the Jordan valley. The text reads ‘they were beaten before them.’ This was the appearance of what happened from the point of view of the men of Ai. This probably took the king of Ai by surprise. He had expected stronger resistance. But it made him recognise that the people he was attacking had no stomach for a fight. It was a repeat of what had happened before all over again.
8.16-17 ‘And all the people who were in the city (or Ai) were summoned together to pursue after them, and they pursued after Joshua, and were drawn away from the city. And there was not a man left in Ai or Bethel that did not go out after Israel, and they left the city open and pursued after Israel.’
Joshua was not the only tricky general. The first attack was by the men of Ai, but when the retreat began and the king of Ai realised the strength of the force against him, he summoned the reinforcements, which he had hidden away, composed of the men of Bethel who had been secretly drawn from Bethel, who laid in wait ready for when needed. Thus he now emptied Ai of all its armed men in his eagerness to pursue Israel and dissuade them from trying again, leaving the city wide open.
At this point it is necessary to consider the position again with regard to Ai and Bethel. All the stress was laid on Ai. Yet Ai was only an advance post of Bethel. Why would the emphasis then be on Ai? The answer would seem to be that neither the king of Bethel, nor Bethel itself, were captured. It was the king of Ai who was strung up. It was Ai that was destroyed. Thus in the manner of victors it was Ai that was stressed. They captured their city and executed their king, and incidentally destroyed the army of Bethel at the same time.
The people of Bethel were then no longer a threat and for the time being could be left holed up in their city unable to pose any problems to Israel. It was probably considered that at this stage there were more important things to do than besiege Bethel whose power was broken and who from now on for the near future could only act in a defensive capacity. Thus the stress was on what was visibly achieved and not on what was not achieved.
8.18 ‘And YHWH said to Joshua, “Stretch out the spear in your hand towards Ai, for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand towards the city.’
This was clearly the signal for the ambush to attack. This would not be a signal to the ‘heel’ or reinforcements (verse 13) but to the original ambush. The spear may have had something on it to indicate that it was Joshua’s spear and he may have waved it preparatory to pointing it towards Ai. He had clearly taken up a place from which his signal could be seen. It had all been well worked out in advance. But Joshua awaited some indication from YHWH that the right time had come. Note that he then continued to hold out the spear until the battle was over (compare Exodus 17.11-12). This was the signal that the victory was YHWH’s. It would give confidence to his men.
8.19 ‘And the ambush arose quickly from their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand, and entered into the city, and took it. And they speedily set the city on fire.’
The ambush had been there waiting hidden for over a day. They were no doubt relieved to see the signal and acted immediately. They charged the ‘city’, overwhelmed it, and then quickly set part of it on fire to alert Joshua that they had succeeded.
8.20 ‘And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and, behold, the smoke of the city ascended up to heaven, and they had no power (literally ‘hands’) to flee this way or that way, and the people who fled into the wilderness turned back on the pursuers.’
The word for ‘hands’ is the same as in verse 18. Joshua stretched out his hand, the city was given into his hand, while Ai had no hands like Joshua had. They had no special power to call on.
Suddenly the battle changed. The men of Ai soon became aware that their city had been sacked, for the smoke of the city ascended up to heaven (compare Judges 20.40), and they looked back and saw it. The city was as one great burnt offering to YHWH. They had no help to look to, nowhere to hide, no city to fall back to, and when the ‘terrified’ people they were chasing suddenly turned round and did not appear terrified at all, it had suddenly all become a nightmare.
8.21 ‘And when Joshua, and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city, and that the smoke of the city ascended, then they turned again and slew the men of Ai.’
Once again we have the typical repetition of this kind of literature, ensuring that the hearer gathered the important points and kept up with events. Once the smoke arose Joshua and all Israel turned round and began the slaughter of Ai.
8.22 ‘And the other came out of the city against them. So they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side, and they smote them so that they let none of them remain or escape.’
Now the men of Ai and Bethel were trapped, caught in between the two parties, and possibly the five eleph to the side. They had nowhere to go and were smitten down to the last man as God had commanded should be done to the Canaanites.
8.23 ‘And the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua.’
The general who had initially been so successful and who had finally led to defeat not only his own men, but the men of Bethel as well, was captured alive and brought to Joshua for him to decide how to deal with him.
8.24 ‘And so it was that when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai out in the countryside, in the wilderness in which they pursued them, and they were all fallen by the edge of the sword until they were consumed, that all Israel returned to Ai and smote it with the edge of the sword.’
Once God’s judgment had been carried out on the army of Ai and Bethel, who were caught in the open country, Israel turned their attention to those who remained in Ai, the older people and the women. They too were smitten with the edge of the sword until not one was left. All were ‘devoted’ to YHWH.
8.25 ‘And all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve eleph, even all the men of Ai.’
This figure probably included the men from Bethel. The habit of mentioning the allies only once and then assuming their presence occurs elsewhere. Compare Judges 3.13 in a passage which might give the impression that only Moabites were involved, while the Ammonites and Amalekites were involved too; and Judges 6-8 where it is the Midianites who are prominent in most of the passages even though they have allies in the Amalekites and the children of the East. Consider also Judges 12 where Ammon clearly included Moab (the king of Ammon uses Moabite claims as his basis for his demands) even though they were not mentioned.
But, as we have suggested earlier, it may well be in this case that the men of Ai and the men of Bethel were in fact one, with the original men of Ai being a vanguard for all Bethel. All had in Israel’s sight issued forth from Ai. Thus the men of Bethel were men of Ai.
8.26. ‘For Joshua did not draw back his hand back with which he stretched out his spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.’
It would appear that having stretched out his spear as a signal he then continued to hold it out as a gesture of victory, until the victory was complete (compare the rod of Moses in Exodus 7.29; 8.16 and the hands of Moses in Exodus 17.12). In a sense it was the spear of YHWH. It was the sign that YHWH fought for them.
8.27 ‘Only the cattle, and the spoil of the city, Israel took for a prey for themselves, in accordance with the word of YHWH which he commanded Joshua.’
In this case the spoils were to the victors. YHWH had received the firstfruits at Jericho. These belonged to His people. Note the emphasis on their doing what YHWH commanded. They had learned their lesson.
8.28. ‘And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it a heap (a mound - ‘tel’) for ever, even a desolation to this day.’
This must have been written before the later restoration of Ai which, if the usual site is accepted, was in the time of the Judges. But it was not even then restored as a walled city. The much later city was probably built elsewhere (Isaiah 10.28; Ezra 2.28). So the great battle of Ai was over, with victory going to YHWH. There is no further mention of Bethel. That city was probably not taken which is why it was not mentioned. But it would be militarily weak for a long time to come. Its king was slain by Israel later on (12.16).
8.29 ‘And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until the evening, and at the going down of the sun Joshua gave a command, and they took his carcase down from the tree and tossed it down at the entering of the gate of the city, and raised on it a great heap of stones to this day.’
The king of Ai was hanged on a tree. He may well have been killed first, compare 10.26; Deuteronomy 21.22; 2 Samuel 4.12. This was the token of a criminal and one who was accursed (Deuteronomy 21.22). It demonstrated why Ai had been ‘devoted’, because it was a sinful city full of all the abominations of the Canaanites. But the body could not remain there after nightfall lest it bring defilement on the land (Deuteronomy 21.23) and so at the going down of the sun it was taken down and given an ignominious burial. The pile of stones heaped on it were a permanent witness to YHWH’s victory and to the end of sinners. Everyone who passed by that heap of ruins would see the pile of stones and would remember what YHWH had done for Israel and what He had done to the king of Ai.
Joshua Holds A Renewal Of The Covenant Ceremony (8.30-35).
8.30 ‘Then Joshua built an altar to YHWH, the God of Israel in Mount Ebal.’
The next act of Joshua was to fulfil the command of Moses as expressed in Deuteronomy 11.29; 27.2, 3 where God commanded the building of an altar of unhewn stones on Mount Ebal, and the setting up of stones on which the Law of YHWH should be plainly written.
Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim were two mountains overlooking the plain in which lay Shechem, with Mount Ebal to the north and Mount Gerizim to the south. There were no major cities on the regular highway between Bethel and Shechem (see Judges 21.19), although Shiloh lay along the route. There was nothing therefore to prevent the Israelites from making for Shechem along the main highway, a journey of about forty eight kilometres (thirty miles). But the striking fact is that there is no record anywhere in Joshua about the invasion and capture of Shechem, nor of any activity against their king. Yet they were passing through Shechemite territory. Shechem was revealed in the Amarna letters as a powerful confederacy. They were not likely to stand by while Israel held a covenant ceremony on their two mountains.
A further striking fact is that in this passage in Joshua reference is made, in respect of the covenant ceremony to take place there, to ‘as well the stranger as the homeborn’ (verse 33) and to ‘the strangers who walked among them’ (verse 35). Yet in the narrative prior to this, from the moment of leaving Egypt, there has been no reference to such people. All the people who left Egypt had come to be seen as one people. They had all been united within the covenant at Sinai. None were seen as ‘strangers’. Their children were seen as ‘true born’ Israelites (even those who were not). Strangers were people who would be welcomed to sojourn among them when they were in the land, and who would be regulated by the Law. Thus it would seem that there were present at this covenant ceremony those who had not been in Egypt and who had not been at Sinai.
This brings us to the question of Shechem. Who dwelt there, and what was their religion? Shechem was an ancient city situated in the hill country of Ephraim. It was mentioned in the 19th century BC Egyptian execration texts, and excavations show it to have been strongly fortified, covering fourteen acres.
Some time after this Jacob purchased land near Shechem, and, when his daughter was violated, ‘Simeon and Levi’, with armed men from their household, tricked the Shechemites and destroyed the Canaanite inhabitants of the city (Genesis 34). It is probable that some from the households of Simeon and Levi would then be allowed, or even required, to settle there, partly as a reward for assisting in the attack, and partly in order to look after Jacob’s land rights (Genesis 33.19; 37.12 compare Joshua 24.32). By marrying the bereaved women they would obtain their land rights as well. We may assume that they introduced the worship of YHWH. They may well have been seen elsewhere as ‘Habiru’. This was probably when the idea of Baal-berith, ‘the lord of the covenant’, (Judges 9.4) originated as genuine worship of YHWH, or there may have been a gradual compromise and amalgamating of ideas. Thus Shechem was no longer directly Canaanite.
It was very prosperous in the Hyksos period (1700-1550 BC) during which a massive fortress-temple was built. This may well have been ‘the house of Baal-berith’ mentioned in Judges 9.
In the Amarna letters, which were correspondence between the Pharaohs and their vassals in Canaan in the 15th century BC, its king Labayu was said by an enemy (Abdi Heba) to have given Shechem to the Habiru. He refers to ‘-- the sons of Lab'ayu, who have given Shechem to the Habiru.’ Labayu and his sons were spasmodically vassals of and rebel leaders against Egypt with influence as far as Gezer and Taanach and who even threatened Megiddo, who wanted a hundred troops to assist in defending against them (‘Let the king give a hundred garrison men to protect the city. Truly Lab'ayu has no other intention. To take Megiddo is that which he seeks!’). Thus it would seem that Shechem contained a large non-Canaaanite section of population at this time. Later there is evidence of specific Israelite occupation, from 11th century BC.
So Habiru (‘Apiru), stateless non-Canaanite peoples, appear to have been settled there in the time of Labayu (see above), uniting with the descendants of the men of Jacob’s household. Thus it would appear that when Joshua arrived and was welcomed and found non-Canaanites willing to submit to the covenant, who worshipped ‘the Lord of the covenant’, and were willing to recognise Him as YHWH, and had Israelite antecedents, he was probably satisfied to incorporate them into the covenant rather than treating them as Canaanites (consider Joshua 24.23). But it is clear from Judges 9 that their worship was to some extent syncretistic and not the pure Yahwism of Moses (thus there it is equated with Baalism - Judges 8.33). But Joshua may not have realised that.
This would explain the ease of the journey to Shechem through country controlled by the Shechemites, and the fact that they could carry out the covenant ceremony unmolested. It would also explain why no mention is made of the conquest of Shechem and why there were ‘strangers’ at the covenant ceremony. We should further note that Shechem was recorded in the genealogies of Israel as a ‘son of Manasseh’ (Numbers 26.31), recognising their relationship with Israel.
So we may consider that Joshua and Israel arrived at Shechem, welcomed by the inhabitants, and built the altar of unhewn stones on Mount Ebal, as Moses had commanded.
The Samaritan Pentateuch states that this was on Mount Gerizim, but Ebal is the more difficult reading and the Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim and would be prone to favour it (and we know from elsewhere that they were ready to change the text to suit).
Ebal is the mountain of the curses (Deuteronomy 27.9-13) and it is they which were prominent (Deuteronomy 27.15-26). The erecting of the altar and the plastered stones on this mountain would bring home to Israel with especial force that there were curses resulting from breaking the covenant. They were being reminded of the consequences of disobedience even while they worshipped and ate. But on the mount of cursing there was also blessing. It has been suggested that the remains of a small stone building on Mount Ebal dating from 1240-1140 BC, which contained pottery and the bones of cattle, sheep and goats, may indicate cultic connections.
8.31a ‘As Moses the servant of YHWH had commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of hewn stones on which no man had lifted up any iron.’
Joshua was carefully carrying out the instructions that he had received from Moses. The altar of unhewn stones was as instructed in Exodus 20.25. The forbidding here of the use of ‘any iron’ probably indicates that iron especially was seen as a foreign and ‘new’ metal, not native to Israel. But in fact all tools were forbidden.
8.31b ‘And they offered on it burnt offerings to YHWH, and sacrificed peace offerings.’
Having built the altar, worship was now offered, both in the form of dedicatory, atoning whole burnt offerings (Leviticus 1), and in atoning sacrifices in a form in which the people could participate by eating of the peace offerings (Leviticus 3; 7.11-18). This was both in thanksgiving for victory and in preparation for renewal of the covenant, and acceptance into it of the people of Shechem (Deuteronomy 27.6-7).
8.32 ‘And he wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel.’
These need not have been the same as the altar stones. The Hebrew definite article is not specific. It can simply mean ‘on the stones I am now talking about’. The stones would be plastered white (an Egyptian method) and then written on in a kind of primitive ink. The copy of the Law of Moses probably refers to the covenant containing the ten commandments of Exodus 20.1-17. It may, however have included parts of Deuteronomy.
8.33a. ‘And all Israel, and their elders, and officers, and their judges, stood on this side of the Ark, and on that side, before the priests and the Levites, who bore the Ark of the covenant of YHWH, as well the stranger as the homeborn, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal.’
Once the sacrifices had been offered and the sacrificial meal had been partaken of, and the law recorded as a permanent reminder, the solemn covenant renewal began. The Ark of the covenant of YHWH was established in the valley between the mountains, surrounded by the priests and the Levites who bore the Ark, And the whole nation of Israel, together with those who were strangers but welcomed among them (indicating that there were certainly some present who had not been at Sinai), stood on both sides, some in front of one mountain and some in front of the other.
8.33b ‘As Moses the servant of YHWH had commanded, that they should bless the people of Israel first of all.’
All this was done in response to the commands of Moses. The old dead leader was being remembered and his instructions followed. Then would follow first the blessings. Note Moses’ command that the blessing should come first.
8.34-35 ‘And afterwards he read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the assembly of the children of Israel, and the women and the little ones and the strangers who walked among them.’
Then was made the solemn reading of the Law. This was probably the basic book of Deuteronomy, but may have included more. Included were both blessing and cursings, for this was all in covenant form, a reciting of what YHWH had done for them, a declaration of His requirements and then the blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience (Deuteronomy 27.15-26; 28 all).
This full reading of the Law was something that was required of Israel every seven years (Deuteronomy 31.10-13), although parts would no doubt be read out at all covenant festivals. Compare Exodus 24.7.
Thus having become first established in the land they solemnly renewed the covenant and incorporated within it all who had been willing to align themselves with them in the worship of YHWH. Then they returned to their camp at Gilgal (9.6). All this would have taken a number of days.
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