The present chapter readily divides into two sections. In verses 1 to 29 we have the account of the destruction of Ai. In verses 30 to 35 we read of the proclamation of the law, with the blessings for the obedient and the curses that would fall upon the disobedient.
When God’s people fail to act in accordance with His will the first time they have to face some barrier to progress, they find it far harder to overcome upon making a second effort. Had it not been for hidden sin in the camp, Israel would have overcome Ai very easily, even as they overcame Jericho when they acted in accordance with the Word of the Lord. But when, after dealing with Achan and his covetous household, they prepared to make a second onslaught on the little city by whose inhabitants they had been defeated before, they found it a difficult task indeed which they had to undertake.
We read in verses 1 to 8:
And the Lord said unto Joshua, Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land: And thou shalt do to Ai and her king as thou didst unto Jericho and her king: only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves; lay thee an ambush for the city behind it. So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai: and Joshua chose out thirty thousand mighty men of valour, and sent them away by night. And he commanded them, saying, Behold, ye shall lie in wait against the city, even behind the city: go not very far from the city, but be ye all ready: And I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city: and it shall come to pass, when they come out against us, as at the first, that we will flee before them, (For they will come out after us) till we have drawn them from the city; for they will say, They flee before us, as at the first: therefore we will flee before them. Then ye shall rise up from the ambush, and seize upon the city: for the Lord your God will deliver it into your hand. And it shall be, when ye have taken the city, that ye shall set the city on fire: according to the commandment of the Lord shall ye do. See, I have commanded you.
Thus did God outline the plan they were to carry out; a plan intended to impress upon them the folly of underrating the power of the enemy as they had done before, and also the lesson of their own helplessness and insufficiency apart from the divine enabling.
Acting on the instruction given, we are told that
Joshua rose up early in the morning, and numbered the people, and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. And all the people, even the people of war that were with him, went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city, and pitched on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between them and Ai. And he took about five thousand men, and set them to lie in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city. And when they had set the people, even all the host that was on the north of the city, and their Hers in wait on the west of the city, Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley.
Thus all was in readiness for the test of the morrow, when the men of Ai were to learn that, after all, they were no match for Israel so long as they acted in accordance with the Word of God.
Ai was a little city, and it is the little things that become great obstacles in the onward march of the host of the Lord, unless they are dealt with in the light of His Word. In this instance, Israel was to learn how strong a little city may be and what wisdom and dependence on God is needed in order to overcome it.
As anticipated and foreseen by Joshua, acting under divine direction, the men of Ai came rushing forth early in the morning expecting an easy victory, and at first it seemed as though they were right. We read:
And it came to pass, when the king of Ai saw it, that they hasted and rose up early, and the men of the city went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at a time appointed, before the plain; but he wist not that there were Hers in ambush against him behind the city. And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them, and fled by the way of the wilderness. And all the people that were in Ai were called 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 went not out after Israel: and they left the city open, and pursued after Israel.
Recklessly the self-confident men of Ai left their city utterly unprotected as they pursued after the retreating Israelites. At Joshua’s signal the 3000 men in ambush then rose up and carried out the orders given on the night before (verses 18, 19):
And the Lord said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thine hand. And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand toward the city. And the ambush arose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand: and they entered into the city, and took it, and hasted and set the city on fire.
This ruse resulted in the capture of Ai and the destruction of its inhabitants, as we read in verses 20-23:
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 to flee this way or that way: and the people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon the pursuers. 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. And the other issued 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. And the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua.
It was a signal victory for Israel, though achieved in a manner designed to impress upon them the folly of acting in accordance with their own thoughts and failing to discern the mind of the Lord. They were strong only as they acted in obedience to His commands.
Details of the close of the battle are given in verses 24 to 29:
And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the Lord which He commanded Joshua. And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day. And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcase down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.
Observe that in this instance God permitted Israel to take the cattle and the wealth of the city as a prey for themselves. He did not put a ban on the spoil of Ai as on that of Jericho. There are certain things of an earthly character which God’s children are permitted to use for sustenance and enjoyment, even though they are called upon to judge the world as an ordered system opposed to the Cross of Christ.
We turn now to the second section. Moses had commanded the children of Israel that when they entered into the land they were to proceed to the Mounts. Gerizim and Ebal and there set up an altar and a pillar and proclaim the law, with its statutes and judgments, as given first at Sinai and amplified in the plains of Moab. Of this we read in Deuteronomy 27 and 28.
In accordance with this command, we are told that
Joshua built an altar unto the Lord God of Israel in mount Ebal, As Moses the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man had lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt-offerings unto the Lord, and sacrificed peace-offerings.
This altar, observe, was built of whole stones, upon which no tool had been lifted, as Moses had told them in Exodus 20:25. The altar speaks of Christ, as does the offering placed upon it. He had to be who He was in order to do what He did. Therefore, there was to be no effort by man to shape the stones. They were to be put together just as they were provided by God. Upon this altar burnt offerings and peace offerings were placed. These speak of Christ offering Himself without spot unto God on our behalf and thus making peace by the blood of His Cross.
It was most blessed that such a foreshadowing was seen at the base of Mount Ebal—for from that mount the curses were declared by one half of the Levites. All are under the curse to whom the law comes, for “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.” That smoking altar told of Him who, sinless Himself, was to make propitiation for the sins of the world.
The blessings were proclaimed by the other half of the Levites from Mount Gerizim (Deut. 27:12) but as these blessings depended entirely upon the obedience of the people, it was soon manifest that no man could claim them as being rightfully his. All blessing must be on the ground of pure grace.
After the sacrifices were offered, the altar was, as it were, turned into a monument. It was covered with plaster, on which, when hardened, the blessings and the curses were written as a memorial “according to all that is written in the book of the law.” This was to be an abiding testimonial that it might not be forgotten in days to come (verse 35):
There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them.
Thus had Joshua begun to take possession of the land which by this monument was dedicated to Jehovah. But because of Israel’s disobedience, the time came when God could no longer own them as His covenant people and so He gave them over to the power of their enemies. It is not possible for fallen man to keep God’s perfect law. That law which in itself is “holy, just, and good,” can only curse and condemn those who are under it. In the fullness of time Christ came to redeem from that curse all who believe in Him. Now His redeemed people stand before God on the ground of pure grace, and their obedience, far from being of a legal character, is the glad service of love to Him who has made them His own.