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The Wars of Ai

By Prof. Amos Ehrlich, Ph.D.

View looking towards Jericho from Ai.

I don't intend to repeat the archaeological findings and proofs of David Livingston, wherein he identified the site of Ai as being situated on the Eastern slopes of the hill of the settlement of Pesagot (Chirbet Nisia, aka Khirbet Nisya), and identified El Bireh as Beit-El (Bethel). Rather, I would like to clarify the Biblical texts regarding the location of Ai, and point out the correlation between them and the topography of the site.

I will start by pointing out that the book of Joshua describes two different ambushes:  one ambush consisting of 30,000 men and one of 5,000 men. I would like to suggest that the group of 5,000, although called an "ambush" (orev), was organized out in the open rather than in a hidden fashion. The possibility for this meaning for the Hebrew terms for "ambush" (orev, maarav, orvim, mearvim) is supported by two biblical texts:

Jeremiah 51:12: "Set up a standard against the walls of Babylon, make the watch strong, set the watchmen, prepare the ambushes…" (This is a description of the storming of the walls, which is usually in the open).
Judges 9:25: "And the men of Shechem set liers (mearvim) in wait for him in the top of the of the mountains, and they robbed all that came along that way by them…" (top of the mountain is usually visible).

In addition, the name Beit-El (Bethel) refers not only to the built up city area, but also to the agricultural lands (for our purposes, to the south). Joshua 5:13 states: "Now when Joshua was near Jericho…" For a more literal translation one should write "in Jericho" rather than "near Jericho." This verse refers to the time before the capture of the city itself. Jericho here refers to the lands outside the walls of Jericho, before Joshua was actually in the city.

Topographical Features

  1. The gate of Ai faces north. North of the gate is a slope leading down to a valley. North of this valley is a ridge which can serve as an encampment for many people. Joshua 8:11 states: "All the people, even the men of war who were with him, went up, and drew near, and came before the city, and encamped on the north side of Ai. Now there was a valley between him and Ai."

    The valley north of Ai continues eastwards. It narrows and rocks on both sides look broken. Joshua 7:5: "They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes." Stone quarries stands for shevarim, which means broken things.

  2. The shevarim (see above & below) where the men ran fleeing from Ai.

  3. Regarding the place of the big "MAARAV" and Mount Beth-El and the city of Bethel, Joshua 8:3-4: "So Joshua and the whole army moved out to attack Ai. He chose thirty thousand of his best fighting men and sent them out at night with these orders: 'Listen carefully. You are to set an ambush behind the city. Don't go very far from it."

    If opposite the city is north, then behind the city is south. But Joshua 8:9 says: "Then Joshua sent them off, and they went to the place of ambush and lay in wait between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai." From this verse we see that the "MAARAV" was southwest of Ai.

  4. On the west of Ai there's a mountain which is referred to in Genesis 12:8: "From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east." (This seems to be the same mountain mentioned in I Samuel 13:2: "Saul chose three thousand men from Israel; two thousand were with him at Mikmash and in the hill country of Bethel, and a thousand were with Jonathan at Gibeah in Benjamin." This asks for the possibility of eye contact between Mount Bethel and Mikmash.) The "MAARAV" of Joshua could not be in a place that could be seen from Bethel. Therefore the "MAARAV" had to be in the valley south or southwest of the mountain - Bethel being north or northwest of it.

The Chain of Events

View from Google Earth showing modern Pesagot and Ai (Khirbet Nisya).

  1. At the first attempt of capturing Ai, Joshua sends a force of three thousand men. The army passes on the ancient road, which still existed in the year 1980 (A in photo). This road led from El Bireh of today (ancient Bethel) to the gate of Ai (B in photo). The gate faces north in the direction of the steepest slope. The army passes with great assurance at the foot of the wall of Ai. It is defeated and runs away to the northeast. The narrow pass at the "SHEVARIM" stops the runners and forces them to face those chasing them, thus ending the chase.

  2. On the first night of the successful battle, Joshua sends ahead 30,000 men to hide in the "MAARAV" (C in photo). Joshua sleeps that night with the people that remained in Jericho. The next morning, Joshua goes out to war together with the entire army. He encamps on the northern hill (D). He sends 5,000 men to encamp near to the "ARAVA" which is the flatter area to the west of Ai (E). This "ARAVA" is mentioned later on in Joshua 8:12-13: "Joshua had taken about five thousand men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. So the soldiers took up their positions - with the main camp to the north of the city and the ambush to the west of it. That night Joshua went into the valley."

  3. The secondary task of this ambush was perhaps, to hold back wanderers from noticing the ambush that was in hiding. Its main purpose was to draw out of the city the people of Ai. A smaller army would have aroused the suspicions of the king of Ai (they would say to themselves, "Have they not seen that we previously defeated 3,000?") A large number would have kept the people within the security of the walls. An army of 5,000 would seem possible for Ai to defeat. The next night it was necessary for Joshua to be present both for this ambush and with the army. Therefore Joshua spent the night walking back and forth in the valley between the ambush and the army. (This fits the original Hebrew text, not the English translation, with "into the valley" instead of "in the valley.")

  4. In the morning: Joshua 8:14: "When the king of Ai saw this, he and all the men of the city hurried out early in the morning to meet Israel in battle at a certain place overlooking the Arabah." In the morning the sun would blind the eyes of the Israelites in the west, interfering with their ability to fight. The people of Bethel (El Bireh) see the flight from the northern mountain but don't see the big ambush of 30,000 men, which is hiding near their fields but not near their city. They join the chase. The rest goes according to plan.

View from Amos Ehrlich's home, overlooking Khirbet Nisya (green hill in foreground).

Dr. Ehrlich is a 30 year resident of Pesagot. As a longtime student of the Bible and fluent in Hebrew, he is adept in translating Hebrew Scripture. He served a long time in the Israeli infantry during the wars; as a soldier he has experience in conceiving battle plans and using the local terrain to advantage. His home overlooks the site of Khirbet Nisya, referred to as Ai in this article; thus, he has had many years to ponder the biblical descriptions of the local geography, noting how they line up with descriptions in Scripture.

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