Joshua 8:1-29

And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land. And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.”

So Joshua and all the fighting men arose to go up to Ai. And Joshua chose 30,000 mighty men of valor and sent them out by night. And he commanded them, “Behold, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind it. Do not go very far from the city, but all of you remain ready. And I and all the people who are with me will approach the city. And when they come out against us just as before, we shall flee before them. And they will come out after us, until we have drawn them away from the city. For they will say, ‘They are fleeing from us, just as before.’ So we will flee before them. Then you shall rise up from the ambush and seize the city, for the Lord your God will give it into your hand. And as soon as you have taken the city, you shall set the city on fire. You shall do according to the word of the Lord. See, I have commanded you.” So Joshua sent them out. And they went to the place of ambush and lay between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai, but Joshua spent that night among the people. [1]

Chapter 8 continues the story of the battle to conquer Ai that began in chapter 7. There are even parallels that exist between Rahab’s story in chapter 2 and the Achan narrative in chapter 7. Rahab, a believing Canaanite, trusted God and acted accordingly, receiving her promised deliverance from destruction and citizenship among the people of God. Achan became dissatisfied with, and distrusting of, YHWH. As a result, he was not delivered but destroyed because he willingly transferred his citizenship to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Effectively, he became a Canaanite.[2]

Achan’s death turned the wrath of God aside and his favor flowed through the specific instructions he gives to Joshua here in chapter 8, so that the tragedy of defeat will be turned into a glorious victory. Just as Rahab had done, God’s people must put their entire confidence in him and carry out his instructions in detail, resulting in unswerving loyalty to Joshua’s leadership. The end result would be a great victory and the continuation of the conquest of the land.


The first two verses of this chapter are encouraging in several ways. Restoration can be a costly and time-consuming process, especially in the area of broken relationships. It would not have been surprising for the Israelites to have felt some distance from God. The business of conquest might have been kept on hold for some time as they tried to recuperate. But that is not what happened.

As soon as they had dealt with Achan, God’s wrath is satisfied, and he takes the initiative incoming to Joshua. He speaks words of great encouragement and gives fresh direction. What we learn from these two verses is that God is the one who restores our souls (Psalm 23:3). God is a great restorer, and he acts with sensitivity throughout this chapter. We see it in the exhortation in verse 1 and in the affirmations of verse 2, and in the battle plans of verses 8 and 18.

God’s Word is once again in control. So his promises will certainly be fulfilled. His restoration deals first with the inward need of the soul, which is then translated into the outward circumstances of life. God says, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed.” As we have noted before, Joshua is inclined to be fearful and upset over circumstances. Those two internal psychological realities can be roadblocks to the whole process of restoration. They arise out of the shame of “not enoughness.” You might recall from the Garden of Eden that the first thing the Adams’ felt after rebelling against God was shame.

That is the enemy’s most powerful weapon against the relationship God seeks to build with his people. The fear and discouragement that arise from shame can have a paralyzing effect. And we know that Joshua was naturally prone to this, since he often had to be reminded why he should not succumb to either (1:6,7). Here God again comes with specific promises of his sovereign goodness. He unveils his strategy to Joshua and provides him with the divinely-given assurance of his Word as a remedy and corrective to his adverse circumstances and his temperamental weakness.

We are not Joshua. We do not have to try to identify ourselves with his character in order to benefit from this narrative. But Joshua’s God is our God too, and we can be reassured that his loving care of each of us will be tailored exactly to the situation of our needs, whether the challenges we face are internal, external, or both.

For Joshua, the turning point is the promise of victory in verse one because God has “given” Ai into Joshua’s hand. God even expresses the promise in a past tent to show the certainty of its fulfillment. This is a good principle to glean for those of us who boot up each day in the strength of our own flesh, roll up our sleeves, and attempt to manage our flesh to achieve our own outcomes as if God were not our sovereign Father. Our Heavenly Father has written out the book of our lives already. And he offers us his rest and peace by pointing out that fact to us.

For Joshua, God reads a paragraph of Joshua’s future to him. He promises a victory as total and irrevocable as that at Jericho. Only this time the spoil and the livestock can be plundered by the Israelites themselves. Even though God is due all the spoils because he is the one who has decreed the victory, God graciously gives the swag over to his people. If only Achan had been willing to wait on God’s timing!

The tactics of the battle are simple, although later verses unpack more of the detail. Ai is to be conquered by a strategy of ambush (8:2b). As at Jericho, the defeated city will be God’s gift but there has to be complete use of the resources God has given: “take all the fighting men” (8:1). This time, they are not to take only two or three thousand warriors. There has to be maximum effort, founded on maximum trust. The way to strengthen wounded hearts is to go forward in trust, not lamenting the past or worshipping your own created set of would-be circumstances, but rather building on the promises of God and his Word by means of the Holy Spirit’s work within us.

The New Testament reinforces and develops these priorities for our own progress as Christian believers. God’s absolute sovereignty and our responsibility are not polar opposites, but different sides of the same spiritual reality. Our responsibility is our response to his ability, our responsive trust. The outworking of our trust is our obedience. The two belong together as Paul taught when he spoke of his desire to present everyone mature in Christ:

For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me (Colossians 1:29).

The energy and ability, toil and struggle in Christian life and service, come from God alone. But we still have to do the work, to use what God has given. So, Paul advised Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). Timothy was to do the thinking, and God would grant the understanding, but the one will not come without the other.

Jude teaches the same principle when he exhorts his readers to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21) on the grounds that God “is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24). These two things belong together: trust and effort, both of which are gifts from the Spirit.


Verses 3-13 show us something of the military strategy to overcome Ai. However, the author’s writing style again seems a little strange to our modern western minds. Are there 30,000 mighty men of valor involved (8:3) or only 5,000 (8:12)? What do we do with verse 3 and verse 10, both of which describe Joshua and the army attacking Ai? Were there two different actions, or are we looking at one event from different perspectives?

We have seen the author’s narrative method in chapters 3 and 4 with the account of the Jordan crossing and in chapter 6 with the fall of Jericho. The writer unpacks more details of a situation as his narrative progresses, which can sometimes look either like repetition or contradiction. In verse 2, Joshua is simply told, “Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.” Yet that is not all God said because the author’s explanation of how that is to work, in verses 4-8, indicates that all this is “according to the word of the Lord” (8b).

The details of the ambush plan are presented to be equally divine in origin. So this section explains the tactics to be used, of which the entire force of 30,000 is made aware and potentially involved in the battle. But it is not activated until the next day, when 5,000 of them are chosen by Joshua to carry out the attack (8:12) and to camp to the West of the city. This makes the most sense in light of verse 25 where we are told the total population of the city was only 12,000. An attack force of 5,000 would be easier to conceal than the entire force of 30,000, who are ready to be engaged and waiting to the north.

The majority of the army marches from Gilgal and is stationed to the north of Ai, across a ravine, but not far away so they are ready to invade the city (8:4, 11). Joshua and the 5,000 position themselves to the west of Ai, on the road to Bethel (8:5a, 12). Seeing the 5,000, the enemy will be drawn out of their compound to chase off the Israelites as they had done before. Joshua will appear to flee with his army as before (8:6).

When Ai’s fighting force has been drawn out of the compound, then the large ambush force from the north will appear, seize the city, and set it on fire, so that the enemy will see their city on fire and become sandwiched between the Israelite ambush and Joshua’s attacked force (8:7, 8). The details are revealed, the plan is activated, and by verse 13 the two groups are bedded down for the night, north and west of the citadel, ready for the next day’s battle.


The narrative speeds up in verse 14, and in this section that runs to verse 23, we have the historical record of how Ai was brought down to a pile of rubble (since the name means “rubble” or “pile of stones”). The plans work perfectly, as with Jericho, because YHWH is the commander, and he is giving this city to his people. The king of Ai, seeing the 5,000 camped to the west, believes the numbers are on his side. This force may be a little larger than the last, but the men of the city already have a record of victory. So he marches out to engage the enemy in order to cut short any siege and to settle the matter decisively.

Verses 14 and 15 capture the drama of the story, “But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city” (14b). Joshua and his forces pretend to flee (8:15), Which then draws out the rest of the forces defending the citadel who joined in the pursuit. It’s a disastrous tactic because “they left the city open” in order to chase the Israelites (8:17b).

To remind Israel that God is in command, Joshua is told to lift his javelin against Ai, which functions as the signal for the ambush north of the city to enter and set it on fire (8:18, 19). The smoke rising from the city lets the enemy know they are trapped between two forces. That’s the signal for Joshua and his troops to stop their retreat, turn around, and begin to destroy the trapped forces. Ai is annihilated (8:22, 25).


23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua.” This king no longer has a city or a population over which to rule. They have been devoted to destruction, as the Lord commanded. Joshua is pictured as another Moses, holding his javelin as Moses held up his shepherd staff. This is an important picture because it reminds us again of the judicial and moral nature of the cleansing of Canaan and exonerates the Israelites from the charge that they were merely pursuing ethnic cleansing.

There is relevance in this passage for the church today. God’s wrath against sin is a facet of the perfect righteousness of his judgment, requiring the punishment of all evil that opposes itself to the holiness of the Creator of all. But wait, there’s more!

If God’s kingly rule is to be exercised throughout eternity, there is a necessity that his enemies should not simply be defeated but ultimately destroyed by what the Book of Revelation calls “the second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:6; 20:14; 21:8). Joshua chapter 8 is a type and shadow of the great and final judgment at the end of time when the devil and all his minions will be thrown into the lake of fire, along with death and Hades. “This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:10-15).

A very good place to find Old Testament foreshadowing is the prophecy of Isaiah, written as an extended answer to the question posed in his opening chapter. How can the faithless city of Jerusalem become the faithful city, the New Jerusalem? To put it in more general terms, how can the sinful human race ever be rescued, redeemed, and restored to the image of God in which we were created?

Isaiah’s answer is given in the three portraits of the Messiah as the Incarnate Son, God with Us, Emmanuel (Isaiah 1-39), as the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 40-55), and as the Warrior King or Anointed Conqueror (Isaiah 56-66). It is the figure of the warrior king, or anointed conqueror, that is especially significant for our study. In Isaiah 63:1-6 the portrait is drawn of a mysterious figure clothed in splendid apparel, but his garments are red, stained not from the wine press, but with the lifeblood of the nations, trampled by his wrath.

This is “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). If there is no ultimate destruction of all God’s enemies, there can be no guarantee of the ultimate security of his eternal Kingdom of love, joy, and peace. The opposition has to be vanquished and sin has to be removed if the Kingdom of God is to rule as the New Creation.

The picture of the king of Ai hanging on a tree until evening (8:29), gruesome as it is, is a reminder that the same destruction ultimately awaits all God’s enemies, “for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). The apostle Paul explains it this way to the Corinthian church:

24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.[3]

This is the logical necessity if there is ever to be an everlasting Kingdom, a holy city, the New Jerusalem, where death shall be no more and where there will be no mourning or crying or pain or tears (Revelation 21:1-4).

Back in Joshua chapter 8, our narrative concludes with another memorial pile of stones, heaped up at the gate of Ai over the corpse of its king and visible “to this day” (8:29). The most likely reason for this city’s name now becomes obvious. The city’s leader is buried in the rubble of his destroyed domain. So, it is probable that the former citizens of this place had another name for their town. But the Israelites called it “the pile of rubble” in honor of the work of YHWH.

This pile of rubble is another permanent reminder that there is but one true and living God who will absolutely work out his purposes in his world. Psalm 2 summarizes the message of Ai’s defeat. “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, all rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10-12).

The glorious reality is that we who trust into the perfect life and sacrificial death of the risen, ascended, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ can take refuge in him because he hung on a tree for us outside the city walls that Good Friday afternoon. Because he took our place, atoned for our sins, and carried our guilt, and lived the perfectly-holy life we can never live, we will never face the fate of the king of Ai, which, as God’s holy Law makes perfectly clear, is exactly what we deserve.

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. [4]




[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 8:1–9.

[2] Jackman, David. Joshua (Preaching the Word) (p. 117). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 15:24–26.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 22:17.