Joshua’s armies depart a burning and looted Ai.

Military Blunder and the Death of a King: Joshua’s Debacle at Ai – Part II

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The battle of Ai is probably one of history’s most overlooked battles in which military trainees or cadets can learn valuable lessons.

Joshua—new leader of the tribes of Israel, great military leader, and controversial figure in the Bible— may have been triumphant after besieging and conquering the city of Jericho. But his next move was as audacious as it was ill-advised.

Joshua advanced on the city of Ai; but its ruinous façade was misleading.

Joshua advanced on the city of Ai; but its ruinous façade was misleading. ( Public Domain )

Sending Men to Die

Joshua took the advice of his spies and sent roughly three contingents, or 600 men, to Ai – a Canaanite royal city, but one in ruins (now believed to be Et-Tell, an archaeological site in the West Bank). But once Joshua’s forces enter, “they fled before the men of Ai. And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty and six men: for they chased them from before the gate even unto Shebarim, and smote them in the going down: wherefore the hearts of the people melted, and became as water.”

[Read Part I Here]

While the Bible provides nothing as to what happened, the scripture suggests that once the 600 or so men arrived outside the city, a unit went in to search the area while the reminder of the force stood guard. But once the unit, perhaps of 50 men, passed through the gate, what they literally stumbled into was an environment of ‘rock hell’, which broke the unit’s cohesion, thus giving the Bethlites the element of surprise and allowing them to ambush and kill among the shadows in individual combat, with speed and precision. The psychological terror at Ai caused the remaining Israelite force to flee out of sheer panic, due to the uncertainty lurking among the shadows. And once the Israelites turned their back, the Bethlites took advantage and chased them for a time killing 36 Israelites before breaking off.

Ai (or Et-Tell) shown in the West Bank. The site of et-Tell (Arabic for "the ruin-heap") is about three km east of the modern village of Beitin (Bethel), atop a watershed plateau overlooking the Jordan Valley and the city of Jericho 14 km east.

Ai (or Et-Tell) shown in the West Bank. The site of et-Tell (Arabic for "the ruin-heap") is about three km east of the modern village of Beitin (Bethel), atop a watershed plateau overlooking the Jordan Valley and the city of Jericho 14 km east. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Battle of Ai, which resulted in the deaths of 36 men, was a great concern for Joshua, who “rent his clothes” out of anger and concern.

Joshua had blundered at Ai. (Sweet Publishing/ BY-SA 3.0)

Joshua had blundered at Ai. (Sweet Publishing/ BY-SA 3.0)

While Joshua’s anger is understandable, his concern was far more important.

He understood that what they had started at Jericho by slaughtering and leveling the place, gave the Israelites an aura of invincibility among the various Canaanite groups; that the gods favored them. But after the debacle at Ai, Joshua knew that he had to strike again quickly, because news travels fast; if Joshua wanted to keep his PR campaign going, he had to make a move.

Countless Men Ambush Ai

Joshua spent the night digesting and pondering the information he procured from the men who fled from Ai, in order to find the best way to approach the ruins. The next morning Joshua rose and mustered the forces. After much thought, he decided that to make an effective attack on Ai, he needed to establish the element of surprise, and in order to do that, he organized an ambushing force. He chose an uncertain number of men to go out at night and “lie in wait to ambush the city from behind. Stay close to the city; and all of you, be ready.”


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Cam Rea  is an author and military historian. He has written numerous articles for Ancient Origins, Classical Wisdom Weekly, and has authored several books, including: Mongol Warfare: Strategy, Tactics, Logistics, and More!


Top Image: Joshua’s armies depart a burning and looted Ai. (Biblical illustration of Book of Joshua Chapter 8/ CC BY-SA 3.0 );Deriv.

By Cam Rea

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