Warfare, Worship, and the Word
It was about ten years ago or so that the phrase “epic fail” begin to trend. The phrase describes someone who messes up or fails not just in a normal way but in a big, messy, epic way.
Even to the day there are whole blogs and websites that just catalog “epic fails” from around the internet. And of course they are played for laughs, but some of them are just heartbreaking. Especially the ones, like a performance or a proposal, where someone has prepared for a long time and yet out there in front of everybody watching they fail in a big messy epic way. It’s so hard to watch.
Joshua’s experience at Ai in Joshua was an epic fail. Joshua had been preparing for years to take this incredibly difficult and intimidating job of leading Israel into the promised land after Moses’ death, and after one significant success, he had the epic failure that we heard about last week.
You could say that the failure at Ai hit him pretty hard. “Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan!” he said in 7:7. Essentially, “I wish we had never come here.” I think we can barely imagine how devastating the failure at Ai would have been to this new leader.
Joshua and the people were facing what Trent Butler described as “the faith-shaking fact that victory was not automatic for the people of Yahweh.”1Trent C. Butler, Joshua 1–12, ed. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Second Edition, vol. 7a, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 427.
In other words, it wasn’t just that they had failed, but that they could fail. They were not like superheroes who could go around having easy victories everywhere they wanted. Their success depended upon the Lord’s help, and that was a help that He could withhold if His people were acting in rebellion to Him.
But when we get to chapter 8, the reason for that epic fail has been dealt with. The troubler of Israel has been removed and God begins this chapter by offering to Joshua a second chance. “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” (Joshua 8:1).
Did you notice how, in chapter 7, the Lord didn’t speak at all until after the failed battle at Ai? That’s something they maybe should have noticed. God, who had been directing the whole operation up until then, was silent. But here the Lord leads the discussion again with these extremely meaningful words.
That phrase “do not fear and do not be dismayed” was the very same thing that Moses said to Joshua when he commissioned him back in Deuteronomy 31:8–9. And so the sense we get here is that this is a fresh commissioning here. God is basically giving Joshua the chance to start fresh on this whole mission.
God knows that Joshua needs this level of encouragement. It’s one thing to step up to a hard job when you don’t know what you’re getting into. It’s another thing to keep going in that hard job after you’ve already faced a major failure.
And in verse 2, after this encouragement, God goes on to give to Joshua some specific instruction. He tells him to do to Ai what they did to Jericho. Destroy the whole city. But this time there are two major changes.
First, this time they’re allowed to keep the livestock and the plunder for themselves.
Why is that? Why the change? There could be a few reasons for this shift. Because Jericho was the first city in the land, perhaps it needed to be utterly devoted to destruction because it was the “firstfruits.” Just like later on, the first fruits of their crops would be devoted to the Lord.
Whether that’s the specific reason or not, isn’t it so ironic that Achan’s greed cost him his life when, if he had just waited, he would have been able to have his share of the spoils from Ai?
The second big difference from Jericho is what we read at the end of verse 2, where God tells Joshua to “lay an ambush against the city, behind it.” God is instructing Joshua in the use of basic military tactics. This is another shift form the battle at Jericho, where all they did was walk around the city and God supernaturally knocked it down. Now, under God’s direction, they are beginning to use actual military techniques to take the city.
So that’s the encouragement and instruction from God. And in verse 3 we see the plan being put into action. “So Joshua and all the fighting men arise to go up to Ai.” All the fighting men, just like God told him in verse 1, not just the few thousand that they took last time. By faith in God’s word, the people get up and obey.
Verses 3-9 describe Joshua setting up this ambush that God instructed him to. Here’s what he tells them in verse 4 and following: “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” (Joshua 8:4–8).
This is basic military tactics: the use of surprise and bluffing to put your enemy in a vulnerable spot. And that’s the plan here.
The following verses describe this plan being put into action, and we’ll pick up the narrative in verse 14: “And as soon as the king of Ai saw this, he and all his people, the men of the city, hurried and went out early to the appointed place toward the Arabah to meet Israel in battle. But he did not know that there was an ambush against him behind the city. And Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten before them and fled in the direction of the wilderness. So all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel. They left the city open and pursued Israel. Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand.’ And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city. And the men in the ambush rose quickly out of their place, and as soon as he had stretched out his hand, they ran and entered the city and captured it. And they hurried to set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, behold, the smoke of the city went up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had captured the city, and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them, so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side. And Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped. But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua” (Joshua 8:14–23).
The ambush works, the trap is sprung, and the battle unfolds exactly according to God’s word—He gives Ai into their hands.
One element in these verses worth noting is the role of Joshua’s javelin in verse 18. On the one hand this seems to be a signal to the ambushers. But on the other hand Joshua’s upraised javelin looks like a divine sign-act, like when Moses held up his staff in first battle Joshua fought against the Amalekites back in Exodus 17. And that seems to come through in verse 26 which says that “Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction” (Joshua 8:26).
There’s something supernatural going on here, and it’s one more sign that God is once again with His people and that He is the one giving them victory over their enemies. Even though they are using military tactics, the ideas behind those tactics and the success of those tactics comes from God.
Remember, victory was not automatic for them. They would only succeed with God’s help and that’s exactly what’s unfolding now.
Verses 24-29 describe them finishing the work at Ai. Like Jericho, all of the inhabitants are put to death. Verse 27 reminds us that the livestock and the spoil Israel “took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that He commanded Joshua.” And verse 28 tells us that “Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day.”
The word “Ai” means “ruin,” and so it’s possible that the name was given after these events. Either way, it’s a fitting name for a place that remained a heap of ruins up until the time that the book of Joshua was written. That phrase “as it is to this day” is a good reminder that these are not just fairy tales.
Verse 29 tells us about the last person in Ai to die that day: “And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day” (Joshua 8:29).
These are probably the most gruesome and troubling words in the whole story to us. But this was a very common practice in the ancient world. And in fact, through Moses God had actually given Israel instruction on this practice, back in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God…”
Rather than leave the body up for days on end like the other nations, Israel was only permitted to do this for a day before taking the body down and giving it a proper burial.
So what was the point of hanging up someone’s body before burying it? There seems to be a couple of things going on. On the one hand, by displaying their body publicly, you were sending a warning message to others not commit the same crime lest that same fate befall you.
But as the Deuteronomy passage tells us, in Israel there was an added layer of meaning. When someone’s body was hung up on a tree it sent a message that this person was under God’s curse.
We know, from two weeks ago, that the Canaanites as a whole stood under God’s curse and judgement for all of their idolatry and their sexual sin. And by the way, I missed pointing this out two weeks ago, but if you read Leviticus 18:22, you will see that one of the sins of the Canaanites described there is homosexual practice.
And I mention this because we can’t forget the sad irony that one of the things our society celebrates was actually one of the reasons for the conquest of Canaan. And that should show us just how much our world today is desperate for God’s mercy. And ultimately, the public death of the king of Ai reminds us of the justice that that every single one of us deserves for rejecting the rule of the King of Heaven.
Especially when we remember that the people of the land could have turned and repented like Rahab. “All the inhabitants of the land melt away before you” she said (Joshua 2:9-11). The king of Ai knew what he was up against with Israel and Israel’s God. But instead of repenting he fought back, and in the end he got exactly what he deserved.
And over him, verse 29 tells us, was raised a great heap of stones—the third stone memorial in the land since Israel arrived. There was the pile of stones at Gilgal (4:20) which they took from the Jordan, reminding them of God’s power in ushering them safely across the Jordan. There was the pile of stones over Achan (7:26), reminding them that they could fail if they wandered from obedience to the Lord and so encouraging them to keep walking in faithfulness to Him. And now there was a great heap over the king of Ai, serving as a reminder of the second chance that God gave them there at that place, and the way that He restores His people when they repent and turn from and deal with their sins.
So that’s the story of Ai. And it feels like we’re at a conclusion. But we’re not done the chapter. Verse 30 tells us, “At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal” (Joshua 8:30).
At that time, right on the heels of conquest at Ai, Joshua leads the people to Mount Ebal and builds an altar. And what we read in verses 31 and following is that on that mountain they have a worship ceremony according to the instructions Moses had given them.
They build this altar exactly the way they were supposed to, and they offer sacrifices on it, and then, in verse 32, we read “And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them” (Joshua 8:32–35).
Now there’s a lot going on here and we need to try to understand some of it in order to grasp what’s going on here.
Mount Ebal was about 20 miles north of Ai. And it was the highest mountain in the area directly north of the town of Shechem. In fact these two mountains—Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim—form two parts of a triangle with Shechem being the point of the triangle in the pass between the two mountains.
And Shechem was important because Shechem was where Abram had built his first altar in the land, about 500 years before this point. “Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him” (Genesis 12:6–7).
Shechem was also where Jacob built an altar when he came back to the promised land after his exile in a foreign land (Genesis 33:19).
So it’s a really important spot. And the significance is huge for all of these people, this great nation, to return to this spot where God had made those promises and built their own altar and worship the Lord there.
This is kind of a side point, but in recent years an altar matching this description was discovered on Mount Ebal and some archeologists think that it could be this very altar that Joshua had built.
There’s even more going on here, though. In Deuteronomy 27, Moses told the people to do exactly what they are doing today. If you read verses 4-8 in that chapter you’ll see that Joshua and the people are simply following Moses’ directions down to the detail.
And so this ceremony is about being faithful to God’s instruction through Moses. And even further, as they read aloud the law God gave through Moses, they are reminding themselves to continue to be faithful to God’s instruction.
So much of Israel’s religious life was about reminding the people of what God had said and done encouraging them to stay faithful to His word. And that’s what this ceremony is all about. It’s about recounting God’s faithfulness in bringing them to this place just like He promised to Abraham, and it’s about once again reminding people of the blessings and the curses in the law—blessings if they obey and curses if they disobey. Many of those blessings and curses are found in Deuteronomy chapter 28, which comes right after these instructions from Moses.
Israel has already experienced some of those blessings and some of those curses. One of the blessings they would experience if they obeyed was that “The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you” (Deuteronomy 28:7). And they’d certainly experienced that at Jericho and Ai the second time.
One of the curses that would come if they would not obey God’s word was that “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them” (Deuteronomy 28:25). And they’d certainly experienced that the first time at Ai.
And so this is so meaningful for them to have these words of blessing and curse read out loud to them and to be reminded of what God had promised them if they obeyed Him faithfully, and what God had promised them if they didn’t, having already tasted both experiences.
Now at the same time, this whole episode on Mount Ebal does feel a little out of place for some people. Israel was just on the heels of a battle at Ai and the next thing they do is march all the people 20 miles into enemy territory to have basically an extended church service?
It’s not what we expect. It’s like chapter 5, where, right after crossing the Jordan, instead of attacking Jericho they all get circumcised. And this has caused some people to say “this is out of place. This must have happened at a different time and just been inserted at this point in Joshua.”
But I’m not so sure. Those words in verse 30, “At that time” are hard to ignore. And I think it makes perfect sense that, after the events at Ai, Joshua would want to perform this covenant renewal ceremony Moses had told them to do as soon as possible.
Joshua and the people had just learned, in the most painful way possible, that the success of their mission depended on their faithfulness to God’s word. And so it makes total sense to me that he wouldn’t want to take any chances by waiting any longer to perform this ceremony. It makes sense that, given how God had protected them at Gilgal, they’d have confidence marching into enemy territory to do this. This is not the most dangerous thing they’ve done—at least they can defend themselves if attacked this time!
So I don’t think this is out of place. I think that Israel really did this ceremony at this point. And that is the whole point, because this is a theme we’ve seen more than once in this book already. Obeying God is more important than doing things that make human sense.
Lessons for Us
And that brings us to the end of chapter 8. This chapter has brought us up from the lows of chapter 7 to see God’s people experience a second chance at Ai and then recommit themselves to Him in this covenant renewal ceremony.
And as the chapter ends I want to point to three main lessons that you and I can take home with us from this chapter.
1: God Works Through Human Means
The first lesson is that God works through human means. Or, we could put it this way: God often does His work through people.
And here’s where I’m getting this from: God gave Ai into Joshua’s hand just as much as Jericho (Joshua 8:1, 6:2). But this time, the way that He accomplished this was not with a pure miracle—just knocking down the wall—but through the use of good military tactics. And that’s actually how He does most things from this point on.
There was only one Jericho. There was only one time where God knocked the walls down. For the rest of the conquest, God empowers and works through normal human activity to accomplish His purposes.
This is important because there’s some Christians who think that if God is not doing a miracle, God isn’t doing anything. And that’s just not what we see in the Bible. That’s certainly not what we’ve seen here in Joshua 8. Much of the time, when God wants to do something, He does it through people.
2. God’s Word Drives Everything
And while it’s true that God used normal military tactics to deliver Ai into Joshua’s hand, it’s also true that these tactics came from Him in the first place. And that’s one of the major themes in this chapter, and our second big lesson to take home: God’s word drives everything here.
Like we saw, God’s word was totally absent in chapter 7 up until the failure at Ai. But in chapter 8, God's word drives everything. God’s direct communication is mentioned at least five times up until verse 27. And then the ceremony at the two mountains is all about writing and reading God’s word in obedience to God’s word.
And what we see here is that God’s word does not just provide moral instruction, like “you can keep the spoil this time,” but God’s word actually gives Israel the specifics of how to go about the battle in the first place.
And the same is true for you and I today. Through His word to us, the Bible, God does not just tell us what bad things we shouldn’t do. In His word He actually gives us the necessary instructions we need for doing what He wants us to do in life and in ministry.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
The God-breathed Scriptures are not just true but are profitable and make us complete, equipped for every good work. The Bible is not just inerrant and inspired but is sufficient for life and godliness.
I don’t know if you remember a couple of falls ago when we spent some time on Sunday morning talking about each element in our service, and explaining how it all comes from the Bible. That’s not to say that the way we do things is the only way to have a faithful church service, but rather it’s an acknowledgement that the Bible does establish priorities for what Christians do when they gather, and we’re going our best to follow those priorities in our particular context.
The same could be said for our whole ministry as a church. The kind of things that we do, and the kinds of things we don’t do, all come from our attempt to be faithful to the priorities God has established for us in His word, the ways that he’s told us that He works, and the things that he’s told us that we should be about.
And the same can be said for our individual lives as disciples of Jesus. While it’s true that God has not told us what job to work and what city to live in and so on, he has given us our marching orders for life. They sound like this: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). That’s not just a nice religious sounding phrase: that is what God wants you to do with your life. In your job, in your relationships, in everything you do, we seek His kingdom.
So if you think about life like driving on a road, the Bible is not just like the guard rail on the side of the road that keeps you from heading into the ditch. The Bible is also like the compass that tells you which direction you should be driving in the first place. And in some spots, the Bible is actually like the GPS on your dash that tells you exactly what turns you should take as you navigate.
And in order for all of this to happen, we actually need to know God’s word, right? We need to invest time and thought in understanding it. We need to spend enough time with God’s word that we can start to tell the difference between God’s word and our own opinions and preferences—something many Christians struggle with. And then we’ll be able to follow God’s word, even, like Joshua, when it leads us into uncomfortable places.
So, for us, no less than Joshua, God’s word drives everything. And the application here is to actually read it. Actually spend time with it. There is no substitute and no alternatives to knowing God’s word.
3. Jesus Bore Our Curse for Us
There’s a final truth for us to take home with us today as we stand back and look at this passage and consider this theme of blessing and curse. The Old Covenant law was full of blessings and curses. Many of those are found in Deuteronomy 28 and 29. And we see those blessings and curses on display in our passage today.
We see God’s blessing in Israel’s victory at Ai. We see God’s curse in Achan, buried under a pile of rubble, and the king of Ai hung up on a tree before a pile of stones covered up his body once and for all.
And it shouldn’t be too hard for us to also see, 1,500 years later, and just a few miles south of Ai, another king was hung up on a tree, bearing God’s curse as He cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). And before the day was up His body was taken down and a stone sealed Him out of view—but not forever.
I’m talking about Jesus, who died on that cross under God’s curse, but for our crimes, not His own. And He rose again in order that the blessings He had earned through His obedience could be shared freely with all who would believe in Him.
Listen to these words from Galatians 3: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13–14).
Jesus set us free from this endless cycle of blessing and curses by bearing our curses in our place and then securing all of His blessings for us. And if you know Jesus today, you can know that your walk with God does not depend on your performance but on Jesus’ performance. He is the solid rock that you can cling to no matter what is going on inside or outside of you.
And so I end to day by inviting you to come to Jesus. Come to Jesus for grace and mercy and enabling help. Come to Jesus in your grief and come to Jesus in your joy. Come to Jesus again and come to Jesus for the first time.