Joshua 8:1-29

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After her crushing victory at Jericho, Israel had suffered a defeat administered by the much smaller town of Ai. That setback was the direct result of sin in the camp. The sinner was identified and removed from the community and Israel was now ready to attack Ai again.

Text Comment


What a mistake Achan made and how unnecessary! Now they could keep the plunder. Once the people had proved themselves ready to give the Lord their entire obedience, he offered them the silver, gold, and clothing from Shinar that Achan couldn’t bear to pass up when he saw them in Jericho! You don’t need to covet the possessions of others and it won’t do you any good to do so. Wait for the Lord’s provision. It will come and when it does it will prove more than enough and be mixed with no guilt. God may require the first fruits, but he is happy for us to enjoy the harvest! [Schaeffer, 113]


A longstanding question is whether these 5,000 men are part of the same 30,000 mentioned earlier — that is, of the 30,000 sent only 5,000 were used — or whether Joshua set up two separate ambushes, one to set the town on fire when its defenders came out to fight Israel and another to lurk in waiting should they be needed, either to hit the men of Ai from still another direction or to ward off any relief column that might be sent from nearby Bethel.

In my admittedly non-expert view, it seems unlikely that a force as large as 30,000 men would or could hide in ambush for an attack on a town of 12,000 inhabitants. One solution to the problem is to suppose that a manuscript error has crept in and that the original number in v. 3 was 5,000, not 30,000. There are other suggestions, such as the 30,000 represents the entire force, 5,000 of whom were placed in ambush. No solution is without difficulties but the text itself poses the problem. Once the battle began what became of the 30,000 soldiers mentioned in v. 3 if, indeed, they represent a separate force? Nothing is said of them after verse 3 and they do not figure in the battle.


The Arabah is the Rift Valley in which Jericho, the Jordan, and the Dead Sea are located. So the viewpoint of this description of the battle is from west to east.


The battle was larger than it otherwise might have been because the men of nearby Bethel joined the men of Ai in attacking the Israelite invaders. Much effort has been exerted but still we do not know with certainty the location of either of these cities.


Joshua’s keeping his hand raised during the battle reminds the reader of Moses having done a similar thing when Israel fought the Amalekites in Exodus 17. Moses also kept his hands up with something in his hand: the “staff of God.” On that occasion the battle lasted a long time and Moses had difficulty keeping his hands raised for so long a time, so Aaron and Hur held up his hands for him. Such a posture, symbolic of prayer, indicated that the army had to count on the Lord for victory. No doubt the same sense attaches to Joshua’ gesture here.


The Hebrew term for “heap of ruins” is tel. It survives today as the name for almost any archeological site that is a hill that is being dug down into layer by layer. Ancient cities tended to be destroyed in battle or by fire and then rebuilt on the same place; layer was built upon destruction layer because any city well located needed to be on a hill and on a hill where there was a nearby source of water. Such ideal locations were few and so had to be reused.


As we learn in Deuteronomy (21:23) to hang the dead body from a tree was a sign of that person having been cursed by God. If we didn’t know this already, we are reminded once again that the people of Canaan were losing their lives and their cities because of their sins against God and man.

The great heap of stones is precisely what was used to bury Achan as we read in 7:26. The similar form of burial serves as a dramatic reminder that the fundamental issues here are spiritual, not racial or national, and that a disobedient and unfaithful Israelite would be treated in the same way as a Canaanite. The chapter ends on this note of symmetry between Achan and the king of Ai. [Howard, 211]

We have before us this morning a passage that is very typical of the Bible and that in respect to its most basic theme, viz. the way of salvation. A number of thoughtful students of the Word of God have referred to Deuteronomy as the Romans of the Old Testament. By that they mean that the book of Deuteronomy contains the most thorough and systematic account of the theology of salvation and believing life that we find in the first 39 books of the Bible, much as Paul’s Letter to the Romans does among the final 27 books of the Bible. Fair enough. But as we have already had occasion to note, and as I might have proved to you to wearying effect as we moved through the first seven chapters of the book, the fingerprints of Deuteronomy are everywhere you look in the book of Joshua. Word for word citations of and less precise allusions to statements in Deuteronomy abound in Joshua, such as, for example the exposing of the body of Ai’s king but its being taken down before nightfall. That is in obedience to instructions given in Deuteronomy 21. In fact it is not too much to say that Joshua is in a very real sense the theology of Deuteronomy in historical narrative, the outworking of the theological and spiritual vision of Deuteronomy in the life of Israel.

We have already noted on a number of occasions that Joshua is not only telling us what happened when Israel invaded the Promised Land, but teaching us, by that narrative, the fundamental principles of the gospel, the way of salvation, and the Christian life. The church has always understood this. It is not a controversial point. Certainly not in the Reformed Church where it has always been understood that the message of the Bible is fundamentally the same from beginning to end. Deuteronomy can be called the Romans of the Old Testament precisely because the theology and ethics one finds in both books are the same!

What both Deuteronomy and Joshua and, for that matter, Romans and the rest of the New Testament, teach is the way of salvation. How is victory achieved? How do men and women, boys and girls, take possession of the Promised Land? Well, the answer is by the grace or gift of God received by faith.

There is both a divine dimension and a human dimension of the way of salvation. You find that fact face up on virtually every page of the Bible, but it is a particularly noteworthy emphasis in Joshua. We had occasion to notice it already on several occasions, but it is particularly prominent here in Joshua 8. There is that God must do; there is that we must do. And it is this interplay between the divine and the human in salvation that has caused all the trouble through the Christian ages. After the triune life of the one living and true God and the existence of two natures in the one person of God the Son, this interplay between the divine and the human in salvation is the theological problem of the Christian faith.

Consequently, it was altogether predictable that there would be Christian thinkers and preachers who would answer the question, this most fundamental question in different ways: why is one person saved and another not? What finally makes the difference? Sometimes it seems perfectly clear that God is waiting upon man to decide for or against him. As we read the Lord saying to Israel in Deuteronomy 30:19-20:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life…”

And so it is in the New Testament as well. Paul in Romans 10:9-13 is typical.

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.…everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

No wonder, then, that so many in the history of Christendom have concluded that it is the man himself, the exercise of the human will that makes the ultimate difference. Why is one man saved and another not? Because one man believed and the other did not. In the case of the battle of Ai, this seems to be a fact much in evidence. Achan did not believe the word of God and his actions proved his unbelief. And he was condemned and excluded from the Promised Land. The rest of the nation trusted Yahweh and gained the Promised Land. Surely in these two chapters it is obvious that great emphasis falls on the difference between the choice Achan made, the exercise of his will, and the choice the rest of Israel made.

But, of course, as you well know, that is hardly all the Bible says in answer to this question. We read in Deuteronomy 4:37 of God’s particular love for Israel and his redemption of them alone; in Deut. 7:4-8 and often thereafter of God’s election of Israel to be his very own people; throughout Deuteronomy we read of Israel’s penchant for unbelief and unfaithfulness, and in 30:6 that God himself must change his people’s hearts so that they will love and follow him.

And you know enough of the argument of Romans to know of how emphatically Paul teaches that salvation is God’s gift to the undeserving, that it was accomplished by Christ without regard to the exercise of man’s will, that it requires God’s mighty work transforming the heart, that it is a gift given to those whom God has chosen, and that it is God himself who makes from the same lump of clay vessels for honor and vessels for dishonor.

There are so many such statements in the Word of God that it was inevitable as well that there would be those who concluded that salvation ultimately rests not on the exercise of the human will but on the exercise of the divine will; on the action of God not that of man. We, here at Faith Presbyterian, fall into this latter group of Christians.

However, there are variations of that second position, known in the history of Christian theology as Calvinism or the Reformed Faith. Because the doctrine of sovereign grace — that salvation is God’s gift, God’s work, and God’s achievement from start to finish — is taught in the Bible so emphatically and so beautifully, because it is a doctrine that so wonderfully glorifies God in his grace and his power, it often gains a captivating hold on the Christian heart and mind. I don’t know how many Christian people I have met through the years who, like Charles Spurgeon, say that when they discovered the doctrines of divine grace, “I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man — that I had [found]…the clue to the truth of God.” [Spiritual Autobiography, vol. 1, 164-165]

But as a result of the mesmerizing effects of these great truths there have been Calvinists through the ages who have tended to ignore or minimize the human dimension of salvation, which is also emphatically taught in the Bible. These people have often been called hyper-Calvinists. Though that term has a more technical meaning, it is more popularly used to describe people who are so enamored of God’s sovereign grace that they have a great deal of difficulty finding much room for the exercise of the human will in the outworking of salvation. We have such people today in our Presbyterian Church in America. They may not be theological hyper-Calvinists, but they are practical hyper-Calvinists. They talk endlessly about grace but find little time to discuss what the Bible teaches on virtually its every page: viz. the personal responsibility of human beings for their salvation and their Christian life.

The best sort of Calvinists, however, have always been those who, in faithfulness to the Word of God, and no matter the difficulty this poses for creating a neat and logically coherent system of theology, have recognized that, God’s sovereign grace notwithstanding, the human element must be given its due and the exercise of the human will in salvation and the Christian life must not be ignored. As one scholar said of John Calvin, himself the patron saint, as it were, of Reformed theology: (This is a somewhat complex quotation but listen carefully, you’ll get the point.)

“One of the most interesting and striking general features of Calvin’s work, both systematic and exegetical, arises with regard to the problems of the limited clarity of the revelation in Scripture, and the limited powers of comprehension of the believer. This feature is the predominance of single themes which stand out in their individualistic clarity [for example, both the sovereignty of God and the free will and responsibility of man], as over against the numerous systematic inconsistencies that arise because the systematic interrelationship of the themes is relegated by Calvin to the status of incomprehensibility. Doctrines that are clear in themselves, but logically incompatible with one another, are placed side by side because Calvin finds them so in Scripture.” [I don’t think, by the way, that “logically incompatible” is the best way to describe the situation we find either in the Bible or in Calvin’s theology. These themes are compatible enough; they exist in perfect consistency with all truth in God’s mind; but our minds are too small to be able to grasp how they are compatible with one another.]

“When Calvin’s theology is looked at as a logical system, he is seen to have developed the doctrine of the omnipotence of God into a complete determinism, while at the same time maintaining with equal vigor a contradictory doctrine of the responsibility of the individual.” [Again, I don’t think “contradictory doctrine” is quite right. They may appear contradictory, but Calvin never believed they were in actual conflict.] [Dowey, The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, 37-38]

As this scholar concludes:

“Calvin then was completely convinced of a high degree of clarity and comprehensibility of individual themes of the Bible, but he was also so utterly submissive before divine mystery as to create a theology containing many logical inconsistencies rather than a rationally coherent whole. …he never conceived of his theological task as an effort to harmonize the deeper paradoxes of Scripture or to explain what he regarded as its central mysteries. Clarity of individual themes, incomprehensibility of their interrelation — this is a hallmark of Calvin’s theology.” [39-40]

Do you get his point? We know that Jesus is God and that he is a man. How is both at one and the same time we do not understand. We know that God must act to save us and that we must act to be saved. How the two actions relate to one another is much more difficult to explain. That loyalty, come wind, come weather, to the double emphasis we find in Holy Scripture has been the hallmark of the best of Reformed or Calvinistic theology ever since. Calvinist preachers have rung the changes on salvation as the free gift and the achievement of God, doing for unworthy and incapable sinners what they would they would never want to do or be able to do of themselves. But they have also rung the changes on the absolute responsibility of every human being who hears the gospel to respond in faith and obedience or else suffer the consequences. They have credited God with our salvation from beginning to end and in all the links of the chain but they have encouraged men and women to believe in order that they may be saved and have warned them that if they do not believe they will have no one to blame but themselves for failing to reach the Promised Land. As I have often told you, Rabbi Duncan, the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian missionary and theologian, was only being true to the central emphases of Reformed theology when he said, “That God works half and man the other half is false; that God works all, and man does all is true.” [Just a Talker, 5]

Now, what does all of that have to do with Joshua 8? Well this. As I said at the outset this section of Joshua presents this characteristic tension between the divine and the human in salvation in a very typical way. We’ve already witnessed the divine power giving Israel the victory at Jericho. She didn’t take the city; God did. The victory was his: that was the whole point of the seven days of marching the ark of the covenant, the emblem of Yahweh’s presence with Israel around the city. But one man wanted what he wanted and took some of the treasure. The result was that Israel was defeated before Ai. Once she had been restored to God’s good graces we are back where we were before. The chapter begins with the summary statement of the Lord:

“I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land.”

Yahweh does not say, “I will give it to you if you do this or that.” The deed is done. The tense of the verb is past. What is more, the Lord tells Joshua how the battle is to be fought. The army is to feign an attack on the city, feign retreat, and draw the enemy away from the city so that it might be burned by the part of the army lying in ambush. We do not overhear the Lord giving Joshua all those explicit instructions, but his command to attack from ambush in v. 2 strongly suggests that the rest of the plan of battle was likewise from the Lord.

The walls of Ai did not come tumbling down. Nothing like that would happen again in Israel’s conquest of Canaan, but it is as clearly stated here as it was in the case of Jericho that the Lord had given Ai into Israel’s hand. This part of the Promised Land was also Yahweh’s gift to his people. When they hadn’t the Lord on their side, they got whipped and sent back to camp with their tails between their legs. With the Lord on their side, their victory was complete; none of the enemy remained alive.

On the other hand, we have all of this action on the part of Israel. We have her scrupulous obedience to the orders that Yahweh had given her, we have her going into battle, sacking the town and defeating the army of Ai and Bethel in the open field.

What is more, we have Joshua with his hand raised holding his sword or javelin throughout the entire battle. In the previous case, if you remember, when Moses raised his hands during Israel’s battle with the Amalekites, as soon as his strength began to flag and his hands began to drop the battle turned against Israel. But when Aaron and Hur held up his hands for him, Israel prevailed. Here the battle did not last so long and Joshua was, perhaps, a younger man than Moses had been, but the point is the same. The raised hand was an emblem of Israel’s confidence in Yahweh to give her the victory; it was an embodied prayer, a calling upon the Lord. We may safely assume that had Joshua ignored the Lord’s command to raise his hand, the battle would have turned against Israel in just the same way it had in Moses’ day.

There is a great deal of Israel’s will and Israel’s action in Joshua 8. Indeed, and this is what drew my attention to this in the first place, the account of the battle at Ai is considerably more detailed than the account of any other battle in the conquest of Canaan. The emphasis falls on what Israel did to win this victory. It is not the case the city fell of its own accord by the power of God. At Jericho Israel had only to mop up after the Lord had rendered the city defenseless. Here Ai was taken and burned and Israel fought a battle. True they didn’t have to surmount the walls of the city, but that was because of the clever plan with which they went into battle and no doubt to some degree because of the confidence of the men of Bethel and Ai that having beaten Israel once they could do it again. They fought in obedience to the directions the Lord had given them, but those Israelite soldiers were no doubt exhausted at the end of the day, some of them were bloody with wounds, and, so far as we know, some of them had been killed in action. We are never told that Israel lost no one in these engagements; that all the casualties were on the other side.

So what we find in Joshua 8 is what we find in Deuteronomy and in Romans: the unqualified assertion that salvation is of the Lord, it is his achievement, his gift, and solely the result of his work and the unqualified assertion that salvation comes to pass when men and women choose life by putting their trust in the Lord and acting accordingly. Not one or the other but both at the same time.

And the more one thinks about this, certainly the more I have thought about this through the years — and the Bible forces us to think about it a great deal — the more obvious it becomes to me that both statements are true, even if I cannot easily reconcile them to one another in some neat system of biblical teaching.

Every honest Christian knows very well that God has done for him or her what he or she could not have done for himself or herself: not only the cross of Jesus and his resurrection, but the changing of the heart, the granting of faith. It was an Arminian, a free-willer if you will; a man who was sure that the ultimate arbiter of salvation was the human will, who believed that the Bible teaches that faith is and must be the unfettered act of the human will and not the gift of God, who nevertheless wrote of his own coming to faith in Christ:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

Which prompted Rabbi Duncan’s jest: “What’s become of your free-will now, friend?” [Just a Talker, 123]

What is more, every Christian will admit that we pray to a God who has the whole world and everything in the world in his hands. Joshua certainly did not raise his arm because he hoped Yahweh could grant him the victory, because he hoped the Lord would be true to his promise. He raised his arm and looked to God because that is where the salvation of Israel came from. I know myself far too well and the Bible far too well to imagine that my salvation, my entrance to heaven, depended upon my decision at the beginning or my steadfastness along the way. The Lord is my rock and my salvation!

On the other hand, it is also perfectly obvious to me that I must believe, continue to believe in the word and the promise and the achievement of God in Jesus Christ and that I must continue to live in keeping with what God has said and done. I know that intuitively but I also know it as the emphatic teaching of the Bible.

I see how right it is for me to give all glory to God for my salvation and to take with utmost seriousness my responsibility to trust and obey. Not one or the other; both together. Indeed, the more I think about this, the more obvious it becomes to me that I wouldn’t want it to be any other way! I don’t want to take any credit for my salvation; the thought is abhorrent to me as both utterly untrue and as utter and callous ingratitude. But I don’t want God’s great gift to me in any way to become an excuse for indolence or indifference or useless living on my part. Perfect salvation is God’s grace and my response of faith and obedience.

That is how Israel took the Promised Land and that is howeveryone takes it still today!