The Conquest of Ai

Reading: Joshua 7-8
It's nearly Christmas. All around us are the signs of celebration. The decorations are up. The strains of "Rudolph" and "Jingle Bells" greet us on every side. Sometimes a traditional carol about the birth of Jesus blends into the general invitation to get right into the celebration, while the cash registers ring out a merry note that cheers the hearts of management and accountant alike.

It's nearly Christmas. In a week the schools will all be out. Families will be flooding, not only the shops, but the roads and the camping areas and the beaches and the rocks... It's a special family time. By plane and bus they will come - so that they can be together again. And where the reunion cannot be happen, plans are already made for an extra special Christmas telephone call.

It's nearly Christmas - and the postman called yesterday! Saturday! The volume of mail has increased dramatically as greetings and well-wishes fly around the country and the world!

Yet in so many ways it is a sadder world. We are such achievers and such failures. We are so convinced that we can do everything we turn our hands to, and yet we are so floored by our patent inability to be successful in the basics of life.

Christmas is a celebration - but what are we trying to celebrate? Have we lost the plot? We love a celebration, but have we missed the whole point?

The Battle of Jericho

There were some important lessons that the Israelites under Joshua's leadership had to learn - and they seemed to be learning well!

Remember the disagreement among the spies that Moses had sent out? The ten spies insisted, "We are not strong enough to attack them; the people there are more powerful than we are" (Num.13.31). Was that an accurate assessment of their situation? Yes, it was! They then began to spread a false report (which contradicted their first report of the fruitfulness of the land). They started to say that "the land doesn't even produce enough to feed the people who live there" (v.32). If I was the captain of an army, I don't think I would be very worried. I would feel very confident of overcoming a people that didn't have enough food. Obviously their statement didn't make sense!

When Caleb had said, "We should attack now and take the land; we are strong enough to conquer it" (v.30), he was not assessing the comparative military strength and experience of the two sides. We listen to what Joshua and Caleb said to the people, "The land we explored is an excellent land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will take us there and give us that rich and fertile land. Do not rebel against the Lord and don't be afraid of the people who live there. We will conquer them easily. The Lord is with us and has defeated the gods who protected them; so don't be afraid" (vv.7-9).

Notice what they are insisting. There is a condition - "If the Lord is pleased with us" - the assumption is that they are living in a right relationship to the Lord. But notice that they are saying that the Lord will do it - "He will take us there and give us that rich and fertile land… The Lord is with us and has defeated the gods who protected them..." Notice that! "The Lord is with us and has defeated the gods who protected them."

But in fear the people had held back at Kadesh-Barnea. For forty years they had not taken possession of the land the Lord had promised to give them. In fact, that generation of unbelieving people had to die out.

But then, under Joshua's leadership, we read (6.2), "I am putting into your hands Jericho with its king and all its brave soldiers." God is saying, "I am giving you this place." That didn't mean that they didn't have to do something about it to take possession of the land. But the Lord is saying, "I am putting the place into your hands." We notice that the Covenant Box (the Ark of the Covenant) is to go ahead of them, as a sign that the Lord is going ahead of them, that he is giving them the victory. In verses 16-19 we hear Joshua saying to them, "The Lord has given you the city! The city and everything in it must be totally destroyed as an offering to God... But you are not to take anything that is to be destroyed; if you do, you will bring trouble and destruction on the Israelite camp. Everything made of silver, gold, bronze, or iron is set apart for the Lord. It is to be put into the Lord's treasury." And, of course, Jericho fell and the end of chapter 6 records (v.27), "So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread through the whole country." And that was the secret - the Lord was with Joshua!

Defeat at Ai

But we are moving on. We don't just stop there at Jericho. It is such a small distance. They still have the whole land to go. They have made a good beginning and Ai isn't very far away. In modern terms, you would be there in a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes without any trouble at all. It's just down the road, and those people at Ai will have been well prepared with the news of what has happened at Jericho.

But we read at the beginning of chapter 7, "The Lord's command to Israel not to take from Jericho anything that was to be destroyed was not obeyed. A man named Achan disobeyed that order, and so the Lord was furious with the Israelites" (v.1a). apparently Joshua and the others didn't understand this at that time. The Lord didn't immediately express his fury or say to Joshua, "There's something you have got to do..." It was only as they set out to conquer Ai that they discovered that there was a problem.

"Joshua sent some men from Jericho to Ai, a city east of Bethel, near Bethaven, with orders to go and explore the land. When they had done so, they reported back to Joshua: 'There is no need for everyone to attack Ai. Send only about two or three thousand men. Don't send the whole army up there to fight; it is not a large city.' So about three thousand Israelites made the attack, but they were forced to retreat. The men of Ai chased them from the city gate as far as some quarries and killed about thirty-six of them on the way down the hill. Then the Israelites lost their courage and were afraid" (vv.2-5).

Let's think about this situation and realise that they had such a wonderful victory at Jericho. What was the secret of the victory at Jericho? The Lord was with them! What is part of the secret of the Lord being with them? That they be "with the Lord". In the earlier experience, Joshua and Caleb had said, "If the Lord is pleased with us..." If we are right with him, then we can be sure and confident that he is with us.

But something had happened. There had been disobedience and we realise that the disobedience of one person affects the whole nation. That doesn't seem fair, does it? But this theme, by the way, is picked up in the book of Ezekiel and dealing with the whole question that it is the soul that sins that will die (18.20). That is true, but there are other people who suffer, as the Ten Commandments remind us - "I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation. But I show my love to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my laws" (Ex.20.5b,6). Those of us who are parents know that the choices that we make affect our children in lots of ways. The choices of grandparents and great-grandparents to move to Australia has affected all of us. The choices of some parents to bring their children along to be part of the family of God will affect their lives and we know that it will affect their lives most profoundly when it is accompanied by the strong and deep faith that they see in their parents while they are growing up. There are many ways in which what we do affects someone else.

This was certainly very graphically experienced by the Israelites on this occasion. Even though it was only one man! These things happened as a particular warning that what one person does can affect the whole group.

So we see from v.6 that "Joshua and the leaders tore their clothes in grief, threw themselves to the ground before the Lord's Covenant Box, and lay there till evening, with dust on their heads to show their sorrow. And Joshua said, 'Sovereign Lord! Why did you bring us across the Jordan at all? To hand us over to the Amorites? To destroy us? Why didn't we just stay on the other side of the Jordan? What can I say, O Lord, now that Israel has retreated from the enemy? The Canaanites and everyone else in the country will hear about it. They will surround us and kill every one of us! And then what will you do to protect your honour?' " (vv.6-9).

This is a real situation! This is real life! And we can reflect that Joshua has some of the feeling that the other Israelites had when they said, We can't go in and take possession of this land! It would be better if we went back to Egypt, if we suffered under slavery, under the harsh treatment back in Egypt. It would be much better than going forward and taking possession of the land that the Lord is giving. Joshua has something of that feeling within his spirit as he comes before the Lord. It is no empty thing. And sometimes, by the way, when we are praying for people, how we need to feel what they are feeling. We find it much easier to "rejoice with those who rejoice" than we do to "weep with those who weep"! We need to feel the real burden that Joshua felt for the whole people, not just for himself, but for the whole nation that he was leading.

And the Lord said to Joshua, "Get up! Why are you lying on the ground like this? Israel has sinned! They have broken the agreement with me that I ordered them to keep. They have taken some of the things condemned to destruction. They stole them, lied about them, and put them with their own things. This is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies. They retreat from them because they themselves have now been condemned to destruction! I will not stay with you... (notice those words!) I will not stay with you any longer unless you destroy the things you were ordered not to take! Get up! Purify the people and get them ready to come before me..." (vv.10-13).

And that is what they had to do. Before they entered upon the battle of Jericho, they had to purify themselves before the Lord. They had to indicate - all of them - that they were truly and wholly committed to the Lord. So now because there was just one person (they didn't know that yet) who had been disobedient, there was defeat for the Lord's people.

So Joshua brought them forward tribe by tribe until finally they got down to Achan, the son of Carmi and grandson of Zabdi. Joshua said to him, "My son, tell me the truth here before the Lord, the God of Israel, and confess. Tell me now what you have done. Don't try to hide it from me" (v.19).

And Achan confesses, "It's true. I have sinned against the Lord, Israel's God, and this is what I did. Among the things we seized I saw a beautiful Babylonian cloak, about two kilograms of silver, and a bar of gold weighing over a kilogram (In today's reckoning that would be worth a great deal!). I wanted them so much that I took them. You will find them buried inside my tent, with the silver at the bottom" (vv.20-21). And they found it to be so. And so Achan and his family and possessions were destroyed (v.25). To us that can seem so unjust - it should have just been Achan! Yet is was Achan and his whole family who suffered and were destroyed together with those things that should not have been taken.

The Victory over Ai

Now we hear the Lord saying to Joshua, "Take all the soldiers with you and go on up to Ai." They are to regard the Lord as the one who is commanding and directing them. They are not to assume that they have all wisdom - we've won the battle of Jericho, we know how to do all this now! Isn't that the problem we sometimes have in Christian work? - the assumption that because the Lord has done something in our midst we know how to do it now, Lord! We have had a Healing and Wholeness weekend. Now we know all that. We don't have to go back to the Lord for that. We can just do the ministry! But the Lord is saying, "I am the commander of the Lord's army, I am the one to whom you need to look, it is the wholeheartedness and purity of your relationship with me in every part of your life that is the key!"

"Don't be afraid or discouraged. I will give you victory over the king of Ai; his people, city, and land will be yours. You are to do to Ai and its king what you did to Jericho and its king..." That doesn't mean they were to march around the city seven times - the tactics were different. "...but this time you may keep its goods and livestock for yourselves. Prepare to attack the city by surprise from the rear" (8.1-2).

So they set up an ambush. Thirty thousand of his best troops were sent out at night with these orders, "Hide on the other side of the city, but not too far away from it; be ready to attack. My men and I will approach the city. When the men of Ai come out against us, we will turn and run, just as we did the first time. They will pursue us until we have led them away from the city. They will think that we are running away from them, as we did before. Then you will come out of hiding and capture the city. The Lord your God will give it to you. After you have taken the city, set it on fire, just as the Lord has commanded. These are your orders" (vv.4-8). That is what happened, and so Ai was defeated.

"Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord the God of Israel" - probably about thirty kilometres or so, near the ancient city of Shechem. "He made it according to the instructions that Moses, the Lord's servant had given to the Israelites...; 'an altar made of stones which have not been cut with iron tools.' On it they offered burnt sacrifices to the Lord and they also presented their fellowship-offerings" (vv.30-32). "The Lord's servant Moses had commanded them to do this when the time came for them to receive the blessing. Joshua then read aloud the whole Law, including the blessings and the curses, just as they are written in the book of the Law. Every one of the commandments of Moses was read by Joshua to the whole gathering, which included women and children, as well as the foreigners living among them" (vv.33c-35).

So we are coming to Christmas. We may well wonder what the story about the defeat and victory at Ai may have to do with Christmas.

It is important for us as part of the Australian community… Don't we make the assumption that we know it all? That is part of the problem of the whole Australian community. We believe that we don't need God, that we are clever enough without God. So Christians go to church and pray to God. Well that's fair enough ! Let them do it! But even Christians, in going to church, can feel, "We know how to live the Christian life! We can do this whole thing! We have learnt it now!" And God is saying, "It is your relationship with me that is central, that is the key. Never think that you can just go out on your own and win the victory. And always remember to keep your heart and life pure."

I believe that is what we need as Christian people and as Australian people at this time.


© Peter J. Blackburn, Maroochydore Uniting Church, 11 December 1994
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

Back to Sermons