Joshua chapter 8 is a great comeback story. Most of us enjoy a great comeback story. The pain and agony of defeat can be absolutely demoralizing. Defeat leaves you feeling numb, broken and confused. Who in their right mind likes to live in defeat?
Taking a look back at Joshua chapter 7 can be a lot like taking a look inside of a backpack full of defeat. Israel tried to defeat her enemies but instead she was handed a major loss because of some secret sin that hadn’t been dealt with properly. So God takes the initiative to deal with the sin and the sinner in a very horrific way. Achan, along with his entire family and everything he owned was destroyed because he and his family (by way of implication) had secretly held onto things that were supposed to be devoted for destruction (the robe) and devoted to the Lord (precious metals).
Achan withheld from the Lord what rightly belonged to the Lord and he also didn’t destroy what God called him to destroy. He stole from the Lord (like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) and he also refused to destroy what God commanded him to destroy (like the Israelites refusing to put away their sinful social injustice and idolatry throughout the prophetic books).
The consequence for this sin was that Achan paid the justified price for his crime. Achan knew the consequences of his actions and yet he took a chance that God wouldn’t catch him and it cost him and his family dearly not to mention the cost to the community around him, as they tasted defeat at the hands of their enemies in Ai. Victory could have been had but victory was snatched up in the jaws of defeat.
But the story isn’t over yet. Chapter 8 teaches us that: God initiates the victory (vss. 1 – 3), we must prepare for battle (vss. 4 – 13), we must engage the fight (vss. 14 – 23), and the mission has been accomplished (vss. 24 – 29).
Joshua 8:1 – 29
1 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. 2 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.”
3 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. 4 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. 5 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. 6 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. 7 Then you shall rise up from the ambush and seize the city, for the Lord your God will give it into your hand. 8 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.” 9 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. 10 Joshua arose early in the morning and mustered the people and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. 11 And all the fighting men who were with him went up and drew near before the city and encamped on the north side of Ai, with a ravine between them and Ai. 12 He took about 5,000 men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. 13 So they stationed the forces, the main encampment that was north of the city and its rear guard west of the city. But Joshua spent that night in the valley.
14 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 no know that there was an ambush against him behind the city. 15 And Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten before them and fled in the direction of the wilderness. 16 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. 17 Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel. They left the city open and pursued Israel. 18 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. 19 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. 20 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. 21 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. 22 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. 23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua.
24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. 26 But 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. 27 Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. 29 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 city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.
#1: God Initiates The Victory (vss. 1 – 2)
In chapter 7 God took the initiative to confront and to remove both the sin and the sinner from the community of Israel. This must have been a horrifying experience for the nation of Israel. What do you feel like after someone you’ve loved and trusted commits a crime of treason and then the truth comes out and they face the consequences? What do you feel like after you’ve committed a crime of treason and you get to face the consequences? Either way you feel hurt, angry, confused, fearful, defeated right?
But here’s the beautiful thing about the transition from chapter 7 to chapter 8. The same God, who takes the initiative to confront and remove both sin and sinner, is the same God who takes the initiative to bring victory out of defeat. God is the God who takes sin seriously. He is the one who initiates or takes action to eradicate the defeat of sin and give us the victory.
God doesn’t just hang around in the back room in silent mode after Israel’s defeat. Now the reality is that sometimes it’s important for us to feel the absence of God when we choose something other than God to be the fulfillment of our satisfaction. And I believe that even when God is silent because of our choices, that too is an intentionally active choice on God’s part for our betterment. But in this case, God’s not leaving Israel to lick her wounds in the dust of defeat for very long.
Just as God took the divine initiative to confront and punish the sin and the sinner in Israel’s midst (ch. 7), he takes the initiative to strengthen, encourage and spur Israel on towards victory. He takes the initiative and comes to Joshua and he instructs him not to live in fear or doubt because of the defeat and the discipline they’ve just experienced. He tells him to get up and grab all of the fighting men and lead them into battle against their enemies because God himself was giving them the victory just as he had at Jericho. The only major difference this time (as opposed to Jericho) is that Israel was allowed to take some of the spoils of war (vss. 1 – 2). God takes the initiative in our victory so we must prepare for battle.
#2: We Must Prepare For Battle (vss. 3 – 13)
As soon as God finishes speaking, Joshua grabs all of the fighting men of Israel and they begin to make preparations for the battle. He grabs 30,000 mighty brave men, the elders of Israel and the people of Israel and he orchestrates a masterful strategic attack on the city of Ai that centers on the appearance of defeat and an unseen ambush (vss. 3 – 5).
Joshua’s plan is to have some of his fighting men along with the elders and the people of Israel out in front of the city acting like they were going to attack the city which would draw the king and the people of Ai out for the battle. Then Joshua and his horde would flee and draw the entire city into chasing them down for a second defeat. Once the city is empty, the men who were hiding in the valley behind the city would come out of hiding, sneak into the city and light it on fire which, as we will see in the next section, becomes the signal for Joshua and his horde of fleeing people to turn around and begin fighting the enemy who is chasing them down (vss. 5 – 13; 21).
I think its important to note verses 7 – 8 of this section of text for a minute. Verses 7 – 8 say 7 you shall rise up from the ambush and seize the city, for the Lord your God will give it into your hand. 8 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. The reason I think these verses are important is because I believe they are the key to experiencing the comeback victory we witness in this story.
Here’s what I mean. The promise of verse 7 (for the Lord your God will give it into your hand) is the reason for the preceding command of verse 7 (you shall rise up from the ambush and seize the city). But that promise is not only the reason for the preceding command in verse 7, it also precedes the command for obedience in verse 8 (You shall do according to the word of the Lord). So if you are having trouble following me it sounds like this: Do this thing because I will give you victory and because I will give you victory go and do this thing.
The central thread of the promise of victory holds the commands of God’s Word together. Obedience without promise leads to legalism. Promise without obedience leads to license. But obedience that is motivated by the promise of victory, results in holiness and faithfulness. God is faithful to give us both the promise of victory and the instructions for walking in that victory. Our responsibility is to walk by faith and prepare for battle so we can engage the fight.
#3: We Must Engage The Fight (vss. 14 – 23)
Verse 14 tells us that as soon as the king of Ai saw that Israel was prepared for the fight, he and all of his people went out to meet Israel for battle. He had no clue that some of Israel’s army was hiding behind the city. So when Joshua and his horde that were in front of the city began to run like they were beaten, he chased after them which left the city empty and open for attack (vss. 14 – 17).
As soon as the city was open and empty the Lord instructed Joshua to lift up the javelin in his hand as a cue to carry out the destruction that had been commanded by the Lord. This episode is similar to Moses lifting up the staff in his hand at the command of the Lord for the parting of the Red Sea, which gave Israel the victory over Egypt. Just as the Red Sea stayed parted as long as Moses’ staff was raised, so too the destruction of Ai continued while Joshua’s staff was raised right up to the point where the king of Ai was brought before Joshua (vss. 18 – 23).
This historical account of Israel’s victory over Ai illustrates what complete trust in and obedience to the promises and the commands of the Word of God looks like. This fight was strategic, active and violent. This fight had to be engaged. Our fight against Satan, sin and worldly temptation must be engaged. It must be strategic, active and violent if we are going to engage the fight and accomplish the mission that God has given us.
#4: The Mission Has Been Accomplished (vss. 24 – 29)
These final verses tell us that the destruction of Ai and all its inhabitants was complete. There wasn’t a single person left alive in Ai. This was a mission of total annihilation. The king of the city wasn’t even allowed to live. Joshua hung the king on a tree until evening and then threw his dead body in the entrance of the city under a massive pile of rocks after massacring every human being in the city (vss. 24 – 29). Israel’s mission was accomplished. It was finished.
Now the same question that plagued us in chapter 6 also plagues us in chapter 8. Why would a good and loving God completely annihilate every human being in Jericho and Ai? This question makes a lot of professing Christians really uncomfortable and the answers given by many Christians range everywhere from passive to aggressive.
We either don’t engage at all or we try to win the fight by proving that we are right. We oftentimes fight the wrong fight and we lose the war. We fail to give an answer for the hope that lies within us with gentleness and respect. We fail to understand that the people who ask this question are living breathing human beings. They aren’t just rebellious millennials or brainwashed post moderns or hardheaded boomers or do-it-your-self modernists with a rebellious streak. So why would a good and loving God sanction the mass murder of every living human being from baby to elderly in these two cities?
Some people point to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts as a parallel illustration of God’s righteous judgment against sin that leads to the consequence of physical death. This isn’t a bad answer. But it always causes me to ask why Christians don’t give more generously then if this is true.
We rail against abortion and homosexuality and many other pet sins vehemently all over social media while excusing our greed and our lack of giving with some distortion of how the Old Testament teaching on giving doesn’t apply to us anymore or some distortion of grace that allows our greed. All while conveniently forgetting that Ananias and Sapphira were in the New Testament and Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of lying and stealing.
What were the babies in Jericho and Ai guilty of that warranted their death by Joshua’s sword? Were they just collateral damage? Innocents caught in the crossfire? I admit that at some levels I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that when I read these stories it’s hard for me to comprehend the communal nature of sin.
We oftentimes think of sin as an individual thing with individual consequences. But I think the reality is that sin is like cancer. It doesn’t just affect the arm or the foot or the lung. It eventually infects the entire body and causes the death of the entire body. So, is it possible that the entire communities of Jericho and Ai were completely infected with evil to the point that complete destruction was justifiable mercy and prevention of the spread of more evil?
My understanding according to historical accounts of these two cities is that the population was so far gone that they were practicing child sacrifice among other social atrocities. So could it be, that just like Noah’s flood, this was not an ethnic cleansing but a social cleansing? In other words, was the society so far gone that it was better to wipe it out and start over again? I suppose it’s possible. But it’s still hard to accept.
In my study of Joshua I’ve found that one of the theological themes throughout this book is that Joshua, the Israelites and even the Canaanites, all have a choice to make in regards to God’s promises, commands and presence. It is futile to resist and rebel against the promises, commands and presence of God.
One author observes this reality when he says that the physical extermination of the Canaanites (Josh. 6; 8) may serve best to point us to the truth that “the horrors of Gehenna (hell) will be no less than those of Jericho”; God will deal with and has dealt with all of our enemies (Satan, sin, the world and death) in a very serious, horrific and sobering way at the cross of Christ (Hamilton 2001: 37).
I can visualize Joshua standing at the edge of the city of Ai looking at the rubble, the smoke and the pile of rocks that covered the dead body of his enemy king. I can feel the tension of the feeling of satisfaction in victory and the sobering reality of God’s justified wrath against sin and injustice. I can feel the rush (for Joshua) of the comeback win over his enemy king that once proved too powerful for him. I can also feel the sobering chill of the serious threat of Satan, sin and worldly temptation that caused the destruction of both Jericho and Ai.
I know the mission has been accomplished at Ai and I can hear the echo of the words “It is finished. My mission is complete here.” God’s wrath against Satan, sin and the world is strategic, active and violent. And there’s no better place to see this then in the cross of Christ. Just as the evil king of Ai was hung on a tree to pay the justified price for his war against God as a symbol of God’s victory at Ai, so too, Jesus was hung on a tree as God’s sacrifice, symbolizing God’s complete victory over Satan, sin and the grave.
So God initiates the victory. We must prepare for battle. We must engage the fight. The mission has been accomplished. A major theme of Joshua chapters 7 – 8 is faith-filled obedience to the promises and the commands of God. Woven into that theme of trust and obedience is the theme of devotion. Some things are devoted to the Lord for absolute destruction (our sin) while other things are devoted to the Lord for honorable use (our time, talent, treasure).
The problem in the story and the problem for us is that we oftentimes keep hold of the things that God has devoted to destruction or we cling tightly to the things that God has devoted to the expansion of his kingdom. When we do this (cling tightly to things we ought not to have) we walk in defeat rather than victory. When we devote our thoughts, our bodies, our possessions, our time, our talents and our treasure to something other than the Lord then we walk in defeat.
The bad news is that victory is often snatched up in the jaws of defeat because of our disobedience. But the good news is that in Christ the jaws of defeat have been crushed and we’ve been given the victory. The cross of Christ appeared to be a defeat like Israel fleeing from Ai. Our hero died. But the reality is that Christ’s death is what wins us the victory and enables us to walk in victory. It’s the greatest comeback story to ever unfold.
I don’t know what you struggle with. I don’t know what kind of defeat you carry around in your backpack. I don’t know if its relational brokenness, unmet desires, personal failures, inner fears, physical limitations, doubt, shame, worry, lust, anger, un-forgiveness, woundedness, pride, insecurity, loneliness; these are the names of just a few of our enemies that stuff themselves into our backpacks and cause a sense of defeat that can be utterly crippling. And I don’t know which of those you feel defeated by today.
But I do know this. The cross of Christ is where all of our enemies go to die. The cross of Christ is where my old self goes to die. The cross of Christ is where my new self is enabled to live. The cross of Christ is where victory triumphs over defeat once and for all.
Without the cross of Christ my future looks no different than the king of Ai and the people of Ai paying the justified price for my sin and war against God. The moral of the Biblical story is always that without Christ I am identified with the villain of the story. I am king of Ai. I am Achan. I am the bad guy and the penalty for my sin is death.
But in the cross of Christ my future looks like Joshua and Israel standing victorious over my enemies and humbled by the truth that God has won this victory for me at the cross. This truth enables me to not only experience but also walk in victory because the cross of Christ is the greatest comeback story ever to unfold.