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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

Joshua 8





Ai is taken by stratagem; its king hanged, and the city burned with fire; Joshua builds an altar between Ebal and Gerizzim, and there reads the blessings and curses enjoined by Moses.

Before Christ 1451.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. Lay thee an ambush for the city, behind it That is, to the west; for the camp of Gilgal was to the east of Ai. It is asked here, by some, "How happens it that God, who, by his infinite power, could so easily destroy Ai and its inhabitants, should make use of artifice and stratagem to procure victory to the Hebrews? The pagans themselves (they add) judged such arts unworthy of men of courage; (see for examples, Grotius de Jure B. & P. l. iii. c. 1. sect. 20.) and they seem beneath the greatness of the Almighty." But how weak is this manner of talking? Is God always obliged to work miracles, because he is able? And why does it seem more improper for him to have ordered an ambuscade to encompass the men of Ai, than to have set apart seven days for overturning the walls of Jericho, with so many ceremonies? He could, without striking a blow, have suddenly mowed down all the Canaanites, and opened to his people an entrance into Palestine, without their meeting the least opposition: but, had he chosen this method, he would neither have displayed his power by that vast number of miracles which he wrought, nor made the Israelites pass through trials that were expedient to their holiness and happiness.

Verses 3-9

Ver. 3-9. So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, &c.— Joshua first detached from his army thirty thousand men, and charged them to go in the night-time and lie in ambush on the west side of Ai, at a convenient distance; while, on his part, by break of day, he advanced with all his troops, and appeared before the town, in order to draw out from thence the garrison, which, doubtless, had no idea that the whole army followed. He then informed the officers who commanded the detachment, that, in this case, he would flee, in order to mislead the king of Ai; that then they were to quit their ambush on the signal which he should give them, (ver. 18.) enter Ai, set fire to some houses, to inform him of their success; and in all things punctually obey these instructions as orders delivered from God.

Verse 10

Ver. 10. Joshua—numbered the people That is to say, he ordered the officers to see if all their men were ready, and to begin their march by day-break, accompanied by the heads of their tribes, or judges of the people, who served him as his council of war, and were authorized, by their calling, to assist him with their advice when necessary.

Verse 11

Ver. 11. And came—and pitched on the north side of Ai Those who came with Joshua were all the people of war who were with him; i.e. evidently the bulk of the army, in opposition to the thirty thousand men who had been detached in the night-time. It was about three leagues from Gilgal to Ai. See Calmet. The army at noon might be over against this latter town, having only the valley to cross to reach the high places on which it was situated. But Joshua clearly conducted it in such a manner, that it was concealed by mountains which lay on that side, and which covered their march from the sight of the men of Ai.

Verse 12

Ver. 12. And he took about five thousand men Besides the thirty thousand men whom Joshua had sent off, he detached five thousand more, either to inforce the former, or to guard the defiles, and shut up passages against those who fled. See Le Clerc and Calmet. We cannot help owning, however, that all this is far from being clear. It is reckoned, that six hundred thousand fighting men would only have occasioned perplexity on this occasion; that Joshua took only thirty thousand chosen men for this expedition; that of these thirty thousand men he detached five thousand, who, making a turn from the north to the south, by way of the east, posted themselves in the nighttime as near as possible to Ai, while the general passed that night with the twenty-five thousand men remaining, and did not advance till the morrow. Or else, some conjecture, with Calvin, that the five thousand men, who had lain in ambush under favour of the dark, formed a detachment separate from that of the thirty thousand men, who did not march till the morrow. If these accounts do not appear so wholly conformable to the text as the other, they seem to have greatly the advantage in point of arrangement. It is left to the reader to form his judgment of them. We shall only observe, that an ambuscade of thirty thousand men must have been very strong; and that the reason alleged by Bishop Patrick, to prove that the whole army of Israel marched before Ai, appears not to be substantial. "It was," says he, "in order that all the Israelites might partake of the spoil:" but then this learned prelate had forgotten what he judiciously observes elsewhere; (see Numbers 31:25; Numbers 31:54.) namely, that those who remained in the camp had a suitable proportion of the booty, as well as those who were commanded on an expedition; and that God himself had ordered matters in this manner.

Verse 13

Ver. 13. And when they had set the people, &c.—on the north Or, on the north-east. The meaning here is, that the whole army of Israel posted itself to the north or northeast of Ai, in the mountains, while the thirty or thirty-five thousand men in ambush turned behind the city to the west, and all these troops remained in this position the rest of the day and the night following: or else, this verse must be considered to express briefly what follows; namely, that Joshua, who went in the night from his camp at Gilgal at the head of thirty thousand men, took his station to the north of Ai, in a valley, where he lay under covert; that the skirt of one of his wings turned off west of the place, and that from thence he sent the five thousand, who also went and lay in ambush on the west, but lower down, between Ai and Beth-el. Now we may very well suppose, that all this was done in one night. Joshua went out in the evening; when he came to the place where he had determined to stop, and whence he detached the five thousand men, it was dark night; but after taking some little repose, he renewed his march before day, and, the day breaking, the enemy perceived and attacked them.

Verse 15

Ver. 15. And Joshua and all Israel, &c.— As soon as the king of Ai appeared in the field, Joshua executed his plan; he caused his men to give ground, who fled (as Mr. Chais renders it) towards the wilderness, or to the plain which separated Ai from Jericho, as if afraid to face the garrison.

Verse 18

Ver. 18. And the Lord said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear, &c.— The Hebrew word כידון kidon, signifies a shield; and so several interpreters, particularly the Vulgate, render it. Bochart, however, has shewn, that it also signifies a lance, or pike, at the top of which Joshua had fixed a streamer, to make it a standard, that the whole army might observe it, and that it was, in fact, so observed; that is, as a signal, to rally those who feigned flight; immediately determining the liers in ambush to rise, and march strait on to Ai. Probably, as this signal was beforehand agreed upon, and as God himself had given Joshua orders respecting it, the historian, who only mentions it in this place, speaks of it as if given by God at the very moment of execution. Accordingly, he stretched forth the spear, turning himself towards Ai. So formerly Moses, during the famous battle against Amalek, lifted up his rod in the sight of the Israelites, to assure them of victory.

Verse 19

Ver. 19. And the ambush arose quickly, &c.— Some find it difficult to understand how they could perceive Joshua stretch out his standard, as they must have been at a very great distance, and among the neighbouring mountains. Masius answers, that they were divinely informed of it. We may add, that, Joshua having settled with them respecting this signal, they had posted persons to observe it, and inform them either by sound of trumpet, or otherwise. On their entrance into Ai, finding no resistance, they set fire to some houses in it, so situated that the smoke might be most easily discerned by the army.

REFLECTIONS.—We may here observe, 1. The conduct and prudence, the courage and caution, of the general. The ambush is regulated by his orders; he is by night in the valley, probably to choose the proper place for their concealment, perhaps to be alone with God in prayer for success. Not dismayed at the former defeat, he advances with confidence; by retiring secures the victory, and when the prey is in the net, lifts up that spear which never rested from slaughter, whilst one man remained alive. Note; (1.) To spend part of the night in prayer is highly needful, when the next morning leads to the field of battle. (2.) The Lord Jesus Christ, by yielding for a moment in his humiliation, triumphed thus more gloriously, when, on a resurrection-day, he turned back upon his enemies, and led captivity captive. (3.) They who have drawn the sword against their spiritual enemies, must cast away the scabbard, and only expect rest and victory in the grave. 2. The infatuation of Israel's enemies. Intoxicated by success, they kept neither scouts to discover the ambush behind them, nor feared to advance to meet the approaching armies of Israel. When shouting already for anticipated victory, on the feint made to retire, lo, the flames ascend behind them; their foes halt, face about, and attack with fury irresistible; whilst they, dismayed, have neither power to fight, nor opportunity to fly. Note; (1.) The prosperity of fools destroys them. (2.) The enemies of God's people often promise themselves to glut their fury in their destruction, when they are only madly advancing to their own ruin. (3.) Security, and self-confidence in an evil way, are among the direst symptoms of a reprobate mind, and the surest presages of eternal misery. (4.) The triumphing of the wicked is but for a moment: in death, they shall lie down and perish for ever.

Verse 26

Ver. 26. Joshua drew not his hand back, &c.— He ceased not to fight spear in hand; or rather, he continued to hold up the standard to animate his troops to destroy the enemy, till they were all put to the sword.

Verse 28

Ver. 28. And Joshua burnt Ai, &c.— After giving up the city to plunder, according to the express command of God, Joshua caused it to be burnt to ashes, leaving there only a heap of stones, which was to be seen even to the time of writing this book. See ver. 11. 26. As to the expression an heap for ever, it is well known that it should not be understood in strictness. When the Hebrews say a thing will last for ever, it almost always signifies, that it will last a very long time, and nothing more. Thus we find that the city of Ai had been rebuilt, and was inhabited at the time of Esdras and Nehemiah. Ezra 2:28. Nehemiah 11:31.

Verse 29

Ver. 29. And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree An end worthy of a prince who, doubtless, had by his example encouraged his subjects to resist the commands of God, and so to fill up the measure of their guilt.

Until even-tide See the law, Deuteronomy 21:22-23.

The king of Ai alone survived the general slaughter, and he was only spared to meet a more ignominious doom. He is hanged in terrorem, that the kings of Canaan may hear and tremble; and on his corpse a monument is raised in the gate of the desolate city, to warn all beholders of the end of those who fight against God. Let wicked kings, who oppress God's people, still look to this heap, and remember that the same avenging God lives and reigns. The people of the city, to the number of twelve thousand, are sacrificed to the divine justice, and the spoil divided among the host, as an encouragement to them to go on boldly in fighting the Lord's battles. Note; They who endure hardships, as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, shall find to their comfort, that they who do his work shall reap his wages. The spear of Joshua now, like Moses's arm, is no longer lifted up. Note; In death, the believer shall no longer need to lift up the banner of war, nor to wield the sword of the spirit; but retire, to enjoy the fruit of his victories among the saints triumphant in the camp of the Lord of Hosts.

Verse 30

Ver. 30. Then Joshua built an altar—in mount Ebal This should be rendered, as we have observed on Deuteronomy 27. BY mount Ebal; and nothing can more clearly prove the truth of the interpretation there given, than the relation of the fact before us. The taking of Jericho and Ai made Joshua master of the adjacent country: he advanced northward to Sichem, and, with all the people, went and took possession of the mountains Ebal and Gerizzim, placed by some, improperly, between Ai and Beth-el; but which we have spoken of in the notes on Deuteronomy 27.

Verse 31

Ver. 31. And they offered thereon burnt-offerings, &c.— They renewed for the third time the covenant with God, as has been elsewhere observed. See on Deuteronomy 27:10.

Verse 32-33

Ver. 32, 33. And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law, &c.— See on Deuteronomy 27:3; Deuteronomy 27:26.

Verse 34-35

Ver. 34, 35. And afterward he read all the words of the law, &c.— i.e. He caused to be read. Houbigant. We have only a word to add to the remarks already made, respecting all these ceremonies, in the notes on Deuteronomy; which is, that the manner in which the sacred historian expresses himself in these two verses, appears much to favour their opinion, who think that only the blessings and curses, which Moses had commanded to be pronounced, were written upon the monument on mount Ebal: Joshua read, or caused to be read, all that he had written; or, as the text has it, all the words of the law. Now it is very evident, that he read only the blessings and curses above-mentioned; and not all the book of Deuteronomy, or the whole law, as many critics would insinuate. Thus it is evident, that he had only to write a duplicate of these blessings and curses, as they were contained in the law of Moses.

Before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, &c.— That is, without excepting women, children, or proselytes; because they ought all to know the law which they were bound to obey.

REFLECTIONS.—The introduction of this solemn transaction in the midst of the wars, intimates the diligence and zeal of the people to observe the divine institutions. Note; When most surrounded with dangers, we have greatest cause to mind the one thing needful, the securing an interest in the favour of God.

1. They built an altar, and offered sacrifice thereon, on mount Ebal, where the curses were pronounced, intimating, (1.) Their dependance upon that atonement, without which the curses that were written in the law must quickly overtake them to their ruin. Note; Nothing but the blood of Jesus can save any soul from the curse of the law. (2.) Their gratitude for God's mercy to them. They got not the land by their own sword; and the beasts they offered were the spoil He had given them. Note; [1.] We can only render to God of his own: all we possess is his. [2.] Yet God accepts the grateful offering; and they who acknowledge him in prayer and praise, shall find him prospering their ways with increasing blessings.

2. A solemn rehearsal was made of the blessings and curses, in the presence of all the people, great and small, half on mount Ebal, half on mount Gerizzim, with the ark, the priests, the Levites, the judges, and officers in the midst. After each sentence, they expressed their assent aloud, and their readiness to embrace that covenant under which they held possession of the land. Note; (1.) The word of God is given, not to be locked up from the common people, but to be heard and read of all men. (2.) The highest and the lowest are alike interested to hear and obey the divine command. In God's sight, the prince and the beggar are on a level; the soul that sinneth, it shall die. (3.) All God's commands, from the least to the greatest, are enjoined by the same authority: no sin so little, as not to be guarded by the awful sanction of the curse and wrath of God. (4.) Masters of families must see that all under their roof, who are able to understand, seriously attend the house of God, and hear his word read and preached. (5.) It is thus that we may hope to receive the fulness of the promise in glory, when by grace, through faith, we are obedient to the divine commands on earth.


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Joshua 8:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.

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