The problem of Ai is simply stated. The Bible tells us that an important battle in the Israelite conquest of Canaan occurred at Ai. After being defeated by the Canaanites of Ai once, the Israelites launched a second attack on Ai; this time they were victorious, destroying both the city and its inhabitants. However, extensive and sophisticated archaeological excavations have produced no evidence of human occupation at the site during the period when the Israelites supposedly settled in Canaan. In short, the evidence shows that there was no city at Ai for the Israelites to conquer.
The conquest of Ai was the second stop on Joshua’s military campaign into Canaan. According to the Bible, Jericho had already fallen—a victim of the trumpets. (But excavations at Jericho also present archaeological problems.) Ai was next. Joshua initially sent some spies to reconnoiter Ai. They reported that two or three thousand men should be able to conquer the city because it had so few people. The Israelites themselves organized an attack with 3,000 men. But these forces were routed by the men of Ai; 36 Israelites were killed (Joshua 7:2–5).
The confused Israelites then tried to understand why they had been defeated unexpectedly. By means of an elaborate procedure employing lots, a man named Achan (pronounced ah-KHAN) from the tribe of Judah was identified as having violated the ban on taking booty after the battle of Jericho (Joshua 6:18–19). Achan had secretly hidden spoil of a garment and gold and silver under his tent. The Lord thus explained why Israel had been defeated. Achan was executed. Once the evildoer was extirpated, a second battle of Ai was planned—this time by the Lord (Joshua 7:6–26).
The Bible describes the second battle plan and its execution in exquisite detail. During the night Joshua sent an ambush of 5,000 men to hide behind the city, between Ai and Bethel. In the morning, Joshua himself led a force of 30,000 in a direct march on the city. The king of Ai, anticipating another Israelite rout and unaware of the 5,000 Israelite troops waiting concealed somewhere behind the city, led his entire army out of the city to engage the Israelites commanded by Joshua. Joshua, feigning flight, turned tail and retreated, drawing the men of Ai further away from the city. At a prearranged signal, the 5,000 Israelites lying in wait behind the now defenseless city attacked and burned the city. The men of Ai looked back and saw their city in flames. Suddenly, the “fleeing” Israelites led by Joshua turned and became the pursuers. The Israelite ambush contingent, having burned the city, came out to attack the men of Ai from the other direction. The entire army of Ai was destroyed, crushed between the two Israelite contingents (Joshua 8:1–22). The inhabitants were killed, the city was burned, and the king was executed. He was then buried under a mound of rocks (Joshua 8:23–29).
Two major archaeological expeditions have been conducted at the site of Khirbet et-Tell, between Jericho and Bethel. The first was led by Judith Marquet-Krause in the 1930s, and the second by Joseph A. Callaway from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. The archaeological evidence adduced by these excavations is clear: During the period archaeologists call Early Bronze IB (c. 3100 B.C.–3000 B.C.), an unwalled village existed on the tell. Gradually, this village grew until it developed into a major walled city of 27.5 acres in Early Bronze IC (c. 3000 B.C.–2860 B.C.). This city was destroyed at the end of Early Bronze IIIB (c. 2550 B.C.–2350 B.C.), and the site remained unoccupied for more than 1,100 years.
No evidence whatever of a Middle Bronze Age (2200 B.C.–1500 B.C.) or a Late Bronze Age (1500 B.C.–1250 B.C.) settlement has been found at the site.
The top of the hill was resettled as a small, unwalled village at the beginning of Iron Age IA (c. 1220 B.C.–1125 B.C.). This village revealed two archaeological phases; the village was apparently once remodeled, as it were. The village was then abandoned towards the beginning of Iron Age IB (c. 1125 B.C.–1050 B.C.). There was no further ancient occupation of the site.
The Israelite conquest of Cisjordan, the territories west 059of the Jordan River, is generally thought by a majority of positivistica English, American and Israeli historians to have occurred in the 13th century B.C., destroying Canaanite cities at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Certainly the earliest phases of the conquest began no later than this. However, since there was no Late Bronze Age city at Khirbet et-Tell for Joshua’s army to destroy, a question arises: When did the battle of Ai take place?
One answer to the question could be to move back the date of the Israelite conquest to about 2300 B.C. and attribute the conquest and destruction of the Early Bronze Age walled city at Khirbet et-Tell to the Israelites. This, however, would create more historical and archaeological problems than it would solve. Most important, we would have to reject the generally accepted identification of the Biblical Israelites as that group whose distinctive 061new material culture emerged in the Iron Age in the central hill country of the Land of Israel; this Iron Age people’s chronological and spatial distribution is consistent with the Biblical picture of the Israelite pattern of settlement. In addition, if the Israelites had destroyed the Early Bronze Age city, they would have done so almost a millennium before the beginning of the Iron Age, at a time that many scholars assign to the patriarchal period rather than to the time of the conquest of Canaan.
The American Biblical archaeologist William F. Albright anticipated the question that excavation results at Khirbet et-Tell would pose to historians concerning the conquest of Ai. Even before the Marquet-Krause expedition in the 1930s, on the basis of a survey that collected pottery sherds on the surface of the tell, Albright wrote, “We are forced to conclude that Ai was destroyed centuries before the invasion of Israel under Joshua.”1
Albright provided an ingenious answer to the question. Not far from Khirbet et-Tell is the village of Beitin, the site of Bethel. There a major city was destroyed at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Albright suggested that the Ai story in the Bible was originally told about the Israelite destruction of the Late Bronze Age city at Bethel; sometime during the Iron Age, however, when Bethel was a thriving Israelite city and the nearby site of Khirbet et-Tell simply an impressive ancient ruin, the locus of the story was somehow transferred to the latter site, i.e., the battles took place at ancient Beitin but were told about et-Tell.2
Another way of resolving the question is to deny that the site I have been calling by its modern Arabic designation, Khirbet et-Tell, is the one designated by the Bible as Ai.3 In other words, ancient Ai has yet to be found.
However, all geographical indications in the Biblical text point to the area of Khirbet et-Tell as the location of Ai.
From various Biblical references, we know that Ai must be located east of and adjacent to Bethel (Joshua 7:2, 8:9, 12; Genesis 12:8). A mountain should be located between Ai and Bethel (Genesis 12:8). Ai’s territory borders that of Beth Aven (Joshua 7:2), which is a city on the northern border of Benjamin (Joshua 18:12). Ai is directly accessible from the Jericho area (Joshua 8:10). A wadi, or dry river bed, lies north of Ai; beyond the wadi is an area where a large military force 062could encamp (Joshua 8:11).
All these data have led scholars to search for Ai in the general environs of Deir Dibwan, a village east of the modern village Beitin. A number of ancient sites in this area have been considered as possible candidates for ancient Ai. All but Khirbet et-Tell have been rejected on archaeological grounds.4 Indeed, despite the chronological problems with Khirbet et-Tell, this site not only best accords with the attested geographical details of Ai’s location, but it alone has been shown archaeologically to have been settled in what may be loosely termed “the Biblical period.”b
Assuming the identification of et-Tell with Ai, the German Biblical scholar and historical geographer Martin Noth proposed a third answer to the historical question posed by the et-Tell excavations. According to Noth, the stories about the Israelite battles at Ai originated to explain the supposed etymology of Ai or, as the Bible always refers to it, “the Ai” (ha-‘Ai). Noth took the word Ai to mean “ruin” and the Biblical name to refer to “the ruin.” As I show in a footnote, the etymology of the word Ai negates any connection with a word meaning “ruin.” Etymologically, Ai does not refer to a ruin. In antiquity the name would have been pronounced ghay (guttural gh), which would not have been associated by an Israelite with his Hebrew word for “ruin,” ‘iy. The two words 063simply didn’t sound anything like each other. Arabic cognates suggest that the name g
Callaway, who excavated Khirbet et-Tell, has been impressed with the realism of the Biblical narrative; he has sought to answer the question provisionally by interpreting the first of the two building phases of the Iron Age city as being the Canaanite Hivite city of Ai conquered by the Israelites.5 Only the second phase, he says, was Israelite. Unfortunately, the slight ceramic evidence adduced in support of his suggestion has not been convincing. The single structure that may have been destroyed by fire during the first Iron Age phase of the city is not sufficient evidence for the capture and burning of Ai.6 Moreover, Callaway’s solution implies that the Israelite conquest of the site took place during the Iron Age, not the Late Bronze Age. This would disassociate the conquest of Ai chronologically from the assumed 064Israelite destruction of the Late Bronze Age cities of Bethel, Lachish and Hazor by more than a century.7
In the course of my visits to et-Tell, I have been struck by the astounding extent to which the topographic details of the battle of Ai stated or implied in the Biblical accounts can be identified on the ground at Khirbet et-Tell and the immediate vicinity.
The Bible tells us that a 5,000-man Israelite ambush force took up a position behind the city, between Ai and Bethel, west of Ai (Joshua 8:9). Directly west of Khirbet et-Tell is a hilly area containing a few prominent rises and deep ravines. This area west of the tell is connected to it by a low, narrow saddle. In this area, probably on its southern slope, the 5,000-man Israelite ambush force would not have been visible from the acropolis of Ai one half kilometer to the east. In this position, the Israelite ambush force could not have been detected from Bethel to the northwest, either. Topographical considerations would also require the Israelites to have moved into their positions in the area under cover of darkness to avoid 065being seen on the march. The Bible does in fact tell us that the ambush force moved stealthily at night (Joshua 8:3, 9).
The Bible tells us that the main Israelite force encamped in an area immediately to the north in sight of Ai with a wadi between it and Ai (Joshua 8:11). On the northern edge of Khirbet et-Tell, about 375 feet below the top of the tell is a wadi, or dry river bed.8 On the north rise of this wadi, opposite et-Tell, extending in an easterly direction, is a large, gently rolling hill. A large troop could have reached this hill unobserved by approaching it from Jericho through the Wadi el-Asas and wending its way up the northeastern side of the hill to the camp area. Assuming the presence of natural vegetation rising six to eight feet, as was probably the case throughout the early monarchy,c as well as movement at night, a completely unexposed position on the northeast side of the hill could have been achieved without discovery. According to the account in Joshua, the main Israelite force began the ascent toward Ai from the Jordan Valley during the early light hours (Joshua 8:10), but it must have assumed its position north of the city during the night (Joshua 8:14).
These striking topographical details reinforce the conclusion reached on general geographic considerations that et-Tell is to be identified with Ai. In fact, they guarantee that the Ai story in the Bible was told about Khirbet et-Tell.
They also disqualify Albright’s suggestion that the Ai story in the Bible originated in connection with the destruction of the Late Bronze Age city at Bethel and later was transferred to Ai; the topographical and geographical details of the Biblical description do not fit Bethel.
On the other hand, these geographical and topographical details do not prove that the Ai story actually occurred. They demonstrate only that the story was told as having occurred in a particular place that can be identified by geography and topography.
The excavations at Khirbet et-Tell, which we may now identify as the site which the Biblical author had in mind (and in his mind’s eye) when referring to Ai, provide further illumination of the Biblical narrative. Indeed, in light of the archaeological evidence, I conclude that the Ai story was told not against the background of the large Early Bronze Age city but of the small Iron Age village. Again, let me caution that this does not mean that the Ai story in the Bible is historically accurate; it means only that the story was told about the site as it existed in the Iron Age, a relatively small village built on the acropolis among the ruins and deserted buildings and plazas of an Early Bronze Age city that had been destroyed a thousand years earlier.
The Iron Age village of Ai covered only approximately 20 percent of the area occupied by the Early Bronze Age city; that is, this small village covered about 6 acres within the Early Bronze Age walls. Iron Age Ai was thus almost as large as the Iron Age villages at Tell en-Nasbe (8 acres, identified as Biblical Mizpeh) and at Tell Beit Mirsim (7.5 acres). The Israelite residents of the Iron Age village of Ai took advantage of the Early Bronze Age structures in the acropolis area, partitioning the palace and adding walls elsewhere to create spaces, structures and passages suitable to their purposes. In addition, they built typical Iron Age residences, dug cisterns and cobbled their streets.9
For defense, on the northwest, west and southwest sides of the village, where the sides of the tell were very steep, the Iron Age Israelite villagers used the semicircle of Early Bronze Age fortifications which had survived for more than a thousand years. On the east, where the approach to the acropolis was steep but gradual, the Israelite villagers added to their immediate defensive perimeter by constructing houses at the edge of their village so as to present a belt of solid wall to someone approaching uphill from the east.10 Finally, on the north, south and east, the Early Bronze Age fortifications still stood, although in a state of disrepair. These Early Bronze Age fortifications formed an additional defensive ring along the most natural and gradual approach to the village from the Wadi el-Asas.11 Excavations along the eastern line of the Early Bronze Age city indicated that a major gate, the “Wadi Gate,” and its associated structures survived from the final Early Bronze Age phase of the city and could thus be used during the Iron Age. At one point, a 55-foot section of the Early Bronze III wall was uncovered. In places this wall was still standing—in the 20th century—to a height of more than 22 feet.12 If this Early Bronze Age wall was still standing in the 20th century, then it was surely standing (and was used) by the Iron Age villagers. And so was the single Wadi Gate built into the wall in the last Early Bronze stage of construction. For comparative purposes, it may be interesting to note that the Turkish walls of Jerusalem are today almost half a millennium old and in many places they stand on top of Byzantine-Herodian-Hasmonean walls that were constructed almost two millennia ago.
The spies who reconnoitered Ai emphasized in their report to Joshua the small number of people who lived in the village (Joshua 7:3). The Biblical narrator mentions that the population of Ai was 12,000 (Joshua 8:25), of 066whom presumably less than 25 percent were adult males. The spies concluded that a force of 2,000–3,000 warriors could easily defeat the village perched at the top of the tell amidst the ruins of what once must have been a great city (Joshua 7:3).
Actually, the population of the Iron Age village of Ai was probably much smaller than 12,000. Studies have shown the population density of Iron Age cities and towns was from 160 to 200 people per acre.13 A six-acre village would thus have been home to only between 960 and 1,200 people. And the first attack on Ai was with a force giving the Israelites a two-to-one advantage, minimally. In the course of transmission, the tradition appears to have multiplied the number of people living in Ai tenfold in order to underscore the magnitude of the final victory.
According to the Biblical account, the men of Ai pursued the initial Israelite attack force “in front of the gate as far as the Shebarim,14 cutting [the Israelites down] along the descent” (Joshua 7:5). To what gate does the text refer? What are the Shebarim? Where is the descent?
Matching this description with excavation results, the following picture emerges: Apparently, the initial Israelite attack force passed the low eastern ring of Early Bronze Age fortifications through the Wadi Gate on its way up the hill toward the villagers’ houses and the renovated Early Bronze Age structures at the top of the hill. The soldiers of Ai then counterattacked downward toward the Israelites, who suddenly realized what a bad position they were in: They were being attacked by an aggressive defense force that had the advantage of high ground. The Early Bronze Age fortifications blocked the Israelites’ natural line of retreat except through the Wadi Gate.
Note that the men of Ai did not follow the Israelites into the open areas east of the city. The “descent” (mwrd in the Hebrew Bible) must refer to that part of the slope that terminated at the ancient Early Bronze gate (between contour lines 840 and 795). They pursued them to the Shebarim, a term referring to the broken city walls.
Every specific topographic detail and every general statement mentioned in the account of the first battle of Ai is clarified by viewing the narrative as having been told about Iron Age Ai.
This correlation of archaeological detail and Biblical text might lead readers to think I am somehow going to conclude that the battle of Ai occurred just as the Bible said it did. But this is not the case. Despite the remarkable correlation between topographical data discovered through excavations and narrative details, my reconstructed description does not suggest that the battle of Ai as related in the Bible is historically true. For the problem remains: Even at the Iron Age level, the excavations have produced no evidence of either a general destruction or a burning of the Iron Age village. As Callaway has correctly noted, the site was simply abandoned about the time of King Saul. The narrative, on the other hand, emphasizes 067the burning and ruination of Ai (Joshua 8:19, 28).
My conclusion, therefore, is that although the Ai story was indeed told about the Iron Age village, it is historically not true, in the sense that we moderns understand historical truth.
How then did the story originate and how did it come to be included in the Bible? In my view, it is likely that something like the following happened: After Ai was abandoned, about 1050 B.C., and after the Iron Age structures as well as the reused Early Bronze Age fortifications had fallen into ruin—perhaps by the eighth century B.C.—a realistic folk story about the battles emerged among the local peasantry who were familiar with the topography of the area. The original stimulus for the story may have been a local bard’s desire to spin a reasonable tale about the impressive ruins at the top of the hill. Such a story might be thought also to explain a pile of collapsed masonry that 20th-century archaeologists identified as an Early Bronze Age tower but which the ancient bard may have thought was a burial cairn. Note that the Biblical account relates that the Israelites impaled the king of Ai and raised “a great heap of stones” to mark the spot; the Bible tells us “it is there to this day” (Joshua 8:29).
Perhaps in retelling the story, the ancient bard connected his explanation of the ruins with the local hero, Joshua, who led the successful attack.
Gradually accepted as an accurate historical reminiscence, the story merged into the cycle of national conquest traditions. The theologizing historians, whose center of activity was probably the royal court, integrated the Ai story with the Achan story and presented it as part of the national history preserved in the Bible.15
Interestingly enough, the congruence between archaeological data and Biblical narrative suggests that the Ai story was composed after the abandonment of the Iron Age village of Ai and thus demonstrates that the Ai story in its extant form is the product of historical speculation rather than of historical reminiscence.
Whether the story of Ai is historically accurate, however, is not important. What is important is the meaning of the story. The Biblical composer took what was apparently a bard’s tale and, assuming it was historically accurate, gave it theological significance. For the Biblical writer, as distinguished from the creative storyteller, the Ai story had a particular meaning. The Biblical writer, had he wished, could simply have included a short, casual note about the destruction of Ai—for example, “And Joshua conquered Ai and destroyed it.” He did not handle the matter this way—for a reason. He had a point to make—a point regarding the communal responsibility of Israel to maintain proper behavior not only by the 068obedience of individual citizens but also by its collective obedience to the will of God.
The story of Ai fostered this notion of communal responsibility. Israel’s success in military affairs is determined by her compliance with divine dictates. The first, unsuccessful attack on Ai was planned by the spies and was executed by a group that was not commanded to do so (Joshua 7:3–5). The second attack, however, was commanded by God (Joshua 8:1–2, 18), and his instructions were obeyed (Joshua 8:27–29, 35); it was therefore crowned by success. The Biblical writer emphasizes this theological point of the story by weaving it into the story of Achan’s violation of the ban against taking booty at Jericho (Joshua 6:18–19; 7:1). The initial Israelite defeat is thus interpreted as a collective punishment for Achan’s unpunished violation (Joshua 7:10–12), while the subsequent victory, after the extirpation of those culpable (Joshua 7:13–26), is seen as evidence of national salvation (Joshua 8:1, 18, 26–29). It is reasonable to assume that the ancient historians who interpreted the event believed the story of the conquest of Ai to be true. Otherwise, their work would be a sham.
The problem of Ai is simply stated. The Bible tells us that an important battle in the Israelite conquest of Canaan occurred at Ai. After being defeated by the Canaanites of Ai once, the Israelites launched a second attack on Ai; this time they were victorious, destroying both the city and its inhabitants. However, extensive and sophisticated archaeological excavations have produced no evidence of human occupation at the site during the period when the Israelites supposedly settled in Canaan. In short, the evidence shows that there was no city at Ai for the Israelites to conquer. The conquest of […]