Two very important issues in Professor Zevit’s paper need further comment: First, he is right in concluding that archaeology has wiped out the historical credibility of the conquest of Ai as reported in Joshua 7–8. The Joint Expedition to Ai worked nine seasons between 1964 and 1976 and spent nearly $200,000, only to eliminate the historical underpinning of the Ai account in the Bible.

Was the undertaking worthwhile? Instead of finding neat answers to the questions that have been raised about the Israelite conquest account for the last half-century, we are confronted with the ultimate question: Did the Biblical writers simply create a story in Joshua 7–8? In Zevit’s words, is it an account that is “historically not true”? Many readers will no doubt instinctively respond, “Say it isn’t so, archaeology!” So I ask, was our excavation worthwhile?

My answer is yes! What has been demolished are the “positivistic” historical reconstructions of various scholars, including mine, over two generations. These views have not survived the tests of material support from the site. Our loss, then, is a collection of scholarly hypotheses. We still have the Bible, and archaeology is seeking to redirect our thinking into more profitable directions. We are being pressed to find a more realistic perspective from which to understand Joshua 7–8.

This is not the first time archaeology has caused Biblical scholars to look for new perspectives. A little more than four hundred years ago, there was a great debate over whether the earth was created in 4004 B.C., following the Hebrew Bible, or 6000 B.C., following the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament. While scholars were writing and reading papers on the subject, and while people were taking sides, a city built before either of these dates lay buried under the mound of Jericho, and skeletons of men and women who lived 50,000 years ago rested in peace beneath the floors of caves at Mt. Carmel. Was it worthwhile to discover prehistoric Jericho, or Stone Age people at Mt. Carmel? We certainly see the whole history of humanity from a different perspective today.

The second issue raised by Zevit’s article is how to find a realistic perspective on both the Ai account in the Bible and on the site itself Zevit suggests that “the original stimulus for the story may have been a local bard’s desire to spin a reasonable tale about the ruins at the top of the hill” at Ai. Actually, we have no way of knowing what the original stimulus was, but we do know that the account of the capture of Ai developed over a number of centuries, acquiring a life of its own late in Israel’s history.

For instance, Joshua 8:29 relates that the body of the king of Ai was taken down from the tree on which he was hanged and thrown by the entrance to the city. Over this entrance a great heap of stones was raised “which stands there to this day.” The expression “to this day” in Joshua 4:9; 5:9; 6:25; 7:26; 9:27; 10:27; etc., reflects a time much later than the events recorded in the book. How much later? References to the “silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron” that were saved for the “treasury of the house of the Lord” in Joshua 6:19 and 6:24, assume the existence of the Temple of Solomon, which was built in the tenth century B.C. So the writer could have been writing no earlier than this, even though the events he describes occurred hundreds of years before.

In Joshua 8:1–29 there is evidence of different textual sources in the story; thus, the story was not composed by a single author, or “bard.” For instance, in Joshua 8:3–4, we read that Joshua dispatched 30,000 men by night to lie in ambush behind the city of Ai, and in Joshua 8:12, we read that he sent 5,000 men the next morning to lie in ambush west of the city, between Bethel and Ai. However, the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible omits the reference to 5,000 men in Joshua 8:12, as it does several other repetitious statements. A fragment of Joshua 8 from Cave 4 at Qumran, in Hebrew, has the shorter text of the Septuagint, reflecting the preservation of a different text of the Ai account as late as the Roman period. Both texts are obviously later than the building of Solomon’s Temple and continued to circulate simultaneously.

Can we get any nearer the events related in Joshua 7–8 than the time of Solomon? Perhaps. An ancient source called the “Book of Jasher,” now lost, is referred to in Joshua 10:13, in connection with the battle against the Amorites at Gibeon. A poetic passage from the Book of Jasher is quoted to support the later writer’s claim that “the sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.” Mind you, it is the Book of Jasher, not the later interpretation, that purportedly belongs to the conquest events. But how old is the Book of Jasher? It is referred to again in 2 Samuel 1:18 as containing the lament of David over Saul and Jonathan, but this is as far back as we can trace it.

Although the passage in Joshua 10:12–13, does not deal with the Ai story, it can provide us with some insight into the way various sources developed into the Biblical account of the Ai story. Joshua is quoted as saying, “Sun, stand thou still (literally, be silent, don’t shine) at Gibeon, and thou Moon in the valley of Aijalon” (Joshua 10:12). If the sun was over Gibeon and the moon over Aijalon, the sun was rising in the east and the moon was setting in the west, and Joshua was asking for a prolongation of the night. The Biblical interpreter, however, was not as sensitive to geography in this account as he was in the Ai account, so he claimed that the day was prolonged. Did he not know that Gibeon was east of the valley of Aijalon? I’m sure he did; it was really not relevant to his purpose in the account. He was saying to a generation much later than the time of Joshua that the Lord would hearken to the voice of a faithful man, and the passage from the Book of Jasher gave authority to his “preaching.”

What we see, then, in the conquest accounts in general, and in the Ai account in particular, is a rather free use of ancient sources expanded and interpreted to speak to the needs of later generations. At the same time, there was enough respect for the traditions that no effort was made to synthesize them into a harmonious narrative without repetitions, numerical inaccuracies and contradictions. This faithfulness in preserving traditions that did not always agree in details is, to me, evidence of their authenticity, and it says something about the people who preserved these traditions. I do not believe they would spin a tale out of whole cloth about some landmark such as the mound of Ai. Instead, they worked with ancient oral and written traditions handed down from generation to generation. During this process, the history of places such as Ai and Gibeon yielded to theological constructs that built up layers of interpretation like strata in a tell, forever concealing the real events themselves.