Destroyed: You or Your Sin? – 8:1-29

The previous entry can be read here.

If you’re anything like me, you enjoy history, especially military history, and when you come across a related passage in the Bible you get excited.

However, i know not all people are like me. Some would resonate more with a statement like the following: “[Jesus’] command to ‘love your enemies’ (Matt. 5:44) represents a total repudiation of Moses’ genocidal commands and stands in judgment on Joshua’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.”[1]

And if you relate to that quote, allow me to try to change your mind, even if i am unable to convince you that military history is actually exciting. You see, the author of that quote is pitting Jesus against other authors of Scripture, despite the clear fact in 2 Timothy 3:16—speaking primarily about the Old Testament—that, literally, “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Thus, for Jesus to disagree with something in the Old Testament is for Jesus to say that God lied, which is something that God cannot do (Numbers 23:19).

Therefore, we must accept the witness of the Old Testament—even the violent, gruesome portions—as God’s inspired Word, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

As will be clear from a study of the text today, we cannot and should not take the texts of Joshua and use them as an excuse to start wars against non-believers. As John Wesley said, “Let whatsoever you do, be done inherently, in love, and in the spirit of meekness. Let your very disputing show that you have ‘put on, as the elect of God, [hearts] of mercies, gentleness, longsuffering,’ that even according to this time it may be said, ‘See how these Christians love one another!”[2]

So with that said, i encourage you to keep reading so that you can better know how to apply violent passages such as Joshua 8:1-29 to your Christian walk.

Today’s Text

Our historian writes, “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged. Take the whole military force with you and go attack Ai. Look, I have handed over to you the king of Ai, his people, city, and land. Treat Ai and its king as you did Jericho and its king; you may plunder its spoil and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city.’ So Joshua and the whole military force set out to attack Ai. Joshua selected 30,000 fighting men and sent them out at night. He commanded them: ‘Pay attention. Lie in ambush behind the city, not too far from it, and all of you be ready. Then I and all the people who are with me will approach the city. When they come out against us as they did the first time, we will flee from them. They will come after us until we have drawn them away from the city, for they will say, “They are fleeing from us as before.” While we are fleeing from them, you are to come out of your ambush and seize the city, for the LORD your God has handed it over to you. After taking the city, set it on fire. Follow the LORD’s command—see ⌊that you do⌋ as I have ordered you.’ So Joshua sent them out, and they went to the ambush site and waited between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai. But he spent that night with the troops. Joshua started early the next morning and mobilized them. Then he and the elders of Israel led the troops up to Ai. All those who were with him went up and approached the city, arriving opposite Ai, and camped to the north of it, with a valley between them and the city. Now Joshua had taken about 5,000 men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. The military force was stationed in this way: the main camp to the north of the city and its rear guard to the west of the city. And that night Joshua went into the valley. When the king of Ai saw ⌊the Israelites⌋, the men of the city hurried and went out early in the morning so that he and all his people could engage Israel in battle at a suitable place facing the Arabah. But he did not know there was an ambush ⌊waiting⌋ for him behind the city. Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten back by them and fled toward the wilderness. Then all the troops of Ai were summoned to pursue them, and they pursued Joshua and were drawn away from the city. Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel, leaving the city exposed while they pursued Israel. Then the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Hold out the sword in your hand toward Ai, for I will hand the city over to you.’ So Joshua held out his sword toward it. When he held out his hand, the men in ambush rose quickly from their position. They ran, entered the city, captured it, and immediately set it on fire. The men of Ai turned and looked back, and smoke from the city was rising to the sky! They could not escape in any direction, and the troops who had fled to the wilderness now became the pursuers. When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ⌊men in⌋ ambush had captured the city and that smoke was rising from it, they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. Then men in ambush came out of the city against them, and the men of Ai were ⌊trapped⌋ between the Israelite forces, some on one side and some on the other. They struck them down until no survivor or fugitive remained, but they captured the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua. When Israel had finished killing everyone living in Ai who had pursued them into the open country, and when every last one of them had fallen by the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the sword. The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was 12,000—all the people of Ai. Joshua did not draw back his hand that was holding the sword until all the inhabitants of Ai were completely destroyed. Israel plundered only the cattle and spoil of that city for themselves, according to the LORD’s command that He had given Joshua. Joshua burned Ai and left it a permanent ruin, desolate to this day. He hung ⌊the body of⌋ the king of Ai on a tree until evening, and at sunset Joshua commanded that they take his body down from the tree. They threw it down at the entrance of the city gate and put a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.”

Where we’ve been…

We have seen much in the first 7 chapters of this great book. God promised to be with Joshua in chapter 1. God used a Canaanite native to reassure Joshua that He was with Israel in chapter 2. God brought Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land in Joshua 3-4. God visited Joshua at night and said that He neither fights for nor against Israel (chapter 5). In chapter 6, God decisively destroyed the defensive fortress of Jericho. In chapter 7, God fought against Israel because sin is in their midst. After the defeat at Ai, Joshua sought God’s will and removed the sin from their midst. That brings us to chapter 8, where we find ourselves today. In Joshua 8:1-29, our historian wants us to seek God alone for victory in our own lives.

Godly Leaders Seek God’s Will (8:1-2)

The first thing we see in this passage is that God reveals His will to Joshua. In verses 1-2 we read, “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged. Take the whole military force with you and go attack Ai. Look, I have handed over to you the king of Ai, his people, city, and land. Treat Ai and its king as you did Jericho and its king; you may plunder its spoil and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city.’” This section is primarily based on contrasts with 7:1-5.

There’s no escaping the fact that the narrative in chapter 7 was all about a disaster, so it says something about the greatness of our God when we read the following in 8:1, “Yahweh said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged.’” I am careful to highlight our historian’s use of God’s personal, covenant name here, because in the midst of fear, God Himself comes to comfort the leader of His people.

The way in which people today are comforted by God is by hearing from Him in the Scriptures. What the leaders of nations must do in times of crises is turn to the God of Creation and seek His will. Yes, His words will hurt at first because we have rebelled against Him, but if we obey Him and turn our hearts back to Him, He will comfort us after we take care of the sin in our midst. Joshua 7’s solution to the problem must take place before the comforting of Joshua 8 can occur.

And the good news is that Jesus took the death penalty for us. We don’t have to die for our sin like Achan did for his. We must simply believe what God writes in His Word about the way to eternal life. When disasters strike, the question isn’t, “should teachers have guns or should guns be outlawed?” The question is, “Will we take this act of terror as God trying to get our attention as a nation?” (These acts seem to have been occurring more frequently since at least 2001 when i first became aware of terrorism.) God’s patience will run out (see Revelation 19)—like it did with Canaan, as can be seen in the book of Joshua, with only a handful of a remnant (Rahab’s family) being spared. Since it has not yet run out, there is still time to return to Him! Keep reading for more info on how to turn to God.

So here’s what i must say: Godly leaders—whether in the church or in the world—must seek God’s leading. As is clear from the opening of Joshua 7, no one sought God before attacking Ai. If they would have, God would have said, “Deal with the sin first.” Here, Joshua waits for God’s encouragement and counsel before mounting an attack. If leaders act apart from seeking God, their actions are doomed to failure whether their actions occur in a Christian context or a secular context.

As Christians, we must be the people of God, and we must pray for society to turn to God. We must not get caught up in the petty bickering that goes along with the disasters that occur on American soil. To do so is to lose sight of the main thing. (For an answer to the question: “where is God in tragedies?” check out this post.)

Godly People Obey God’s Leaders (8:3-13)

The second thing we see in this passage is that godly leaders inspire obedience in God’s people. In verses 3-13 we read, “So Joshua and the whole military force set out to attack Ai. Joshua selected 30,000 fighting men and sent them out at night. He commanded them: ‘Pay attention. Lie in ambush behind the city, not too far from it, and all of you be ready. Then I and all the people who are with me will approach the city. When they come out against us as they did the first time, we will flee from them. They will come after us until we have drawn them away from the city, for they will say, “They are fleeing from us as before.” While we are fleeing from them, you are to come out of your ambush and seize the city, for the LORD your God has handed it over to you. After taking the city, set it on fire. Follow the LORD’s command—see ⌊that you do⌋ as I have ordered you.’ So Joshua sent them out, and they went to the ambush site and waited between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai. But he spent that night with the troops. Joshua started early the next morning and mobilized them. Then he and the elders of Israel led the troops up to Ai. All those who were with him went up and approached the city, arriving opposite Ai, and camped to the north of it, with a valley between them and the city. Now Joshua had taken about 5,000 men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. The military force was stationed in this way: the main camp to the north of the city and its rear guard to the west of the city. And that night Joshua went into the valley.”

What we see here is Joshua carrying out and expounding upon God’s command in verse 2: “Set an ambush behind the city.” In addition, from verse 3 to verse 29 are some of the most military-strategy specific passages in all of Scripture. It is a very fun section to read, and it is relatively clear in its descriptions. Only several extra comments need to be made.

The whole military force goes out against Ai. As part of their strategy, Joshua splits them up (as God commanded), but it is important to see that as a whole, God’s people are granted victory by God. When we say, “Someone else can take care of such and such aspect of Christian ministry,” we are pridefully acting apart from God’s leading. All of God’s people are to wield the gospel and thus allow God to conquer sinners and turn them into saints.

It is also important to notice is what it says in both verse 9 and 13. “Joshua spent the night with the people (in the valley).” According to most commentators on this passage, the content in 3-9 is repeated with slight differences in 10-13. The biggest difference being in the numbers of Joshua 8:3 and 8:12. In 8:3 there are 30,000 men, but in 8:12, there are only 5,000 men. It is easily explained when we note that the whole group is technically going to be involved in an ambush against Ai; so 25,000 will be with Joshua north of Ai, and 5,000 will be camped between Bethel and Ai.[3]

But Joshua spent the night with the larger fighting force. This is what a biblical leader does. They are in the trenches with their people. They don’t command them from afar. They don’t preach a sermon and then run out the stage’s back door so that they can get away from the crowds. They don’t tell their people to be out evangelizing and serving and ministering but fail to be the example in all these things. Joshua was with the people.

This leads to what is clearly seen throughout. The obedience of the people. No one here says, “I think I have a better plan.” Rather, they do what Joshua commands them. They know that he is on their side. They know that he is close to God. They know that he only tells them to do what God tells him to do. They trust him, and they respect him.

Do your leaders follow God? Do they seek His will by studying and applying His Word. Do they care about you and pour time into you? If so, they are biblical leaders; follow them! If not, one of two things is the case. Either, they are not biblical leaders, in which case you need to find a biblical church that has biblical leaders, or you are not even part of any church, in which case you need to go find one. Christians must stand together. There’s no such thing as a solo Christian.

God Brings about Victory when His People Obey (8:14-29)

God leads Israel’s army to victory (14-21, 26)

Finally we see that God brings about victory when His people obey. In verses 14-21, 26 we read that it is God who leads the army to victory, “When the king of Ai saw ⌊the Israelites⌋, the men of the city hurried and went out early in the morning so that he and all his people could engage Israel in battle at a suitable place facing the Arabah. But he did not know there was an ambush ⌊waiting⌋ for him behind the city. Joshua and all Israel pretended to be beaten back by them and fled toward the wilderness. Then all the troops of Ai were summoned to pursue them, and they pursued Joshua and were drawn away from the city. Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel, leaving the city exposed while they pursued Israel. Then the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Hold out the sword in your hand toward Ai, for I will hand the city over to you.’ So Joshua held out his sword toward it. When he held out his hand, the men in ambush rose quickly from their position. They ran, entered the city, captured it, and immediately set it on fire. The men of Ai turned and looked back, and smoke from the city was rising to the sky! They could not escape in any direction, and the troops who had fled to the wilderness now became the pursuers. When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ⌊men in⌋ ambush had captured the city and that smoke was rising from it, they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. . . . Joshua did not draw back his hand that was holding the sword until all the inhabitants of Ai were completely destroyed.”

The primary thing to see here is that as long as Joshua’s sword was raised, God granted Israel victory. It harks back to Exodus 17:8-13 when Moses raised his staff to enable defeat in the battle against the Amalekites. In both cases, the credit goes to God. Israel can’t say, “We won this by our strength and cunning,” especially since the ambush idea came from God (8:2). When God’s people trust Him and follow the leaders He puts in place, God grants them victory.

For this reason we must never be guilty of statements that claim that the Israelites (especially in the book of Joshua) were violent, barbaric, bloodthirty militants who acted out of personal vengeance. As was clear in chapter 7, the Israelites were not granted victory when they acted apart from God’s leading. God does not justify warfare for the sake of warfare. This warfare serves to point to a higher purpose. (See heading below: The Ai in Our Lives.)

God’s victory is total (22-25, 27-29)

In verses 22-25, 27-29 we read that the victories that God brings about are complete victories, “Then men in ambush came out of the city against them, and the men of Ai were ⌊trapped⌋ between the Israelite forces, some on one side and some on the other. They struck them down until no survivor or fugitive remained, but they captured the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua. When Israel had finished killing everyone living in Ai who had pursued them into the open country, and when every last one of them had fallen by the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the sword. The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was 12,000—all the people of Ai. . . . Israel plundered only the cattle and spoil of that city for themselves, according to the LORD’s command that He had given Joshua. Joshua burned Ai and left it a permanent ruin, desolate to this day. He hung ⌊the body of⌋ the king of Ai on a tree until evening, and at sunset Joshua commanded that they take his body down from the tree. They threw it down at the entrance of the city gate and put a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.”

Finally we see that no one from Ai or Bethel (cf. 8:17) survived the attack. We never see a mention of Bethel specifically being attacked by Israel in this book, but we do know that they were defeated. In the list of kings who were defeated by Israel we read, “the king of Jericho, one, the king of Ai, which is next to Bethel, one . . . the king of Bethel, one” (Joshua 12:9, 16). But the fact of the matter is that Israel destroyed all of Ai. If you align yourself with the enemies of God, and remain as an enemy of God, eventually His patience will run out, and Christ will exact vengeance from His white horse (Revelation 19) in much the same way that Ai and Bethel were destroyed in this text.

In addition, Israel was allowed to plunder the town and keep the spoils of war. This comes back to the fact that God cares deeply for His people, and He is in the business of providing for them. At Jericho, He wanted them to know that everything ultimately belonged to Him, and thus He commanded them to destroy it all to prove their faith in Him. Here, “Since everything captured belonged to God, He could also choose to give some of it back to Israel.”[4] Now that the manna had stopped (5:12), Israel needed to find food somehow, and God here provides for them by letting them plunder the cattle of Ai.

Here also we read about the fate of the king of Ai. He was hung on a tree—showing that he was cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)—thrown at the city gate, and covered in stones. Him—much like his city—was left as a desolation, “until this day.” Whenever an Israelite would pass by the remains of Ai, it would remind them that God gave them the land, that He brought ruin upon the former inhabitants so that they could be blessed, that it was not their ancestors’ swords, but the hand of God that gave them the land.

And that’s the most important thing. In our own lives, too often we act like the Israelites in Joshua 7. We say, “I can beat this sin and turn it into a ruin on my own. There’s only a few of them,” but before we know it we are crying out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body?” (Romans 7:24). This is the epitome of pride. When we look at ourselves and think we don’t need God in every aspect of our lives to have victory, we are sinning. The truth is that we must put sin to death by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:13), and we must not trust ourselves to be able to do it. This is the ultimate application from Joshua 7-8. God brings victory! Who are you trusting in your personal life? Yourself? Or God’s Spirit? I pray that it is the latter!

The Ai in Our Lives

Just like the Israelites faked a retreat, and then Ai was hit by a different battalion, so in our battle with sin we must fake a surrender by falling to our knees in prayer, pleading with Christ to accomplish the victory for us. You see, Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus is the better Joshua. Interestingly enough, their names are equivalent: Jesus is an anglicized Greek translation of the anglicized Hebrew Joshua. Just as Joshua had his sword lifted—arm outstretched—until the battle was complete, so also Jesus had both of His arms outstretched on the cross until the victory was accomplished. Because He died for the sins of those who place their faith in Him, when we look to Him in faith in our time of need—when we feign retreat—He will fight for us, and guarantee our victory. This goes for whether we are tempted to break out into angry violence, whether we are tempted to give in to lust, or whether we are tempted to pridefully promote ourselves. Christ died for all of these things, and He gives us the power to love people instead of harming them.

If you have never believed in Him, i pray that you do it today. As the photo heading this article states, either sin is going to be made a ruin in your life, or sin will turn you into a ruin. I pray that it would be the former, but that is impossible apart from the grace of God in Christ. Believe today!

If you are already a believer, the book of Joshua presents warfare not in a way to excuse the killing of others, but rather in an effort to say, “Take back the land God is giving you.” God has redeemed you; this includes your body; it must not be content with sin. This will not be fully realized until Christ comes back victoriously on His white horse (Revelation 19), but until then we are in a battle with our sin. Let’s daily feign retreat by falling to our knees, and let God take all the credit for our victories!

Solus Christus

Soli Deo Gloria

The next post can be found here.

 

[1] C. S. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity” in Show Them No Mercy: four views on God and Canaanite genocide (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 33.

[2] Quoted in ibid., as the opening of Cowles’ essay, page 13. It is especially interesting that John Wesley’s commentary on these portions of Joshua doesn’t seek to get around the plain meaning of the historical aspect of the text.

[3] Cf. note 112 in David M. Howard, New American Commentary – Volume 5: Joshua, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 200.

[4] Richard S. Hess, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries – Joshua, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2011), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 176.

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