Biblical Archaeology Review 11:2, March/April 1985

The Problem of Ai

New theory rejects the battle as described in the Bible but explains how the story evolved

By Ziony Zevit

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).

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