“And the LORD said unto Joshua, Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: take all the people of war with thee, and arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land: And thou shalt do to Ai and her king as thou didst unto Jericho and her king: only the spoil thereof, and the cattle thereof, shall ye take for a prey unto yourselves: lay thee an ambush for the city behind it.” (Joshua 8:1-2)
Israel had never suffered a defeat until they attacked Ai, and the defeat stunned them. Now they had taken care of the sin that caused their defeat, and God encouraged them to try again. There was now nothing that would hinder their victory and they should not hesitate. Because the entire army knew what had happened, he was to take the entire army so they could see the victory and have their faith restored.
God promised that they would be as successful as they had been at Jericho, totally destroying the town. Jericho had been their first major victory under Joshua, and they were instructed to Give the metals to God and burn everything else. In essence, it was like the offering of the first fruits when they began to reap the fields. At Ai, they were instructed to keep all the cattle and personal belongings for themselves. God instructed Joshua to lay an ambush behind the city.
“So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai: and Joshua chose out thirty thousand mighty men of valour, and sent them away by night. And he commanded them, saying, Behold, ye shall lie in wait against the city, even behind the city: go not very far from the city, but be ye all ready: And I, and all the people that are with me, will approach unto the city: and it shall come to pass, when they come out against us, as at the first, that we will flee before them, (For they will come out after us) till we have drawn them from the city; for they will say, They flee before us, as at the first: therefore we will flee before them.
Then ye shall rise up from the ambush, and seize upon the city: for the LORD your God will deliver it into your hand. And it shall be, when ye have taken the city, that ye shall set the city on fire: according to the commandment of the LORD shall ye do. See, I have commanded you. Joshua therefore sent them forth: and they went to lie in ambush, and abode between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai: but Joshua lodged that night among the people.” (Joshua 8:3-9)
Joshua took all six hundred thousand men with him. In the earlier defeat, Israel had made a frontal attack and fled when the men of Ai charged out at them. Since they had succeeded the first time, Ai would probably try the same thing again, even though it was a much larger force approaching. If they did, he and the main force would run away in an attempt to draw them farther from the city. That night he sent thirty thousand around to the west side between Bethel and Ai to invade the city if the strategy worked. They were to set the city on fire once it was secure so the main force would know when to turn and fight.
“And Joshua rose up early in the morning, and numbered the people, and went up, he and the elders of Israel, before the people to Ai. And all the people, even the people of war that were with him, went up, and drew nigh, and came before the city, and pitched on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between them and Ai.
And he took about five thousand men, and set them to lie in ambush between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of the city. And when they had set the people, even all the host that was on the north of the city, and their liers in wait on the west of the city, Joshua went that night into the midst of the valley.” (Joshua 8:10-13)
Early the next morning, long before daylight Joshua got his forces ready and entered the valley on the north side of Ai. He sent a second force of about five thousand to the west side of Ai. If the army from Bethel came out, they were to invade it as well.
“And it came to pass, when the king of Ai saw it, that they hasted and rose up early, and the men of the city went out against Israel to battle, he and all his people, at a time appointed, before the plain; but he wist not that there were liers in ambush against him behind the city. And Joshua and all Israel made as if they were beaten before them, and fled by the way of the wilderness. And all the people that were in Ai were called together to pursue after them: and they pursued after Joshua, and were drawn away from the city. And there was not a man left in Ai or Bethel, that went not out after Israel: and they left the city open, and pursued after Israel.” (Joshua 8:14-17)
When the king of Ai saw the Israelite army, he responded exactly as Joshua hoped he would, rushing forth to battle believing he could scare them away before they were ready. He wasn’t about to wait and let them do like they had at Jericho. In his haste, he failed to consider they might set up an ambush, and took all the defenders in the effort to appear as the largest force possible. Not a single man was left behind to close the gates after them in either Bethel or Ai.
“And the LORD said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thine hand. And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand toward the city. And the ambush arose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand: and they entered into the city, and took it, and hasted and set the city on fire.” (Joshua 8:18-19)
Just as God had directed Moses to stretch out his staff over the Red Sea and opened the way for Israel, he directed Joshua to stretch out his spear toward Ai. As soon as he did, the thirty thousand men invaded Ai spoiling it and setting it on fire. While nothing is described about taking Bethel at this time, Joshua 12:16 implies they did so.
“And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and, behold, the smoke of the city ascended up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that way: and the people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon the pursuers.
And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city, and that the smoke of the city ascended, then they turned again, and slew the men of Ai. And the other issued out of the city against them; so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side: and they smote them, so that they let none of them remain or escape. And the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua.” (Joshua 8:20-23)
When the men of Ai saw the smoke, they knew they’d been tricked and that they had nowhere to go. When the main Israelite force turned on them from the north and the thirty thousand came pouring out of the city on the south, they were caught between them. Israel took no prisoners except the King, and no one got away.
“And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua.
And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day. And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcase down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.” (Joshua 8:24-29)
Once the armies of Ai and Bethel were annihilated, Israel came back to Ai and killed every person there. Not a single person survived, man or woman. Once they had removed everything they wanted, they finished burning the city, hanging the king from a tree until evening, then burying him under a heap of stones by the gate of the city. The heap was still undisturbed at the time the book of Joshua was compiled.