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Ai (Hebrew: העי; "heap of ruins"; Douay-Rheims: Hai) was a Canaanite royal city. According to the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible, it was conquered by the Israelites on their second attempt. The ruins of the city are popularly thought to be in the modern-day archeological site Et-Tell.
The Ai mentioned by the Book of Joshua is also mentioned by the Book of Genesis as having been a religious sanctuary, which it claims was founded by Abraham; Abraham's tent, i.e. the area he settled, is stated by the Bible to have been between Bethel and Ai.
In the Book of Joshua chapter 7-8 in the Bible, the Israelites attempt to conquer Ai on two occasions, the first in Joshua 7 failing. The Biblical account portrays the failure as being due to a prior sin of Achan; for which Achan, his children, sheep, and other livestock, are stoned to death (his wife is not mentioned so it is believed that he might be a widower) by the Israelites. On the second attempt in Joshua 8, Joshua, who is identified by the narrative as the leader of the Israelites. God tells him exactly what to do. God tells them to set up an ambush and Joshua does what God says. An ambush is arranged at the rear of the city on the western side. Joshua is with a group of soldiers that approach the city from the front so the men of Ai, thinking they will have another easy victory, chase Joshua and the fighting men from the entrance of the city to lead the men of Ai away from the city. Then the fighting men to the rear enter the city and set it on fire. When the city is captured, 12,000 men and women are killed, and it is razed to the ground. The king is captured and put on a stake until he is dead. His body is then placed at the city gates and stones are placed on top of his body. The Israelites then burn Ai completely and made it a permanent heap of ruins" God told them they could take the livestock as plunder and they do so --Joshua 8:28 NIV.
Edward Robinson suggested in 1838 that Et-Tell could be the location of the biblical city of Ai, as did Charles Wilson in 1866, on the evidence of biblical references and nearby topography. This identification was backed by the American scholar William Foxwell Albright, who further argued in a 1924 paper that the site of et-Tell held the ruins of a great Canaanite city. A further point in its favour is the fact that the Hebrew name Ai means more or less the same as the modern Arabic name et-Tell. Albright's identification has been accepted by the majority of the archaeological community, and today et-Tell is widely believed to be one and the same as the biblical Ai.
If et-Tell is indeed Ai, this poses a problem for defenders of the literal historicity of the biblical accounts concerning the origin of ancient Israel; the reason for this is that traditional dating schemes place the Exodus from Egypt in 1440 BC and Joshua's conquest of Canaan around 1400 BC, a time at which the archaeological evidence shows et-Tell to have been completely unoccupied, as it had been for almost 1000 years. The later Iron Age I village appeared with no evidence of initial conquest, and the Iron I settlers seem to have peacefully built their village on the forsaken mound, without meeting resistance. In addition Ai, meaning Ruin is a particularly strange name for a city to have, while it is a quite ordinary name for a pile of rubble to have; Ai would only really be expected to become Ai after it had been destroyed not before.
It has been suggested that this battle may never have taken place, and that its narrative might have "preserved some remote echoes of wars conducted in these places in early Iron Age I."  Some archeologists and biblical scholars have suggested that the biblical account of the conquest of Ai derives from an etiological myth  - a type of tale which "explains the origin of a custom, state of affairs, or natural feature in the human or divine world." Ancient folk lore contained tales of impressive ruins as well as vague details of their destruction. The destruction of Ai could have been one of these tales which was retold to fit with the Israelite invasion and conquest. Since the ruin was a ruin since c. 2400 BC, a time when Canaan was under Egyptian control, and it remained uninhabited until about 1000 B.C. when the Israelites are thought to have settled there, this means that Ai would have been in ruins for over a thousand years before the biblical account of its destruction.
There are five main hypotheses about how to explain the biblical story surrounding Ai in light of archaeological evidence. The first is that the story was created later on to explain it; Israelites related it to Joshua because of the fame of his great conquest. The second is that there were people of Bethel inhabiting Ai during the time of the biblical story and they were the ones who were invaded. In a third, Albright combined these two theories to present a hypothesis that the story of the Conquest of Bethel, which was only a mile and a half away from Ai, was later transferred to Ai in order to explain the city and why it was in ruins. Support for this can be found in the Bible, the assumption being that the Bible does not mention the actual capture of Bethel, but might speak of it in memory in Judges 1:22-26.
Fifth, although the vast majority of archaeologists support the identification of Ai with et-Tell, a few opponents, prominently including Bryant Wood, object to this identification. The alternative proposal is that the Bible's chronology of events is accurate, and the biblical Ai is not to be located at et-Tell, but a different site entirely. Dr. Bryant Wood has proposed that Ai should instead be located at the site of Kirbet el-Maqatir arguing that the evidence for this site being Ai is stronger than at et-Tell.
References and notes
- Mazar, Amichai, The Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000-586 B.C.E., New York: Doubleday, 1990, pp. 331-332
- Naʼaman, Nadav (2005). Canaan in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. Eisenbrauns. p. 378. ISBN 978-1575061139.
- Gomes, Jules (2006). The sanctuary of Bethel and the configuration of Israelite identity. Walter de Gruyter & Co. p. 103. ISBN 978-3110189933.
- "myth." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 18 Feb. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/400920/myth>.
- Wright, Ernest G. Biblical Archaeology. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974. p. 80-82.
- Callaway, Joseph. "Ai." In David Noel Freedman (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol.1, p. 125-130. Doubleday, 1992.
- Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray Jr. Critical Issues in Early Israelite History. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2008. pp. 205-240 link
- Easton's Bible Dictionary
- “The Search for Joshua’s Ai: Excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir, Israel” (mp3) by Bryant Wood