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Ai (Canaan)

Coordinates: 31°55′01″N 35°15′40″E / 31.91694°N 35.26111°E / 31.91694; 35.26111
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Gustave Doré, "Joshua Burns the Town of Ai" (1866); La Grande Bible de Tours.

The Ai (Hebrew: הָעַי, romanizedhāʿAy, lit.'the heap (of ruins)'; Douay–Rheims: Hai) was a city in Canaan, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Book of Joshua, it was conquered by the Israelites, headed by Joshua, during their conquest of Canaan.[1]

The Ai's ruins are commonly thought to be in the modern-day archeological site of Et-Tell. Excavations revealed a large urban settlement dating back to around 3100 BCE, with cycles of destruction and rebuilding until roughly 2400 BCE. It remained uninhabited until a small village emerged in the Early Iron Age. In light of these findings, scholars interpret the biblical account of Ai's conquest as an etiological story explaining the origin of the place name.[1]

Biblical narrative


According to Genesis, Abraham built an altar between Bethel and Ai.[2]

In the Book of Joshua, chapters 7 and 8, the Israelites attempt to conquer Ai on two occasions. The first, in Joshua 7, fails. The biblical account portrays the failure as being due to a prior sin of Achan, for which he is stoned to death by the Israelites. On the second attempt, in Joshua 8, Joshua, who is identified by the narrative as the leader of the Israelites, receives instruction from God. 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 hanged on a tree until the evening. 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."[3] God told them they could take the livestock as plunder and they did so.

In a study from 2017, Shai Elam compared the Battle of Cannae to the Battle of Ai (which preceded it by about 1,000 years) according to the Malbim's interpretation of the book of Joshua, which proves that in the Battle of Ai Joshua also surrounded the enemy's army with a perfect ring (which explains the role of the two ambushers and their position during the battle), in a performance that does not fall short of Hannibal's tactics.[4]

Possible locations

Et-Tell ruins have been identified with the city of Ai.



Edward Robinson (1794–1863), who identified many biblical sites in the Levant on the basis of local place names and basic topography, suggested that Et-Tell or Khirbet Haijah were likely on philological grounds; he preferred the former as there were visible ruins at that site.[5] 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.

Up through the 1920s a "positivist" reading of the archeology to date was prevalent—a belief that archeology would prove, and was proving, the historicity of the Exodus and Conquest narratives that dated the Exodus in 1440 BC and Joshua's conquest of Canaan around 1400 BC.[5]: 117  And accordingly, on the basis of excavations in the 1920s the American scholar William Foxwell Albright believed that Et-Tell was Ai.[5]: 86 

However, excavations at Et-Tell in the 1930s, undertaken by Judith Marquet-Krause, found that there was a fortified city there during the Early Bronze Age, between 3100 and 2400 BCE, after which it was destroyed and abandoned.[6] The excavations found no evidence of settlement in the Middle or Late Bronze Ages.[5]: 117  These findings, along with excavations at Bethel, posed problems for the dating that Albright and others had proposed, and some scholars including Martin Noth began proposing that the Conquest had never happened but instead was an etiological myth; the name meant "the ruin" and the Conquest story simply explained the already-ancient destruction of the Early Bronze city.[5]: 117 [7][8] Archeologists also found that 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.[9]: 331–32 

Five main hypotheses exist about how to explain the biblical story surrounding Ai in light of archaeological evidence. The first is that the story was created later on: Israelites related it to Joshua because of the fame of his great conquest. The second is that people of Bethel inhabited 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 position 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.[10]: 80–82  Fourth, Callaway has proposed that the city somehow angered the Egyptians (perhaps by rebelling, and attempting to gain independence), and so they destroyed it as punishment.[11] The fifth is that Joshua's Ai is not to be found at et-Tell, but a different location entirely.

Koert van Bekkum writes that "Et-Tell, identified by most scholars with the city of Ai, was not settled between the Early Bronze and Iron Age I.[12]

See also



  1. ^ a b Lemche, Niels Peter (2004). Historical dictionary of ancient Israel. Historical dictionaries of ancient civilizations and historical eras. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-8108-4848-1.
  2. ^ Genesis 12:8, 13:3.
  3. ^ Joshua 8:28 NIV
  4. ^ Shai Elam, going to battle with the interpretation of the Malbiim,kolmus, in Mishpacha magazine, issue 150
  5. ^ a b c d e Davis, Thomas W. (2004). Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19516710-8.
  6. ^ Hess, Orna. "Judith Marquet-Krause". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
  7. ^ Gomes, Jules (2006). The Sanctuary of Bethel and the Configuration of Israelite Identity. Walter de Gruyter & Co. p. 103. ISBN 978-311018993-3.
  8. ^ Naʼaman, Nadav (2005). Canaan in the 2nd Millennium B.C.E. Eisenbrauns. p. 378. ISBN 978-1-57506113-9.
  9. ^ Mazar, Amihai (1990). Anchor Bible Reference Library: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000–586 B.C.E. (1st ed.). Cambridge, England: Lutterworth. ISBN 978-0-71882890-5.
  10. ^ Wright, George Ernest (1957). Biblical Archeology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. ASIN B0007DNVKG. OCLC 301439730.
  11. ^ Callaway, Joseph. "Ai." In David Noel Freedman (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, pp. 125–30. Doubleday, 1992.
  12. ^ Van Bekkum, Koert. From Conquest to Coexistence: Ideology and Antiquarian Intent in the Historiography of Israel’s Settlement in Canaan. Vol. 45. Brill, 2011, pp. 41–42

31°55′01″N 35°15′40″E / 31.91694°N 35.26111°E / 31.91694; 35.26111