Ai (Joshua 8)

Locating Bible places is one of the most vexing issues of Biblical archaeology. Professional archaeologists must debate minute points, and lay people are often bewildered by the references to so many unfamiliar sites in the Holy Land, all with modern Arabic names. Pinpointing the location of ancient Ai illustrates the dilemma, which has proven overall to be a thorny problem in Old Testament studies. Sometimes these seemingly obscure issues can have major consequences. Because of questions concerning the location of Ai, for example, many scholars argue that the entire story of this city’s conquest is simply a legend.

Joshua 7:2 states that Ai was east of Bethel, near Beth Aven. Bethel is often identified as modern Beitin, but this is by no means certain. Alternatively, it may have been located at modern El-Bireh, with Beth Aven being modern Beitin.

Because of an influential article in 1924 by W.F. Albright, the “father” of Biblical archaeology, nearly all scholars have accepted the large site of et-Tell as Ai. But this poses a problem, since et-Tell was not occupied in Joshua’s time. People did not live there during the Early Bronze Age (early patriarchal period), however, and this location is indeed probably the landmark (original) site of Ai (Genesis 12:8). Since the Bible states that the Ai captured by Joshua was small (Joshua 7:3, 10:2), it is possible that a fortress near modern et-Tell was called Ai during Joshua’s time.

In 1838 the English scholar Edward Robinson was informed of a tradition in the Holy Land that Ai was located at modern Khirbet el-Maqatir. This same notion was encountered in 1899 by German scholar Ernst Sellin. Since 1995, Bryant Wood has conducted excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir, determining that a small fortress dating to the fifteenth century B.C. was indeed there – and that it meets all the Biblical requirements for Joshua’s Ai.

Geographically, Khirbet el-Maqatir fits the description in Joshua 7 and 8, though the disputed locations of other places come into play. It is located nearly 1,6 km southeast of Beth Aven (Joshua 7:2), if Beitin is accepted as the site of Beth Aven. It is 3,2 km east-northeast of Bethel if El-Bireh is accepted as the site of Bethel.

In addition, Khirbet el-Maqatir fits the narrative of Joshua 8 well. Between this location and El-Bireh is a deep valley, the Wadi Sheban, which could easily have accommodated a large ambush force such as the one described in Joshua 8:9. Joshua 8:11 mentions Joshua’s men ascending to the north of Ai and setting up camp. Jebel Abu Ammar, 1,6 km due north of Khirbret el-Maqatir, is the highest hill in the region, providing a commanding view of the battle area. A shallow valley lying north of this site, the Wadi Gayeh, is located between Khirbet el-Maqatir and Jebel Abu Ammar; from here the king of Ai could have seen Joshua and his men (Joshua 8:14).

Khirbet el-Maqatir also fits the archaeological requirements for identification as  Joshua’s Ai. A small fortress in the area (Joshua 7:3, 5, 10:2), approximately three acres in size, has yielded pottery dating from the fifteenth century B.C. Although Joshua 8:25 states that the town had 12,000 inhabitants, there is reason to believe that textual corruption has increased the number tenfold (i.e. it should read 1,200). According to Joshua 7:3 the Israelites calculated that 3,000 soldiers at most would constitute a sufficient force to conquer Ai due to its small size.

The gate of the fortress is located on the north side, corresponding to the Bible’s identification of a northern front for the fortress (Joshua 8:11). Abundant ash at the site, along with burned pottery, stones and bedrock, evidences destruction by fire (cf. Joshua 8:28).

In conclusion, the site of et-Tell, identified as Ai by Albright, is most likely the location of Ai in the early patriarchal period. By Joshua’s time, however, the fortress had evidently migrated slightly to the west – to Khirbet el-Maqatir. The significance? The taking of Ai by Joshua and his forces was a historical event – a conclusion with profound implications for the acceptance of the whole Bible as God’s infallible, inspired truth.


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