The report of the miraculous events that God used to deliver the Israelites from bondage had spread throughout the land of Canaan. The inhabitants of Canaan had lost all courage and trembled with fear at the prospect of fighting against a people with such a powerful God. In fact, when Joshua sent out the two spies to explore the city of Jericho, the harlot Rahab hid them from danger and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt” (Joshua 2:9-10). God’s work and reputation had so paralyzed the Canaanites that the Israelites planned to make easy work of them.
In the first major battle of the Canaanite conquest, the battle of Jericho, God continued to help the Israelites by miraculously destroying the walls of the city. God did, however, decree that none of the gold or silver in Jericho was to be taken by any individuals; it was all to be dedicated to Him. Sadly, an Israelite named Achan disobeyed God’s command and took a wedge of gold, unbeknownst to Joshua and the other Israelites.
In the confidence of their colossal victory over Jericho, the Israelites next plotted to take the small Canaanite city of Ai. Without consulting God, the Israelites only sent a few thousand men to Ai, thinking that victory was inevitable. Aspirations of victory were defeated, however, when the few men of Ai sallied forth and defeated the Israelites, killing some 36 men.
Joshua and the Israelites were devastated and confused. Why had God left them? And what would the other Canaanite nations do now that they saw that the Israelites could be beaten? Joshua mourned and cried to God, “O Lord, what shall I say when Israel turns its back before its enemies? For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and surround us, and cut off our name from the earth. Then what will You do for Your great Name?” (Joshua 7:8-9).
Upon hearing Joshua’s prayer, God informed him of Achan’s sin and explained that the Israelites would not be victorious until the sinner was removed from the camp. Joshua speedily followed God’s instructions for the removal of Achan. Then God gave Joshua a plan for defeating Ai. He instructed Joshua to set an ambush behind the city. Then he was to set a band of soldiers in front of the city and retreat as in the previous battle (Joshua 8). When all the men of Ai saw the retreating Israelites, they thought that the Israelites were defeated as before, and they all rushed forward, leaving the city unguarded. Those in ambush then attacked the city, and signaled for the retreating Israelites to turn and fight. The result was the utter defeat of Ai.
What appeared to be a major defeat to Joshua and the other Israelites, God used to set the stage for a major victory, by making the defeat look intentional. God had added another element to the Canaanites’ reasons to fear Him, showing that not only were the Israelites powerful and strong with His aid, but that they also were capable of cunning military strategy through His guidance. God’s name and brilliance were once again glorified, even in spite of the temporary setback caused by sin in the Israelite camp. This episode provides one more piece of evidence that “[t]here is no wisdom or understanding or counsel against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30).
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