Biblical and Archaeological Data on Ai Reappraised
W.W. Winter

Volume XVI -- Number  4
Summer, 1970
pp. 73-83
(C)opyright 1970
All Rights Reserved
The Cincinnati Bible College & Seminary
THE incident which prompted the title for this paper was the subject matter of a lecture given to the staff members of the Joint Expedition at Ai at Deir Dibwan, West Bank, Israel, during the 1968 campaign. Having briefed the crew on the latest finds of the day on the tell, the' director, Dr. J. A. Callaway, Professor of Archaeology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave his appraisal of the total problem of et Tell. He closed his remarks by saying he hoped for the time when as much care would be taken in excavating the written sources as in digging up the soil and stones.

Certainly this reappraisal of the Biblical and archaeological data will not go deep enough to satisfy what the director had in mind. But I would not want to write about the archaeological data alone. I would rather study the Biblical data alone, if I had to make a choice. Probably some who would do extensive ''excavating'' of the Biblical text would attempt to decide how much of the narrative was written by the various source authors generally assumed by the radical critics to have contributed to the total Biblical evidence available to us. Doubtless, some scholars of the literary evidences would throw out a considerable amount of the literary evidence as being worthless etiological legends worthy only of being cast aside as the archaeologist puts the meaningless soil and crumbled sherds on his dump. Surely all Bible history is worthy of continued extensive study, and any "excavating" of it must be done with care.

In this paper, only a cursory look can be taken at what the Bible says about the site of Ai. Certainly little more than a mention can be made of the problem which has arisen from discoveries made by various archaeologists. At least a suggestion will be made concerning a position to maintain with regard to the conflict.

The Biblical Evidence

The first reference to Ai is found in Genesis 12:8 where mention is made of Abram's pitching his tent, "having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east." The form of the name in this reference is Hai and leads some archaeologists and Bible Geographers to look for the site in a different place from that which will receive primary consideration in this treatise. The same form appears again in Genesis 13:3, but elsewhere the more common form, Ai, is found.

The first mention of Ai in the account of the conquest is found in Joshua 7:2, where we find a record of Joshua's leading Israel in her initial attack on the city. In this reference, Ai is described as being "beside Beth-aven, on the east side of Bethel."

This was an ill-fated campaign, and the narrative bears witness to the defeat as it continues, "And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty and six men: for they chased them before the gate even unto Shebarim, and smote them in the going down."(1)

When the sin in the camp of Israel had been purged, a second campaign was undertaken. In anticipation of the second attack, Joshua set an ambush "between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai."(2)Joshua and the main part of the army came against the city from the east and pitched their camp "on the north side of Ai: now there was a valley between them and Ai."(3)

The question of the second ambush leads the radical critic to posit two sources. He stumbles over the numbers mentioned in 8:3 (thirty thousand) and 8:12 (five thousand). There is no great problem here. If Joshua's camp was to the north of et Tell, the generally accepted location is quite appropriate. An ambush around the hill where the road now runs to Beitin and another up the valley northwest of the suggested location would both be out of sight. They could easily come out of hiding when they saw the signal of Joshua and heard the commotion of the battle.

The story of the destruction is a well known Biblical account. Joshua moved his main force against the city evidently up the Wady Asas from the east. Israel then fell back. The king of Ai supposed he was winning a second engagement and emptied his city of its defenders. At that moment the two ambushes on the west of the city entered from positions out of sight of the men engaged in the conflict. They set the city on fire, and the people of Ai were caught between the main forces of Israel and the two ambushes.

The report of this victory of Israel reached the ears of the king of Jerusalem, Adonizedek; and the fall of Ai was one of the factors causing him to decide to attack Gibeon, whose inhabitants had made peace with Joshua and the Israelites. This is the way the Scripture reads: "Now it came to pass, when Adonizedek king of Jerusalem had heard how Joshua had taken Ai, and had utterly destroyed it; as he had done to Jericho and her king, so he had done to Ai and her king; and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel, and were among them; That they feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, as one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all the men thereof were mighty."(4) A special note is made of the victory over Ai, and her king is in the roll call of the cities and kings destroyed by Israel.(5)

The site did not figure prominently in the later history of Israel. Reference is probably made to the place in Isaiah's listing of the points past which Sennacherib marched on his way to Jerusalem. Let the prophet speak to us: "He is come to Aiath, he is passed to Migron; at Michmash he hath laid up his carriages: They are gone over the passage: they have taken up their lodging at Geba; Ramah is afraid; Gibeah of Saul is fled. Lift up thy voice, 0 daughter of Gallim: cause it to. be heard unto Laish, 0 poor Anathoth. Madmenah is removed; the inhabitants of Gebim gather themselves to flee; As yet shall he remain at Nob that day: he shall shake his hand against the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem."(6)Several of these places--Michmash, Geba, Ramah, Gibeah of Saul, Anathoth-have been located with reasonable certainty; and the order in which they are listed suggests a line of march against Jerusalem from the north. The form, Aiath, is a feminine form; but the root, Ai, can be plainly seen.

A singular mention is made of the fall of Ai by Jeremiah years later. Here Ai and Heshbon are mentioned together. Some scholars are quick to point out that Heshbon is in the land east of the Jordan River; and no obvious reason is seen for associating the site with Ai, which is evidently west of the Jordan. They therefore suggest the reading should be Ar, and charge the scribes with an error. One is left to wonder, however, if Jeremiah is not reaching back in history to the time when Ai was made a heap forever in an effort to under-score his prediction that Rabbah shall be "a desolate heap."(7)

The final mentions of Ai in the Bible are in the books or Ezra and Nehemiah. Both references are to the two hundred and twenty-three men of Bethel and Ai who went up out of the captivity under the leadership of Zerubbabel.(8)

Such a large number of references in the Bible and such a full discussion of the initial conquest of this city inclines even the casual reader of the Scriptures to regard the city as being of some importance. No particular pr9blem is raised by the Biblical evidence, and the conflict between the Biblical evidence and the archaeological evidence is of rather recent vintage.

The Archaeological Evidence

Et-Tell has been of special interest to the archaeologists for over forty years. The change of climate with regard to the interpretation of the Biblical narrative on the basis of archaeological work can easily be felt in perusing some of the pages of the Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly. For example, in the 1929 edition a summary is made of the work of Garstang and others at Ai with this note: "The expedition organized by Sir Charles Marston disclosed the ancient walls of Ai; and it was reported that the city dated from the Early Bronze Age and was totally destroyed in the Late Bronze Age."(9)

In company with the architect of the 1969 Joint Expedition to Ai and with the help of two Arab artists, it was my privilege to examine, describe, and draw all the sherds left in the Rockefeller Museum at Jerusalem by Garstang. They were not large in number, and the evidence to be gathered from them was scanty.

W. J. Pythian-Adams in the 1936 annual of the Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly made this observation:

"The results of the recent excavations at Ai will cause some perplexity to those who pin their faith too simply to the spade. The eminent French archaeologist, M. Dussaud, writes concerning these results: 'One of the most unexpected results of the two campaigns of excavation carried on at Ai has been to show that site remained unoccupied during the whole of the Middle and Late Bronze Age, that is from 2000 to 1200 B.C. The name, Ha-ay, 'the ruin,' can only have been given to the site after the destruction of the city, that is, after 2000 B.C. From this, Mme. Judith Marquet-Krause concludes that the site was desolate when the Israelites began the conquest of Canaan."(10)
Professor W. F. Albright took his position alongside Professor Garstang at this point. He made this comment:
"The writer's rapid studies of the surface pottery of et Tell (Ai) are now supplemented by Garstang's brief soundings in September, 1928. His collection of sherds was relatively small since he only dug a few days outside the Bronze Age wall of the tower. A few conclusions may be drawn with certainty. First, there can be no doubt that the site was occupied before 2000 B.C., in the early Bronze Age proper, and that it was occupied more or less continuously through the Middle into the Late. Second, the sherds so far examined, carry us down to a period rather later than the end of Tell Beit Mirsim D, but earlier than C, i.e., to about the fifteenth century B.C. We may, therefore, tentatively date the destruction of all three sites in the fifteenth century B.C. though the end of the sixteenth would also be possible."(11)
The real conflict then developed when Mme. Judith Marquet-Krause worked on the site in the years from 1933 through 1935. At the end of her work, she came to a very positive conclusion that the site had been unoccupied from about 2400 B.C. to 1100 B.C.(12) Martin Noth joined her in casting doubt upon the Biblical account and called the narrative an etiological legend.(13)

Other students of the historical narrative and archaeological evidences are less antagonistic toward the Bible account. They have put out the theory that Biblical Ai was located at some other spot. Some have suggested Khirbet Hai, southeast of Michmash, as possibly the site. Still others have suggested Khirbet Khudriya, east of et Tell along the Wady Asas route to Jericho. J. M. Grintz of Tel Aviv University has revised Dussaud's identification of et Tell with Beth-aven, and suggested that Khirbet Haiyan could be the site of Ai.(14)

Professor David Livingstone in his paper given at the twenty-first annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society saw the problem. He said that one of the greatest problems in the identity Beitin = Bethel should be that of the uncertainty surrounding the location of Ai.

Because of this uncertainty and the number of theories that have been advanced concerning the Bethel-Ai location, W. F. Albright claims that Ai was mistaken for Bethel by the Bible writers.(15) For some, Ai was only an in1significant outpost of wooden structures, none of which remain.(16)

Professor Livingstone reached the conclusion that El-Bireh is probably the site of Bethel. He went on to suggest a new location be sought for Ai. He suggested Khirbet Nisieh. He describes this location as being an area where surface pottery on the tell is Roman. He noted that just off the tell to the north the surface is covered with early Iron Age pottery. This is his conclusion:

"A new location for Bethel and Ai is an exciting prospect. It has many implications for other city locations in the tribal area of Benjamin. If our new proposal is accepted as correct and excavations are carried on, it may also open some new possibilities for Palestinian dating and better correlations with other Near Eastern chronology. Not the least of these may be some help on the date of the conquest.(17)
The archaeological evidence found at the generally accepted site at Beitin is too strong to be brushed aside too quickly in an apparent effort to find a way out of the dilemma posed by the interpretation of the finds at et Tell. Such a suggestion seems to compound the problem, because the many reasons for identifying Biblical Bethel and Beitin rise up to haunt one who feels he has felled them with bold strokes of his pen. Rather we must face the enigma of et Tell itself.

Naturally, the whole problem of a location of Ai is of utmost importance in giving a date for the conquest of Canaan by Israel. The problem is rather large when the Biblical evidences for the conquest are taken seriously.

After the time of Joshua, the judges judged Israel for a period of at least three hundred years. This is the minimum slice of time derived from adding up the chronological notes in the book. It is not sufficient to say that these men led Israel contemporaneously--that is, Jephthah was holding forth in Gilead while Samson was challenging the Philistines along the western seacoast. Jephthah says the people of Israel had been in the country three hundred years.(18)(The historian in I Kings 6:1 declares that the temple of Solomon was begun in the fourth year of his reign and that this was four hundred and eighty years after the exodus. There can be really very little doubt but that the Biblical evidence points to a period earlier than the middle of the thirteenth century for the attack on Ai, even though this late date is held by those who lean most heavily on the current interpretation of the pottery finds on et Tell. Thus, the problem is clear.

None can deny that the archaeologists have been careful in their work. Khirbet Haiyan does not yield evidence of an occupation farther back than the time of the Romans in Palestine. Khirbet Khudriya is evidently not the site of Ai Here have been found only Byzantine ruins, burial caves, and tombs along the side of Wady Asas yielding some Herodian and Roman pottery.

What can we say then about this intricate maze of conflicting lines of evidence? Twenty-seven acres lie on the top of the mound called et Tell. Only a fraction of the surface has been uncovered. This small amount of acreage studied has nonetheless yielded perhaps as much as 20,000 pieces of pottery, along with several hundreds of whole objects. The best interpretation given to the evidence points only to three eras of occupation--Byzantine, Iron Age, and Early Bronze Age.

There is a palace or a temple at the summit on the western side. A small gate overlooks Wady Asas on the east. A small corner gate is at the southeast end, and a reservoir has been uncovered nearby. Triple walls have been found at various points running from site to site.

Inside the main walls, a residence has been uncovered. Interesting sidelights have been presented with regard to the everyday life of its ancient occupants, whose era has been called the Iron Age. As noted, some 20,000 pieces of pottery have been carefully recovered, washed, cataloged, and described. True, the verdict is that there was an occupation in the Early Bronze Age and again in the Iron Age, with no evidence of occupation between the two eras. In the Christian era, Byzantine farmers terraced the site and lived there without major fortifications.

But, has all the 'evidence been recovered? Are we in a position at this time to deny the plain statement of the Scriptures? Shall we take the interpretation placed on the archaeological evidence in preference to the evidence of the written Word?

It seems to me that we must await further evidence. More work must be done on the site. More study must be made of the evidence The Bible will be vindicated, we are sure. History has repeatedly shown that no evidence produced by the archaeologists successfully contradicts or contravenes the Bible.

We feel that the archaeologists are much like the space scientists. Walter Cronkite on a television special preceding the launching of Apollo 13 on April 11, 1970, said of these brave explorers:

"They have learned an awful lot but haven't decided anything."

The science of archaeology is a relatively recent development in Bible studies. On the contrary, investigation of the Biblical narrative from a literal standpoint has been continuing for centuries. Texts have been carefully examined and reexamined. Manuscripts have been carefully preserved and painstakingly compared with other copies. Translations have been made at every major step of man's history. The message seems clear, and its claim of being "God-breathed" still stands.

Consequently, we feel that we must put the Bible and its having withstood the years of attack in the place of Ahab. We would put the archaeological evidence in the shoes of Ben-hadad, king of Syria. When Ben-hadad came out against Ahab, he ordered the king of Israel to deliver to him all his silver, gold, wives, and children. He announced the arrival of his servants, saying that they would be at Ahab's palace the next day to take whatever was pleasant in their eyes. He ordered Ahab to deliver all into their hand that they might take it away.

Ahab refused, and Ben-hadad cried out:' 'The gods do so unto me, and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people that follow me."(19)

To that large boast, Ahab answered: "Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off."(20)

With all due respect to the fine contributions made by the careful archaeologists, we must humbly request additional time to make further investigation before accepting a late date for the con-quest, or abandoning et Tell as the most likely site of the Biblical city named Ai.

1. Joshua 7:5.
2. Joshua 8:9
3. Joshua 8:11.
4. Joshua 10:1, 2.
5. Joshua 12:9.
6. Isaiah 10:28-32.
7. Jeremiah 49:2.
8. Ezra 2:28 and Nehemiah 7:32 ("an hundred twenty and three").
9. "Notes and News," Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly, 1929, p. 3.
10. W. J. Pythian-Adams, "Notes and News," Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly, 1936, p. 54.
11. W. F. Albright, "The American Excavations at Tell-Beit Mirsim," Zeitschrift fur die altentestamentliche Wissenschaft VI (1929), pp.11, 12.
12. Judith Marquet-Krause, Les fouilles de 'Ay (Et Tell) 1933-1935, p. 24, also "La deuxieme campagne de fouilles a 'Ay (1934)," Syria, XVI (1935), pp. 325-45.
13. Martin Noth, "Bethel und 'Ai," Palastinajahrbuch, XXXI (1935), pp.7-29; also The History of Israel (1960), p. 149, n. 2.
14. J. M. Grintz, "Ai which is beside Beth-aven," Biblical, XLII (1961), pp. 201-216.
15. W. F. ALBRIGHT, "The Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No.74 (April, 1939), pp. 16, 17.
16. G. F. Owen, Archaeology of the Bible, Westwood, New Jersey: Revell, 1961, p. 321.
17. David Livingston, "The Location of Biblical Bethel and Ai Reconsidered," a manuscript read before the twenty-first meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, The Cincinnati Bible Seminary, December 30, 1969, p. 28.
18. Judges 11:26.
19. I Kings 20:10.
20. I Kings 20:11.

Scanned: Michael Riggs
Corrected: Daniel Dyke