[Raymond L. Cox is pastor of the Salem, Oregon Foursquare Church. He has travelled extensively in Bible lands and has written over 1650 articles on Biblical and archaeological subjects. In addition, he is the author of four books.]
“‘Ai’ Ain’t Ai!”
That expression isn’t very elegant but it accurately registered the feelings of a spokesman for believers in the integrity of the Scriptures when he was confronted with the identification suggested by some archaeologists.
Not all archaeologists, to be sure, accept the identification of et-Tell with ancient Ai. But some do, and in venturing this opinion they put themselves in direct conflict with the Bible.
For if et-Tell is Ai, there never was an Ai! That is to say, the story of the Israelite conquest of the city under Joshua reported the ambush of a phantom settlement.
There seems no way to reconcile the rival opinions.
Clearly one has to succumb under the avalanche of facts.
If those archaeologists who champion the identification of et-Tell with Ai are correct, then the account of Joshua’s ambush against Ai is false. If the Bible history is true, then et-Tell cannot be Ai.
You know the Biblical account. After Jericho’s destruction, the Israelites attacked Ai. As a judgment against Achan’s theft of forbidden spoil from Jericho — a crime undetected at the time — God permitted the forces of Ai to rout the invaders. Then when
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Excavating the Iron Age I level (period of the Judges) at et- Tell.
Achan had been exposed and punished, the Lord directed a second attack.
Joshua set an ambush of 30,000 men between Bethel and Ai, plus another ambush of 5,000. He led his main force of troops on the north side of the city and lured the defenders out to pursue the invaders who readily retreated under Canaanite attack. When the army of Ai was sufficiently removed from the city the ambushing troops set fire to the town, then attacked its army from the rear. Joseph Free points out that pincers movements such as Hitler’s forces used to such great advantage are nothing new. The Israelites employed a pincers movement against the defenders of Ai more than 3, 000 years ago! The story appears in Joshua chapter eight.
Archaeologists assumed that modern et-Tell represented the site of ancient Ai. In 1934 and 1935 a French expedition directed by Mme. Judith Marquet-Krause excavated the site. In the middle 1960’s American archaeologists began working there. Both groups report results indicating that et-Tell was not occupied between 2000 B.C. and about 1050 B.C.
In other words, there could not have been a town there for Joshua to attack, regardless of whether you accept the late date of the Exodus in the time of Merenptah or the early date under Amenhotep II.
There is no way to date the Exodus as early as 2000 B.C. (the time
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of Abraham) or as late as 1050 (about the time of David).
So if et-Tell is Ai, then Ai did not exist in Joshua’s time.
Have we here, then, a historical contradiction of a Biblical fact?
Sir Frederick George Kenyon in broaching the subject of Ai prefaced his report with the words: “It is right to mention one indication of archaeology which appears less favorable to the trustworthiness of the Book of Joshua.” However, he was careful to stay on the sidelines, as it were, declaring, “It is, however, not certain that the identification of et-Tell with Ai is correct, and archaeologists are by no means unanimous in their interpretation of the evidence. It is to be remembered also that the transference of a name from a ruined or abandoned site to another nearby is a common phenomenon in Palestine.”
It happened to Arad.
Just east of the 35 kilometer post from Beersheba on the road to Zohar and the Dead Sea I found the turnoff to Tell Arad. There I visited ruins of an Early Bronze Age II Canaanite city dated between the 29th and 27th centuries before Christ. This city sprawled over about 25 acres. At the top of the mound I visited an Israelite citadel occupying about one acre. This settlement dated from about the time of Solomon and continued to early Omayad times, disappearing into oblivion about 12 centuries ago.
Between these two settlements, a gap of 17 to 20 centuries in time, archaeologists found no other evidence of occupation on the site.
But the Bible gives the history of a victory by the Canaanite King of Arad over the Israelites when they presumed to press into the promised land after God condemned them to the wilderness wandering. And the book of Joshua subsequently reports a victory over the King of Arad when the new generation of Israelites invaded Canaan.
How could Joshua and his forces attack the city of Ai if there was no town whatever on et-Tell at the time?
How could Israel suffer first defeat and later victory in battles with Arad if there was no city whatever on Tell Arad at the time?
The answer to the second question suggests a solution to the first problem.
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About seven miles southwest of Tell Arad I saw Tell Malhata. Here, according to Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni, was the Arad of Deuteronomy and Joshua. This site was inhabited at the time of Moses and Joshua. The name Arad had moved cross-country, to be applied to a new city on a new site.
Israelite settlement at Tell Arad.
I know of no compelling reason to assume that the settlements on et-Tell were ever called Ai, but if they were — either in the period before 2000 B.C. or in the time after 1050 B.C. — we may be quite sure that at the time of Joshua another Ai existed somewhere in the vicinity. Arad “moved” from Tell Arad to Tell Malhata and back to Tell Arad. Perhaps this happened with Ai.
For other compelling reasons it seems virtually impossible to accept et-Tell as Biblical Ai. J. Simons in “Archaeological Digest” of the American Journal of Archaeology challenged this identification on four grounds. First, et-Tell is not near Bethel, while Joshua 12:9 locates Ai “beside Bethel.” Second, et-Tell is a large site, but Joshua 7:3 alludes to the smallness of Ai compared to Jericho. The people were “few.” Third, et-Tell did not remain a ruin in the period after the Israelite conquest of Canaan, while Ai did, according to Joshua 8:28. Perhaps the most decisive reason to reject et-Tell as Ai is Simon’s fourth: No broad valley exists to the north of et-Tell, while Joshua 8:11 requires the existence of such a valley there.
The celebrated French archaeologist, Pere Vincent, suggested a
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different explanation. If et-Tell was indeed Ai, he reasoned, Ai was at the time merely a fort or an outpost maintained by the men of Bethel against the invading Israelites. The outpost would have been small and temporary, and thus left no remains to betray its existence. However, Simon’s considerations seem to invalidate Vincent’s hypothesis.
By no means do all respected archaeologists identify Ai with et-Tell. When this subject arose in a conversation I had with Dr. Robert Bull, Director of the Albright Institute of Archaeology (American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem), when I was staying there just before his retirement from directorship in mid-1971, I asked him if the identification of Ai with et-Tell wasn’t quite controversial. He agreed that it was a most controversial subject.
Unfortunately, archaeology cannot qualify as an exact science. The findings of an expedition this year quite likely will contradict the interpretation of excavators a decade ago on the same site. Sometimes the modern interpretations actually ferret out the truth, and sometimes the earlier seem more valid. Kathleen Kenyon’s work at Jericho contradicted Garstang’s, though I still incline to Garstang’s views. Dever’s findings at Gezer in recent years almost completely refute Macalister’s earlier ideas.
I was terribly sorry time did not permit me to accept the kind invitation of John Worrell, Director of the excavations in 1971 at Tell el-Hesi, to visit that site. While we lunched together at the Albright Institute he told me that the identification of this mound remains tentative. In a written report he said “very tentative.” Today archaeologists incline to identify this picturesque tell with ancient Eglon. But Sir Flinders Petrie, who pioneered excavation there about 1890, and his successor in working the site, F. J. Bliss, who cut the pie-shaped wedge which gives Hesi its distinctive appearance, both believed it was Lachish! Not until the mid-1930’s was Lachish positively identified, and it turned out to be Tell ed-Duweir some distance away!
It would be unfair to say that many of the brilliant confirmations by archaeologists were at first lucky guesses, but the fact remains that celebrated excavators find themselves in error time and time again.
But if et-Tell isn’t Ai, where is Ai?
That’s a question further archaeological research may answer. Too
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many valid objections appear against the present identification to trouble Christians that an archaeological hypothesis may contradict the Bible.
Actually, the Bible deserves the benefit of the doubt in any collision with archaeologist’s theories. Too many “difficulties” have already been resolved — the Hittites, the historicity of Sargon, and the like — in favor of the integrity of Scripture for the Bible to seem suspect of error when theories appear to oppose it. Joseph P. Free wrote, “We do not know of any cases where the Bible has been proved wrong.” You might expect that from an evangelical archaeologist who formerly taught at Wheaton University. But late Jewish reform Rabbi Nelson Glueck (pronounced “Glick”) had no axe to grind in championing Biblical inerrancy. Yet this great archaeologist of Hebrew Union College wrote a stronger statement than Free’s. In his book Rivers in the Desert he stated, “As a matter of fact … it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”
You can trust your Bible. Ai was destroyed as the book of Joshua describes. If its site is discovered, excavations will confirm that account. Meanwhile, the other “Ai,” as was colorfully stated, “ain’t Ai.” Et-Tell is not the Ai of the Bible. Archaeologists will have to find that somewhere else.
(Editorial note: Because of the uncertainty of the identification of et-Tell with Ai, soundings have been made at other sites in the area, for example at Kh. Haiyan and Kh. Khudriya. This illustrates the recognition on the part of archaeologists that the Bible’s statements of history must be taken seriously.)
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