Can We Rely on God to Perform Miracles?
Joshua 8 tells an unusual tale. Joshua assumed leadership of the Israelites upon Moses’ death. He led them across the Jordan River into the promised land of Canaan. He conducted them in one successful conflict against the Canaanite inhabitants at Jericho, but lost a crucial battle at Ai, and was unsure whether he could be successful in future wars.
We read that Joshua has a direct, friendly, and reassuring conversation with God who, like a wise military advisor, details a strategic plan with some tactical details. Joshua listens intently but, curiously, modifies the divine plan. Additionally, although he is promised victory, Joshua amasses an enormous fighting force, thereby apparently showing that he didn’t rely on the deity’s assurances.
1. Since God assured Joshua of victory, why did Joshua go beyond the specific divine order to lay one ambush? Why did he modify the plan, setting a second ambush of five thousand soldiers?
2. Why did Joshua organize an armed force of such a large number of troops (sixty thousand according to a rabbinic tradition, twenty times the amount of soldiers that he sent against Ai during the first failed attack)? God had only told him in a general fashion to send the people.
3. Why couldn’t Joshua simply send a small platoon of soldiers against the city of Ai since God assured him of success no matter how many soldiers he drafted for the battle?
4. If God had decided to aid Joshua in giving him a victory, why was a battle – in which Israelites must have been killed – necessary?
5. Why couldn’t God cause the walls to fall as God did at Jericho, where perhaps no Israelite soldier died?
What Happened at Ai?
Joshua 8 relates the story of the second Israelite military campaign against the Canaanite fortified city Ai by Joshua and his armed forces. The account is introduced by God’s assurances of victory. God also tells Joshua how to triumph. “And the Lord said to Joshua: ‘Do not be afraid or dismayed. Take all of your soldiers with you, arise and go up to Ai. See, I have given the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land into your hand…. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.’”
Later, during the battle, God advises Joshua again. “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai [as a signal to the Israelite forces laying in ambush]; for I will give it to into your hand.’”
Joshua listens to God. On the night following the first instruction, he organizes his forces as God specified. He arranges a regiment of ambushers, thirty thousand men, whom he hides in a secluded spot not far from the city. He orders them to remain hidden throughout the night until morning when he and the remaining forces (although the number is not recorded, rabbis say they were also thirty thousand) would draw the Ai army outside of its fortification. When the Ai forces are sufficiently far from the city, they are told to rise from their hiding place and seize the now unarmed and open city.
In the morning, as God instructed, Joshua and his forces attack Ai. Apparently, in an abundance of caution, he hides an additional five thousand ambushers in the same area as the thirty thousand.
The king of Ai sees the Israelites approaching and is deceived. He dispatches a throng of soldiers against the invaders and leaves his city unarmed as God foresaw. The Israelite forces feign fear and retreat, and the troops of Ai are drawn from the fortified city into the wilderness.
Joshua lifts his javelin, as God instructed, and the ambushers rise up from their hiding place and seize the city. They set the city aflame and then turn and leave the burning city to join their brethren in battling the soldiers of Ai. The retreating Israelite army turns to face the soldiers of Ai, and these soldiers are caught in a pincer movement between the two advancing forces and defeated.
Do Not Rely on Miracles
Commenting on verse 3 where Joshua selects thirty thousand warriors for the ambush, Yehudah Kil states that Joshua undertook this tactic because of the talmudic principle “one should not rely on a miracle.”
At first blush, Kil’s explanation of Joshua’s behavior does not appear to be correct. The examples cited by the Encyclopedia Talmudit are not of situations in which God instructed someone how to act and assured him or her of a result. The talmudic principle states, in essence, that people should not put themselves in a dangerous situation and rely on God to save them with a miracle. For example, people should not put their friends in danger relying on the fact that they are great and pious individuals and worthy of a miracle. Similarly, even though there is another rabbinic principle that a person who is doing a good deed, a mitzvah, will not be harmed, he or she should not do the good deed in a dangerous area expecting to be saved by a miracle.
The principle of “one should not rely on a miracle” does not appear to be relevant to Joshua 8 since Joshua was not relying on a miracle; rather, he was following God’s explicit tactics and assurances.
God Promised Nothing
These difficulties disappear once we accept Maimonides’ interpretation in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48. Maimonides explains there that the Bible frequently states that God takes a specific action when it only means that God is the ultimate cause of the occurrence since God created the laws of nature. What the Bible describes as God’s act is in reality something that occurred naturally, through the laws of nature that God had created; God was not involved in the specific incident.
Additionally, Maimonides considered prophecy a higher level of intelligence and not the word of God. As he states in 2:44: when the Bible indicates that a person prophesies it means that he “he finds in himself the cause that moves him to do something good and grand; e.g., to deliver a congregation of good men from the hands of evil-doers” (emphasis added).
Furthermore, Maimonides did not believe that God interferes with the laws of nature and readjusts the world from time to time with miracles. In his Guide 1:11, for example, he states that God is “the stable one who undergoes no manner of change…nor a change in His relation to what is other than Himself” (emphasis added). In 2:29, he states that what people think of as “miracles” are parts of nature that are preprogrammed into the world at the time of creation, not periodic readjustments. In 1:67, he explains that “on the seventh day [of creation] the state of things became lasting and established just as it is at present.” In 2:10, he writes that “angels” who are mentioned in the Bible as participants in some “miracles” are nothing more than normal preexisting forces of nature, not supernatural beings.
Maimonides recognized that God is good, God’s creation is good, and God is all-knowing. For a person to imagine that God is like an incompetent workman who must repeatedly return to his job to reprogram and readjust his errors is a denial of God’s competence, knowledge, and the goodness of the divine creation. God knew all that could occur and took it into consideration at the time of creation. As J.A. Diamond explains, “In truth, any events befalling man result from his own misadventures and have nothing to do with God’s intervention in human affairs.” People should not rely on miracles because they will not happen.
Explanation of Joshua 8
When we examine the story from this non-miraculous perspective, we see the following: Joshua evaluated the impending battle against the fortified city of Ai, inspected the battle area, and considered the psychology of his enemy. After a careful review, he felt certain (described in the Bible as God’s assurance) that he could defeat the Ai forces if he would undertake a deceptive tactic. He knew that he must not rely on a miracle (as stated in the commentary of Sefer Yehoshua and Maimonides). With this in mind, he organized a sufficiently large force, twenty times the number of his first failed attack, set troops in advantageous positions, and used a subterfuge that led the enemy into a trap because of its mistaken belief that the Israelites were retreating in terror as they did during the initial assault against their city.
Joshua 8, like many biblical episodes, describes a war in which Scripture states that God advised Joshua how to act and assured him of victory. If one accepts the story literally, understanding that God interfered with nature and was involved on the Israelite side, many questions are raised. However, the understanding that the statement of God’s involvement is only a figurative way of describing the laws of nature helps the reader realize that it was Joshua who developed the strategy and tactics, and all questions are answered.
 This chapter is taken from my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets.
 In his commentary to the Book of Joshua, Sefer Yehoshua.
 Yoma 1:4, based on Deuteronomy 6:16.
 Hermeneutics of Concealment, 94.