- A city mentioned along with Heshbon by Jeremiah 49:3, whose location is currently unknown, and which may or may not be the same as:
- A Canaanite royal city which according to the Book of Joshua was conquered by the Israelites on their second attempt. The ruins of the city are popularly thought to be in the modern-day archeological site Et-Tell (see below).
The Ai of Joshua
The Ai mentioned by the Book of Joshua is also mentioned by the Book of Genesis as having been a religious sanctuary, which it claims was founded by Abraham; Abraham's tent, i.e. the area he settled, is stated by the Bible to have been between Bethel and Ai.
In the Bible, the Israelites attempt to conquer Ai on two occasions, the first failing. The Biblical account portrays the failure as being due to a prior sin of Achan; for which Achan, his children, wife, sheep, and other livestock, are stoned to death by the Israelites. On the second attempt, Joshua, who is identified by the narrative as the leader of the Israelites, plans and leads an ambush at the rear of the city on the western side. When the city is captured, it is set on fire and razed to the ground.
Edward Robinson suggested in 1838 that et-Tell could be the location of the Biblical city of Ai, as did Charles Wilson in 1866, on the evidence of Biblical references and nearby topography. This identification was backed by the American scholar William Foxwell Albright, who further argued in a 1924 paper that the site of et-Tell held the ruins of a great Canaanite city. A further point in its favour is the fact that the Hebrew name Ai means more or less the same as the modern Arabic name et-Tell. Albright's identification has been accepted by the majority of the archaeological community, and today et-Tell is widely believed to be one and the same as the Biblical Ai.
If et-Tell is indeed Ai, this poses a problem for defenders of the literal historicity of the Biblical accounts concerning the origin of ancient Israel; the reason for this is that traditional dating schemes place the Exodus from Egypt in 1440 BC and Joshua's conquest of Canaan around 1400 BC, a time at which the archaeological evidence shows Ai to have been completely unoccupied, as it had been for almost 1000 years. The later Iron Age I village appeared with no evidence of initial conquest, and the Iron I settlers seem to have peacefully built their village on the forsaken mound, without meeting resistance. In addition Ai, meaning Ruin is a particularly strange name for a city to have, while it is a quite ordinary name for a pile of rubble to have; Ai would only really be expected to become Ai after it had been destroyed not before.
A fair proportion of archaeologists and biblical scholars have therefore suggested that the biblical account of Ai's conquest derives from an aetiological myth; an impressive ruin and some vague details of its destruction were known to folk memory, but the authors of the Bible sought to explain it in a way that fit with their view of an Israelite invasion and brief campaign of conquest. Since the ruin was a ruin since c. 2400 BC, a time when Canaan was under Egyptian control, Callaway has proposed that the city somehow angered the Egyptians (perhaps by rebelling, and attempting to gain independence), and so they destroyed it as punishment .
Although the vast majority of archaeologists support the identification of Ai with Et-Tell, a few opponents, prominently including Bryant Wood, object to this identification. The alternative proposal is that the Bible's chronology of events is accurate, and the Biblical Ai is not to be located at et-Tell, but a different site entirely. Dr. Bryant Wood has proposed that Ai should instead be located at the site of Kirbet el-Maqatirarguing that the evidence for this site being Ai is stronger than at et-Tell.
- Mazar, Amichai, The Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000-586 B.C.E., New York: Doubleday, 1990, pp. 331-332
- Callaway, Joseph. "Ai." In David Noel Freedman (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol.1, p. 125-130. Doubleday, 1992.