AI (ā'ī, Heb. ‘ay, ruin). A city of central Palestine, east of Bethel. Abraham pitched his tent between Ai and Bethel when he arrived in Canaan (Gen.12.8). Ai figures most prominently in the account of the conquest of the land; it was the second Canaanite city taken by the forces under Joshua (Josh.7.1-Josh.7.26-Josh.8.1-Josh.8.35). Having conquered Jericho, the Israelites felt that a portion of the armies would be sufficient to conquer the much smaller Ai. The Israelite contingent was routed, however. It was then disclosed that Achan had sinned in taking articles from the consecrated spoil of Jericho. After Achan had confessed his sin and he and his family had been stoned to death, the Israelites made a second attack, which resulted in the total destruction of the city and the annihilation of all its twelve thousand inhabitants. The city, the site of which belonged to the tribe of Benjamin following the partition of the land, had not been rebuilt when the was written (Josh.8.28). It was, however, rebuilt in later days, for men of Ai returned from Babylon with Zerubbabel (Ezra.2.28; Neh.7.32).
The work of Joseph Callaway (1964-72) at Et-Tell, generally identified with biblical Ai, has shown that no city stood here from the Early Bronze Age destruction in about 2300 b.c. till a pre-Israelite settlement was built in the Early Iron Age (c. 1200 b.c.). Thus no town existed here in the time of the conquest under Joshua during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550 to 1200 b.c.). Either the biblical record may be somewhat misleading in its account of Ai’s demise or the site is not actually that of Ai. There is no certain evidence confirming this identity.
AI ī (עַ֞י, in Heb. the name is always written with the definite article הָעַ֞י the heap or the ruin). A town in central Pal. A study of the Biblical references to Ai in both the MT and the LXX indicates a persistent relationship of Ai with Jericho, Jerusalem and Bethel. This seems to establish the location of Ai in the region of these three cities. Ai laid E of Bethel (Gen 12:8). “Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, east of Bethel” (Josh 7:2). At first repulsed by the defenders of Ai, the Israelites triumphed after Achan’s sin was punished. The people of Ai were killed on Joshua’s order, the king hanged, and the city burned and left “a heap” (7:1-8:29). It appears to have become an Ephraimite town (1 Chron 7:28, “Ayyah,” RSV) but was occupied by the Benjamites after the Exile (Neh 11:31, “Aija,” RSV). Isaiah portrays the Assyrian armies reaching Jerusalem by way of Ai (“Aiath,” Isa 10:28, RSV).
The modern site designated Et Tell, some two m. SE of Tell Beitin (Bethel), is generally identified as Biblical Ai. Joseph A. Callaway, director of a series of excavations since 1964 at Et Tell, finds the site the only satisfactory location of Ai. This conclusion is based on the correspondence of meanings of the ancient and modern names, the topography and the close relationship to Bethel, Jerusalem and Jericho. Archeological excavations at the site have been carried on by John Garstang (1928), Judith Marquet-Krause (1933-35) and Joseph A. Callaway since 1964. There was a pre-urban occupation of Ai in the last of the fourth millennium (3200-3000 b.c.). An impressive and prosperous city flourished at the site during the Early Bronze period in Pal. which would be the first half of the third millennium (3000-2500 b.c.).
Archeological evidence indicates that this occupation was heavily attacked twice during its history. Artifacts point to Egypt as the power which controlled the site. Ai may have been one of the cities through which Egypt dominated Pal. in the Pyramid Age. With the destruction of Bronze Age Ai, Bethel then became the dominant town in the area.
The Early Iron I occupation of Ai has not yet produced clear archeological evidence. Since the place is called “The Ruin,” the ambiguity of the word “ruin” is a point at issue. It may refer to the Bronze Age site or be the actual name of a new Bronze Age site.
The battle of Ai as recorded in Joshua awaits more archeological data before the problem of dating can be solved.
W. F. Albright, “The Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology,” BASOR, 74 (April, 1939), 11-23; J. A. Callaway, “The 1964 Ai (Et-Tell) Excavations,” BASOR, 196 (Dec., 1969), 2-16; J. A. Callaway, “The 1968-69 Ai (Et Tell) Excavations,” BASOR, 198 (April, 1970), 7-31.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(`ay, written always with the definite article, ha-`ay, probably meaning "the ruin," kindred root, `awah):
(2) The Ai of Jer 49:3 is an Ammonite town, the text probably being a corruption of `ar; or ha-`ir, "the city" (BDB).