Was Ai a ruin at the time of the Conquest?


Most archaeologists presume that the mound et-Tell, at more than 2 km south-east of the modern Arabic village Beitin, is the site of Biblical Ai. The identity between Ai and et-Tell is almost generally accepted: practically all maps of Palestine show Ai located in et-Tell.


Excavations directed by Judith Marquet-Krause were carried out there from 1933 to 1935. Later, in 1964, 1966 and the period 1968-1972, extensive archaeological investigations at et-Tell were conducted by J. Callaway. These excavations proved firmly that a rather big town had existed in the location of et-Tell from ca. 3100 B.C., which was completely destroyed again as early as about 2250 B.C., i.e. centuries before the Invasion of Canaan by the Israelites. No pottery dating from the Middle and Late Bronze periods has been found. It appears therefore that et Tell was uninhabited from ca. 2250 to 1200 B.C.1


If et-Tell were indeed the site of Ai, the latter place would have been a ruin at the time of the Invasion and would therefore not have been conquered by Joshua; Joshua 8 however informs us in detail about Ai being a town taken by the Israelites.


On the mound et-Tell an Israelite village existed from ca. 1200 to c. 1050 B.C., as evidenced by findings of Early Iron age pottery. After ca. 1050 B.C. the place remained permanently uninhabited.2


The conclusion that Ai was located in et-Tell is due to the circumstance that Bethel is almost unanimously identified with Beitin. Indeed Joshua 7:2 and 8:12 indicate that Ai was located close to Bethel.


Some scholars have explained the account given in Joshua 8 as the result of a mistake, viz. that the author of the book Joshua had confused the conquest of Ai with that of Bethel. Another theory is that the presence of the mound et-Tell gave rise to a legend that a town in that place had once been destroyed by the Israelites; next the author of the book Joshua used this legend to invent a story about a conquest of Ai by Joshua.3


Below we give a summary of a series of papers by dr. D.P. Livingston, who shows that equating Ai with et-Tell, and Bethel with Beitin, is not justified.

Is Beitin the site of Bethel?


The question whether et-Tell is the site of former Ai actually boils down to the question where Bethel is to be found. One argument for the thesis that Bethel was located in the present-day village Beitin is that the Arabic name Beitin may have derived from Bethel. Linguistically, this is quite possible; as the Hebrew l often becomes n in Arabic, the name Bethel may well have become Beitin. However, this does not prove anything. It has more than once occurred that the name of a place has been used for a place in the neighbourhood. Archaeological work provided another argument for equating Beitin with Bethel. In 1934, excavations conducted by the American archaeologist W.F. Albright revealed a destruction layer in Beitin. He concluded that the layer dated from ca. 1230 B.C., and attributed the destruction to the Israelite conquests in the time of Joshua. From Judge 1:22-25 however it appears that Bethel, then still known as Luz, by cunning came into the hands of the Ephraimites only after the death of Joshua, i.e. considerable time after the Invasion. In view of how Bethel (Luz) came into Israelite hands, there is no reason at all to presume that the town was destroyed then. Neither does the book Joshua suggest that Bethel suffered destruction during the campaigns under Joshua's command.


The archaeologist B.G. Wood made a study of ancient pottery found in Beitin and concluded that the excavated destruction layer dated from the 12th century B.C.4


The Beitin pottery excavated by Albright, therefore, does not date from the time of the conquests under Joshua or from shortly after Joshua's death, not even if one would adopt the late dating for the Invasion (ca. 1220 B.C.). Besides, we have more than once proven the untenability of a late dating.


Livingston put forward a series of arguments for rejecting the general belief that Bethel is Beitin. In 1970 he published an article entitled 'The location of Biblical Bethel and Ai reconsidered'.5 He drew the attention to several Bible passages which indicate that Beitin is an improbable location for ancient Bethel:


1. Abraham built an altar on the mountain east of Bethel (Gen. 12:8). East of Beitin there are no mountains. East of el-Bireh, a town at ca. 3 km south of Beitin, there is Jebel et-Tawil, a mountain that is 907 m high.6


2. Bethel was on the borderline between the territories of Benjamin and Ephraim (Josh. 16:1-2 and 18:11-13). The natural borderline runs south of Beitin. If Bethel had been in present-day Beitin, precisely there the borderline between both tribes would have shown a considerable bulge northward. El-Bireh, mentioned already, lies exactly at this natural borderline between he territories of Benjamin and Ephraim; so el-Bireh is a much likelier candidate for the site of the border-town Bethel.7


3. Jeroboam had a temple built in Bethel (1 Ki. 12:29). It is not likely that this temple was built in what is now Beitin, because Beitin is not located on the main road to the north, but on a side-road. Remains of a temple have not been found in Beitin. El-Bireh, on the other hand, is located at a crossroads on the main route to the north and as a result is a busy town even today. In the past it was a suitable place for a temple.8


To Livingston's first Biblical point the objection can be raised that the Hebrew word 'har' in Genesis 12:8 does not necessarily mean 'mountain' but may also be translated as 'highlands'. Abraham and his retinue then had made their camp in the highlands east of Bethel and west of Ai. Somewhere in the neighbourhood Abraham built an altar for God (Gen. 12:8).


However, Genesis 13:10 indicates that the altar was really on a mountain. Years later, after his return from Egypt, Abraham was back, together with Lot, at the altar he had built at Bethel (Gen. 13:3-4). From there, Lot saw the whole 'plain of the Jordan' toward Zoar (13:10). The altar must therefore have been on top of a mountain. A high point from where one gets a view of the northern part of the Dead Sea is not found between Beitin and et-Tell, but the Jebel et-Tawil, already mentioned, does command such a view over a distance of ca. 35 km.9 Genesis 13:10 thus suggests strongly that Abraham and Lot stood on the Jebel et-Tawil and that Bethel must therefore have been where el-Bireh is now.


The 'Plain' referred to the southern part of the Jordan valley down to where the Jordan flew into the Dead Sea (cf. Gen. 19:17, 25,29). Sodom, Gomorrah and other places were located in this fertile plain.10 The Plain is part of an extremely active earthquake area, and it sank away during a calamitous earthquake in the days of Abraham. It now makes up the northern part of the Dead Sea. In the travel report of Theodosius, written in A.D. 570, the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah are spotted south of Jericho.11


Travel reports


Livingston also presented quotations from travel reports that contained clear arguments against an identity between Beitin and Bethel. He also made a study of reports about findings of Roman milestones in Palestine. These milestones always carried an inscription showing the distance to Jerusalem. In the following quotations always milestones on the road northward from Jerusalem are implied.


In part II of his book 'The Holy Land and the Bible', published in 1888, the Palestine traveller Cunningham Geiki on a trip from Jerusalem to Rama reported having seen two Roman milestones near Rama, which still were in their original places. The fifth milestone, with the inscription "five miles from Aelia" still legible on it, was found on a main road more than one mile south of Rama. Aelia is short for Colonia Aelia Capitolina, the name given by the Romans to the city of Jerusalem as it had been rebuilt by them after the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 A.D.). Milestone no. 6 must therefore have stood not far from Rama.12


Church Father Hieronymus, in his comment on the book Hosea, wrote that Rama was located near the seventh Roman milestone. The exact site of Rama must therefore have been between the sixth and the seventh milestone. As Rama was about half-way between Jerusalem and el-Bireh, the Roman milestone with the inscription "12 miles from Aelia" must have stood at el-Bireh.


The data cited here are in complete agreement with what Bishop Eusebius, who lived from 269 to 339 A.D., wrote about Rama in his Onomasticon, a description of places in Palestine: "Rama, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, near the sixth milestone from Aelia".13


Rama was off the road northward from Jerusalem at some distance to the east. Two side-roads turned into Rama, one coming from the north-west, and one from the south-west. The sixth milestone was at the southern turning and the seventh one at the northern turning.


In his Onomasticon Eusebius states that Bethel is 12 miles north of Jerusalem. Beitin, on the other hand, lies 14 miles north of Jerusalem, and since el-Bireh, about 3 km south of Beitin, lies 12 miles from Jerusalem, this must be the site of ancient Bethel.14




An argument for taking et-Tell as the site of Ai has been that the Arabic name et-Tell would be equal to Hebrew ha-`Ai, which would mean 'ruin'. This identification is now being strongly doubted, however. According to Z. Zevit there is no ethymological relation at all between 'ha-`Ai' and the Hebrew word for ruin.15 The latter word is '`iy', whereas Ai was pronounced as 'ghay'. Support for this thesis is found in the Septuagint which spells Ai as Aggai. The above argument is seriously weakened further by the fact that at least ten places in Palestine bear the name et-Tell.16


There are also Bible verses indicating that et-Tell cannot have been Ai. According to Joshua 8:11 there was a valley north of Ai, but north of et-Tell there is no valley.


Excavations in et-Tell have produced evidence that the Israelite village, built on the mound et-Tell in ca. 1200 B.C., has never been inhabited after ca. 1050 B.C.. However, Ai was inhabited during the time previous to the Babylonian Captivity. The fact is that the deportees who returned from the Captivity (ca. 538 B.C.) included men from Ai (Ezra 2:28, Neh.7:32). Ai was also inhabited in the days of Nehemia (Neh. 11:31). In these days et-Tell had been uninhabited for many centuries! Just these clear Biblical data rule out the possibility that et-Tell could be the site of Ai.




In a paper headed 'Bethel is still Beitin', prof. dr. A.F. Rainey responded to Livingston's publication. First he pointed to the linguistic possibility that the name Bethel may have changed into Arabic Beitin. We already argued that such speculation has no evidential value in identifying precisely where a place lies. Next he remarked that Bethel, according to the Biblical evidence, was an important place north of Jerusalem already in existence during the times of the patriarchs (Middle Bronze age) and during the Invasion (Late Bronze). He pointed out that Beitin is one of the few places north of Jerusalem that answers to this description.17 Rainey did not mention the fact that no excavations as yet had been carried out in el-Bireh, which makes his conclusion premature. As a matter of fact, surface surveys in el-Bireh have shown that the place was inhabited during almost all periods under consideration. From an archaeological point of view, el-Bireh may thus very well have been Bethel.18


Rainey also responded to Livingston's observation that Beitin lies off the main road. He admitted that in ancient times it was important for a town to have a connection to a main road, but argued that lying close to it was a different matter. For reasons of safety it was better for a town to be at some distance from a main road. He pointed out that Jerusalem, Gezer and Megiddo, e.g., were not situated on main roads.19


According to Rainey, the distance mentioned on a Roman milestone in Palestine was measured starting from the plinth of a statue that was on the inside of the Damascus Gate, in the northern wall of then Jerusalem. If this was true, the distance of 12 Roman miles to Bethel would agree with the statement of Eusebius, if the milestone had been on the main road at the turning to Bethel.20


The zero point of measurement is shown near the Damascus Gate on the Madaba map, a map of Palestine and surroundings in form of a mosaic, on the floor of a Byzantine church in Transjordan Madaba. The map was made in the sixth century A.D. and discovered in 1884. It shows Gibeon and Rama close to each other, although there is actually some distance between them, like there is between Bethel and neighbouring places. According to Rainey, this map too supports the identification of Bethel as Beitin.21

However, the Madaba map is not exactly to scale in all its parts, and it does not give all places in their correct positions. Quite a few mistakes can be identified on the map, e.g., about the course of brooks in Transjordan and, especially, the part depicting the Nile delta.22


Under the title "Traditional site of Bethel questioned", Livingston responded to the remarks of Rainey, and pointed out that Rainey was not able to produce results of excavations that would positively identify Beitin as the site of Bethel. Beitin just meets a few conditions as to the periods in which Bethel must have been in existence. However, the fact that Beitin has yielded much Middle Bronze and Late Bronze pottery does not mean that the same things could not be found in el-Bireh if excavations were carried out there. Albright himself admitted that there is no independent proof for Beitin being the site of Bethel. Arguments based on recent archaeological finds in Beitin should therefore be left outside of consideration.23


According to Livingston, the milestone at Bethel cannot have been just anywhere in the neighbourhood of the town. Whenever the distance from Jerusalem is mentioned for other places, the Greek preposition 'apo' is used, which can be translated as: 'at a distance of' (.. miles you take the turning to ..). For Bethel, however, a preposition is used which means 'close to'. The distance Bethel-Jerusalem is always given as 12 miles, whether one comes from the north or from the south. The milestone must therefore have been close to Bethel.24


Zero-point in measuring distance from Jerusalem


Livingston pointed out that the 'miliarium aureum' (the golden milestone or zero-point) must have stood near the temple of Zeus or the temple of Venus in the centre of Jerusalem. In Rome, too, the zero-point milestone was in the city centre. The third milestone was found near Shafat, which means that the first one stood not far outside the Damascus Gate. This is another indication that the zero-point milestone was in the centre of Jerusalem. The distance from the centre of Jerusalem to the centre of el-Bireh happens to be exactly 12 miles.25


Livingston rejects the idea that the 'miliarium aureum' should have been located on the inside of the Damascus Gate. He quotes the archaeologists Vincent and Clermont-Ganneau, who found the third milestone near the place Shafat and from this concluded that the miliarium aureum could not have stood near the Damascus Gate. For if one marks the distances on a map, one automatically finds the zero-point in the centre of then Jerusalem.


Milestones had a height of ca. 2.5 m, and at the top they were half as big as at the bottom. The colomn depicted near the Damascus Gate on the Madeba map does not have this shape and thus cannot be meant to indicate the miliarium aureum, in the view of Livingston.


At the southern and northern access roads to Rama were the milestones 6 and 7, respectively. Rama lies at some distance off the main road. The distance from the Damascus Gate to a point on the main road opposite Rama is only 5.5 miles. If the zero-point were in the centre of Jerusalem, like the situation in Rome, the distance to the point opposite Rama would be 6.5 miles, exactly halfway between the sixth and seventh milestone. From there to el-Bireh is a distance of ca. 5.5 miles, and this means that the twelfth milestone must have stood close to el-Bireh.26


New evidence concerning the location of Bethel


In 1994, Livingston published results of new research into the geographical location of Bethel. The 'Itinerary of the Pilgrim of Bordeaux '(from the year 333) reads: "28 miles from there (i.e. Nablus) on the left (east side) of the road to Jerusalem is the village called Bethar, and a mile from there is the place where Jacob slept on his way to Mesopotamia. Jerusalem is 12 miles further on."27


J. Wilkinson, who prepared the Itinerary for publishing, identified Bethar with Bethaun or Beth Aven, mentioned in Joshua 7:2 and 18:12. If el-Bireh is Bethel, then the next village is Beitin. In the days of the pilgrim of Bordeaux, Beitin was apparently known as Bethar, possibly identical with ancient Beth Aven. Linguistically the name Beitin may have derived from Bethar. If, on the other hand, Bethel should be Beitin, no village to be equated with Bethar could be identified a little further northward.


Even in the time of the Crusaders (1099-ca 1250), Bethel was equated with el-Bireh. A detailed description of the religious zoning of Palestine in the time of the crusaders reports that "the great Mahomeria, Birra (el-Bireh)" was part of the crown dominion of Jerusalem. It also mentions that Birra/Mahomeria was given privilege of town and that it was located at a junction of roads (Regesta Hiero Solymitani, 74).28


Islamic Arabs had erected a sanctuary in el-Bireh which they named Mahomeria, after Mohammed. Afterwards it fell into disuse and deteriorated. La Grande Mahomerie was a fortress with a church built on these ruins by the Crusaders. The remains of a Crusaders' church in el-Bireh have recently been excavated. In a report on a journey to Palestine, quoted by Meron Benvenisti in 'The Crusaders in the Holy Land' (1970), an unknown traveller wrote: "Mahomerie was first called Luza and afterwards Bethel". This means in fact that he identified el-Bireh as Bethel.


The German monk Burchard, who travelled through Palestine in the thirteenth century, wrote that Bethel was near Ramallah, which is adjacent to el-Bireh.29 Thus it appears that Bethel was equated with el-Bireh even in the thirteenth century.


The Arabic village Beitin, besides, was founded only in the nineteenth century.30 Even if the name Beitin had derived from Bethel this would be far outweighed by the long-standing tradition that el-Bireh was the site of Bethel. Such a continuous tradition did not exist in Beitin, as the place was uninhabited during some 1200 years. Not surprisingly, Livingston arrives at the conclusion that there is no reason at all to maintain that Bethel is Beitin.


Ai re-inhabited after exile


From Ezra 2:28 and Nehemia 7:32; 11:31 it appears that Ai was inhabited again after the Babylonian Captivity. In that time et-Tell was not inhabited. The question might be raised whether the inhabitants of Bethel and Ai were actually involved in the Babylonian Captivity, since the two towns had long been part of the northern kingdom of Israel. However, King Josiah of Judah (641-609 B.C.) had the sanctuary of Bethel destroyed (2 Ki. 23: 15-20), and annexed the area around Bethel to Judah.31 Bethel and neighbouring Ai became part of Judah in Josiah's days and remained that way even after the Babylonian Captivity. The above verses from Ezra and Nehemia indicate that both places were inhabited shortly before and again after the Captivity.


Ai is near Beth Aven


The mound Khirbet Nisya, which is 2 km south-east of el-Bireh, is believed by Livingston - and supported in this by prof. dr. J.J. Bimson - to be the site of ancient Ai. North of Khirbet Nisya there is a wide valley. South of Khirbet Nisya is Wadi Suweinit, which descends to Jericho.32


Excavations in Khirbet Nisya during the years 1979, 1981 and 1984 produced remains from the Middle Bronze age and from the Persian period; finds from the latter period are in agreement with the situation mentioned briefly in Ezra 2:28 and Nehemia 11:31.33 During later excavations, also pottery and other man-made objects were found which dated from the time when the Invasion took place (Late Bronze age) and from the period previous to the Babylonian Exile (Iron II), when Ai was also reported to exist. The topography of the area round Khirbet Nisya, too, corresponds very closely to what is reported on the situation at Ai in Joshua 8.34


Joshua 7:2 provides clear evidence that Khirbet Nisya, south-east of the Jebel et-Tawil, is the site of Ai: "Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel". Beth Aven was localized by Z. Kallai-Kleinmann in Tell-Maryam, south-east of Khirbet Nisya.35 Joshua 18:12-13 tells us that the northern boundary of Benjamin (coinciding with a natural border) ran past Jericho, through "the desert of Beth Aven", and then towards Luz (Bethel), so that it must have run through Wadi Suweinit.


The conclusion that Beth Aven was in Tell-Maryam also follows from 1 Sam.14:23. The battle against the Philistines started between Geba and Micmash (13:16; 14:5), i.e. in Wadi Suweinit, and "moved on beyond Beth Aven". This place must have been close to Micmash and Geba. Khirbet Nisya is near 'the desert of Beth Aven'. It was across this desert that the natural boundary ran towards Bethel.




Convincing evidence has been assembled by D.P. Livingston that et-Tell cannot be the site of Ai, nor Beitin the site of Bethel, contrary to the general belief. Ai is to be found in modern Khirbet Nisya and Bethel in modern el-Bireh. The implication is that Ai was not a ruin at the time of the Invasion, which is consistent with the information given by the Bible.





Literature cited


1. J. Callaway, Excavating Ai (et-Tell): 1964-1972, BA, 39, 1976, 2, p. 18-20.

2. Z. Zevit, The problem of Ai, BAR, 12, 1985, 2, p. 58.

3. Idem, p. 6.

4. B.G. Wood, Palestinian pottery of the Late Bronze Age, an investigation of the terminal LB II B phase, Toronto 1985, p.4 68-472.

5. D. Livingston, The location of Biblical Bethel and Ai reconsidered, The Westminster Theological Journal, 33, 1970, p. 20-44.

6. Idem, p. 43.

7. Idem, p. 38.

8. Idem, p. 41-43.

9. Livingston, op. cit., p. 43.

10. M.J. Mulder, Sodom en Gomorra, een verhaal van Dode Zee steden, Kampen 1988, p. 11.

11. Idem, p. 17-18.

12. Idem, p. 43. 

13. Idem, p. 49.

14. Idem, p. 34-35.

15. Z. Zevit, op. cit., p. 62.

16. J. Simons, JEOL, p. 157.

17. A.F. Rainey, Bethel is still Beitin, The Westminster Theological Journal, 33, 1971, p. 178.

18. D. Livingston, One last word on Bethel and Ai. Fairness requires no more, BAR, 16, 1989, 1, p. 11.

19. Idem, p. 181.

20. Idem, p. 184-186.

21. Idem, p. 186-187

22. H. Donner, The mosaic map of Madaba, Kampen 1992, p. 36-37, 80.

23. D. Livingston, Traditional site of Bethel questioned, Westminster Theological Journal, 34, 1971, p. 42.

24. Idem, p. 45-47.

25. Idem, p. 48.

26. Idem, p. 48-49.

27. D. Livingston, Further considerations on the location of Bethel at el-Bireh, PEQ, 126, 1994, 2, p. 158.

28. G. Beijer, Die Kreuzfahrergebiete von Jerusalem und S. Abraham (Hebron), ZDPV 65, 1942, p. 198.

29. Livingston, 'Further considerations', op. cit., p. 157.

30. J.L. Kelso, Excavations at Bethel, BA 19, 1956, 2, p.43.

31. J. Maxwell Miller and J.H. Hayes, A history of ancient Israel and Judah, Philadelphia 1986, p. 401.

32. J.J. Bimson and D. Livingston, Redating the Exodus, BAR, 13, 1987, 5, p. 48.

33. J.J. Bimson, Is et-Tell the site of Ai?, BAR, 11, 1985, 5, p. 78-79.

34. Livingston, 'Further considerations', op. cit., p. 159.

35. Z. Kallai-Kleinmann, Notes on the topography of Benjamin, IEJ 6, 1956, p. 183.

Latest update: april 17 2019