So all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel; they left the city open, and pursued Israel.Christians have been wrestling with these passages and the tension they create with some of Jesus' teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Some Christians, like Peter Enns, have straight up denied the historicity of these conquest accounts and made claims that Israel was merely projecting these commands onto God. Others, like Greg Boyd, have taken a "missionary God" approach paired with a "cruciform" hermeneutic that subverts violent imagery in the Old Testament through the cross (sort of a Barthian reading on steroids).
Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the sword that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the sword that was in his hand toward the city. As soon as he stretched out his hand, the troops in ambush rose quickly out of their place and rushed forward. They entered the city, took it, and at once set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, the smoke of the city was rising to the sky. They had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city was rising, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them; so they were surrounded by Israelites, some on one side, and some on the other; and Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped. But the king of Ai was taken alive and brought to Joshua.
When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and when all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and attacked it with the edge of the sword. The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand—all the people of Ai.
While both those attempts are severely lacking, deterministic theologian John Piper has an interesting way to handle this issue that may fail harder than the other two:
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.To a determinist, whatever happens occurs because God willed it to be so. The problem is that there is no real stable basis for the categories "good" and "bad" (a critique I have made elsewhere). On that basis alone, Piper's theology is problematic. However, this specific issue creates a double bind in which this lack of coherence in the nature of God is only one of the potential failures of his system.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
In order to understand the problems, first, let's take a look at some of the surrounding facts of the conquest narratives:
- God sends signs and plagues ahead of Israel to drive the pagans out of the land (Exodus 23).
- The rhetoric in most of the promises pertaining to the conquest seems more concerned with driving the other nations out of the land rather than extermination.
- Rahab clearly responds to the revelation of God through his actions (Josh 2:11).
So here's the double bind. First, if Piper is right and God's eternal will before the foundation of the world was to "slaughter" the occupants of the land, he risks failing the Euthyphro dilemma because God willing mass killing is arbitrary. To reconcile this, one has to create an extra-biblical "hidden will" of God which can contradict his revealed will.
Second, if one avoids the arbitrariness argument, then it raises some issues for a doctrine like irresistible grace. God communicates to the people of the land through a series of warnings, expressing his desire that they need not be killed. The people fail to respond, however, creating serious cognitive dissonance.
If you're interested in getting a good answer to many of the problematic passages in the Old Testament, a good place to start might be Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan's book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. There's lots of good Christian responses to these issues. Don't fall into the Piper (or Enns or Boyd) trap.