Joshua 8:2, 4-5. “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Set an ambush behind the city.’ … So Joshua gave these orders, ‘Listen carefully. You are to set an ambush behind the city…when the men come out against us, as they did before, we will flee from them. They will pursue us until we have lured them away….So when we flee from them, you are to rise up from ambush and take the city… Do what the LORD has commanded. See to it. You have my orders.’”
Exegesis and Application
The report is that the Israelites were about to enter the promised land of Canaan from the east but the fortified cities of Jericho and Ai stood in their way. They took Jericho in a famous fashion and then in the distribution of the booty the disobedience of Achan caused the judgment to God to ordain a defeat of the Israelites’ first attack on Ai. So after dealing with Achan in Joshua 7, Yahweh promised to “give up” (Hebrew = “nothan”) the people of Ai to the Israelites. Furthermore, God even gave instructions to Joshua as to how He was going to “give up” Ai to them - by “ambush.” If Ai would fall, the promised land of Canaan would belong to the Israelites. The stratagem for the war against Ai was designed by God, except for some small details. This is not unusual in the Old Testament because God is a God of war (Joshua 5) and we see Him giving David attack instructions against the Philistines in 2 Samuel 5 and the war council against King Ahab in 1 Kings 22. There are at least two issues in the graphic story of the taking of Ai which capture my attention for the Christian journalist:
1) Is there a divine sanction of untruthful actions on the part of God’s people as they ambush the people of Ai?
2) Was the destruction and annihilation of Ai an example of divine genocide, since probably over 20,000 Aiites in and out of the city were killed in the ruse-laden war?
1) Is there a divine sanction for untruth on the part of God’s people to destroy Ai?
There are several parts to an answer: First, Joshua told no lies and promised no untruths to the Ai army. What the Ai army assumed the Israelite army was doing as it fled from its position in front of the city was not the fault of Joshua. The Israelite army fleeing the advancing Ai army was not an untruth. To stay and fight could have been unwise. After all, the Israelites had been soundly beaten once before. Concealment of plans is not the same as telling lies. Joshua was under no obligations to explain his actions to the generals of Ai. Second, there was no right of the army of Ai to get the full truth from the army of Israel. Normal human relationships had broken down in chapter 7 when the Aiites had routed the Israeli army, killing “about 36” warriors in a previous attack. Even before that, Joshua had sent spies to secretly look at Ai. Relationships between warring parties are abnormal relationships and the divine requirement for honesty, trust and transparent communications between individuals is destroyed.
2) Was the utter destruction and annihilation of Ai divine genocide”
This is a perennial question raised by serious modern readers of the Bible. There is no easy or simple answer. At God’s command did Joshua need to kill everybody in Ai? Couldn’t he have spared the non-combatants? God told them to do to Ai what they did to Jericho and it is reported in Joshua 6: 21, “they destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” Only the precious metal “sacred to the LORD” was saved! Yet in 2 Kings 6 we read of God’s mercy to the Elisha-flummoxed Aramean army. One way to look at the slaughter of Ai is to see that it stubbornly stood in the way of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:7, “The Canaanites were then in the land, but the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” Another way to look at the extermination of the inhabitants of Ai is to note the Noahic curse on Canaan given in Genesis 9:25-27, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. . . Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth. May Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave.”
Still, the slaughter of Ai seems to be an example of divine genocide theology that is expressed throughout the conquest narrative in Joshua. Those who are not Yahwists hold this character of Yahweh responsible for ethnocentric mass murder and genocide, and thus refuse to think seriously about worshipping Him. For the doctrine of theodicy (ie, the vindication of divine justice in allowing evil to exist), this is a difficult passage.
The New Testament doesn’t help much since Paul quotes God’s words to Moses in Exodus 33:9 concerning “having mercy on whom I have mercy” and goes on to use the potter and the clay example of questioning God’s actions (Romans 9). Perhaps we Christians (Yahwists) with a high view of Scripture must repair to the “mystery of the gospel” for perspective and leave it at that.
1) Christian journalist, your view of current events will be colored by your convictions about God. Is He a merciful God that offers hope and redemption to all or is He a vindictive and violent hater of non-Judeo-Christians? The writer of Joshua was clearly a Yahwist who understood history through the eyes of faith in a righteous and merciful Yahweh. Yet Yahweh is a God of war who demands sole worship and obedience to His word and will. Do you report and write your stories in the same way? The story of Ai could have been written in a different manner with a far different tone if a non-Yahwist had reported the events.
2) Christian journalists, do you see the hand of God behind the events you are covering as a reporter? If so, how does that effect your story narrative? The Israelites would not have prevailed over Ai except for the hand of God giving encouragement (“The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.’”), then providing the basic stratagem for victory (“Set an ambush behind the city.”), and finally guaranteeing victory (“Hold out toward Ai the javelin that is in your hand, for into your hand I will deliver the city.”). Without Yawistic eyes to see and ears to hear, you would not know what’s behind the curtain.