18 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai, for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city. 19 And the men in the ambush rose quickly out of their place, and as soon as he had stretched out his hand, they ran and entered the city and captured it. And they hurried to set the city on fire. 20 So when the men of Ai looked back, behold, the smoke of the city went up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. 21 And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had captured the city, and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. 22 And the others came out from the city against them, so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side. And Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped. 23 But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him near to Joshua. 24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai. 26 But Joshua did not draw back his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had devoted all the inhabitants of Ai to destruction. 27 Only the livestock and the spoil of that city Israel took as their plunder, according to the word of the Lord that he commanded Joshua. 28 So Joshua burned Ai and made it forever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day. 29 And he hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening. And at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree and threw it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised over it a great heap of stones, which stands there to this day.
Reading the story of Ai destruction is rather like watching a violent movie or TV show where the good guys devise and carry out a brilliant plan of attack. But this time, the planner isn’t a general or a strategist, it’s God. The plan He gives to Joshua is simple and effective. Ai falls to the ground in fire and the entire population is killed. God’s judgment against the detestable practices of a pagan people are final and terrible.
We are aghast at the violence. And yet this was God’s just reaction to the sins of a city. They were invested in idol worship, which included child sacrifice and sexual immorality. Ultimately, we have no idea just how bad it was in Canaan as Joshua and God’s people sweep across the land. This story of Ai will be repeated over and over in the next few chapters. In the midst of all the killing, we need to remember Rahab and the fact that her repentance saved her life and that of her whole family. It is safe to assume that any person who took that same path would received the same treatment. While the city as a whole burned, the individual who bows the knee before a holy God in repent confession would be saved.
I’m always appalled when I read Joshua. My sensibilities are challenged. But I hold onto the truth that God is perfect, holy, and just. If His decision was that Ai and her inhabitants should perish, then it was the right thing. Just writing that down causes a catch in my heart, but the truth is the truth, whether I like it or not. Jesus hung on the cross as a completely innocent victim of our sin. That doesn’t seem fair either and yet that is how things work in God’s economy. Jesus’ righteousness is given to me and that isn’t fair – but I’m going to embrace it.