This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.
The Total Destruction of Ai
What about those instances where near-total destruction—including women, children, and non-combatants—does seem to be ordered by Yahweh? As an example of this, let’s consider Joshua 8 and Israel’s battle against the inhabitants of Ai.
2 [Yahweh Speaking to Joshua] “And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.”
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.
Before commenting, I want to note that some commentators suggest that much of the violence recorded in the Old Testament is descriptive and not prescriptive. That is, people are violent and the Bible records that reality without affirming that our actions should be violent as well. The descriptive/prescriptive paradigm does not work with Ai’s destruction, however, because in this passage Yahweh Himself ordered the destruction of every living thing.
The account of Ai (along with much of Joshua 1-12) stands as an example of Ancient Near Eastern warfare rhetoric. Nicholas Wolterstorff calls this “hagiographic hyperbole”, where ritualistic, stylized language is used to convey the totally victory of Yahweh over peoples powerless to stop Israel’s march into the Promised Land. As Copan and Flannagan argue, these conquest accounts “are highly hyperbolic, hagiographic, and figurative, and follow a common transmission code.” Thus, the destruction of Ai is one instance where a strong case could be made for rhetorical/hyperbolic language on God’s behalf. This seems to be supported by the “which stands there until this day” language of Joshua 8.29 (which is often an indicator of the “total destruction” motif), as well as the symbolic number of 12,000 inhabitants (reflective of Israel’s twelve tribes). This doesn’t mean that Israel did not defeat the people of Ai or that there wasn’t a battle with fighting, destruction, and death. But the historical and theological takeaways from this passage should be a) Israel’s need to obey Yahweh, b) Yahweh’s power over Canaanite deities, and c) Israel’s military victory over Ai.
 Did God Really Command Genocide?, 103.