Mass killings in the Bible are always hard to deal with. This morning I read the uncomfortable story of Joshua chapter 8. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s the story of God giving the city of Ai to Joshua and the people of Israel. The only problem was that, in order to take the city, Joshua and his army of 30, 000 men had to burn the city and slaughter its 12,000 residents. The text even makes a point to tell us that the 12,000 included men and women (Josh. 8:25). It sounds like an act of genocide.
When I was younger, stories like this made me cheer for God. God’s army is the best. No one can stand in his way.
But now stories like this make me squirm. Killing 12,000 people…. really?
The story is brutal in its matter of fact description of the events. No emotion from God, no giving the people of Ai a way out, no love for the lost.
Instead it is just the story of God (through Joshua and his army) setting an ambush, burning the city, killing its inhabitants, and taking its plunder.
And yet, when seen in the greater narrative of the whole Bible, the story is also about grace. Not the grace given to the people of Ai, but the grace given to us.
The story reminds us that:
- All those who live in opposition to God’s kingdom and laws are subject to his wrath and face certain death (Rom. 6:23). And that God’s wrath is thorough.
- In a way we all, at one time, were citizens of the city of Ai (a kingdom opposed to God). Therefore we all were objects deserving of God’s wrath (Eph. 2:1-3).
- But God in his mercy called us out of the “condemned city” and he gave us the opportunity to repent, and to enter into “his city”. He gave us (the rebels) the opportunity to live under his sovereign protection and care (Eph. 2:4-9), able to live not just as aliens among his people, but as full citizens (Eph. 2:19), even as adopted sons and daughters of the King (Eph. 1:5).
But even in the midst of the grace, the story still has an edge. Because it points us to the future. A future which still includes wrath. Wrath not for us, but for all those who are still living in their own city of Ai (kingdoms opposed to God’s kingdom). For a time has been appointed by God, for Jesus (the better and more perfect Joshua) to judge, to conquer, and to lay waste to all those who oppose his kingdom.
Therefore those of us who are citizens of God’s city, recipients of God grace, should still pray for God’s mercy on all those we know. That they too, while they still can, will respond to the grace offered to them through Jesus, and turn from their opposition to his kingdom.
The idea of God ordering the slaughter of 12,000 people still doesn’t sit well with me. It is a dark story. But it is against the darkness where we find gratitude for the light. The story of Ai reminds us that God’s wrath and judgment are real. Yet through his son Jesus Christ he has made a way for us to escape that wrath and enter into his love. And knowing what could have been makes his grace, his forgiveness, and his protection that much sweeter.
Today, may we appreciate the grace given to us. And may we pray for those we know to receive and respond to that same grace.