Contradiction is a funny thing, because I have my own standards for what I consider to be the difference between a "minor" contradiction and a "major" contradiction. Some people like to accuse me of hypocrisy for this, and I suppose like my standards, it's just a matter of personal opinion. For instance, despite my generalization of the average Christian's lack of criticism of the Bible (my first post), just last night I was at a Bible study at which we were studying Joshua 4, and somebody in my group said, "Hey, what's the deal with the fact that the priests set foot on dry land here? I thought the point of this was that they were on dry land the whole way through?" There's another one to add to the SAB, perhaps, although hypocrite that I am, I personally chalk it up to figurative language. (Either the verse in chapter three is meant to point out that they're not wading, or the verse in chapter four is meant to point out that they were no longer standing in the river; I think it's likely to be both.)
Apparently, this chapter of Joshua is loaded with contradictions, and I'll let you judge for yourself if they are major or minor, or indeed if they are contradictions at all. After all, it's not like I can stop anyone from having a personal opinion. As for me, I'm admittedly not certain on many of these, as they are a bit technical. I'll give a few suggestions and musings and move on.
Let me give the SAB summary of this chapter in a nutshell: Joshua leads his army against the city of Ai. Much violence and cruelty ensues, and it is claimed that the city was completely destroyed, never to be inhabited again. However, archaeology tells us that the city was already destroyed hundreds of years before Joshua got there, and other parts of the Bible say that the city was eventually inhabited. Contradiction with scientific findings, contradiction with itself, and not really a very pleasant story anyway; the Bible seems to be batting .000 here.
First, let me address the easiest point, one that will come up in Joshua again and again. Verse 28 includes the words "...for ever, even...unto this day." I have absolutely no problem with anything in the Bible that contradicts a statement like this, because supposedly this book was written by Joshua himself. If the city was reestablished after Joshua's death, then he would have had no reason to know such a thing. I think this phrase even crops up in other parts of the Bible, and I'm pretty sure we already saw it in Joshua, just not in a place worth commenting on.
I sort of wonder--although it's probably just me being a smartass and not admitting it to myself--how the SAB can say that the conquest of Ai was cruel right after they say it didn't happen? Of course, I suppose the SAB is operating under the assumption that most of this stuff never happened, so what can you say? The SAB really isn't required to be as consistent as one would expect the Bible to be, I'm reading too much into it.
So was the city of Ai already destroyed before Joshua got there? For the hundredth time, I'm no expert on science, history, or the subject where the two intersect: archaeology. There are a few things I could say about the subject, though. I don't know what techniques were used by archaeologists that dug up Ai, but it could be that Joshua destroyed another city in the same general area. Another thing that I find notable about the article the SAB links to (which I really should read, since I am fascinated by archaeology) is a passage that explains why the evidence is so damning to the Joshua account, and yet poses a new question in my mind.
The work of Kathleen Kenyon produced similar results in her excavation of the city of Jericho. Her conclusion was that the walls of Jericho were destroyed around 2300 B. C., about the same time that Ai was destroyed.(my emphasis)Why is it that these two cities were destroyed for unknown reasons "about the same time"? All of this is speculation on my part, and will be taken as complete crap by skeptics, but is it possible that somebody is misdating either the ruins of these two cities or the date that the Israelites entered Canaan? As the article says elsewhere, "The actual truth about the battle will probably never be known."
I'm not going to delve into the issue of cruelty in any depth here, partly because war is simply cruel and violent by nature, and the meaning of this war is something I've already covered in detail. I will note that I don't think hanging the king's body from a tree is particularly cruel. I've often said that I don't much care what happens to my body once I'm gone; I'm not going to be using it anymore. As for the supposed irony of offering a "peace offering" to God in the midst of war, it should be noted that the purpose of the peace offering was to represent the peace between the Israelites and God, not the gentiles. No there would be no peace between Israel and surrounding nations for quite some time.