Wait. I think I understand at least some of the ways we might attempt to make sense of passages like these. The problem is not that I'm lacking in potential interpretations or understandings of stories like these. The problem is none of the points of view are very attractive to me.
A Few Options:
A. God does what God wants and if he wants to kill a whole pile of innocent people then that's his perogative--I don't like this one, and I have no desire to follow a God like that. I find the only folks that do like this sort of interpretation are the ones who are pretty confident that it will be others rather than themselves that experince this sort of thing. (I'm guessing there are some who are thinking. "These people were not innocent, Dan! God says they were wicked!" Yes, the scripture says that God says that, but God tells us not to pay wrong for wrong, turn the other check, lay down our lives, etc. He never says when you get angry you can throw huge stones from the sky at people. God says all sorts of things about fairness, love, compassion, care. Do those things disapear when God gets angry? Was God really different than? Have the rules changed? So, if I use the New Covenant as an excuse, my answer is, what? God in the Old Testament holds himself to lower standards than he does Christians in the New Testament? And, even if these cities were filled with people that would make Hitler seem a choirboy what about the ones who couldn't have been evil? In many (most) instances we see here, everything is killed, (no surviors) animals and children right along with the "evil" adults. Justice?
B. The Bible reveals a progression of grace that humanity needed. Perhaps people can not move too quickly to thier next worldview? Maybe it's gracious to reveal things to us when we need them and then they may turn out to be completely different or tweaked as we humans grow and mature? My 3rd grade teacher taught me that I wan't allowed to use "an" in front of a consanant. It was largely helpful for years. Until, in the 9th grade I found a typo in a school text! I know, I was prideful, and the typo judgement thing is really ironicc now. But, I was so excited to show my teacher how smart I was and how foolish the author was, because I knew the hard and fast law "a" is the indefinite article before a consonant and "an" is the article before a vowel. So when I read something about "...an historic event..." I went to the teacher to bring correction as quickly as I could! That's when Mrs. Klewer (the best English Teacher in the world, it was an honor to know her) introduced me to the soft "h" sound and how the use of "an" is an appropriate choice before it. Could it be that when people are bent towards violence and destruction God knows that by their very nature they need "baby steps" into grace? I actually tend to lean towards theories like this one. But, in all honesty while it helps me often...it's just not enough here. The kids still watch their parents die or vice versa.
C. The Bible is the testimony of the saints that have gone before us. It includes our best guesses, translations, interpretations, scribal issues, oral retellings, yadda. So, it could be that when you win a battle, when you trounce your enemies, and then sit to write the tale (or tell it around a camp fire) you might imply that it was all God's plan. "God gave us victory!" Becomes, "God fought for us." Becomes, "Even God was throwing rocks at those dudes!" We know that historically this happens all the time in writings across the spectrum of history. Of course that messes with our understandings of scriptural authority and inspiration, so we don't like it, or we think God doesn't like it?
For me these days I don't feel the same compulsion to figure out the "right" understanding here. I follow Jesus and one day he will help me to "get it" but I do wonder what some of our interpretations say about how we reflect the nature of our God to others. I started a new (new to me, it's actually a classic) book today. The opening sentance went like this:
"What kind of God made the word?" (Openness of God-C. Pinnock)
How do you wrestle with questions like that? Stories like these?
Sure, God is holy. God is just. I get it, it's up to him not me, but he calls us to be holy and just as well.
These chapters seem to lack holiness and justice in my undestanding...and I know that God's ways are beyond mine, but it was God who taught me how to consider holiness and justice so I have all sorts of room for his holiness and justice to go beyond my understanding, but is it really our position that his ways that are beyond ours are less gracious or at very least apear to be? I won't apologize for using the understanding that he gives me about these things to question stories like these.
Do you have room to question? Didn't Job? The Psalmists? Jeremiah? Nevermind, I'd have to list almost everyone.
God honors tough questions.
Which ones are we asking?