Dealing Properly with Sin
Right after the chapter recounting the glorious conquest of Jericho comes a chapter that tells about sin and failure. The two chapters are set together so that we will not fail to compare them.
We discover what the sin was in the very first verse. The author states that a man named Achan offended God by taking an "accursed thing." Here at the outset of the story, the author says no more. But he inserts this introductory comment so that we will understand why the next battle in the military campaign brought defeat rather than victory. The defeat was a direct result of Achan’s sin. Because he sinned, as the narrative explains, God was angry with the whole nation. And because of His anger, Israel did not prosper.
What happened exactly? Joshua sent spies to view the next city in the path of conquest. This was Ai on the east side of Bethel. Archeologists have attempted to identify the remains of these two cities, but there is no positive proof linking any tell to either one, although there is less uncertainty about Bethel than Ai. Neither was large by our standards. Their populations did not exceed a few thousand. Later we learn that the total number found and killed after the final assault on the city of Ai was twelve thousand (Josh. 8:25), but this included the people of Bethel (Josh. 8:17) and likely also refugees from the countryside.
There was nothing wrong in Joshua sending spies as he had done before. But the spies failed to give good counsel. Indeed, they overstepped their proper role by formulating strategy and offering it unbidden. Whereas they ought to have reported on the size and strength of each city, so that Joshua himself could determine the best plan, they conveyed judgment instead of facts. They told Joshua that the city could not offer significant opposition and advised him that a force of two or three thousand would be sufficient to take it. Any more, they said, would be a waste of manpower, putting men to trouble for no good reason.
Apparently, Joshua failed to seek God’s guidance before this battle. Instead, he listened to what he was told and attacked Ai with a force of only three thousand. As pointed out earlier, they went up against a force at least as strong and probably stronger. The spies were wrong in thinking that the enemy was a "few." Consequently, the men of Israel were handily defeated. Not all defeats are disgraceful, but this one was disgraceful indeed, for the soldiers fighting for the Lord’s cause turned tail and ran. Rendered literally, the narrative says that the men of Ai chased them "from the city gate to the Breaks and smote them in the descent." "Breaks" is the word "Shebarim." Although it can mean quarries, it might be a place name referring to a natural break in the land, such as a ravine. The fleeing army of Israel suffered a significant number of casualties. We do not read that any were lost in the assault on Jericho, but in the attempt to take the much weaker city of Ai, 36 were killed.
When news of the defeat came to the camp, the courage of the people dissolved, so much so that their hearts "melted and became as water." Grief for those slain was mixed with fear of the future, for they reasoned that if they could lose against such an inconsiderable foe, what might be result when they met a strong army? It seemed as if all of God’s promises for success suddenly carried no weight. It seemed that He had failed them, or abandoned them, leaving them to the mercy of the Canaanites.
Joshua himself showed a grave lack of spiritual strength and discernment. He tore his clothes, fell on the ground before the ark, and covered his head with dust. These were all ways to show his grief and dismay. The other leaders of the people followed his example, and there before the ark Joshua and the elders lay prone until evening. We might think that they were right to humble themselves before God in this way, but in their extreme emotion they were behaving as if God had forsaken them. Then Joshua erred greatly in what he said. His prayer was ill-considered and ill-advised.
He started off by accusing God of an evil design cloaked under falsehood. He asked whether God had brought Israel into the land just so the Canaanites might destroy them. This would have been an evil design indeed. And to impute such motives to God when He had repeatedly promised them success was to paint God as a liar.
Then Joshua compounded his sin by expressing the wish that the nation had been content to remain outside Canaan. But the effort to conquer Canaan was not discontent. On the contrary, refusing to enter the land would have been discontent—discontent with the clear direction of God to enter the land. How different Joshua seems at this moment than he was forty years earlier, when he fearlessly advised the nation to ignore all obstacles and push into the land as God required. Perhaps we detect here the conservatism—the lack of daring and the resistance to change—that sometimes comes with age.
How could Joshua descend into such blasphemous thinking? Evidently he was speaking impulsively out of strong emotion, without weighing his thoughts and censuring words that he would later regret. How often under extreme duress do we likewise speak hard words to our Lord? Yet God was merciful with Joshua as with us, and far from striking him dead or even smiting him with dumbness, He did not even respond immediately with sharp rebuke. He took into account that Joshua was overwrought.
Another reason for God’s restraint is that Joshua’s own conscience asserted itself and took control, for his tone quickly changed. He virtually apologized for what he had just said when he added, "O Lord, what shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies?" In other words, he was so embarrassed by Israel’s performance in battle that he had not known what to say and had wrongly spoken the first words that came to mind.
His next words show much better judgment. He presented to the Lord his sober assessment of Israel’s situation, now that they had suffered a dramatic defeat. He reckoned that their enemies would soon hear what happened and unite against them. Nothing would keep them from surrounding and destroying Israel if the nation had lost God’s help. The consequence would be not only disaster for Israel, but disgrace for the Lord. As Joshua pointed out, the Lord’s great name among the heathen would be brought into disrepute. Instead of fearing and respecting Him, they would mock His inability to give success to His chosen people.
After Joshua adjusted his thinking, shifting from self-pity to selfless pleading for the Lord’s honor, the Lord answered him. That is always the way. If we wish God to hear us, the best approach is to argue that what we seek will bring glory to God. He will never decline to magnify Himself and His name, because the result will be to increase good at the expense of evil.
Although the Lord did not speak until Joshua had corrected himself, He did not spare Joshua from criticism. He had not reproved Joshua earlier when the man might have made his sin worse by answering with another outburst of complaint. But now He spoke sternly to Joshua. He commanded Joshua to rise and asked why he was groveling in the dust. The question implied that he was doing wrong. In what way? Because he should have known why the Lord’s power had been withdrawn from Israel’s endeavors. He should have understood that God is faithful in support of His children except under one condition only—when they fail to keep His commandments. Instead of coming to God with complaints and doubts, he should have inquired as to the nature of the sin that had separated the nation from God’s favor.
But God in His mercy answered the question that Joshua had failed to ask. God laid six charges against the nation. (1) They had sinned. (2) They had transgressed their covenant obligations. (3) They had taken something accursed. (4) They had stolen. (5) They had lied. (6) And they had hid this thing among their own possessions. The striking feature of this formidable bill of charges is that the Lord held the whole nation responsible for the offense of one man, Achan. Later we will discuss why. The far-reaching effects of that man’s offense is, as we will show, one of the main lessons of this chapter.
Let us see how Achan was guilty of every charge.
- How did he sin? He violated one of the Ten Commandments; specifically, the tenth, which forbids coveting. When he saw the treasure in the city, his heart responded by coveting it, and this inward sin was the force driving him to the outward sin of taking the treasure for himself.
- How had he transgressed the nation's covenant obligations? As a member of Israel he had a special obligation to respect the word of the Lord, but he deliberately violated the express command of the Lord not to take personal possession of any treasure found in Jericho.
- Why was taking the treasure a greater sin simply because of its association with this city? Its connection with degenerate Canaanite civilization made it vile and despicable; that is, accursed. When Achan removed it to his tent, the effect was to defile himself and his family as well as the whole camp.
- Why was Achan guilty of stealing? Surely it was not stealing to take spoil from the Canaanites. No, but what he took had been claimed by the Lord. The Lord had commanded that all the treasure removed from Jericho should be deposited in His sanctuary. So, Achan stole from the Lord.
- When did Achan lie? Had he not kept silent when he transferred the treasure from the city to this tent? Yes, but in hiding it he had practiced deception. He was pretending that he had taken nothing, and deception is a form of lying.
- Why did hiding the treasure involve yet another sin—indeed, an even greater sin? Because he could not bring the accursed thing home and put it among his own belongings without his family's knowledge. He implicated his whole family, both wife and children, in the very sin that he committed and so brought punishment upon them as well as upon himself.
After stating His complaint against Israel, the Lord then told Joshua bluntly that the sin which had been committed had caused Israel’s failure on the battlefield. And He threatened that if the "accursed"—implying both the thing taken and the person who took it—was not removed, He would forsake Israel. Joshua’s worst fears would be realized. Israel would be engulfed by her enemies and exterminated.
We will now review the events after the fall of Jericho to see how the sin of one man led step by step to the defeat of the whole nation. The contrast between preparations for the battle of Jericho and preparations for the battle of Ai is exceedingly plain. Everything before the nation assaulted Jericho was according to God’s will and productive of success. Everything before they assaulted Ai was contrary to the Lord’s will and productive of failure.
When Achan sinned, God did not delay in removing His favor from the nation, and the effects were immediate. Notice the difference between the aftermath of crossing Jordan and the aftermath of taking Jericho. After the former success, the heathen nations had given credit to God and recognized that He was a God to be feared (4:24-5:1). But after the latter success, the same nations noised the fame of Joshua (6:27). No doubt Joshua himself heard about the stories that were portraying him as a great general, and he was tempted to take pride in his accomplishment. That he had fallen into pride was evident in his behavior, as we will see. So, Achan’s sin was directly followed by Joshua’s sin, which required the Lord to deal severely with the whole nation.
Before Jericho, Joshua cultivated God’s blessing by giving priority to meeting all His requirements. But after Jericho, there is no evidence that Joshua felt dependent on God’s help for victory at Ai. He fell into a self-sufficient state of mind that led to a series of blunders.
- He reckoned Jericho a dangerous foe and went to scout it for himself. He did not underestimate the enemy. But he viewed Ai as an insignificant obstacle and sent others to scout it. The reason was overconfidence.
- Before going against Jericho, he met with the captain of the Lord’s host and gladly listened to His assurances of victory. But he proceeded against Ai without divine assurances. Apparently he felt that he did not need them. Again, he was overconfident.
- He derived his battle plan for Jericho directly from the Lord. Against Ai, he followed the advice of his spies. They confirmed his overconfidence by recommending a small force, and he foolishly sent it
- In the attack on Jericho he did not think it wasteful to use his whole army. Against Ai, he foolishly sent the small force that his spies thought sufficient. Another sign of overconfidence.
Why all these blunders? After the victory at Jericho made Joshua famous for military prowess, he was ready to undertake the conquest of Canaan with reliance on his own strategy and strength, and his soldiers immediately came to grief.
But as we have already shown, Joshua’s worst failing after Jericho was his reaction to the defeat at Ai. Instead of seeking to know where he and his people had gone astray, he accused God of being unfaithful. Yet he soon corrected himself, and God proved his faithfulness by instructing Joshua in the true explanation for the nation’s defeat. He reached out with compassion to the nation and its leader although they were wallowing in pride.
After God told Joshua that the nation had sinned, Joshua no doubt perceived generally what had happened—that someone had disobeyed the Lord’s command to take no booty from Jericho except for the gold and silver that would be deposited in the Lord’s treasury. Yet he could not take action until he knew who the offender was. God therefore showed him the procedure he should follow. He told him to rise immediately and command the people to sanctify themselves. Moreover, He gave Joshua a message for the nation from Himself, a source identified as the Lord God of Israel. He wanted Joshua to explain the reason for their defeat. They had, as God said, an accursed thing in their midst.
God also wanted Joshua to forewarn the nation of the measures that would be taken to correct the problem. In the morning, the tribes would be brought forward one at a time, and the Lord would pinpoint the one whose member had committed the sin. It is likely that each tribe was represented by one or more leaders. Also, since the decision for each tribe was a simple yes or no, it is likely that the decision was made by the high priest using the Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30; Num. 27:18–21). After the Lord had put His accusing finger on a particular tribe, its individual families would come forward, and the Lord would take the family of the perpetrator. Then in this family the Lord would show which household was guilty. Lastly He would look at the members of this household and mark the one man who had caused the nation so much grief.
The conclusion of God’s message to the people was a fearful sentence upon the guilty. He and "all that he hath" would be burnt with fire for scorning the Lord’s covenant and setting folly in the way of God’s will.
The next morning, the systematic search for the offender began. Why did God use a method that was so indirect? He could have simply told Joshua who the offender was. We see several advantages in the method He actually employed.
1. He wanted each member of the nation to know that he shared in the guilt. In God’s eyes, it was not just an individual sin, but a corporate sin. The man who had taken the accursed thing had been reared among them and molded to a great extent by their influence. Every one of his fellow Israelites had borne a responsibility to encourage him in a life of obedience to God. The responsibility was in proportion to how close they were to him. Therefore, his own household bore the greatest blame for his failure; next, his family; next, his tribe; and last, the nation as a whole. The selection procedure had the effect of assigning guilt with exact justice. First, the whole nation stood condemned. Then additional blame was cast upon the man’s tribe, Judah. His family, the Zarhites, incurred even more blame, and still more fell upon the household of Zabdi. The greatest by far was reserved for the man himself, when he was at last exposed as the culprit.
2. The procedure used to find the sinner had the purpose of postponing discovery as long as possible. God was giving Achan time to surrender voluntarily. The first warning that he was in trouble came to Achan the day before. He had a night to reflect on what he should do. It was God's desire that as soon as the people gathered in the morning, Achan would come forward immediately and confess his sin, but he refused to do so.
What was his incentive to come forward? Since revealing himself meant certain death, was he not smart to hang back in the hope of being missed? That is always the thinking of earthly-minded sinners. That is the way a mind works when it is diseased with unbelief and oblivious to eternity. No, he should have been concerned to save not his life, but his soul. God was giving him a chance to repent. True repentance is to take God’s view of sin, and with it comes a willingness not only to make a full confession, but also to accept the consequences. God wanted Achan to offer himself for the punishment he deserved.
Only through true repentance could Achan have hoped for God’s mercy and healing. There are many examples of God rescinding a punishment He had already announced—after Jonah preached in Nineveh, for example (Jonah 2:10). If Achan had repented, God may have spared his life and then worked to deliver his heart from greed. But instead of cooperating, Achan skulked in the background, hoping to be overlooked, putting God to the test needlessly.
At the same time, he proved himself deserving of the punishment he received, for what had he hoped would happen? He had undoubtedly hoped that the sorting out procedure would lead to identification of the wrong man. As a result, a man who was innocent would have died in Achan's place. So, by hanging back, Achan was in essence trying to commit murder. His guilt in causing the deaths of 36 men in the last battle was compounded by the guilt of attempting to kill another man and the man's family.
When Achan’s sin was revealed to the whole nation, Joshua did not denounce or harangue the man. He could have set Achan before the people and led the nation in making him a target of wrath. But instead, he treated him with utmost pity, showing that his greatest concern was for the welfare of the man’s soul. With tenderness toward the man who was about to die a horrible death, Joshua addressed him as "my son." No doubt Achan was young, perhaps still in his twenties. In Joshua's words we sense that Joshua was suffering the sorrow of a father whose son had disappointed him. If Achan’s real father, Abdi, was watching from the sidelines, Joshua’s fatherly sorrow was partly sympathetic. Joshua exhorted the young man to glorify the Lord and make a full confession of his sin. It was too late to save his life and the lives of his family, but it was not too late to save his soul from hell.
Now that all hope of escape had vanished, Achan’s defenses dropped away, and he spoke the whole truth, making no effort to hide his sin. He stated plainly and without excuses that he had sinned against God, and he gave a full account of his wrongdoing. He stated exactly what he had taken. It was a Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels. The modern equivalent of a shekel is very uncertain. From a rough average of estimates made by different writers, we guess that Achan took perhaps five pounds of silver and over a pound of gold. It had to be a quantity no greater than he could conceal on his person when he left the city. It was probably enough to make him a rich man. But to any reasonable person, it seems like precious little to gain at the risk of antagonizing God. Is that not always the way of sinners? To ruin themselves for the sake of a few trinkets and thrills? Achan also confessed that when he brought the spoil home, he buried it in the earth in the midst of his tent, with the silver at the bottom of the hole.
Joshua immediately sent messengers to recover the spoil. The text says that they ran to the tent. It was essential for them to get there right away. There was a great danger that his wife might attempt to remove the treasure and conceal it elsewhere, or even that somebody else might try to steal it. When the messengers came to the tent, they found that Achan had told the truth. He had correctly stated what the treasure was and where it was hidden.
Then the messengers carried the stolen goods back to the assembly of the people and laid them out on the ground before the Lord—meaning, no doubt, before the ark, as in verse 6.
Then soldiers or officers of the people under Joshua’s direction and with the consent of the whole nation took Achan, his family, and his possessions to the valley of Achor. The account looks ahead to the future name of the valley. The name "Achor," derived from "Achan," was given to the valley only after Achan was put to death there. The itemization of Achan’s possessions specifies his tent and his animals, as well as the treasure he had plundered from the city. Now that the silver and gold had caused ruin in the nation, it was no longer fit to be preserved for the Lord.
The text tells us that Achan’s sons and daughters suffered their father’s punishment. No mention is made of his wife. That is an extremely perplexing omission. Commentators are unanimous in supposing that she was included in "all that he hath." But perhaps, after deciding that she belonged to her father rather than to Achan, Joshua returned the woman to her father’s house. Or perhaps she had died on an earlier occasion.
It is often said that the children shared in the father’s guilt because they approved of what he had done. That argument is not very convincing, especially if some of his children were young. Is a young child blameworthy because he does not question his father about matters he barely understands? Then why such severity? Did not the law of God forbid the execution of children for the sins of their parents (Deut. 24:16)? Yet the law also reserved for God the right to fasten guilt upon the children of His enemies even unto the third and fourth generation (Deut. 5:9). Under the law it would have been unjust for Joshua and the nation to hold Achan’s children accountable for the crime. If a human tribunal had handed them a death sentence, it would have been illegal. But it was God Himself who condemned them (v. 15), and He was acting in a manner consistent with His own declared character and intentions. We may suppose that when He weighed the best interests of all parties involved—the children as well as the whole nation—from a divine perspective foreseeing exactly what the children would become and what they would do and what would happen to them if they lived, He judged it best to remove them from the nation and therefore from life itself.
We must remember that children below the age of accountability do not face eternal judgment. They will someday rise to eternal life in God's world. God in His compassion doubtless saw that it was best to remove Achan's young children from a world where they had no future—where they would always be orphans viewed as the worthless offspring of a terrible traitor. Perhaps in later years, the nation and especially the families of those killed at Ai might have ostracized the children of Achan and made them targets of revenge. As a result, they might have become pariahs bitter against God. So, God decided instead to take them to a world of perfect love and joy. Since God is the One who gives life, He has the right to end it.
If, in our own experience, we see God take a life, even if it is the life of a child or a good man, we do not question His justice. We are confident that because He is all-wise, He will do what is right. The deaths of Achan’s children must be viewed in the same light.
Joshua’s final words to the offenders were a complaint. "Why have you troubled us?" He was creating a pun on the name "Achan," which means "trouble." Indeed, Achan had caused trouble in a multitude of ways. As a result of his sin, Israel had lost a battle and men had died, the enemies of the nation had recovered their courage and would fight harder in the next engagement, the whole family of Achan was cut off from any future, and now the nation could not escape the odious necessity of putting human beings to death. Joshua cautioned Achan in his last moments not to be bitter against his executioners, for "the Lord shall trouble thee this day." He was suffering God’s punishment, not man’s. Therefore, it was imperative that he remain repentant in his heart until the end, for after the end his soul would be in the Lord’s hands.
The execution was carried out in three stages. First, Achan himself was killed by stoning. Then his family and livestock were stoned. Lastly, the corpses and the man’s possessions were put to the flames.
A modern reader is tempted to dismiss the story of Achan as Old Testament justice. Yes it was, but not because it was more severe than New Testament justice. On the contrary, it was less severe. Consider what happened when Ananias and Sapphira lied to the infant church in Jerusalem (Acts 5:1-11). Their sin was grievous, for they lied to conceal stealing from the Lord. Yet Achan committed the same sin. He also lied to conceal stealing from the Lord. Indeed, his sin was worse, for Ananias and Sapphira stole only a portion of their own gift to the Lord, but Achan took something that never belonged to him. Yet whereas the Lord gave Achan a chance to repent, He struck down Ananias without letting him say anything. Why was the Lord so much harsher in dealing with the wayward man and wife in the early church? Because guilt is in proportion to knowledge. Achan owned little if any of the Scriptures, and he had probably received minimal instruction in the ways of God. But Ananias and Sapphira owned the entire Old Testament and sat at the feet of the apostles. Perhaps they had even heard Jesus.
Lest we be tempted to shudder overmuch at the severity of the judgment on Achan, we must remember how vastly more humane the laws of Israel were than the laws of other nations. Generally when other nations sought to punish an offender, they were not content just to end his life. First they made him undergo cruel torture. The mode of death was not quick and painless, but protracted and agonizing. But for the nation of Israel God specified stoning as the exclusive method of capital punishment. Stoning was no doubt terrifying in its prospect, but relatively painless to suffer. It was the most humane form of execution that was possible for God's people to carry out. The first large stone that fell upon the skull would have brought instant death, or at least instant unconsciousness.
The last act in the tragedy was to raise a "great heap of stones" over the place of execution (v. 26). The mound had a double purpose: to discourage anyone from trying to recover any of the gold or silver, and to serve as a reminder of the awful fate awaiting anyone who dared to transgress the direct commands of God. The incident was kept alive in the memory of the nation both by the conspicuous burial mound and by the name given the valley: Achor, derived from Achan. In the day of the writer the significance of that name and that heap of stones was still perfectly understood.
The conclusion brings the chapter full cycle. In the first verse we hear that the Lord’s anger was kindled against His people, In the last we hear that He turned away "the fierceness of his anger." So it is always with sin and punishment. The one provokes the wrath of a righteous God; the other appeases it. We should not be so naïve or deluded as to imagine that God will ever overlook sin. Nor should we be so naïve or deluded as to imagine that His anger for sin will ever be resolved in any manner except by punishment of the guilty. Let us therefore be renewed in our thankfulness that Christ was willing to take the punishment for our sin upon Himself.
The spiritual meaning of the story we have just retold is so obvious that no commentator has failed to see it. Again, the nation of Israel pictures the church. The meaning of Israel’s defeat in the battle of Ai is twofold.
1. it is a warning against overconfidence in the aftermath of a great spiritual victory. The nation had enjoyed breathtaking success in its assault upon Jericho. But success makes us vulnerable to pride, and with pride comes a diminished sense of need for God’s help. The result of depending on self is failure. As Scripture warns, "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18). That’s exactly what happened after Jericho. Joshua’s fame spread throughout Canaan and raised his opinion of his own abilities as a leader and general. So he proceeded against the next city in his army's path without consulting the Lord. If Joshua had prayed for God’s help, no doubt God would have told him not to go into battle until Achan’s sin had been dealt with. The lives of 36 men would have been spared. But Joshua chose to take the path that seemed best to him. In consequence, instead of presiding over another victory, he led the nation to a humiliating reversal in its fortunes.
The application to the church and to individual Christians is clear enough. In the wake of success, we must be careful. The devil will work overtime to turn success into even more dramatic failure, and as his chief weapon against us he will use our own self-confidence. Have you led a soul to Christ? Give God the glory. Have you had victory over an old sin? Be thankful for God's power at work in your life. If we as a church enjoy some success, how do we react? Again, we must give God the glory and go forward with a keener sense of our weakness and His strength, or we will shipwreck on self-congratulation.
2. The second application is better known—so well known that it has given rise to a familiar expression among Christians. They use it to describe a serious sin in the church that has not been confessed and made right. The expression is "sin in the camp." This story in Joshua shows us just how ruinous sin can be to a church. Whom did Achan harm by his sin? The military campaign of a whole nation against its enemies came to a halt. But even worse, men died. His own family died. Achan himself died.
What does all this signify? It shows that if we tolerate sin in the church, the result may be spiritual ruin for many. The sinner himself will be one victim, as Achan was. But the sinner’s family may be victims also, as was Achan’s. And the defilement may spread to others in the church and victimize them. Beyond that, the whole church may lose God’s blessing, and the entire work which that church is seeking to do for God may cease to be effective, just as Israel could no longer prevail in battle.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.