Read the passage here.
Our passage today follows immediately upon the passage that we read last week, the battle of Jericho. As such, we can expect that the themes that we saw in that passage also speak to the themes that we’re seeing in this passage. In fact, what we see is that this is not “the next part,” or “the next story,” but that it is a continuation of the Jericho story. While this is probably fairly obvious, I point it out because the story of the battle of Ai/the story of Achan is very much a response to the story of Jericho.
The opening verse of our passage really tells us what’s going on, or why this story is important. In the first verse, we read:
7:1 But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.Joshua 7:1
If you remember, last week we spent some time talking about what “devoted” means or how it’s used throughout the book of Joshua, and elsewhere in the O.T.. So, this is something that we want to pay attention to. The particular theme or lens through which we have to understand this story is that of things being “devoted to the Lord,” “devoted to destruction,” etc. and Israel being unfaithful to this. And this is in spite of the fact that God specifically warns Israel of this in the previous passage. (Though this is Joshua speaking):
6:18 But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it.Joshua 6:18
So this is the lens through which we need to read and understand today’s passage. If you are already familiar with the story, you know that some of the major questions that arise involve God’s holiness, judgement and punishment, and especially “what about grace and mercy?” but these really need to be framed by and understood in light of the focus on the above. We’ll try to deal with some of that.
Now after the battle of Jericho, our passage tells us, the Israelites advance on the city of Ai. Feeling confident after their battle at Jericho (probably), and seeing that Ai did not have much of a military presence, they send only a few thousand men against the city. However, they are quickly sent running by the men of Ai.
Wondering how they could have been so easily defeated, Joshua cries out to God. We read:
6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! 8 Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? 9 The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”Joshua 7:6-9
Now there’s some stuff to unpack here (ex. There’s this repeated refrain in Israel’s history: “if only we had stayed…”). However, we’re going to leave that and move onto God’s response. God’s response to Joshua is this:
10 The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.Joshua 7:10-12
In other words, Israel was turned back by Ai because they did not obey God. They suffer the consequences that they were warned about back in chapter 6:18. “[If you take/keep the devoted things]…you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it.”
So Joshua searches through the tribes of Israel, tribe by tribe, then clan by clan, then family by family, then may by man. And he determines that the person who sinned was Achan of the tribe of Judah. According to the text, Achan confesses right away, saying:
20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekelsof silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”Joshua 7:20-21
As a result of Achan’s sin, he and his whole family are stoned. We read:
24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.”
Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since.Joshua 7:24-26
Now this story will undoubtedly cause some discomfort (or something considerably stronger) to contemporary sensibilities. The degree of punishment does not seem to fit the crime. Achan admittedly took some things that he should not have – he did something that he was expressly told not to, and was warned would have serious consequences – but did he really deserve to die? And the fact that his sons and daughters had to die as well? That seems not only unfair, but cruel. What kind of picture of God are we supposed to get from this?
Once again, like the similar question we asked last week, this is not a simple question to answer. And as we discussed last week, when looking at the defeat and destruction of Jericho, a key concept to keep in mind is the meaning of herem – the word which is usually translated as “destroy,” “devote to destruction,” or “devote to the Lord.” And the overarching concept is that we discussed last week is that to be a people set apart, specifically to be a people set apart for God, means to not be a people of the world – to reject those things that constitute worldly kingdom, actively choosing to be part of God’s kingdom. For Israel, in the world that they inhabit, it means at least to rid themselves of all of those things that make them like the other nations or kingdoms of Canaan.
But what about Achan? What about the nature of his punishment? If we understand what’s going on with herem, or those things which are to be devoted to destruction, we can understand that Achan’s sin was not greed – it wasn’t that he simply wanted things. Achan’s sin was that he was holding onto the things of the world instead of giving those things up to God.
But what about his punishment? Doesn’t it seem kind of severe (or extremely severe)?
Well one thing to keep in mind is that such things are repellent precisely to contemporary sensibilities. Which is to say that what seems extreme to us may very well have been perfectly reasonable to people in the ancient near east – serious, but reasonable. In fact, it may have been exceedingly unfair or unjust if a person who defied the express commands of his sovereign, if a person who blatantly broke covenant, if a person who jeopardized the well-being of their nation was not put to death. Any other punishment would not have been appropriate.
Now this isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Because we see that what is considered a crime or what is considered appropriate punishment is constantly changing. Only a few years ago, most of society thought that the death penalty was appropriate for certain crimes (i.e. murder). That, as we know, is rapidly changing. There are many people today who believe that the death penalty is never appropriate. Not too long ago, stealing a loaf of bread would result in your hand being cut off. Or being accused of witchcraft would result in being burned at the stake or drowned. In certain countries today, insulting the king can result in imprisonment.
My point simply is that crimes and punishment are relative to the society. So am I saying that Achan and his family deserved to die because of the time and place he was born? Am I saying that Achan had to be put to death because that’s what the people expected? And, by extension, am I suggesting that God was bound by the cultural expectations of the time? No, I’m not saying that. Not exactly. I’m also expressly not saying that God changes or that His standards for holiness change. I think what I’m saying is that, given the time and place and society they were in, no other punishment would have been perceived as punishment.
To put it a slightly different way, if Achan had not been punished (and punished in the way that he was), if Achan for example had merely been made to give the things back, or if Achan had been forgiven, what would have been perceived is that God’s commands don’t really matter, or that God’s commands were a matter of convenience, or any number of such interpretations.
We need to remember that this is a people who is being formed – they are becoming. And the foundation of the right relationship with God is a crucial element in their relationship. If they are going to be a people set apart, if they are going to be a people called by God’s name, they need to understand what it means to take God seriously.
And I think that’s the thing. The point of the story, the lesson learned by Israel from the incident, is that there are consequences to breaking covenant. There are consequences to disobeying God. Now we’re not going to get into it today, but it’s worth noting that the actions of Achan affect the entire community. It’s because of one man’s sin – because of Achan’s actions – that Israel is routed by the people of Ai. Now there’s a lot to explore about that concept but suffice it to say (I hope – because we’ve talked about this a lot) that what God is doing is creating a people. No person is an island. And that’s a difficult concept for us in the 21st century west to really wrap our minds around.
But back to what I think is the main point of the story – what this episode is supposed to communicate. And that is that you cannot hold onto the things that are to be devoted to destruction and at the same time be devoted to God. In other words, God calls Israel to rid themselves of certain things – to be set apart. If they fail to do that, if they try to hold onto the things of Canaan, they cannot be fully committed to God. It’s as Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:24). “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
Now I’m pretty certain that I haven’t addressed the issues we have with this passage to the satisfaction of everyone. But in terms of “what do we do with that?” I suppose what I want us to all reflect upon and deal with is that God is someone who must be taken seriously.
And what I mean by that is that God, inasmuch as He is God, must be taken seriously as God. I think that many people in the 21st century west have an odd relationship with religion. Which is to say that we have an odd relationship with God. When I talk to various people about faith and religion, a pervasive sentiment in our culture is that people should have the right to practice whatever religion or worship whatever god they want. And one way that this is phrased is that one should do whatever works for you.
And I understand the sentiment behind that statement (it has something to do with freedom of religion, individual rights or whatever), but the way that’s phrased reveals something, I think. Somehow, we think that religion is supposed to “work for us.” We think that choosing a religion is about finding a way to be happy, a way to be successful, a way to be good. And so, we think the same thing about God.
And so, inasmuch as we suffer from this affliction, we oftentimes put God in our pockets and pull Him out only when we need something or want something. But most of the time, inasmuch as things are going well or going fine, we are perfectly comfortable ignoring God. And most of the time, when we keep God safely in our pockets, something else is guiding our steps, our actions, and our thinking. Much of the time, we aren’t even aware what that “something else” is.
And make no mistake – Christians are just as much guilty of this as any other person (I think). Whether we are guilty of this in greater or lesser numbers, I’m not sure. But guilty, we are.
But religion and faith, at its root, does not (or should not) tell us how to get something. It does not tell us how to make our life work. It tells us something about how the world is. The Christian faith tells us something about the world. Among other things, it tells us that the world is broken, and we are broken in it. We are caught in and wrapped up in sin – having forgotten and forsaken the God who created us. It tells us that there is a God who loves us, a God who gave everything to save us, to bring us back to the very thing we have forsaken and forgotten. It is this God with whom we have to deal – whether we embrace Him or reject Him. We have to take God seriously.
And by this, I don’t want to suggest that we should be afraid of God. And I don’t want to suggest – as some have, by passages like this one – that if something bad happens, it’s because God is punishing us. Though we should learn from this passage that God is a holy God, we should also know – equally from scripture – that God is a God of love, mercy, and grace. But we have to decide if this is the God we will be devoted to. We have to decide if we will be a part of this people. Of what kingdom do we want to be a part? And we keep deciding – every day. We keep choosing God’s kingdom and not the kingdoms of the world.
In the closing part of the book, we will see that Joshua – after Israel has received the blessing of land that God has promised – Joshua once again addresses the whole nation. He reminds the people of the faithfulness of God and all of the promises fulfilled. And he puts to them this challenge:
24:14 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”Joshua 24:14-15
Choose the Lord. Each day, choose Him. Because God is good, God is just, God is faithful, God is Love, and God is holy.