Israel had crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land on dry land. She had taken and burned the first city in her path of conquest. The power of the Lord had been exercised on her behalf in the most dramatic and remarkable ways. Nothing could stand in the way of this juggernaut. Or, so it seemed.
The first verse summarizes the account we are about to read. The statement that the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel is an inclusio. We find a similar reference to the Lord’s anger, in this case, his turning away from his burning anger, in the last verse of the chapter. In this way we are told that the theme of the chapter is Yahweh’s anger at Israel. One commentator entitles the chapter, “The Church in the Hands of an Angry God.” [Davis, 57]
The identification of Achan by family line and tribe serves to indicate that the man was a genuine insider, a true Israelite. This was not one of the hangers-on. [Hawk, 111] Achan was as much an Israelite as Rahab was a Canaanite! [Hubbard, 222]
Remember, the “devoted things” were those valuable items that were to be placed in the treasury of the Lord as we read in 6:19 and which Joshua and virtually everyone else assumed had been put in the treasury; as we read in 6:24.
I grew up pronouncing the name of this town āy-eye. I checked an online Hebrew pronunciation guide and there found it pronounced ay-ee. So I checked with Prof. Jack Collins at Covenant Seminary and he wrote back saying that he pronounced it “eye.” So Eye it is.
Once again Joshua sent spies to reconnoiter the target.
There are very different assessments of this account of the defeat. Some argue that sending only a small force was 1) evidence of a failure to appreciate how vital to success was Israel’s unity; the entire army should have gone; 2) evidence that Israel had forgotten Yahweh and intended to win this battle on its own; or 3) that their previous victories had rendered them overconfident. [cf. Hawk; the discussion in Davis] On the other hand, so far as we know, the smaller number of soldiers might just as well have been sent to the smaller town precisely because the people trusted the Lord to win the battle for them no matter the size of the attacking force. It may have been an exercise of confidence in the Lord rather than in themselves. [Schaeffer, 107] The fact is that the text doesn’t explain or critique Israel’s strategy one way or another. But it does say explicitly that the problem wasn’t the strategy; the problem was Achan and his sin, and once that problem was fixed the battle would be won. Any other explanation, in my view, distracts from the clear lesson of the chapter.
The comparatively small number of casualties, Calvin thought, was sufficient to disclose God’s displeasure without causing more serious damage to Israel’s future prospects.
It is hardly surprising that Israel reacted as she did. After all that had happened — her conquests on the eastern side of the Jordan, the crossing of the Jordan on dry land, the miraculous conquest of Jericho — she did not expect this! To be sent packing by a small village left her exposed in enemy territory wondering what had gone wrong. At that moment no one knew what we have already been told in verse 1.
That lament sounds very much like Israel’s lament nearly 40 years before after the spies brought back to Kadesh Barnea their gloomy report about Canaanite military strength. [Num. 14:2-3]
As someone has wisely observed, complaining to God is a very different thing than complaining about God. Joshua is venting his confusion and discouragement but he’s doing so in direction conversation with God. In a way very similar to Moses before, Joshua interceded for Israel by arguing that Yahweh’s reputation was at stake. [Num. 14:13-16]
The Lord’s, “Get up!” conveys irritation. Joshua is missing the point. [Hubbard, 225] As Francis Schaeffer reminded us, “God is brusque at times. He is brusque when those who have ample reason to know the answer forget it.” 
In other words, what happened was precisely what Yahweh had warned would happen in 6:18 if Israel sinned in this way. Joshua should have been asking, “Who sinned by taking some of the devoted things?”
That last sentence in v.12 is the pivot of the chapter. We now know why Israel suffered a defeat and we know what has to be done about it. Otherwise the worst possible eventuality would be realized: Yahweh would leave Israel to her own devices. It was his presence with her that had brought her this far. They knew that very well!
The people had to be consecrated, made ceremonially pure, because the Lord was going to be in their midst on the morrow to reveal the culprit.
Why so severe a punishment? Because the sin was so grave and so destructive. Thirty six men had already lost their lives! After all, this was not simply a sin against the law of God as if only one commandment or another had been broken; it was a sin against the love of God, against the grace of God, against the gifts that God had just lavished on his people. It was nothing less than a repudiation of Yahweh.
200 shekels were approximately eighty ounces or seven pounds of silver; a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels was twenty ounces. [Howard, 197] So, the temptation was considerable. But it was precisely against such temptations that Moses had warned Israel before they entered the Promised Land. We read in Deut. 7:25-26: “Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the Lord. Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it.” Achan’s sin was not simple theft; it was closer to apostasy than to theft. [Howard, 188]
As Rahab’s family had been saved along with her, so Achan’s family was destroyed together with him. The Lord demanded not only the destruction of Achan but the destruction of his name. His line was wiped out. [Hess, 154]
The violence previously directed against the Canaanites was now directed against an Israelite. [Hawk, 122]
Achor means “trouble.” The naming of the place was meant to fix the lesson and the warning in Israel’s collective consciousness. Disobedience to God can bring disastrous consequences upon the people.
Now the general drift of this chapter is clear enough. The question it addresses is whether, when Israel entered Canaan, Canaan would enter Israel as well, the very fear that Moses had frequently expressed before his death. We have already witnessed a Canaanite and her family entering Israel, but that was because Rahab confessed her faith in Yahweh and became an Israelite in her heart. But here we witness an Israelite becoming a Canaanite, the reverse of what had happened in Rahab’s case. It is easy to stop there and leave the lesson in the form of a benign generality: Rahab had faith and was saved; Achan was disobedient and brought trouble upon the people of God. We must, therefore, believe and obey. True enough, but it cannot be put in terms so tame lest we don’t take the lesson sufficiently to heart.
We are very likely — 21st century Americans that we are — to skip over the brutal facts or almost completely to ignore the shocking features of this narrative. As Rahab and her family were saved alive, Achan and his family were executed and burned! And because of Achan’s sin, thirty-six other families in Israel were mourning the loss of husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins.
We have noticed again and again that Joshua, in a very intentional and paradigmatic way, provides instruction in the way of salvation and the life of faith. We have that instruction here, however little anyone nowadays pays attention to it.
Let’s begin with this question: was Achan a believer or an unbeliever? In v. 20, after he was exposed as the culprit, he seems very willing to confess his fault, even to acknowledge, as David would later, that his sin was first and foremost a sin against God. What is more, unlike so many who make some effort at repentance, he readily admitted on his own initiative that the problem was first a problem of his heart. “When I saw the expensive and beautiful objects, I coveted them.”He was explicit in identifying the things he had taken; he doesn’t seem to have made any effort to excuse himself or to minimize the wrong. He admitted that the cloak was from Shinar. Being from Shinar it was chic! It would be like admitting today that you shoplifted the purse because, well, it was a Prada. [Schaeffer, 111] In our day, when such admissions after the fact are so often made defensively, are accompanied by excuses, and are not complete until the whole truth has been slowly wheedled out of the man or woman, Achan’s confession seems refreshingly, honest, thorough and sincere. We might very well think to tell someone nowadays to give glory to God and confess his sin as honestly as Achan did!
On the other hand, the severity of the punishment seems to suggest that Achan was regarded as having crossed the line that separated the true people of God from those whose membership in the covenant community was only superficial or external. I am unable to judge the validity of the claim, but one scholar argues that Achan’s name “makes no sense in Hebrew. It derives from no known root and is attested nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible.” But the name in Hebrew does represent an anagram of the root word from which “Canaan” is derived.” Has the narrator given the man a name that identifies him as a spiritual Canaanite? Does the name indicate that there was a Canaanite within the people of Israel? [Hawk, 120] If that were the case, then the narrator would be telling us that Achan was not a true Israelite, not a man of faith, not, as we would put it today, a saved man.
But Achan’s spiritual position is hardly the only question. Thirty-six other men had already died because of Achan’s sin, because God punished Israel for the sin of one Israelite. And we have no reason to believe that those thirty-six men were spiritual Canaanites. It isn’t as if such solidarity in sin and guilt is not taught elsewhere and illustrated elsewhere. Four of David’s sons died because of his sins of adultery and murder in the matter of Bathsheba and her husband, and one of those sons was an infant.
In the effete and sentimental culture of American evangelicalism, highly individualistic as it is, Christians have trouble fitting that fact into their understanding of the gospel, of the ways of God, and, indeed, of the character of God. If they don’t ignore it entirely, they are, in fact, very likely to conclude that this is the sort of thing that God might have done in the Old Testament, but not something he would do today.
But that is not so. Ananias and Sapphira also stole what belonged to God; their sin was very like Achan’s and they too were executed for what they had done. Their judgment was exemplary, a lesson for all time, as was Achan’s, each coming right after a new beginning in the history of God’s people; the entrance into the Promised Land in Achan’s case, Pentecost in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. But they are not the only ones like Achan in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 11 we read that sins against the unity of the body of the Lord Jesus Christ had already led to the death of some in the church there. There is, as you may be aware, a longstanding dispute as to whether those whose lives the Lord had taken in punishment for their sins were false Christians, not Christians at all in the deepest sense of the word, or whether there were among them real believers who were nevertheless living badly as Christians. It is frankly impossible to know.
What is more, beside the thirty-six Israelite soldiers who died in the first engagement at Ai, a significant number of others, the members of Achan’s family, were likewise executed with the head of their family. We certainly do not know that any of them was a spiritual Canaanite. Indeed, in my view, it strains credibility to suppose that all of his sons and daughters were of the same spiritual temper as their father; that they were, in other words, Canaanites in Israelite dress. Some of them, in any case, may have been very young.
Let me ask you: can you incorporate this narrative into your own understanding of life and of Christian faith and of God himself? Or does this narrative challenge your too easy assumptions about God and what God does and would do?
How about the corporate solidarity that you witness here in Joshua 7? Does that make sense to you? Did you notice the interplay of the corporate and the personal in the narrative as we read it? The chapter begins with the statement that Israel had broken faith with the Lord. Why? Because one Israelite, a man by the name of Achan, had taken some of the devoted things for himself. The whole nation was implicated in the sin of one of its number. Once again, in v. 11, we read that Israel had sinned; they have transgressed my covenant; they have taken some of the devoted things and lied and put them among their own belongings. It is as if every Israelite had done what Achan had done! But only one man actually took devoted things. But when he was executed his family was executed with him. Does that make sense to you?
It should. Whether or not we can provide an ultimate explanation for this solidarity in sin and guilt, the fact is, it is something we encounter everywhere in life and in the Christian life. It is certainly a fact of our political and national life. We are all implicated in the decisions that are made for us by our government and we all suffer the consequences when those decisions are unwise, as they often have been and are still today. The opinion shapers in our culture have changed life for all of us, whether we agreed with what they thought, said, and did, or not. Human life is a community affair. All of us have been diminished and corrupted by our toxic modern American culture. It is harder to be a faithful Christian in America today that it has been at other times and in other places. This is a fact of life. Only a fool denies it. Do you suppose that there were as many politicians or, for that matter, pastors and church leaders guilty of sexual infidelity three or four generations ago as there have been in our sexually permissive, pornography riddled, and prurient day? Some will comfort themselves by thinking that there must have been, but it is not so. Christian men, American men, did not face such constant and alluring temptations in bygone days and sexual fidelity was, for that reason, more of a commonplace.
But the reality of this principle of corporate solidarity is in many more ways a fact of life in the Christian church. Children are being lost to the church and to heaven every day because of the sins of their parents. A failure of Christian nurture in the home, a poor example of Christian devotion and faithfulness, a failure on the part of parents to discipline and control their children, I say these parental sins are sending to hell multitudes of children born into Christian homes. They always have, as the Bible is at pains both to teach and to show us, and they still do today. The sins of their parents do not absolve the children for their unbelief, but they are a root cause of it.
Sins of the church’s leadership have consigned generations of people born and raised in the Christian church to lives of unbelief and to the eventual judgment of God. Surely that is the case when the leadership is unbelieving and unwilling either to teach the truth of the Word of God or to govern the church according to it. That is why the OT prophets so regularly blame Israel’s spiritual collapse on an unfaithful ministry. But it is also the case that in believing churches, where ministers and elders and deacons are nevertheless unfaithful in some obvious ways, when they are indolent and careless of their responsibilities or when they allow unrepented sin to remain unconfronted in the body, souls are destroyed. Those of us who have been Christians for a long time, and those of us in Christian leadership have seen this, alas, times without number. People who ought to have been faithful Christians lose interest in the Lord under such leadership; they find themselves increasingly attracted by the allure of the world, and they can’t summon up the reasons or the courage by which to resist the beautiful cloaks from Shinar and the bars of silver and gold. “Let few be teachers for those who teach will be judged more strictly,” is not some innocuous proverb. It is a solemn warning of accountability for others and the Lord’s intention to demand an accountingfrom those who have undertaken that responsibility! The burning of the bodies of Achan and his family is surely an emblem of eternal judgment, whether or not all of that family was spiritually lost. The fact that others were burned besides Achan himself is meant to send a shudder down our spines!
The entire Bible warns us that judgment begins with the people of God. We are constantly being reminded that God knows what we are doing. We have no secrets from him. Achan hid his treasures and buried them under his tent, but the Lord knew what he had done. And throughout the Bible we learn that when we sin the Lord’s blessing is withheld, sometimes just from ourselves, but often, very often, it is withheld from others as well.
Joshua 7 is a summons for all of us to reckon with how seriously the Bible takes our sin and the sins of others in the church. We treat all of this far too lightly, we too easily forget how deadly a place this world is because of sin and how lethal our very own sins can be; the sins we wink at, the sins we tolerate. Jesus was only being true to the very facts that Joshua 7 forces us to face when he told us to gouge out our right eye or cut off our right arm if that is what it takes to get rid of our sins. He thought sin was alarming, deeply worrying because of its possible consequences for us and for others. Far too often we do not fear our sins. You know it and I know it. Surely if Joshua 7 is in the Bible, it is because of the warning it provides against underestimating the consequences of sin.
I have a friend who lost a little child. This friend, a serious, committed, experienced, devout Christian, also had some sins in his life that he did not root out, repudiate, and put to death as he should have and they found him out. Now, because he is the sort of man he is, because he knows the Bible as well as he does, because he takes it as seriously as he does, he can’t help but worry that the death of his child was an act of divine judgment for his sin; that his child died because of what he had done.
He is too well read in the Word of God to take seriously those Christians who tell him, “Oh, God would never do something like that.” For he knows very well that God would do such a thing and, in fact, has done such things. David lost four children because of his sins. Eli lost both his sons because of his sins. And Achan lost his entire family. True enough, in all of those cases the Bible itself makes explicit the connection between the father’s sins and the death of the other members of the family. But no one can read those texts and conclude that these were the only times God has ever done such things. Indeed we are taught to expect that God will regularly visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. Indeed, we see him doing that in many ways everywhere we look in human life. So much of the perversity of the American culture, so much of the blighted lives of so many American people is the direct result of the sins of previous generations. Children’s lives are diminished if not destroyed in many ways because of their parents’ sins. Again, this is something we see every time we open our eyes. Angry fathers are producing angry sons in our land every day; abusive fathers produce children who will themselves abuse others when they are adults; alcoholic fathers very often produce alcoholic children. And on and on.
In the case of Achan, God told Joshua what sin had been committed and provided a procedure by which to discover the identity of the perpetrator. We are not given such means. Believers in the ancient epoch were not usually given them either. They are given here and in a few other places in biblical history precisely that a permanent lesson might be impressed upon the church’s mind and heart.
So what am I to tell my friend? It is certainly to be admitted that not all death and suffering on the part of a child is due to a relative’s sin. You remember that our Lord explicitly repudiated that logic in the case of the man born blind. And, to be frank, we are all sufficiently sinful and insufficiently penitent that if our sins were always to be punished in our lives or the lives of our loved ones, there would be no one left alive in the church or the world. Surely there were some men in Israel, every one of them indeed, whose lives were not stainless as the army moved on Ai. Was Achan’s spirit and behavior that different from that of all other soldiers of the army? Indeed, it is in this differing response on God’s part to the sins of his children that we confront one of the deepest mysteries of God’s providence.
With his characteristic insight John Newton observed:
“The Lord makes some of his children examples and warnings to others, as he pleases. They who are spared, and whose worst deviations are only known to the Lord and themselves, have great reason to be thankful. I am sure I have: the merciful Lord has not suffered me to make any considerable blot in my profession during the time I have been numbered among his people. But I have nothing to boast of herein: It has not been owing to my wisdom, watchfulness, or spirituality… But I hope to go softly all my days under the remembrance of many things for which I have as great cause to be abased before him as if I had been left to sin grievously in the sight of men.” [“Grace in the Ear,” Cardiphonia, pb. selection, 21]
It is a severe mercy, but an altogether necessary one, that some of us should be exposed as Achan was. Such public catastrophe is, I fear, sometimes all that keeps us from making peace with those sins that must have a lethal effect if they were not put to death, if not upon us, upon others.
Here we are given to see what sin is and what sin does and how many suffer its consequences. Here we learn how terribly serious life is and how deadly can be the consequences of unfaithfulness even among the people of God. Here we learn how much is at stake when we toy with the Lord’s summons to obedience instead of embracing it with heart and soul and strength and mind. God is a God of infinite mercy and love, absolutely; but he is also a God of judgment. It is not ours to explain the ways of God; but it is absolutely essential that we recognize them and reckon with them. Life is indeed beautiful; but it is also a deadly serious thing, a dangerous thing.
Achan thought he would get away with taking those treasures. What he never imagined as he was reaching for them was that not only would he be found out but that his whole family would be destroyed as a result of what he was doing at that moment. As the apostle Paul would remark more than a thousand years later, “Behold the goodness and the severity of God!”