(Originally published October 22, 2016)
Last week we learned about the fall of Jericho, God’s gracious gift of a mighty victory to his people, who watched in faith and obedience as the Lord carried out his covenant promise before them and the unbelieving world. Chapter six ends with, “So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land.” How glorious.
And then we read the very next verse:
“But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel.” (Joshua 7:1)
We then read of the army of Israel self-confidently sending a small force of about 3000 men to attack the town of Ai only to be routed in a humiliating and demoralizing defeat with 36 of their men killed and the rest chased away. This is the only time in the book of Joshua that we will read of a defeat of the armies of Israel, or even of a death in battle for the Jews.
So what is going on here? Yes, it seems clear that the spies who checked out Ai and gave the thumbs-up for a light force to attack may have been relying on their own judgement rather than the power and favor of the Lord, Yes, it appears the fighters went in a bit cocky before turning and running with their tails between their legs. And, so, yes, at this point it looks like the Israelites may have been taking for granted the favor and help of the Lord. But this is not at the heart of why they were defeated. They were defeated because there was sin hidden in the camp.
As John Calvin points out in his commentary on this passage of Scripture:
“The true cause was the secret counsel of God, who meant to show a sign of his anger, but allowed the number to be small in order that the loss might be less serious. And it was certainly a rare display of mercy to chastise the people gently and without any great overthrow, with the view of arousing them to seek an instant remedy for the evil. Perhaps, too, the inhabitants of Ai would not have dared to make an attack upon the Israelites had they advanced against the city in full force. The Lord therefore opened a way for his judgment, and yet modified it so as only to detect the hidden crime under which the people might otherwise have been consumed as by a lingering disease.” [Commentaries on The Book of Joshua, by John Calvin, Volume 4, Reprinted 2009 by Baker Books]
The Almighty God who had delivered his people from bondage in Egypt and had led them for forty years in the wilderness, who had only just renewed his covenant with this people and handed them the great city of Jericho—as it were—on a silver platter, had clearly seen Achan breach the covenant and take for himself items which had been dedicated for destruction. It was as if he had stolen a portion of the burning offering right off the altar of sacrifice. Achan’s theft violated the offering of Jericho to the LORD and left the entire camp of Israel vulnerable to God’s judgement and wrath. And yet, God, in his great mercy, tempers his wrath in order to give the Israelites an opportunity to address the violation and restore their right relationship with him.
In response to this defeat, Joshua and the elders of Israel fell on their faces before the ark of the LORD, grief-stricken, clothes torn and dust on their heads and remained until evening.
“Joshua and the elders of the people were also deeply affected, not so much at the loss of thirty-six men, as because Israel, which was invincible with the help of the Lord, had been beaten, and therefore the Lord must have withdrawn His help.” (C. F. Keil) [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2, by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers]
“The thought that the events of war are doubtful — a thought which sustains and reanimates the defeated — could not be entertained by him, because God had promised that they would always be victorious. Therefore, when the success did not correspond to his hopes, the only conclusion he could draw was, that they had fought unsuccessfully merely because they had been deprived of the promised assistance of God….
The rending of the garments and other accompanying acts contained a profession of repentance, as may also be inferred from the annexed prayer, which, however, is of a mixed nature, dictated partly by faith and the pure spirit of piety, and partly by excessive perturbation. In turning straightway to God and acknowledging that in his hand, by which the wound was inflicted, the cure was prepared, they are influenced by faith; but their excessive grief is evidently carried beyond all proper bounds.” (John Calvin, italics mine)
Joshua’s response is to go immediately to the LORD, recognizing that their hope for success in battle comes only from him, and this defeat must therefore have been due to a withdrawal of God’s help. Though his response is motivated by faith, he appears to be, as Calvin puts it, excessively perturbed, which may approach complaining against God. Keil helps us to see however, how very like our own prayers in times of distress is this prayer of Joshua’s.
“Joshua’s prayer contains a complaint (v. 7) …. The complaint, “Alas, O Lord Jehovah, wherefore hast Thou brought this people over Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us?” almost amounts to murmuring, and sounds very much like the complaint which the murmuring people brought against Moses and Aaron in the desert (Num. 14: 2, 3); but it is very different from the murmuring of the people on that occasion against the guidance of God; for it by no means arose from unbelief, but was simply the bold language of faith wrestling with God in prayer, — faith which could not comprehend the ways of the Lord, — and involved the most urgent appeal to the Lord to carry out His work in the same glorious manner in which it had been begun, with the firm conviction that God could neither relinquish nor alter His purposes of grace.” (bold italics mine)
So Joshua was not necessarily blaming God for the Israelites’ defeat at Ai; he realized that the defeat signaled a withdrawal of God’s favor. He was right to go straight to God to seek the answer, but he ought to have looked for the reason for the withdrawal of favor among his own people.
Like Moses before him, Joshua is also concerned for the reputation of his God, who had brought them out of Egypt after much ridicule from the Egyptians. God had made it clear by renewing the covenant with Israel upon their entering the promised land that he had “rolled the reproach of Egypt away” from them. And yet now the specter of this reproach raises its head again: that God only brought them out to the desert to destroy them.
“O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?” Joshua 7:8-9
“We are hence taught that saints, while they aim at the right mark, often stumble and fall, and that this sometimes happens even in their prayers, in which purity of faith and affections framed to obedience ought to be especially manifested…..
He is not concerned for his own reputation, but fears lest the truth of God might be endangered in the eyes of the world.” (John Calvin)
We learn from this, dear ones, that even a mighty man of faith as Joshua can stumble in his prayers. How often have you felt tongue-tied in prayer, at a loss for words—afraid even that your request is wrongly motivated and full of sin? Keep wrestling in prayer, for our God knows the tangle of your heart and the pain, fear, and confusion which have tied your words into knots. He knows what you are asking.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Romans 8:26
God answers Joshua.
“The Lord said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.” Joshua 7:10-12
This is terrifying. The LORD speaks in the strongest terms, outlining the sins of Israel: transgression of the covenant, taking some of the devoted things, stealing, lying, and hiding, and therefore they have become devoted for destruction. And yet, when he further details for Joshua the method by which he will reveal the identity of the thief and how he will be dealt with, we see, “a rare example of clemency in the fact, that while the condemnation verbally extends to all, punishment is inflicted only on a single family actually polluted by the crime.” (John Calvin)
The sin of one man is resting on the nation. They are now experiencing the consequence of which the Lord warned them when he brought down the walls of Jericho and sent them in to finish the job.
“And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction…. But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it. But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.” Joshua 6:17-19
The question is legitimately raised, why must they all suffer for one man’s sin? I found Keil and Delitzsch to be helpful on this point.
“This crime was imputed to the whole people, not as imputatio moralis, i.e., as though the whole nation had shared in Achan’s disposition, and cherished in their hearts the same sinful desire which Achan had carried out in action in the theft he had committed; but as imputatio civilis, according to which Achan, a member of the nation, had robbed the whole nation of the purity and holiness which it ought to possess before God, through the sin that he had committed, just as the whole body is affected by the sin of a single member.” (C. F. Keil)
Achan may have in his person cherished and acted upon his own sinful desires, but as a member of the covenant people of God, acting together with them in the taking of Jericho, his personal sin in violation of the ban under which God had placed Jericho brought sin upon the whole nation of Israel. His sin was not merely personal, it was a sacrilege of the holy command of the Lord God Almighty to the nation.
And so we move into the remedy which God prescribes.
“Get up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the Lord, God of Israel, “There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.” In the morning therefore you shall be brought near by your tribes. And the tribe that the Lord takes by lot shall come near by clans. And the clan that the Lord takes shall come near by households. And the household that the Lord takes shall come near man by man. And he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.’” Joshua 7:13-15
Before we go any further, I must point out that when the Lord here says that the thief will be burned with fire, that is not the means of execution. The means of execution was death by stoning, and then the remains were to be burned. Nowhere in the Law of God is being burnt alive a means of execution.
The next question in our study asks us to imagine ourselves in Achan’s shoes when he heard this announcement. What in the world could he have been thinking and feeling between this announcement and the next morning? My first thought, and that of many of us, was that he must have been petrified! He had been discovered by God and tomorrow the Lord would single him out! One woman in our study even remarked that if she were the guilty one, she would run away. Certainly, he must have at least been terrified. And yet, as we read the text, he does not come forward until he is winnowed out by the casting of the lot…
“…the Lord proceeds step by step, as if he meant to give intervals for repentance; for it is impossible to imagine any other reason for descending from tribe to family, and coming at length to the single individual.
In all this we see the monstrous stupor of Achan. Overcome perhaps by shame, he doubles his impudence, and putting on a bold front, hesitates not to insult his Maker. For why, when he sees himself discovered, does he not voluntarily come forward and confess the crime, instead of persisting in his effrontery till he is dragged forward against his will? But such is the just recompense of those who allow themselves to be blinded by the devil.” (John Calvin)
According to John Calvin, and as we have seen earlier in our study, there can certainly be an awareness of personal sin and guilt which leads to fear and shame, but which does not lead to repentance. So while our initial imaginings of the fear which Achan must have experienced may indeed be correct, nowhere in Scripture are we told that he repented of his sin.
“Though God does not bring all guilty actions to light at the very moment, nor always employ the casting of lots for this purpose, he has taught us by this example that there is nothing so hidden as not to be revealed in its own time. The form of disclosure will, indeed, be different; but let every one reflect, for himself, that things which escape the knowledge of the whole world are not concealed from God, and that to make them public depends only on his pleasure. For though a sin may seem as it were to have fallen asleep, it is however awake before the door, and will beset the miserable man till it overtake and crush him.” (John Calvin, italics mine)
And it is precisely here where we must apply this lesson to our own lives. When we become—or are made— aware of sin hidden in our hearts we must repent quickly. We cannot toy with sin, because it is no game. God considers sin to be a deadly serious business, and so, therefore, must we. May David’s plea be our own:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Psalm 139:23-24
We next observe the compassion and fatherly tenderness with which Joshua addresses Achan, urging him to honor God with a full confession. The Omniscient God, from whom nothing is hidden, had clearly seen Achan’s crime and had singled him out as the thief. For Achan to plead innocence now would bring dishonor to the veracity of God’s testimony, and heap more condemnation upon his own head. Achan does make a full confession, and the progression of his story mirrors the account of Eve’s sin.
“…when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” Joshua 7:21
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate,…” Genesis 3:6 (bold print mine)
Both Achan and Eve saw something which captured their imaginations. The seeing was not the sin, even admiring the beauty of what they saw was not sin, but they didn’t stop there. They continued looking as their hearts joined the action by coveting/desiring the forbidden things. They each knew without a doubt that what they were desiring had been forbidden by God, and yet they allowed their hearts to override God’s command when they then reached out and took the forbidden things. We hear the echoes of these accounts in James’s teaching on the progression of sin:
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” James 1:14-15
In his commentary on Joshua, James Montgomery Boice also emphasizes the dangers of coveting, which he sees as a result of discontentment, or dissatisfaction with the lives which God has ordained for us.
“You shall not covet is the 10th of the Ten Commandments. It is the root sin behind each of the other violations. Nothing will so quickly destroy a Christian’s life as dissatisfaction with God’s arrangements for him or her, which leads to lust for what God has not yet given or has given to someone else.” [Joshua, An Expositional Commentary, by James Montgomery Boice, Published 1989 by Baker Books]
Sadly, and as is often the case, Achan was not the only one to suffer for his sin. There were 36 soldiers dead and the families who mourned them, the rest of the 3000 men who had been routed in battle, his entire household who would be executed with him, and his neighbors who would be his executioners. Those who were picking up stones with which to kill Achan and his family had lived, laughed, fought, and toiled alongside him. This had to be heartbreaking for them. Sin is never a private matter. It has the nasty habit of splashing over onto others around us.
But why must his entire household be punished for his crime? For the answer I turn again to Keil and Delitzsch.
“Achan had fallen under the ban by laying hands upon what had been banned, and consequently was exposed to the same punishment as a town that had fallen away to idolatry (Deu. 13:16, 17). The law of the ban was founded upon the assumption, that the conduct to be punished was not a crime of which the individual only was guilty, but one in which the whole family of the leading sinner, in fact everything connected with him, participated. Thus, in the case before us, the things themselves had been abstracted from the booty by Achan alone; but he had hidden them in his tent, buried them in the earth, which could hardly have been done so secretly that his sons and daughters knew nothing of it. By so doing he had made his family participators in his theft; they therefore fell under the ban along with him, together with their tent, their cattle, and the rest of their property, which were all involved in the consequences of his crime.” (C. F. Keil, italics mine)
And, for good measure, John Calvin:
“If any one is disturbed and offended by the severity of the punishment, he must always be brought back to this point, that though our reason dissent from the judgments of God, we must check our presumption by the curb of a pious modesty and soberness, and not disapprove whatever does not please us. It seems harsh, nay, barbarous and inhuman, that young children, without fault, should be hurried off to cruel execution, to be stoned and burned… Not only were they the creatures of God’s hand, but circumcision, the infallible symbol of adoption, was engraved on their flesh; and yet he adjudges them to death. What here remains for us, but to acknowledge our weakness and submit to his incomprehensible counsel? It may be that death proved to them a medicine; but if they were reprobate, then condemnation could not be premature… It may be added, that the life which God has given he may take away as often as pleases him, not more by disease than by any other mode.” (John Calvin)
Finally, we are reminded to remember the seriousness of sin, even, or especially, those sins we think lay concealed and safe within our hearts. If we think they will remain hidden we are deceiving ourselves. As we see in Joshua:
“So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and behold, it was hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. And they took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and to all the people of Israel. And they laid them down before the Lord.” Joshua 7: 22-23 (bold italics mine)
In this chilling phrase we see that Achan’s sin was laid bare before the Lord who had watched him from the beginning as he saw, coveted, took, and hid the forbidden items. All sin will eventually be revealed before the Lord at the great day of judgement. Let us not willingly add to our own ledgers.
For those who are in Christ, our Father in heaven watches over us with love and compassion and he will frustrate us in our sin and chastise us as needed. But the judgement of death for our sins has already been paid for at the cross by our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us therefore obey with gladness and repent quickly when needed, seeking to honor and bring glory to our great and mighty Lord. And with the Apostle Paul, let us remember that the secret to contentment is already ours:
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4: 11-13