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The Agony of Defeat (Joshua 7:1-26)

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After such a tremendous victory at Jericho, Joshua chapter 7 is surprising to say the least. Suddenly we are presented with a series of failures that stand in striking contrast to the wonderful victories of the past six chapters. How instructive this is if we only have the ears to listen to the message of this chapter. The thrill of victory was so quickly replaced by the agony of defeat. This is the story of life, and something we each must learn to deal with in our daily walk. One minute we can be living in victory and next in defeat.

The distance between a great victory and a terrible defeat is one step, and often only a short one at that. A fact of reality is that in a fallen world we can be riding high on the cloud of some great spiritual success, and the very next moment find ourselves in the valley of spiritual failure and despair. One moment we can be like Elijah standing victoriously on Mt. Carmel, and the next hiding out in a cave, fearing for his life, and complaining to God (1 Kings 19:10).

Ai was the next objective in the path of conquest because of its strategic location. As with Jericho, its conquest was vital to the conquest of the entire land. It was smaller than Jericho, but its conquest was essential because this would give Israel control of the main route that ran along the ridge from north to south along the highlands of the central portion of the land.

Jericho had been placed under the ban, a phrase which comes from the Hebrew word, herem, “a devoted thing, a ban.” The verb form, haram, means “to ban, devote, or destroy utterly.” Basically, this word refers to the exclusion of an object from use or abuse by man along with its irreversible surrender to God. It is related to an Arabic root meaning “to prohibit, especially to ordinary use.” The “harem,” meaning the special quarters for Muslim wives, comes from this word. So, to surrender something to God meant devoting it to the service of God or putting it under a ban for utter destruction.1

For something to be under the ban meant one of two things.

(1) Everything living was to be completely destroyed. This has been called barbaric and primitive—nothing less than the murder of innocent lives, but the Canaanites were by no means innocent. They were a vile people who practiced the basest forms of immorality including child sacrifice. God had given them over four hundreds of years to repent, but now their iniquity had become full (see Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:24-28). The one family who did turn to the Lord (Rahab and her family) were spared. As with Sodom and Gomorrah, if there had been even ten righteous, God would have spared the city (Gen. 18), but since he could not find even ten, He removed Lot and his family (Gen. 19). Further, if any city had repented as did Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah, He would have spared that city, but in spite of all the miraculous works of God which they had heard of, there was no repentance, they remained steadfast in their depravity. Note Norman Geisler’s comment:

… the battle confronting Israel was not simply a religious war; it was a theocratic war. Israel was directly ruled by God and the extermination was God’s direct command (cf. Exod. 23:27-30; Deut. 7:3-6; Josh. 8:24-26). No other nation either before or after Israel has been a theocracy. Thus, those commands were unique. Israel as a theocracy was an instrument of judgment in the hands of God.2

(2) All the valuable objects like gold and silver were to be dedicated to the Lord’s treasury. This was evidently to be done as a kind of first fruits of the land and an evidence of the people’s trust in the Lord’s supply for the future (cf. Lev. 27:28-29).

The Disobedience of Israel Defined

Chapter 7 opens with a small but ominous word, the word “but,” which contrasts this chapter with the preceding one, particularly verse 27. First, there was the thrill of victory, but now the agony of defeat. This little conjunction of contrast is designed to drive home an important truth, the reality of the ever present threat and contrasts of life—victory is always followed by the threat of defeat.

Never is the believer in greater danger of a fall than after a victory. We are so prone to drop our guard and begin to trust in ourselves or in our past victories rather than the Lord. One victory never ensures the next. Only as it builds our confidence in the Lord and develops our wisdom in appropriating God’s Word do our victories aid us for the next battle, but the basis of victory is always the Lord Himself and our faith/dependence Him. A New Testament chapter that deserves consideration here is 1 Corinthians 10 and especially verse 12, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”

The problem is clearly stated in the words, “The sons of Israel acted unfaithfully in regard …” Let’s note several things about this problem facing the Israelites as a nation.

(1) The word “unfaithfully” represents a Hebrew word that means “to act underhandedly.” It was used of marital infidelity, of a woman who was unfaithful to her husband. The sin here was both an act of spiritual infidelity, being a friend of the world rather than a friend to the Lord (Jam. 4:4), and a faithless act, seeking happiness and security from things rather than from God (1 Tim. 6:6f).

(2) The Lord held the whole camp of Israel accountable for the act of one man and He withheld His blessing until the matter was dealt with. There was sin in the camp and God would not continue the blessing of the nation as long as this was so. This does not mean that the rest of the nation was sinless or that this was the only sin, but this sin was of such a nature (a sin of direct disobedience and rebellion) that God used it to teach Israel (and us) a couple of important lessons.

a. God viewed the nation as a unit. What one did was viewed as a sin for the whole nation because Israel’s corporate life often illustrates truth and warnings for us as individuals (1 Cor. 10). As a warning for the church, it shows us we cannot progress and move ahead for the Lord with known sin in our lives because that constitutes rebellion against the Lord’s direction and control (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). It is a matter of loving the world and to do so is make one behave as though he or she was an enemy of God (Jam. 4).

b. One believer’s sin impacts everyone. Achan’s behavior also illustrates how one believer out of fellowship, pursuing his own selfish desires and agendas, negatively impacts and creates trouble for an entire group. Achan’s name, the Hebrew, akan, is a play on the word akor, which means “trouble.” So Joshua would declare that the Lord would bring trouble (akor) on Achan who had become a “troubler” to the nation because of his sin (cf. 7:24-25). Thus, the site of Achan’s death and grave was called, “the valley of Achor” (Hebrew, akor, “disturbance, trouble”). This should also call to mind Hebrews 12:15-16 and 1 Corinthians 5:6-7.

Though the crime was committed by one person, the whole nation was considered guilty. The nation was responsible for the obedience of every citizen and was charged with the punishment of every offender.

The Apostle Paul saw the same principle of solidarity at work in the church (1 Cor 5:6-13). Unjudged sin contaminated the whole assembly—“Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” (v. 6).3

(3) We are also reminded how nothing escapes the omniscience of God (Psa. 139:1f). Sin never escapes His watchful eye. We can fool ourselves and others, but never the Lord. God sees the sin in our lives and desires us to deal with it, not hide it. Hiding it only hinders our progress in God’s will and plan (Prov. 28:13) and creates trouble for others. Numbers 32:23 reminds us, “be sure your sin will find you out.” This is similar to the idea of reaping what we sow because of the natural consequences of God’s spiritual and moral laws and because of God’s personal involvement, but the Numbers text does not just teach that sin will be discovered but that the consequences of our sin become active agents in discovering us (see Gal. 6:7-8).

(4) Sin is no small matter to God. The words, “therefore the anger of the Lord burned against the sons of Israel,” dramatically call our attention to the holiness of God and the fact that sin is no small matter with Him because it is rebellion and rebellion is as the sin of divination (1 Sam. 15:23). Even though the Lord died for our sins and stands at God’s right hand as our advocate and intercessor, God does not and cannot treat sin in our lives lightly. It is against His holy character (His holiness, righteousness, love, etc.) and against His holy purposes for us since it hinders His control and ability to lead us.

Or do you think the scripture means nothing when it says, “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning?” But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble” (James 4:5-6, the NET Bible).

Thus, God must deal with us and the sin in our lives; He deals with us as a Father and as the Vine Dresser, but He nevertheless deals with us (John 15:1f; Heb. 12:5).

The Defeat at Ai Described

Ai was smaller than Jericho and the defeat of Israel’s army as described here is the only one recorded in the book of Joshua and the only report of Jews slain in battle. How, then, could such a defeat so quickly occur? As summarized in verse one, the root reason was the sin of Achan, but there are other issues involved which led Joshua to go up against Ai when he should not have.

In these verses we see some of the varying consequences of sin in the life of God’s people. Sin has many consequences, none of them good.

No doubt Joshua was eager to move forward for the Lord and to conquer more territory in keeping with God’s directions and His purpose for Israel. But being a little self-confident and resting too much on the victory at Jericho, he evidently failed to take time to get alone with the Lord to inquire of Him and seek His strength. If he had, he would not have remained ignorant of the sin of Achan and could have dealt with the sin first. Four deadly errors were the result:

  • they remained ignorant of the sin of Achan,
  • they underestimated the strength of the enemy,
  • they overestimated the strength of their own army, and
  • they presumed on the Lord—they took Him for granted.

Later, when God gave the orders for them to go up against the enemy, perhaps because of their previous self-confident attitude and their presumption, He commanded them to take “all the people of war” (8:1). With Gideon, however, the Lord had him reduce his forces lest they boast in their own power as the source of their victory (Judges 7:1f).

How often are we not just like Joshua here in chapter 7? Because of a workaholic mentality, an activity-oriented bent or a desire to get things done and to be successful, there is the tendency to rush ahead without taking time with the Lord to draw near to Him and His resources and to put on the full armor of God. Such is not only unwise, but it often causes us to be insensitive to serious failures in our own lives and ministries, which grieve and quench the Spirit, and leave us defenseless against the enemy because we are then operating in our own strength and wisdom. Ultimately, then, these failures stand in the way of our progress and ability to handle the various challenges in life.

Finally, the last part of verse 5 reads, “so the hearts of the people melted and became as water.” The defeat at Ai demoralized the people. This is perhaps even more significant than the defeat itself because it created misgivings and a lack of hope or confidence in the Lord. Rather than examine their own lives as the source of their defeat, they began to doubt the Lord and wonder if He had changed His mind or if they had misread His directions, i.e., “Were we really supposed to have crossed the Jordan? Should we have stayed on the other side?” (cf. 7:7).

In our sinful human nature, we are typically just like that. We are so quick to become depressed, discouraged, and disoriented and to look in every direction for a reason for defeat, except ourselves. We blame, we make excuses, we hide and hurl, but we so often fail to honestly examine our own lives. We assume the problem could not possibly be us.

The Dismay of Joshua Depicted

The Consternation Before the Ark (vs. 6)

In this description of Joshua we see one of the great evidences of the inspiration of Scripture. God’s people, including the great heroes of the faith, are pictured with blemishes, warts and all. God does not touch up the photo. Rather, He shows us their humanness not only because it is so, but to comfort us in our own failures and to challenge us to realize He can greatly use us if we will trust Him. Failure is not the end. In fact, failure can be the back door to success; it may be just the beginning depending on how we respond. Of course, it is always better to make a few new mistakes and learn from them than to repeat old ones. Then our defeats have no life-changing value.

In the defeat at Ai we see a real test of Joshua’s leadership. As Sanders remarks, “There are tests to leadership as well as tests of leadership.”4 One of those tests is the test of failure. Failure is unique to no one. Failure, like all testings, is common to all men (1 Cor. 10:13) and thus, the manner in which a leader handles his failures (his own and others) will have a powerful impact on his growth and future leadership.

A study of Bible characters reveals that most of those who made history were men who failed at some point, and some of them drastically, but who refused to continue lying in the dust. Their very failure and repentance secured for them a more ample conception of the grace of God. They learned to know Him as the God of the second chance to His children who had failed Him—and the third chance, too …

The successful leader is a man who has learned that no failure needs to be final and acts on that belief, whether the failure is his own or that of another. He must learn to be realistic and prepared to realize that he cannot be right all the time. There is no such a thing as a perfect or infallible leader.5

Joshua, of course, was stunned by the defeat and catastrophe at Ai and so his actions and those of the elders were in keeping with the Hebrew rites of mourning and despair. Being prostrate before the Ark of the Lord certainly suggest that he and the elders were also humbling themselves before the Lord. Joshua and the elders were not guilty of callused indifference, but were showing a deep concern and need of God’s hand; they needed His intervention and wisdom. However, from the words that follow, intermingled with these feelings, there was also some self-pity and doubt.

Today, we do not usually tear our clothes, fall face down on the ground, and put dust on our heads. But we too have our own ways of showing our consternation, pain, and doubt. We may fall on our knees or put our face in our hands and sob. If there are feelings of self-pity and depression, most people become inactive, sometimes sullen; they mope around and wear a face long enough to pick watermelon seeds out of a tall ketchup bottle. But these responses do not remove the pain or solve the problem. They do, however, enable us to grow through the experience.

The Complaint to the Lord (vss. 7-9)

Finally, after a whole day on his face, Joshua verbalized his perplexity in three questions and two statements. He didn’t take it out on others, nor did he try to escape with some substitute, or repress it. He did what we should all do, he took it to the Lord.

The First Question (vs. 7a): “Alas, O Lord God, why did You ever bring this people over the Jordan …” The NIV translates this, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver …”

The word “alas” or “ah” is a strong interjection of despair. “Ah” is practically a transliteration of the Hebrew. It often, as here, points to a mood of hopelessness and defeat. In most places it is used with “Lord God” though not always as an expression of despair (Jud. 6:22; Jer. 1:6; 4:10; 14:13; 32:17; Ezek. 4:14; 9:8; 11:13). With one breath he cries out “Ah, Adonai Yahweh,” which acknowledges God’s sovereign authority and lordship over their lives, but with the very next breath he seems to question God’s purposes and promises as the Sovereign Lord.

With the question, “Why did You ever bring this people … ,” he was acting as though God were not in control, had made a mistake, or as though God had merely tricked them. How quick we are to act religious while at the very same time we deny God’s authority and power by other things we may think, or say, or do. Here is a perfect illustration of how focusing on the problem negatively affects our view of God which in turn affects our faith in His purposes, plan, and promises.

A wrong focus, on the one hand, often turns mountains into mole hills. Perhaps, trusting in their past victory instead of the Lord, they had their eyes on the smallness of Ai and saw it as just a ‘mole hill’ of a problem. On the other hand, with their eyes on the defeat, they turned this mole hill into a ‘mountain’ that was too big for the Sovereign Lord to handle.

Whenever we are occupied with a problem, or whenever we fail to focus our minds and eyes on the Lord, we become insensitive to the Person, plan, promises, and purposes of God. At this point, it seems it never entered Joshua’s mind that God may have had a reason for allowing the defeat, or that they (Joshua and Israel) might in some way be the cause. When our focus is wrong we either forget God’s promises or questions them. We then quit relating to God’s Person in all His divine essence. In such a condition we no longer see the Lord as our hope, rather He becomes the villain.

The First Statement (vs. 7b): “If only we had been willing to dwell beyond the Jordan!”

How narrow our vision grows and negative we become to God’s purposes when we loose sight of the Lord and get our eyes on the circumstances. We go in reverse and look back. The tendency is to become nostalgic for the ‘good old days.’ We become like Israel who remembered the fish, the garlic, the melons, the cucumbers, etc., but forgot about the task masters and the mud pits. In order to be comfortable we are willing to settle for a life of mediocrity rather than learn what the hindrances are so we can move ahead in the pursuit of excellence.

There is the assumption here that, since they had been defeated, they could not go forward and that it would have been better not to have encountered the enemy. Their failure had somehow weakened God’s ability to give them future victories. This is a typical assumption, but one that is wrong. God is never limited by our defeats. As the Sovereign Lord, He is able to work all things together for good, the good of conforming us like His Son (Rom. 8:28-29).

The Second Question (vs. 8): “O Lord, what can I say since Israel has turned their back before their enemies?”

Following the defeat of Jericho, chapter 6 ended with the statement, “So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land.” With Joshua’s statement in chapter 7 verse 8, it seems he was now worried about the complaints of the people and their willingness to follow his leadership. Will this failure preempt my ability to do what you have called me to do because of their attitudes and questions? Furthermore, people were going to want some answers and he simply didn’t have any at this time. What could he possibly say to them? This was really a prayer for wisdom (Jam. 1:5).

Perhaps also, feeling a little shame or personal blame for the way the men had turned and fled, he was doubting his own ability to lead the army. He was perhaps feeling that he had let them down, that people would be blaming him for the defeat, and he was concerned about the impact of all this on his ability to lead the people.

A Second Statement (vs. 9a): “For the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and they will surround us and cut off our name …”

Rightly so, Joshua was concerned about the impact of this defeat on their testimony to the nations and how it could bring them down in a concerted effort against God’s people. Would this provide a beachhead for the enemy to now go on the offensive and attack Israel rather than vice versa?

The world is watching us and the way we handle our problems does affect the attitude of the world toward the Christian community:

1 Peter 3:13-17 And who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.

The Third Question (vs. 9b): “And what will You do for Your great name?”

Even in all his fears, we see Joshua’s character and love for the Lord manifesting itself. It appears that Joshua’s greatest concern was that the news of this defeat might somehow reduce the respect of the heathen nations for God’s own name. Joshua may have been guilty of thinking what people often think, that one failure must lead to other failures; that victory is less likely now because they had so miserably failed. True, our sin and failure may affect our testimony for a while; it may give Satan an opportunity to establish a beachhead; it may even have repercussions in other ways, but God is always able to work all things together for good for those who love the Lord.

Nothing is ever accomplished with our face in the dirt or with our eyes on our failures and problems. First, we must confess our failures and the things that caused them when that can be determined. Then we must seek to learn from them. Finally, we need to know that God’s will is immediate recovery and faith in the grace of God. God’s will is get up and move on (vss. 10f).

Let’s summarize the causes of failure:

    1. Apparently, there was a lack of prayer or a failure to get alone with God to seek His guidance.

    2. Clearly, there was reliance on human wisdom when Joshua listened to the suggestion of the spies when they returned from spying out Ai (vs. 3).

    3. Then, relying on their past victory instead of the Lord, there was overconfidence in their own ability, thinking they could easily go up against such a small city when compared to Jericho (vss. 3-4).

Now with verse 10, our attention is turned to God’s directions and response to Joshua. This is highly instructive for it not only shows us greater insight into the nature of Joshua’s actions, dismay and doubt, but it shows us both God’s evaluation of what Joshua was doing (He was not pleased) and His instruction for what was to done to correct the problem.

The Directions From God Delineated

The Directions to Joshua (vss. 10-12)

“So the Lord said to Joshua.” With these words we see the personal involvement of God in the lives of His people. God cares about our lives and ministries and is ever at work to reveal Himself and teach us about our own lives and what we need to be doing as we walk the pathway of life (1 Pet. 5:6-7; Heb. 13:5-6). The issue is, are we listening?

    The Command to Joshua (vs. 10a) “Rise up!”

This command comes to Joshua while he is lying face down on the ground with dirt on his head in typical oriental fashion. He was in a state of despair and panic. As mentioned, falling on his face may have demonstrated some humility since he was crying out to God, but in view of God’s response here, it seems this was mostly an act of despair and the product of a spirit of hopelessness and unbelief, as his words in verse 7 aptly demonstrate. Note again the word “Alas,” the Hebrew ‘ahah, an interjection, which, in this context, shows despair or deep concern.

Since nothing is accomplished with our face in the dirt, the Lord tells Joshua to get up or rise up out of this condition. Such a condition, though very human and characteristic of all of us from time to time, is not a state we can afford to stay in: it accomplishes nothing, it dishonors God’s Person and promises, and neutralizes us for the Lord.

The Meaning of “Rise up!”

The KJV has “get thee up,” the NIV has “stand up,” and the NASB has “rise up.” The verb here is the Hebrew qum which often means to rise up from a prostrate position for various reasons and from various conditions. From this literal meaning there is often a figurative idea that qum gave rise to. It was used of rising as an act of preparation for action, of rising out of a state of inaction or failure, of showing respect and worship, of rising to hear God’s Word, of becoming strong or powerful, of rising up to give deliverance, of assuming an office or responsibility (as a prophet or a judge), and of rising up to give testimony.

Several of these ideas are applicable here. This command calls for Joshua to rise up from his state of despair and futility to prepare himself for action, to listen to the Lord, to take up his responsibility, and lead the people in God’s deliverance.

While the Lord understands and sympathizes with our problems and fears, and while humbling ourselves before the Lord is always needed, He nevertheless never condones our being prostrate in despair nor excuses us from appropriating His grace and moving out in obedience. His word to us is get up off your face, get your eyes on Me and deal with the problems in your life according to the principles and promises of Scripture.

The Question to Joshua: “Why is it that you have fallen on your face?”

The nature of this question carries a note of rebuke. It says, in view of who God is, in view of His plan for Israel and His promises to Joshua, what possible reason could you have for such despair? Here then is a call for Joshua to get his eyes on the Lord!

Then, I think this is secondarily a call for Joshua, and for us when this is applicable, to examine the nature of what we are doing and the root causes for the defeats of life. We need to ask, what is God seeking to teach me? Is this caused by something I did or failed to do?

    The Explanation to Joshua (vss. 11-12)
      The Cause of Israel’s Failure (vs. 11)

Reading verse 11 in the NASB or KJV could make it look like there are several different violations because of the way each clause is connected by “and,” but for the most part, each clause is a further explanation of the preceding. The translation of the NIV seeks to show this: each description is a further explanation of the problem going from the general to the specific with each explanation adding more detail of what was involved. It reads:

(1) “Israel has sinned” (this states the basic nature of their failure and ours—sin [the Heb. is hata, meaning to miss, miss the way or goal or mark),

(2) “they have violated (Heb. is abar, to pass over, overstep, go beyond, transgress) my covenant, which I commanded them to keep” (this points to the specific issue),

(3) “they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen” (this shows how they had transgressed the covenant and just what this entailed, stealing—stealing that which belonged to the Lord as devoted to Him),

(4) “they have lied, they have put them with their own” (this describes the further consequences, the snowball effect of sin and brings out the selfish, coveting nature of what was done, which is the root of most of our sin).

      The Consequences of Israel’s Failure (vs. 12)

We should pay special attention to the “therefore” that introduces this verse. The NIV has “that is why” and the NASB and KJV have “therefore.” In this way, we are pointed to one of consequences of the sin of Achan and of unconfessed sin in general—weakness, inability to serve and live for the Lord because of the way sin grieves and quenches the Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:10). This illustrates the truth declared in John 15:1-7; Ephesians 4:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19; 1 Corinthians 10:13; and Proverbs 28:13. In Christ we have the capacity to live victoriously for the Lord regardless of what we face, but the ability to do so always depends on fellowship with the Savior in the power of the Spirit; we need to walk in the light (1 John 1:5-9).

Directions for the People (vss. 13-15)

In preparation for his ministry of leadership, Joshua is again told to “rise up.” He can’t lead the people with his face in the dirt or while moping about, depressed over the defeat. This is in essence a call for restoration to fellowship and faith in the power of God. It’s like the Lord’s words to Peter in Luke 22. Peter was warned that Satan would sift him like wheat, but then the Lord told him, “and you, when once you have turned again (restoration to fellowship), strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Peter was not to allow his failure and denials to keep him from being a leader and ministering to others. So Peter himself would exhort the church in view of our salvation and forgiveness in Christ, “gird up the loins of your mind …” (1 Pet. 1:13). In view of what follows (the examination and discharge of discipline on Achan and his family), Joshua undoubtedly communicated this same command to the people.

Next, in verse 13, Joshua was told to “consecrate the people” to prepare them to deal with the problem. He was to call their attention to the sin of someone taking things that were under the ban which was also the cause of their failure in the battle against Ai. As the Lord had emphasized to Joshua, so he was to call the people’s attention to both the cause and the consequences of the sin. This also called for them to prepare themselves for the activities that would take place the next day. They were to set the day apart for this activity and to prepare their hearts perhaps by prayer and worship for what God would have to do.

Next, in verse 14 specific instructions were given for purging out this sin from their midst. First, there is to be examination of the people tribe by tribe, family by family, and finally, man by man. Note also how the men are the ones held responsible for their families. The examination would reveal the guilty party. Verse 15 describes the punishment that was to be carried out on the guilty party with the reason given for the severity of the punishment.

The Discovery of Achan Described

The Search for the Guilty Party (vss. 16-18)

“So Joshua rose early in the morning” (NASB), “Early the next morning Joshua had Israel” (NIV). Four times we read in Joshua that he rose early in the morning to take care of important business. Joshua was not a proscratinator.

Next, we find that in verses 16 through 18 the discovery of Achan began with all Israel and was narrowed down by tribes to Judah, then by families or clans to the Zerathites, then by the families of that clan to the family of Zimri, and then from that family to Achan.

Now, why did Joshua follow this procedure and how was he able to narrow the search to Achan? The answer is found for us in verse 14 in the repeated words, “which the Lord takes.” The words by lot found in the NASB are in italics and are not in the original, but they most likely express the means that were used because of the words, “which the Lord takes.”

“Which the Lord takes” or “was taken” (NIV) in vss. 16-18 refers to a choice probably based on the use of the Urim and the Thummim in accordance with Exodus 28:15, 30 (cf. Num. 27:21), which somehow involved the casting of lots (cf. Prov. 16:33; Jos. 14:1-2; 18:6).

A key question is what was the Urim and the Thummim? They appear in Scripture without explanation, but the following may help us.

      Explanation of the Urim and Thummim:

    1. The Hebrew for this phrase probably means “the lights” and “the perfections.” The Hebrew word for Urim (‘urim) is probably derived from ‘or “be light.” Thummim probably comes from a Hebrew word meaning “perfection.”

    2. Urim begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph) and Thummim (thummim) begins with the last letter (taw).

    3. The Urim and Thummim appear in Scripture without explanatory identification, except that they were to be put “in the breastplate … and be upon Aaron’s heart” (Ex. 28:30), which may suggest that these are none other than descriptive terms for the twelve precious stones of the immediately preceding context, inscribed with the names of the tribes of Israel (vss. 17-21), and set in the breastplate of judgment upon Aaron’s heart (vs. 29).6 Some believe they consisted of only two special stones.

    4. They were contained in the breastplate or pouch of judgment worn on the outside of the ephod. The point is they were a means of seeking divine guidance and answers to questions and crises beyond human perception through the ministry of the priest.

Dr. Hannah in The Bible Knowledge Commentary says:

How they were used in determining God’s will is unknown, but some suggest the Urim represented a negative answer and the Thummim a positive answer. Perhaps this view is indicated by the fact that Urim … begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and Thummim … with the last latter. Others suggest that the objects simply symbolized the high priest’s authority to inquire of God, or the assurance that the priest would receive enlightenment (“lights”) and perfect knowledge (“perfections”) from God.7

Perhaps, as the Law which was built on the Hebrew alphabet (aleph to taw) stood for God’s moral will, so the Urim and Thummim stood for God’s guidance in special situations beyond human knowledge and ability.

Whatever, they were sacred lots and were often used in times of crisis to determine the will of God (see Num. 27:21). Every decision of the Urim was from the Lord (Prov. 16:33). The use of the Urim and the Thummim to determine God’s decisions or to find His will was to be done by the high priest because he alone could wear the ephod which contained the Urim and Thummim.

In 1 Samuel 2:28 three tasks of the priests are mentioned: (1) to go up to my altar, i.e., to perform the sacrificial rites at the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard of the tabernacle; (2) to burn incense at the altar of incense in the Holy Place (Ex 30:1-10), and (3) to wear an ephod. This is a reference to the special ephod to be worn by the high priests. This included the breastplate or pouch which contained the Urim and Thummim, the divinely ordained means of communication with God and to make decisions all of which was some how related to casting lots.

God gave divine direction and Achan was discovered by supernatural means. He did not come forth voluntarily to confess or repent and throw himself on the mercy of God. His failure to do so stands in contrast with the attitude of the prodigal and the publican of the New Testament.

The Lesson From Achan’s Sin (vss. 20-21)

As 1 Corinthians 10 reminds us, what happened to Achan is recorded for our warning and instruction to remind us of one of the processes to sin. The process to Achan’s sin was a familiar one. He saw, he coveted, and he took. It was the same with Eve (Gen. 3:6) and with David (2 Sam. 11:2-4) and it is the same with us. Joshua’s approach was tender, yet firm. He hated the sin, but loved the sinner. Achan’s confession while honest, was too late and the product of discovery. It was not an act of repentance or godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Cor. 7:8-11).

Are there not lessons for us here somewhere?

(1) Confession without repentance or a genuine change of mind is hollow. It does not restore us to fellowship not because repentance is a work we must do to gain God’s forgiveness, but because without it we retain a wrong attitude which maintains a barrier between us and the Lord.

(2) Sometimes confession is too late to stop the discipline. The primary purpose of confession is not to get out of trouble or to keep us out of God’s woodshed. The purpose of confession is to reestablish fellowship and turn the life over to God because we want to walk together with Him under His control, going in His direction (Amos 3:3).

(3) Perhaps the most practical lesson is to note the process. The fact Achan hid the plunder shows he clearly knew he was doing wrong. So, why did he go ahead and do it? Well, why did Satan sin against the Lord? Why did Eve fall for the deceptions of the serpent?

(4) Next, let’s note what Achan took. He took gold and silver which suggests materialism, but also a beautiful robe from Babylon which not only suggests materialism, but the desire to be fashionable or to gain the approbation of men. These two things represent the various lust patterns we all face and, if not dealt with in faith, can dominate a person’s life. They can include things like the desire for position, power, prestige, pleasure, possessions, praise, and recognition. These are human solutions or protective strategies used to find security, significance, and satisfaction. Jeremiah calls them broken cisterns.

For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns, That can hold no water (Jer. 2:13).

The evils people commit have their source in:

  • The sinful nature with its faulty thinking and reasoning (Isa. 55:8f; Prov. 14:12; Rom. 1:18f; Eph. 4:17f).
  • The world and its human reasoning (Rom. 12:2).
  • False belief structures which, thinking with man’s viewpoint, believe these things will meet our needs like security or happiness.
  • Unbelief in God’s goodness, wisdom, and timing in the way He supplies our needs.

Achan, as with Satan and Eve, was dissatisfied, impatient, and self-reliant. He was using and trusting in his own protective strategies to get what he wanted out of life.

Ironically, God was then in the process of taking all of Israel into the land where each man would have his own land, house, and abundant blessings. But dissatisfaction, caused by failure to find his happiness in the Lord, produced impatience which caused him to covet and run ahead with his own solutions. Though the command against coveting is only one of the Ten Commandments, it is the root sin against which most of the other commandments were given and the root sin behind most of our sin.

It must also be emphasized, coveting stems from being dissatisfied with our lot in life and from the failure to seek our happiness in the Lord and to trust Him as the source of our needs for security, significance, and satisfaction.

How does the New Testament define coveting? It is defined as idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). What is idolatry? In the final analysis, it is seeking from other things what only God can give. An idol can be a graven image made of wood or precious metal to which one prays and seeks help. Idolatry may also be materialism, that way of life that seeks security and significance from money, possessions, power, prestige, and pleasure. It may be secularism, a philosophy of life by which men seek to live apart from dependence on God. Or it may be the approbation of men, seeking satisfaction and security from the praise of others. Campbell writes:

It has been estimated that Americans are bombarded by 1,700 advertisements a day via various forms of the media. While there is no danger of our purchasing all 1,700 items, there is the possibility of our accepting the philosophy behind those advertisements—that we will have complete, fulfilled, satisfied lives if only we drive this car, use this hair spray, or drink that beverage.8

So, what is our need? It is to learn Paul’s secret—biblical contentment in the Lord described in Philippians 4:12-13 (see also Phil. 3:13-14 and 1 Tim. 6:6-19).

The Death of Achan Discharged

When reading this passage, one of the questions that comes to mind is, why was God so harsh on Achan and his family? In contrast to the mercy we see in the New Testament, this seems terribly harsh. We immediately think of the mercy the Lord demonstrated to the woman at the well who had five husbands (John 4:18) and the woman taken in adultery who, as a Jewish woman, could have been stoned according to the Law (John 8:3f).

But we are apt to forget a couple of other New Testament passages like the death of Ananias and Sapphira and the awesome judgments of the Tribulation where the blood of men is pictured as flowing up to the horses’ bridles in the wine vat of God’s wrath (cf. Rev. 14:18-20; 19:13 with Isa. 63:1-6).

We are also apt to either forget or minimize the holiness of God. God is described as holy more than by any of His other attributes—more than even His love, mercy, and grace. As a holy God, God is perfect righteousness and justice, and, because of His justice, He must deal with sin (cf. Psa. 50:21; Eccl. 8:11-12).

But there is another issue here we are apt to ignore as we think about this passage. Who were these people and what was their purpose? They were a people called of God to be His witness to the world and through whom God would give the Savior (cf. Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 10:15f; with 1 Pet. 1:14f; 2:9-12). This, then, involves the principle of protecting the welfare and purpose of the majority by dealing with this sin in such a way that it would strike fear into the hearts of the people and make them realize just how serious sin was. As with the case of Ananias and Sapphira, which was in the early period of the church, so in this initial period of entrance into the land, Achan was put to death to strike the fear of God into the hearts of the people and to form an example of the seriousness of what Achan had done in violating the covenant of God.

Initial possession and enjoyment of the land and its blessings and the Israelite’s ability to fulfill their calling as God’s chosen people was dependent on obedience to God who was giving them the land with all its many blessings and responsibilities (Deut. 28-30).

Further, we should remember that though Achan did confess his sin, he only did so when forced to by the circumstances. Had he voluntarily cast himself on the mercy of God, his life might have been spared, as in the case of David and his sin. Dr. Campbell writes: “In view of the fact that the Law prohibits the execution of children for their father’s sins (Deut. 24:16), we assume that Achan’s children were accomplices in crime.”9

Another key issue that must not be forgotten is the trouble this brought on others. God took such severe action because of the serious consequences of his act on others—it was a terrible example, several lives were lost, Israel was routed, and God’s honor impugned (cf. vs. 25). This became, then, a warning to the people, which is evident by the fact a memorial was even erected to remind Israel of Achan’s sin and God’s judgment.


There are two major points that I would like focus on from this chapter.

(1) Achan’s choice grew out of the soil of dissatisfaction. But why the dissatisfaction in view of all he had learned and seen as one of the privileged people of Israel? For whatever reason, Achan was dissatisfied with his lot in life because he was unwilling or failed to rest his life in God’s providence and goodness. His failure to walk by faith led to seeking satisfaction, security, and significance in the material world so that, lusting after things, he chose to take the things under the ban.

It was this spiritual condition of dissatisfaction and independent living that led him to take matters into his own hands believing he could meet his wants by his own solutions. Our failure to find contentment in the Savior and His love and grace is surely the cause of a great deal of our own self-made misery and sinful behavior. The Lord highlighted this very thing in Matthew 6 when He warned the disciples against storing up treasures on earth and against worrying about the details of life—drink, food, and clothing. In the process, He defined the pursuit of the details of life at the expense of seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness as a simple matter of not truly trusting in God’s supply. The issue is one of faith—having too little faith. After pointing to the way God cares for the birds and clothes the grass, He said,

But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith? 31 Do not be anxious then, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ (Matt. 6:30-31).

(2) When Achan sinned and there was sin in the camp of Israel, the blessing and strength of God was halted and the nation met with judgment or discipline and failure. But once the sin was dealt with as the Lord commanded, by His grace, the blessing and strength of God resumed. Again we are reminded that known sin in one’s life creates a barrier between us and the Lord because it shows our commitment to go our own way and to handle our own lives by our own strategies and desires.

1 R. Laird Harris, Editor, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. Bruce K. Waltke, Associate Editors, Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, Moody Press, Chicago, Vol. 1, 1980, p. 324.

2 Norman L. Geisler, A Popular Survey of the Old Testament, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1977, p. 100.

3 Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor, Expositors Bible Commentary, Old Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1997, electronic media.

4 J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, Moody Press, 1967, p. 159.

5 Sanders, p. 163-164.

6 R. Laird Harris, Editor, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. Bruce K. Waltke, Associate Editors, Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, Moody Press, Chicago, Vol. I , 1980, p. 52.

7 John D. Hannah, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, editors John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Vol. I, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1985, p. 152.

8 Donald K. Campbell, Joshua, Leader Under Fire, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1989, p. 65.

9 Campbell, p. 66.

Related Topics: Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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