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5. Defeat At Ai (Josh. 7:1-26)

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We continue on with our study of some experiences of O.T. characters. We are currently studying the life of Joshua: A Faithful Warrior. In the last article we learned about “Victory at Jericho” (Josh. 6:1-27) as the Israelites began their assault on the Canaanites in their quest to subdue and take possession of the land that God had given them. But, sadly, immediately after that miraculous victory, the Israelites suffer a crushing and humiliating defeat from a seemingly insignificant enemy, Ai.

The subject of this study is: God’s anger against, and judgement of, sin. What we learn in this study is that God does not tolerate sin amongst his people. God is a thoroughly holy God, separate from evil. God’s eyes are too pure to look on evil (Hab. 1:13). That’s why our approach to God as believers is only on the basis of the mediation of his beloved Son, our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who did not commit sin and no deceit was found in his mouth…(who) himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness (1 Pet. 2:22-24). Only on the basis of Christ’s redeeming, cleansing work on the cross can we draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water (Heb. 10:21-22).

Let’s try to identify the theological principles in this passage. First note that…

I. Pride Comes Before A Fall Into Sin (7:1-5)

Barely have the Israelites victoriously demolished Jericho than warning bells are sounded: The Israelites, however, were unfaithful regarding the things set apart to the Lord. Achan son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of what was set apart, and the Lord’s anger burned against the Israelites (7:1).

This first verse sets the tone for what is about to happen in the rest of the chapter. Trouble for Israel is brewing because of one person’s sin. Even as the Israelites waged war against the city of Jericho, sin was at work in Achan, who stole for himself some of the things that were to be set apart for the Lord, things that Israel had been expressly told not to take for themselves (cf. 6:17-19).

Here at the outset, we learn two important factors that help us understand the rest of the chapter. First, Achan’s sin is named and is attributed to the Israelites as a whole – they “were unfaithful” even though it was Achan’s individual sin. We will examine this in more detail later in our study. Second, unlike the report of the men who spied out Jericho, the spies whom Joshua sent to Ai came back and gave him some fatal and false advice: 3 Don’t send all the people, but send about two thousand or three thousand men to attack Ai. Since the people of Ai are so few, don’t wear out all our people there.” 4a So about three thousand men went up there (7:3-4a).

The tone has subtly changed. Unlike before at Jericho, the spies do not report everything that had happened to them (2:23), nor do they express their conviction that “the Lord has handed over the entire land to us” (2:24). No, now, without any mention of the Lord in all of this, they confidently state that Joshua does not need to send all the Israelite troops to attack Ai, because they are “so few.” In other words, “Don’t weary all our people, Joshua, with such an easy target. They are sitting ducks. We can overcome this place with only two or three thousand men.” Also, this differs from the attack on Jericho in that, noticeably, Joshua receives no communication from the Lord to take this action (cf. 6:2). Confidence in God has been replaced by confidence in self. As Proverbs 16:18 says, Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall. The truth is that, from the moment they belittled Ai, they were defeated by their pride.

Sadly, Joshua follows their advice: 4b So about three thousand men went up there, but they fled from the men of Ai. 5 The men of Ai struck down about thirty-six of them and chased them from outside the city gate to the quarries, striking them down on the descent. As a result, the people lost heart (7:4b-5). As we know from 7:1, Israel’s defeat is due to sin in the congregation. Sin in the congregation is so often demonstrated in self-confidence. And self-confidence leads to lack of dependence on the Lord. That’s the pattern that happened among the Israelites in this story> And it’s a pattern that is repeated so often in our churches, para-church ministries, and mission agencies today. What starts out with utter confidence in the leading of God and dependence upon God to provide the resources needed for the ministry soon changes into self-confidence and lack of prayerful dependence.

No wonder that the Lord’s anger burned against Israel (7:1). God knew what had happened with Achan and the presence of sin among the congregation, not to mention their self-confidence and absence of communication with Him. Because God was not honored among them, he withdrew his power and they are resoundingly defeated by “so few” people in Ai. This reminds me of the story of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6:1-15. Faced with only five barley loaves and two fish to feed such a vast crowd, Andrew says to Jesus, “But what are they for so many?” (Jn. 6:9). Little did he know who Jesus was and what He could do with so few resources. And little did Joshua and the Israelites know what God could do with “so few” people at Ai. Their defeat at Ai was the first indicator, surely, that something was drastically wrong. Something had radically changed since their victory at Jericho.

We see this so often, don’t we? Confidence in God that turns into confidence in self. Perhaps it’s a pastor who leads a church through a tremendous period of growth, such that the church exerts huge influence across its community and perhaps around the world. Over time the identity of the church and the pastor become blurred and soon it becomes the pastor’s church. The freshness and vigor of God’s call becomes the success of the pastor. And as his reputation, influence, and power grow, so does his self-confidence. Then, sadly, one day you find out that he has engaged in sexual immorality or some other sin. He is stripped of his credentials as a pastor and fades from view – no longer usable by God; another gifted minister of the gospel robbed from active service by self-confidence and pride. Here in Canada, a number of years ago, there was an evangelist by the name of Charles Templeton, who became very well know, even partnered at times with Billy Graham and co-founded the international ministry called Youth for Christ. Sadly, he became cynical about the gospel message that he had once so dearly loved and so powerfully proclaimed. Eventually he declared himself an agnostic and, later, an atheist. Or, perhaps it’s a youth pastor who participates in an inappropriate relationship with a girl in the youth group and eventually runs off with her and divorces his wife. How many times has Satan robbed the church of gifted pastors through self-confidence and pride.

It’s the little Ai’s that can so easily defeat us, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards (Song of Solomon 2:15), little faults of character or unjudged sins that eventually overpower us. Satan is so clever at tripping us up. Indeed, ministers of the gospel (as well as Christians in general) are prime targets for Satan’s attacks. Satan does not want us doing what we do. No wonder that the apostle Paul warns us about this and urges us to protect ourselves with God’s armor: 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens. 13 For this reason take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand. 14 Stand, therefore, with truth like a belt around your waist, righteousness like armor on your chest, 15 and your feet sandaled with readiness for the gospel of peace. 16 In every situation take up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one (Eph. 6:11-16). Notice Paul describes these spiritual attacks as the schemes of the devil (Eph. 6:11), the flaming arrows of the evil one (Eph. 6:16).

We are engaged in all-out spiritual war. Our enemy is not human armies but “spiritual forces in the heavens.” Satan and his fallen angels know our points of vulnerability, spiritual weakness, temptation. It’s the temptation when you’re away from home on a business trip, alone in a hotel room at nights, where pornographic films are readily available and openly advertised. It’s the physical attraction of another woman in the office where you work that, when left unchecked, can lead to illicit relations and, potentially, disastrous consequences for your marriage and family and church. That’s what can happen when you take your eyes of the Lord and give in to your own desires, when you give up dependence on the Lord and replace it with confidence in self.

Well, so much for the self-confidence of the spies in our passage whose assessment of the enemy at Ai and their advice to Joshua were just so wrong. So much for their argument that there was no need to “wear out all our people” in attacking such a feeble few (7:3). The consequence of this fatal perspective was that the men of Ai struck down about thirty-six of them (the Israelites) and chased them from outside the city gate to the quarries, striking them down on the descent. As a result, the people lost heart (7:5). Instead of victory, they were chased away and thirty-six Israelite men died. No wonder the people became discouraged! Their recent success in defeating Jericho is still fresh in their memories, puffing them up with confidence. Then to be defeated by so few men at Ai is humiliating. Immediately, courage is replaced by fear and discouragement.

Pride so often comes before a fall into sin. And…

II. Sin Causes Anguish Before God (7:6-9)

Undoubtedly, Joshua and all Israel thought they were unstoppable after the great victory at Jericho. But instead, great victory is followed by humiliating defeat at Ai. Understandably, Joshua and the elders are distraught about this, as indicated by putting dust on their heads (7:6). And Joshua cries out to the Lord: 7 Oh, Lord God,” Joshua said, “why did you ever bring these people across the Jordan to hand us over to the Amorites for our destruction? If only we had been content to remain on the other side of the Jordan! 8 What can I say, Lord, now that Israel has turned its back and run from its enemies? 9 When the Canaanites and all who live in the land hear about this, they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. Then what will you do about your great name?” (7:7-9)

You can understand why Joshua seems mystified by what has happened. Hence, his question #1:Why did you ever bring these people across the Jordan to hand us over to the Amorites for our destruction?” (7:7a). Joshua begs God to reveal why this has happened. Why would God bring them across the Jordan river into Canaan, the land that he had promised them, only to let them be defeated by the Amorites? But, before we question God’s motives, before we ask God the “why” question, surely we should first consider what God has done in the past and what he requires of us in the present. Had Joshua carefully considered the facts of their recent history – that God had just miraculously brought the Israelites across the Jordan, and miraculously enabled them to defeat Jericho - perhaps that might have caused him to consider that there was something going on here of which he was unaware. There is more to this than meets the eye. Joshua’s question of God is the same as the repeated question of the Israelites in the wilderness: Had God brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness to let them die? The rhetorical answer is: Of course not! And now, had God brought them across the Jordan into Canaan to let them die? The rhetorical answer is: Of course not! “If only we had been content to remain on the other side of the Jordan” (7:7b) he opines. If they had known that this would happen, it would have been better for them to have stayed on the east side of Jordan.

I suppose, in such a situation as this, it’s human nature to say “if only.” Regrets about past decisions surface very quickly when we face defeat. Past actions which we thought were so right and were, in fact, ordered by God, soon take on a whole different perspective when things don’t work out as we expected. We are so prone to hanker after the “good old days.” When things go wrong we long for the past and the familiar and shy away from the future and the unfamiliar, even though the past might have been filled with life-threatening thirst and hunger and the future filled with life-giving nourishment (milk and honey).

Question #2: “What can I say, Lord, now that Israel has turned its back and run from its enemies?” (7:8). Joshua is at a loss for words to explain what has happened. Israel had not simply been defeated – that would have been bad enough. They had actually turned their back and run away from their enemy. This turn of events is inexplicable based on their recent history and God’s promises. Joshua’s fear is that “When the Canaanites and all who live in the land hear about this, they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth” (7:9a). Joshua’s concern now turns to Israel’s future prospects. He fears that, when this news spreads throughout Canaan, the Canaanites will take advantage of Israel’s current state of weakness and cowardice and, potentially, destroy them completely. Initially, he seems only to be concerned about the humiliation brought on Israel and the threat of their annihilation. But then his attention turns to how this would impact God’s reputation.

Question #3: “Then what will you do about your great name?” (7:9). Joshua turns from the “why” question to a “what” question, from Israel’s humiliation to its impact on God’s reputation. Joshua rightly infers that Israel’s defeat would be interpreted by the Canaanites as Yahweh’s defeat, which would bring dishonor on His “great name.” It’s bad enough that when the Canaanites hear about Israel’s defeat they will “wipe out our name from the earth,” but the consequences for God’s name are even greater. “Then what will you do about your great name?” How will God defend his honor in the light of what has happened? What will God do to protect and restore his reputation? After all, He won a mighty victory at Jericho but now His people have been utterly defeated at Ai.

Thankfully, Joshua does not rationalize the outcome of the defeat. He doesn’t surmise that they underestimated the number of troops required, or that only thirty-six men died, or that it could have been much worse, or that they would just send more men against Ai the next time. No, from his prayer, it is evident that he not only has concerns for Israel’s reputation and future but more importantly he has concerns for God’s reputation. Thankfully, Joshua is a godly man who in the face of defeat turns immediately to the Lord. Sad that such a godly man who is used so powerfully by God does not consult the Lord before engaging with Ai as they did.

Joshua’s last question is so relevant for God’s people today. Whenever there is sin among the people of God that becomes publicly known, the Lord’s name is dishonored. There is a direct link between what Christians and churches do and say and what the world thinks and says about our God. When Christians act immorally or unjustly, God’s name is tarnished before the world. When Christians adopt worldly ways, God’s name is dishonored before the world. No wonder, when commenting on the death of Saul and Jonathan, David laments: Do not tell it in Gath, don’t announce it in the marketplaces of Ashkelon, or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, and the daughters of the uncircumcised will celebrate” (2 Sam. 1:20). Dealing with sin in the assembly is one thing – it’s a paramount obligation - but publishing it before the world brings God’s name into disrepute.

So then, we have learned thus far that (1) pride comes before a fall into sin (7:1-5); and (2) sin causes anguish before God (7:6-9). Now…

III. One Person’s Sin Affects The Whole Congregation (7:10-15)

10 The Lord then said to Joshua, “Stand up! Why have you fallen facedown? 11a Israel has sinned” (7:10-11a). That’s why Israel has been defeated and humiliated. Just as God had warned them, this act has brought “trouble” upon Israel (6:18). That’s why they have no power against their enemy. Achan’s sin is attributed by God to the whole congregation of Israel. “They have violated my covenant that I appointed for them. They have taken some of what was set apart. They have stolen, deceived, and put those things with their own belongings” (7:11b). This is a premeditated violation of God’s covenant with them that they must not take any of the things in Jericho that were set apart for destruction or for the Lord’s treasury (6:17-19, 24). This violation involved theft, deceit, and concealment. “This is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies. They will turn their backs and run from their enemies, because they have been set apart for destruction” (7:12a) The people themselves have become what the inhabitants and contents of Jericho were – “set apart for destruction.” They fled before the men of Ai because they are doomed for destruction by virtue of their violation of God’s covenant. For that reason, God says, “I will no longer be with you unless you remove from among you what is set apart” (7:12b).

God does not turn a blind eye to sin. God does not minimize, trivialize, or ignore sin. Sin among God’s people denigrates God’s name and holiness. If the congregation does not judge sin in their midst, then God will. God punishes unconfessed sin. But, thanks be to God, there is a way of escape, there is an “unless.” God will remove his presence from them “unless you remove from among you what is set apart.” If judgement is enacted by the congregation on the guilty party and the things that were stolen and hidden are removed from their midst, then God will be gracious. By God’s grace, today, because of Calvary, If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ the righteous one (1 Jn. 2:1).

Some people say that the God of the O.T. is vindictive, that the O.T. is about God’s law and not God’s grace. But that is not true. Here we see an example where God is gracious. Despite punishing the Israelites by causing their defeat, God gives them the chance to put things right. You will not be able to stand against your enemies until you remove what is set apart” (7:13). In order to do this, the people must be examined tribe by tribe, clan by clan, family by family, man by man until they discover who is responsible for this (7:14). And when they discover who is responsible, “The one who is caught with the things set apart must be burned, along with everything he has, because he has violated the Lord’s covenant and committed an outrage in Israel” (7:15).

All Israel has sinned, but one person is guilty. One person’s sin contaminates the whole congregation. What had been done in secret by one person for his own personal gain must be exposed and judged by the congregation as a whole in order for them to be cleared of this sin and made holy before the Lord. The congregation cannot stand against the attacks of the enemy until sin is expunged.

There is a principle that the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household ( 1 Pet. 4:17). Sin must be dealt with among God’s people – it cannot be ignored, cannot be swept under the rug. Remember, our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). Do you want to know why so many churches today are so ineffective in their testimony? Do you want to know why so many Christians are indistinguishable from non-Christians in their behavior, lifestyle, priorities, relationships, and morality? In many cases it’s because of unjudged sin in their individual lives which taints the congregation as a whole. We are not islands to ourselves. How we live and what we do impacts the entire church and Christian community. Sin in one person’s life spreads like yeast which leavens the whole batch of dough (Gal. 5:9).

So far we have discovered wonderful principles from this O.T. narrative that are directly applicable to the Christian life. First, pride comes before a fall into sin (7:1-5). Second, sin causes anguish before God (7:6-9). Third, one person’s sin affects the whole congregation (7:10-15). And then…

IV. Certain Sins Can Easily Ensnare Us (7:20-23)

After carrying out the Lord’s instruction for discovering the person responsible for this calamity, Achan is identified (7:20-21). Immediately, he confesses, “It is true. I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel” (7:20a). In his confession, Achan clearly describes what he did (7:20b) that led to this downfall. First, he was attracted by what he saw – “I saw a beautiful cloak from Babylon, five pounds of silver, and a bar of gold weighing a pound and a quarter” (7:21a). The sight of this bounty, which was to be set apart either for destruction or for the Lord’s treasury, ignited in him this overwhelming lust of the eyes (1 Jn. 2:16). So powerful was it, that he ignored Joshua’s warning to “keep yourselves from the things set apart, or you will be set apart for destruction” (6:18).

Second, Achan “coveted them” (7:21b). What he saw with his eyes led to covetousness in his heart. Covetousness can be such a powerful influence in our lives - that desire for things that you do not have but which you really want; that urge for more things. So powerful was this covetousness in Achan that he could not resist taking the forbidden things. The writer of the book of Hebrews urges us to lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us (Heb. 12:1). For Achan that ensnaring sin apparently was the beautiful, expensive Babylonian cloak and the silver and gold.

Third, Achan “took them” (7:21c). What his eyes saw, his heart lusted after, and he took them. A good principle to remember when we find ourselves in this type of situation is this: Be sure your sin will catch up with you” (Num. 32:23). This is a relevant and practical warning to remember. The apostle John reminds us that everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s possessions—is not from the Father, but is from the world (1 Jn. 2:16).

Four, Achan hid them. “You can see for yourself. They are concealed in the ground inside my tent, with the silver under the cloak” (7:21d). You may try to hide your sins, but remember, all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account (Heb. 4:13). There is nothing you can do or say or think that is concealed from God. Other people may not find out, but God knows. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? If you find yourself in Achan’s position, try first to remember that there is One who is observing you - He knows all about you and takes account of everything.

So you see, Achan’s action was all the result of covetousness. When it says “I took them,” Achan really means “I stole them.” These items were not Achan’s to take – they were under the ban. You can see what impact the covetousness of one man had on the entire congregation. One man’s sin became the sin of all. Israel was one community, not just a lot of individuals with common roots and a communal lifestyle. In the western world, I think we have trouble understanding this concept of congregational oneness. But that’s what our church relationship is meant to be. One people of God, joined together inseparably through Christ. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope at your calling – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:4-6).

Of course, the antidote to covetousness is contentment (Phil 4:11). Wanting more and more possessions robs us of our joy in Christ. Contentment, for a Christian, is being satisfied with what God gives us, living within our means, and using those things for his glory. The apostle Paul’s perspective is worthy of note: 6 Godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. 8 If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 11 But you, man of God, flee from these things, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called and about which you have made a good confession in the presence of many witnesses (1 Tim. 6:6-12).


V. Sin Must Be Removed From The Congregation (7:24-26)

God’s judgement is swift. Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the cloak, and the bar of gold, his sons and daughters, his ox, donkey, and sheep, his tent, and all that he had and brought them up to the Valley of Achor (7:24). This is congregational judgement in action. This is the congregation taking corporate responsibility for judging Achan’s sin and cleansing the congregation. At the Valley of Achor (“Valley of Trouble”) they stoned Achan and his family to death, burned their bodies, and covered them with stones (7:25). It appears that Achan’s family must have been complicit somehow in what he did because it is a biblical principle that children are not required to be punished for their parents’ sins and vice versa: Fathers are not to be put to death for their children, and children are not to be put to death for their fathers; each person will be put to death for his own sin (Deut. 24:16).

Finally, over Achan they heaped a large pile of rocks (7:26a). Undoubtedly this pile of rocks would serve as a constant warning to everyone, a constant reminder of the consequences of sin. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger (7:26b). God’s burning anger at the beginning of the chapter (7:1) is assuaged by the corporate judgement of sin at the end of the chapter (7:24-26). Fellowship with God is restored. The spiritual rot caused by sin has been exposed, judged, and removed.

As in Israel, so in our churches today. Sin must be removed from the congregation in order for God’s presence to be among us, for his holiness to be maintained among us, and for his name to be honored among us. Again, Paul’s instruction governs us: Remove the evil person from among you (1 Cor. 5:13).

Final Remarks

This account reminds us of the principle set out in James 1:15 that after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death. We see this amply illustrated for us in the story of Achan and the defeat at Ai. The Bible is clear: The wages of sin is death, but… (thanks be to God, because of the atoning work of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross)…the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:23).

The structure of this O.T. narrative sets out the sequence of what happens when someone falls into sin and what the congregation has to do about it, as follows:

1. Pride comes before a fall into sin (7:1-5).

2. Sin causes anguish before God (7:6-9).

3. One person’s sin affects the whole congregation (7:10-15).

4. Certain sins can easily ensnare us (7:20-23).

5. Sin must be removed from the congregation (7:24-26).

May we take heed to the events recorded for us in Joshua 7 – they are very instructive and relevant for us today. Remember that whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures (Rom. 15:4). Through this study, may we be quick to judge our sin (personal and corporate) in order to maintain fellowship with God. Let us avail ourselves of the access we have through Christ in one Spirit to the Father (Eph. 2:18). Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need (Heb. 2:16). May we be alert to the presence of sin and take swift and appropriate action to deal with it so that it does not affect the glory of the Lord’s name.

Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life

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