(Joshua chapter 7)
The book of Joshua is a war diary, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find stories about violence and bloodshed. Nevertheless, I have always felt uncomfortable about the story of Achan. Jericho, famously, was the place where ‘the walls came tumbling down’. Less well-known is the order Joshua gave to the Israelite army not to take any booty as they fought their way through Jericho. One warrior, Achan, ignored that command. A few days later, the Israelites set out over-confidently to attack a smaller town called Ai – but they were defeated. That wasn’t just a setback – it was disastrous. The Israelites had no permanent homes, and no backup options for a safe retreat. They needed answers – and Achan became the scapegoat.
Wartime justice is often swift and harsh. In this case it was especially brutal. They identified the culprit by lottery (though I suspect that anxious looks may have drawn attention to those who were close to Achan). Then the people took him outside the camp and stoned him to death. After that, they stoned his wife, his children, and all his possessions, including his livestock, then burnt the lot. Each time I have read that story, I have felt repulsed. Achan alone had committed the crime. Perhaps his wife became complicit when he brought home the booty, but how could it be just to destroy the children with the parents?
You often have to search the small details to understand an Old Testament story. In this case, the description of the loot gives the clue. This is what he stole:
“...a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels” and they were “hidden in the ground inside (his) tent, with the silver underneath.” (Joshua 7:21 NIV)
If we convert the shekels, Achan was carrying about 2.25 kilos of silver, 50-75 grammes of gold, plus the “beautiful robe”. The soldiers who attacked Jericho may have been close together during the hand-to-hand battle, but they would certainly have walked back to camp together. Achan’s booty, plus his weapon, wasn’t a huge load, but it was too much to carry unnoticed – especially as the silver coins jangled. The men walking with him would know that he was carrying back more than he took to Jericho. He then concealed the goods in the ground under the family tent. His neighbours may have seen him digging, but his family would certainly have noticed the disturbed ground.
Achan was alone when he stole the booty, but his family and some other people were complicit as “accessories after the fact”. Not even Joshua can escape blame in this story. If he had taken time to consult God before he led his army into the ill-fated assault on Ai he would have sensed a problem. Maybe Joshua did pray before the battle, but he didn’t seek guidance. Rather, flushed with pride in his victory over Jericho, he pared back his army to just 3000 men and presumptuously led them to defeat.
Joshua’s position was critical. His command was potentially under threat, and sections of his army were disloyal. For the people who already knew what Achan had done, the ferocity of the judgement was an act of self-justification. For Joshua and his fellow-officers and elders, it was a vital tactical move to maintain control of the nation and to prevent rebellion. But, for all of them, it was convenient to put the blame on God.
Spiritually, we can learn two lessons from this story, and both are covered by New Testament comments:
“Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” (1 Corinthians 5:6 NIV)
As I am writing this blog, coronavirus Covid19 is the major news story. A sickness that started as a small outbreak in a Chinese fish market spread right across China and around the world. Sin and its consequences can spread like a virus. We dare not take sin lightly.
The other lesson comes from Jesus: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1 NIV). Judgement is horrible. It’s right to feel uncomfortable about the vengeance taken against Achan and his family. In the words of the 16th century reformer, John Bradford, as he watched prisoners being led to execution, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”