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The Sin of Achan and its' impact on Israel
Prior to the invasion of Jericho, God gave specific commands regarding the "spoil" inside the city. The old cliché, "To the victor [go] the spoils" is not only true in military circles, but it is true with God as well. It was as if God said, "This is My battle; this is My military victory. I do not need you to help Me defeat Jericho; therefore all of the spoil, all of the booty, is Mine." Reading in Joshua 6:17-191:
17 "And the city shall be under the ban, it and all that is in it belongs to the LORD; only Rahab the harlot and all who are with her in the house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent. 18 "But as for you, only keep yourselves from the things under the ban, lest you covet them and take some of the things under the ban, so you would make the camp of Israel accursed and bring trouble on it. 19 "But all the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron are holy to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD."
Jericho had been placed "under the ban," a phrase which comes from the Hebrew word, herem, "a devoted thing, a ban" and is therefore translated "under the ban" in some translations to indicate something sanctified to the Lord, so "accursed" here doesn't mean in the sense of something being a curse (although some would argue that the result for Achan and his family, and for all Israel, was a curse of sorts). 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.7
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 Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 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 (Genesis 18), but since he could not find even ten, He removed Lot and his family (Genesis 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. Norman Geisler commented:
. . . . 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. Exodus 23:27-30; Deuteronomy 7:3-6; Joshua 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.5
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. Leviticus 27:28-29).
If man touches that set aside for God he therefore risks the very wrath of God for the spoil belonged to Him since He was the sole victor in the battle against Jericho. Indeed, we find, at the close of chapter 6, that everything had gone according to God's plan. Victory had come in the most miraculous and painless fashion, all of God's promise had been confirmed, and the people of Israel felt totally confident that they were ready to conquer the entire land. However, chapter 7 opens with a disheartening revelation and a small but ominous 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 drives home an important truth, the reality of the ever present threat and contrasts of life - victory is always followed by the threat of defeat when we are disobedient. Achan had acted unfaithfully in regard to the things placed under the ban, by taking some of the spoil. Although he had acted without the knowledge of Joshua or the rest of Israel, the anger of God now burnt against Israel.
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 and dependence on Him. A New Testament chapter that is often quoted is 1 Corinthians 10:12, "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 (transgressed) in regard …" (Joshua 7v11,151) for the word "unfaithfully" represents a Hebrew word (abar) that means "to act underhandedly."7 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 (cf. James 4:4), and a faithless act, seeking happiness and security from things rather than from God (1 Timothy 6:6f). We note that 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 out in the open as a warning to every man and woman. 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 Christians today, important lessons.
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 Corinthians 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 (Ephesians 4v30; 1 Thessalonians 5v19). It is a matter of loving the world and to do so is to make one behave as though he or she was an enemy of God (James 4).
We also read of a renewal of a disturbing trend in the peoples make-up for, after the overwhelming victory at Jericho, [v2] "Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai" and we sense again that the confidence of the people was beginning to shift from God to themselves, because they said to Joshua (v31):
"Do not let all the people go up; only about two or three thousand men need go up to Ai; do not make all the people toil up there, for they are few."
In effect they were insulting God in their presumption that they did not need Him for this little matter, and so they left behind most of the fighting men of Israel. Amazingly they were becoming overly confident in their own capability after the victory at Jericho in which they really had no part - except to obey God's will! The victory was nothing to do with their strength or prowess, and so they underestimated the strength of the enemy and overestimated the strength of their own army, compounding their error by failing to consult God regarding the next battle. Truly, "pride goeth before a fall!" They were also ignorant of the failings of one of their own in Jericho and without knowing it they had put themselves under the curse of God and made themselves no better than the Canaanites.
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 had to remind them of this painful lesson and commanded them to take "all the people of war" (8:1). Later, 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).
Thus we find (7v4) that about three thousand men were sent up to Ai and as a result, without warning, the men of Ai struck down thirty-six of the men of Israel so that they fled from the city and were pursued by the men of Ai. The defeat melted the hearts of the Israelites as thoroughly as the hearts of the Canaanites had melted before the onslaught brought about by the chosen people when they were led by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - but He had now deserted them as they were warned. The unexpected defeat caused massive psychological damage and left them devastated and confused because their God hadn't given them victory. Joshua showed where his heart was for he tore his clothes and fell to the earth. The elders joined him in this anguished contrition, on their faces before the ark of the Lord until evening, as they piled dirt on their heads as a sign of their deep anguish and humiliation. Joshua loudly lamented that God had deserted them and the Canaanites would hear of their defeat and would band together to annihilate them. Then God spoke to Joshua (vs. 101):
"Rise up! Why is it that you have fallen on your face?"
The nature of this question carries a note of rebuke. God says, in view of who He is and His plan for Israel and 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! Secondarily, this is 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?
God now revealed the nature of Israel's sin and showed that it was no longer a time to pray - it was now time to take action, for He explained (7v11-121):
"Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things. 12 Therefore the sons of Israel cannot stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies, for they have become accursed. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy the things under the ban from your midst."
(1) "Israel has sinned" (this states the basic nature of their failure and ours - sin [the Heb. is h£a„t£a„á, meaning to miss, miss the way or goal or mark);
(2) "they have transgressed (or violated) (Heb. is àa„bar, to pass over, overstep, go beyond, transgress) my covenant, which I commanded them" (this points to the specific issue);7
God's earlier assurance that not a man would be lost in battle had now been negated by their disobedience. The thirty-six men who had already died gave the clearest possible message that God was not with them in this latest endeavour. It was time to put their house in order, to consecrate the people afresh, and find the individual who sinned and brought Israel under the curse.
This would not be an elementary task for there were over 600,000 numbered men and about two million people and it was unlikely that detective work would find the guilty party among this massive crowd. Discovering the guilty individual would take a miracle - or an act of God! In Joshua 7:141 we read God's instructions through him:
In the morning then you shall come near by your tribes. And it shall be that the tribe which the LORD takes by lot shall come near by families, and the family which the LORD takes shall come near by households, and the household which the LORD takes shall come near man by man.
The Lord was going to sift these groups until He had filtered out the guilty person using a procedure revealed through Israel's established priesthood. God spoke face to the face with Moses, but now, after the death of His servant, He revealed His will through the ephod and the breastplate of righteousness. The historical record of the construction of the ephod and the breastplate of righteousness is contained in Exodus 28:6-30. Evidently, through the stones that were on the breastplate and with the "urim" and "thummim," God revealed His will to the priest, or to the holder of the ephod who was in His will. We know that four hundred years later, in the time of David, as recorded in 1 Samuel 30:7-81, God responded to David through the ephod because we read:
7 Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, "Please bring me the ephod." So Abiathar brought the ephod to David. 8 And David inquired of the LORD, saying, "Shall I pursue this band? Shall I overtake them?" And He said to him, "Pursue, for you shall surely overtake them, and you shall surely rescue all."
Evidently, this was now to be God's prescribed method for Moses instructed Joshua that he was to inquire through Eleazer the priest regarding the will of God in every matter.
Accordingly, the next morning, Joshua stepped forward and announced that someone in the camp had sinned and, as a result, had brought the entire camp under the judgement of God. Achan, the guilty man, standing in the midst of a crowd of about two million people, must have felt very secure. But, after going in and inquiring of God through the ephod, Joshua came back out and said, "The tribe of Judah is taken." The census of Numbers 26:22 indicated that there were 76,500 numbered men in Judah, so even that would have seemed a secure crowd in which to hide. To Achan, one in 76,500 still appeared excellent odds against discovery - but he would have reckoned without the powers of Almighty God.. As the other eleven tribes backed away, Joshua inquired again and announced, that the family of the Zerahites (v17) was taken. As the other families moved back, Achan would now have an inkling that his sin was about to be revealed and we can only imagine the fear and dread that invaded his soul as Joshua announced that the household of Zabdi was taken. As the household of Zabdi passed by man by man, Joshua confronted Achan and asked (Joshua 7v191):
Then Joshua said to Achan, "My son, I implore you, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and give praise to Him; and tell me now what you have done. Do not hide it from me."
Achan made a straight confession (Joshua 7v20-211), but tragically, for him, it was too little, too late:
20 So Achan answered Joshua and said, "Truly, I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel, and this is what I did: 21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold fifty shekels in weight, then I coveted them and took them; and behold, they are concealed in the earth inside my tent with the silver underneath it."
(Continued on page 515)