If our study of Joshua 6 last week was one of triumph and celebration, Joshua 7 explores the costliness and danger of disobedience.
7:1-15 The Failure of Israel
Israel had just celebrated a dramatic victory over Jericho. God had delivered the entire city over to God’s people. However, Joshua 7 begins with an ominous note. The Israelites have broken faith with the LORD. Specifically, verse one tells us that one man — Achan took some of the “devoted things” from Jericho. In Joshua 6, God had commanded that Jericho and its inhabitants be completely destroyed. There was to be no taking of plunder by individuals. Only silver, gold, iron, and bronze was to be preserved as part of the treasury of the LORD. Achan acted alone, but his action damaged the entire community because his sin caused the LORD to become angry with God’s people. God’s people have a mission to fulfill. As we have seen in the previous lessons, the key to their success is the faithful obedience of the whole community.
Achan’s actions were unknown to Joshua and the Israelites so they carried on with their mission. The city of Ai was the next target. In verses 2-5, Joshua follows the same plan as used against Jericho. Spies are deployed. As before, the spies return to Joshua with a favorable report. In fact, the Israelites have grown in boldness and confidence. The spies recommend to Joshua that only two or three thousand people are needed to attack Ai. Joshua follows their advice but instead of victory the Israelites taste a bitter defeat. When the three thousand Israelites encountered the men of Ai, they fled before them. Moreover, thirty-six Israelites fall dead and the rest flee for their lives. Notice the end of verse five: The hearts of the people melted and turned to water. This is an astonishing detail. The Canaanites have now gained the upper hand. In 2:11 and 5:1, we learned that the Canaanite’s hearts had melted before Israel. Now it is Israel who is cowering. This episode is a reminder of the nature of the conflict in the book of Joshua. God is the ultimate decider of this war. It is not about human ability or military power of the sides. God is on a mission to give the land to God’s people as a means of blessing the nations, but for God’s people to succeed, they must practice faithful obedience. They represent a holy God before the nations so they must be holy in their actions.
Verses 6-9 narrate Joshua’s response. He assumes a position of repentance by tearing his clothes, putting dust upon his head, and falling with his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. The elders of God’s people join him. Joshua prays fervently. He does not understand the reason for their defeat, but recognizes that the solution is found in God alone. Verse 9 brings Joshua’s lament to a climax. He fears that God’s people will be eliminated and that this will reflect badly on God’s honor before the nations.
In verses 10-15, the LORD answers Joshua’s plea. He commands Joshua to get on his feet. Joshua has work to do. Israel’s failure is the direct result of transgressing God’s covenant through disobedience. God had commanded that everyone and everything in Jericho be devoted to the LORD. Yet Israel had retained some items. This breech in the relationship between God and Israel is serious enough that God refuses to be powerfully present with God’s people unless there is immediate repentance in the form of destroying the items that were taken. God commands Joshua to call the people together in order to identify the person guilty of disobedience. The guilty party along with the stolen items would be destroyed.
Joshua 7:16-26 The Purging of the Community
In obedience to the LORD’s command, Joshua brought together God’s people tribe by tribe. In verses 16-18, the process of identification is conducted methodically. Out of the tribes, Judah is selected. Then out of the clans of Judah, the Zerahites are taken. Then each family of the Zerahites makes its way near Joshua. The family of Zabdi is picked. Then as the members of Zabdi’s family process by Joshua, Achan is identified. God surely knew the actions of Achan and could have informed Joshua without resorting to mustering all Israel. But the effect of the identification process was to emphasize the communal dimension of Israel’s life before the LORD. God’s people exist as a community of faith. The actions of one member affect the corporate witness of the whole. Moreover Achan is part of the tribe of Judah. Judah is the Israelites tribe out of which will arise King David a few centuries later. Yet, the sin of Achan does not blemish the tribe so as to negate its future.
In verses 19-21, Joshua confronts Achan, and Achan confesses his sin. Joshua’s words in v. 19 function as an exhortation to Achan to glorify and praise the LORD by coming clean regarding his offense. The phrase translated “make confession to him” in v. 19 literally reads “give praise to him.” By owning up to his transgression, Achan glorifies and praises God by confessing to the community that God’s actions are just and right. Achan admits fully his guilt. He took a mantle, silver, and gold from Jericho and hid them in the ground under his tent. In v. 21, Achan attributes his actions to covetousness. Achan coveted the devoted items. This led him to break the commands of the LORD. The Ten Commandments warn against coveting (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21). At its core, to covet is to desire something or someone to which you have no intrinsic right or claim. Achan did not resist his impulse because the mantle was “beautiful” and the gold and silver were valuable.
Before acting further, Joshua sends messengers to confirm Achan’s words by retrieving the devoted items from Achan’s tent (vv. 22-23).
In verses 24-26, Achan, his immediate family, all his possessions, and the stolen items are brought before all Israel in the Valley of Achor. Upon arrival, Joshua pronounces judgment upon Achan and all Israel stones Achan and his family. Israel burns them along with all of their possessions and buries their ashes under a large piles of stones. The heap stands as a witness and warning to the community regarding the costliness of disobedience. The actions of Israel against Achan restore the favor of the LORD. This episode in Israel’s life causes the valley to be named “Achor” which in Hebrew means “trouble.” The judgment pronounced on Achan, which extended to his family as well as to his possessions, was heavy. It stands as a testimony to the seriousness of sin, the costliness of its effects on the community as a whole, and the necessity for God’s people to walk in faithful obedience to the LORD’s commands for the sake of God’s mission. Details matter in our walk of faith.
Josh 8:1-29 Israel’s Obedience and Victory at Ai
Joshua 8:1-29 narrate Israel’s victory over the city of Ai. In vv. 1-2, the LORD charges Joshua to go and capture Ai. God exhorts him to turn away from fear because God has granted Joshua and Israel victory. Joshua is commanded to destroy all the people of Ai as he did at Jericho, but unlike Jericho, Israel is able to keep all the possessions and livestock of Ai. God also orders an ambush as the tactic for capturing the city.
In verses 3-8, Joshua gives details of the battle plan to his army. He will send a detachment of warriors under the cover of darkness to hide near Ai. Then Joshua will approach Ai openly with the remaining forces. When the army of Ai comes out of the city to fight Joshua as they had before, Joshua will withdraw his forces to simulate a retreat. As the men of Ai pursue the retreating men of Joshua, those hiding in ambush will seize the now defenseless city and burn it.
In vv. 9-17, the Israelites carry out the ruse to perfection. After spending the night in camp, Joshua stations a group of 5000 warriors behind the city in ambush. Meanwhile, he led the remaining forces in plain sight against the city of Ai. As expected the king of Ai marched out to meet Joshua in battle. He arrogantly assumed that they would enjoy the same success as before (7:2-5). When the forces of Israel and Ai clashed, Joshua and Israel feigned defeat and began to flee away from Ai. The king of Ai then called for all inhabitants of the city to come out in pursuit of Israel. Verse 17 reports that there was not a man left in the town. The trap was now set.
At that moment (v. 18), the LORD commanded Joshua to stretch out his hand to the city and promises that Joshua will be victorious. Joshua immediately stretches out his hand with his sword pointed toward Ai. Don’t miss the importance of this statement. We have seen in our Bible lesson that God pays attention to details. Joshua does precisely as he was commanded. Our text mentions Joshua’s outstretched hand four times in vv. 18, 19, and 26. This emphasizes Joshua’s obedience and reminds us that the victory’s ultimate cause was God.
As soon as Joshua raised his hand, the soldiers waiting in ambush arose, entered the city, and put it to the flame (v. 19). The men of Ai saw the smoke, but it was too late (v. 20). They were now caught between forces in the open and were annihilated (vv. 22-26). Only the king of Ai was captured alive, and he was brought before Joshua (v. 23).
Verses 27-29 record the aftermath of the battle. They portray Israel in faithful obedience to the word of the LORD. First, God’s people collect the livestock and other treasures from Ai for themselves as God had permitted on this occasion (v. 27). Second, Joshua oversees the destruction of the city of Ai (v. 28). It is burned and turned into a heap of rubble. Our text mentions that it remained a site of destruction to the day of the author of Joshua. Last, Joshua hanged the king of Ai. The LORD had commanded the destruction of all of Ai’s inhabitants. The king had been captured alive. Joshua kills him in obedience to God. He is buried under a pile of stones as a reminder of God’s work at Ai.
Joshua 7:1—8:29 offers two contrasting portraits. This narrative exists to remind God’s people of the costliness of disobedience and spoils of obedience. Israel captures Ai by carefully following the instructions of God. Their victory depends not on their own power or resources but on the graciousness of God who works through the obedience of his people. Achan’s sin stands as a testimony of the grave effects of individual sin on the success of God’s mission through his people.