Achan, Ai, and the Aftermath of Sin
When Jericho's walls fell, things were going so well for the Israelites. God was with them1. He was with them when He parted the Jordan River for them to cross into the promised land2. He was with them when the walls of Jericho fell3. He was with them in a very tangible way when Joshua encountered the commander of the Lord’s army4. Because God was with them, the Canaanite kings were terrified of the Israelites5.
Of course God was with them. He promised Joshua He would be, and God is a promise-keeper. But, that promise came with a condition:
Above all, be strong and very courageous to observe carefully the whole instruction my servant Moses commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right or the left, so that you will have success wherever you go.6
During the first six chapters of Joshua, the Bible is very clear that the Israelites kept their end of the bargain. There is a pattern to these chapters where God issues a command to Joshua, he relays that command to the people, and the people do what they are told7.
That changes in the first verse of chapter seven:
The Israelites, however, were unfaithful regarding the things set apart for destruction. Achan … took some of what was set apart, and the Lord’s anger burned against the Israelites.8
Because of one man’s sin, Israel suffered defeat at the hands of Ai, thirty-six of their fighting men were killed, and Achan and his children were stoned to death. But, this is not just a story of defeat, suffering, and death. It is also a story of redemption.
One Man's Sin
As we saw, the fortunes of Israel changed with one man's sin.8 And his sin was simple greed. Joshua had clearly instructed the Israelites not to keep anything in Jericho for themselves because it was "set apart to the Lord for destruction" and "all the silver and gold, and the articles of bronze and iron, are dedicated to the Lord and must go into the Lord's treasury.9" And, remember, this wasn't permanent. God had told the Israelites they would have their spoils.10 In fact, God allowed the Israelites to keep the spoil and livestock of the next city for themselves.11 But Achan couldn't wait. He took a Babylonian cloak, five pounds of silver, and a little more than a pound of gold and hid them in his tent.12
This sin of Achan is much like that of Ananias and Sapphira who kept back a portion of the proceeds of the sale of their land rather than dedicating it all to the church.13 Like Ananias and Sapphira, Achan was trying to have his cake and eat it too by participating in God's blessings to the community while holding back for himself some of what was dedicated to the Lord. Also like Ananias and Sapphira, Achan would die for his sin.14
However, unlike Ananias and Sapphira, the Bible records that the ramifications of Achan's sin extended beyond himself. Scripture is clear that because of Achan's sin, God grew angry and removed His favor from the Israelites in battle and thirty-six Israelite soldiers were killed in a humiliating defeat against Ai.15 The defeat allowed the kingdoms in the area (which had previously been cowering in fear because of the stories they were hearing16) to rally, come together, and form an alliance against Israel.17 And, ultimately, it was not just Achan who was stoned to death for his sin. His children and all of his possessions were also stoned to death and burned.18
Guilt, Consequences, and Externalities of Sin
By guilt, I mean the eternal consequence of sin. Paul described it as the "wages of sin" and pointed out that it is the same for all of us and every sin: death.20 Perhaps even more fundamentally, the guilt of our sin separates us eternally from God and His righteousness.21
Guilt is also personal to the sinner.22 Put another way, the eternal consequence of sin is individual to the sinner. There are no externalities when it comes to guilt. God is a just and honorable Judge who does not judge anyone for the actions of others, but only for his or her own conduct. Unfortunately, we all stand condemned from the guilt of our own sin.23 It is only through the substitutionary atonement of Christ that we can escape this eternal condemnation.24
Achan stands guilty before God for his sin. While the Bible does not directly address Achan's eternal destination, it is easy to infer that he did not fare well. By violating God's law, he stood condemned under the terms of the Old Covenant.25 Meanwhile, we see no evidence of the faith in God through which even Israelites prior to Jesus's coming could become heirs of righteousness through His atonement.26 Indeed, his actions betray a lack of faith in God's provision.
By consequences, I mean the worldly ramifications of sin borne by the sinner. Achan's were clearly profound and immediate. The day after Israel's defeat at Ai, Joshua had all of Israel stand before him by family, clan, and tribe.27 Imagine the thoughts that must have run through Achan's mind as he watched his tribe, clan, and family be selected to come before Joshua and then to hear his name called! Upon his confession, he and his children were quickly sentenced to death by stoning.28
So, painful bodily death both for himself and his children... that was the consequence of Achan's sin. Was this reasonable and appropriate? One of the most pervasive criticisms of scripture is the extreme punishments we see for breaking of the law in the Old Testament. In today's world, what happened to Achan would be considered barbaric. Here in the United States, it would be unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment."29 How could a loving God allow such extreme punishment?
There are a couple of answers to this question. First of all, God's law is not arbitrary. What He declares is sin is sinful precisely because it is harmful.30 Therefore, when we fall into sin, it carries with it natural consequences.31 In that sense, it is important to note that sometimes consequences of sin are not so much God's discipline as they are the lack of His protection, which comes with separation from Him.
But that answer doesn't really help us in cases such as this where God not only allows but sanctions Achan's punishment. There is also the need for blood atonement for sin that I will discuss later, but not all of these punishments seem to be tied to atonement. Indeed, God's law is filled with severe consequences for sin.32 And, we must not forget that even right here in Joshua we are reading the story of Israel's annihilation of Canaan, including the complete extermination of men, women, and children, at God's command.33 The Bible doesn't ignore this either. It gives us the reason:
You must completely destroy them—the Hethite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite—as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they won’t teach you to do all the detestable acts they do for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God.34
So, God allows for the punishment of sin to be severe in order to limit the proliferation of sin. This explanation leaves many dissatisfied. It smacks of consequentialism35 and it seems to lead to circular logic: sin is bad because it produces death so we should kill those who commit sin. But, this is where distinguishing worldly consequences from eternal guilt is crucial. As discussed above, sin leads to an eternal separation from God and spiritual death. Next to this, the worldly consequences of sin, even to the point of physical death, are virtually inconsequential. (Just remember, we do not question why Jesus did not free the thief from the cross, but we do celebrate that He told the thief he would see him that day in paradise.) In this proper context, the worldly consequences of sin no longer seem extreme and barbaric, but rather quickly become reasonable, measured actions designed to protect God's people from the eternal ramifications of sin. More specifically, these extreme consequences can serve both as disciplinary for the sinner (guiding him or her back to Him and the right path)36 and instructive to observers (teaching them to not make the same mistake).37
By externalities, I mean the effects sin has on people other than the sinner. This term has its roots in economics where it refers to consequences of commercial activity on third parties, especially where these consequences are not factored into pricing38. One example is air pollution from a factory. This is a cost that is borne by the entire community, regardless of whether they are involved in buying or selling whatever is being produced at the factory.
Remember up above where I said that guilt is personal to the sinner? Well, the aftermath of sin is not so personal. The effects of sin are often felt by people other than the sinner. Sometimes, these externalities outweigh the worldly consequences faced by the sinner.39 It often creates an appearance of chaos and injustice. Quite simply, the world is not fair.
The lack of fairness in the world often leads people to ask the question "why do bad things happen to good people?" Of course, the church-going Christian has often heard the quick response: "There are no good people." And, that is clearly true.40 But, that answer risks ignoring the more substantial issue behind the question: "why do the good and bad things that happen to people often seem to happen at random with no basis in how good or bad they are?" Jesus clearly acknowledged that bad things often happen to people who are no more at fault than other people the bad things didn't happen to.41
The answer to this deeper question is found in the externalities of sin. Some of these externalities of sin are universal. In Romans, Paul talks about how when sin entered the world through Adam, death came with it.42 He discusses it like a disease spreading through its host. In Genesis, we see that the original sin brought with it a fallen world that impacted nature itself bringing forth death, disease, and decay.43
Sin destroys everything it touches. And, when we sin, we open the door for that death, disease, and decay into the world around us. Just look at all that came from Achan's sin: thirty-six of Israel's fighting men and all of his children died and all of Israel suffered a humiliating defeat that emboldened and unified their enemies.44 And this is not the only place in the Bible we see many people suffering for the sins of one man. In 2 Samuel, we learn that God sent a plague on Israel that killed 70,000 men because David took a census of his military men (which was a sign of pride and self-glorification).45
Other externalities of sin are more specific and direct. While any departure from God's law is a sin against God himself, some sins are also sins against other people.46 For these sins, the externalities are usually clear. When you steal from someone, it's easy to see how he or she gets hurt. Sometimes, though, the externalities are less visible. Sinning against people undermines relationships by destroying trust and injecting the relationship with toxic blame and guilt. And, the very presence of sin in our lives diminishes our witness and interferes with our capacity to be the "salt and light" Jesus calls us to be in the lives of those around us.
Taken together, between guilt, consequences, and externalities, you can see the fullness of the problem of sin. It is a virus that invades its host, dooming it to die while using it to replicate itself and spread all over the world. And that is the reality of the world in which we live. It is a pandemic that dwarfs COVID-19.
God's Redemption Story: Repentance and Redemption
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Theodore Parker, “Ten Sermons of Religion” 1853. (Click here for an interesting examination of the history of this quote!)
Into a world infected by sin stepped Jesus Christ.47 But God's redemption story begins long before the nativity scene. From the very beginning, God had a plan to defeat sin and the grave48 and Jesus was in it from the start.49 Of course, this plan focuses on the eternal ramifications of sin by removing the guilt of sin, but as we can see in this story (and throughout the rest of scripture), God is also interested in redeeming the effects of sin in this world.
The story of God's redemption begins with repentance. We see an example of repentance here in the story of Achan. No, not necessarily repentance from Achan (as we will discuss, repentance is more than just an admission of guilt which is all we really see from Achan50), but we do see communal repentance51 from the Israelites.
Repentance begins with conviction. Conviction starts with God. In this case, God tells Joshua that Israel has sinned.52 Before that, Joshua had blamed God for their troubles.53 It is not in our nature to think that we have done wrong. We blame others until we are forced to blame ourselves. We need God to do that for us. Jesus taught the disciples that the Holy Spirit fulfills this role of convicting the world of sin.54
But God's role does not end in the convicting. He gets involved in rooting out the sin. God didn't leave Joshua to figure out who had sinned and what to do about it. He gave Joshua a specific plan.55 He told Joshua that somebody had kept some of what was set apart for Him in Jericho and instructed Joshua to have the entire community stand before Him for examination.55 As they did that, God revealed the tribe, then the clan, then the family, then the specific person who had sinned.56
Then came Israel's part. They had to remove the sin. They had to destroy it and everything connected to it. Specifically, they stoned Achan and his children and destroyed all of his possessions.57 Again, this seems brutal to us today, but we must remember that atonement for sin requires the shedding of blood.58 Under the New Covenant, Christ's blood serves this role.59 But Christ's redeeming blood does not diminish the need to attack sin in our own lives with brutality. This is what Jesus meant when he said:
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.60
The word for repentance in Hebrew is שׁוּב (the English transliteration is shub). It literally means to turn back or return. It is the word God used when He told Solomon that if His people would humble themselves, pray and seek His face, and "turn from" their evil ways, He would hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.61 It is the word used by Hosea when he calls for the Israelites to "return to" the Lord so that He would bind up their wounds and, on the third day, raise them up so they can live in His presence.62 Repentance, then, is not merely an admission of guilt, but a turning away from sin. It is an active verb that signals a change of heart that leads to the removal of sinful behavior.
But here's the interesting thing. That word is also used to describe how God turns away from His anger toward the Israelites after Achan's sin has been removed from their camp.63 See, when we engage in repentance, God is "faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."64 Peter went further than that to say that after we "repent and turn back," not only will our sins be "wiped out," but that there will be "seasons of refreshing" that come from "the presence of the Lord."65
Because, after atonement is made for sin (which today comes through the sacrificial blood of Christ available to all who repent) the guilt of sin is removed. God's presence may return to us. And where God is present in our lives, His redeeming work begins. Though the worldly consequences of sin remain, the eternal guilt is gone. So, God can come alongside you and work with you in redeeming even the remaining consequences of sin.
That is exactly what we see with the Israelites. After atoning for Achan's sin, God provides them with a strategy to redeem their humiliating defeat at Ai. Interestingly, the plan involves an ambush that relies on Ai's overconfidence after their first defeat of Israel.66 It is important to see that the consequences of sin remain even after the guilt is removed. The enemies of Israel were still emboldened by their victory. But, God uses that overconfidence to His and Israel's advantage.
This is what God does. He works all things out for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.67 Another great example of this is in the life of Joseph. There, we see many consequences and externalities of sin that lead to Joseph being enslaved, imprisoned, and ultimately taken away from his family to Egypt.68 But later in life, Joseph told his brothers that even though they planned evil against him, "God planned it for good to bring about ... the survival of many people."69
The other way we see God redeeming this situation for the Israelites is that it leads to their coming closer to Him. After seeing God's faithfulness to forgive and restore them in victory at Ai, the Israelites come together to renew their commitment to God and His law.70 And in this we see the true nature of repentance. It undoes the separation from God that is caused by sin and creates fellowship with Him.
This is God's plan to defeat sin. Through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ and repentance, our fellowship with God can be restored. Once that fellowship is restored, God's work of redemption begins. That redemption is eternal, but with very real and present effect.
And, just as sin uses us as hosts and replicates itself to spread through this world, God's presence within us also shines out into the world and reproduces itself through evangelism and discipleship. See, God's love, as exhibited by those in fellowship with Him, has its own consequences and externalities. But its consequences and externalities are so much better than what sin brings.
Here we are, then, caught in the middle of this battle between the disease of sin and our God who heals. Scripture shows us that God will win in the end and that, ultimately, sin will be eradicated. But, not until this world and all that is in it passes away.
Until then, we must struggle with sin and its aftermath. Sin is a very real struggle in my life as it is for everybody else. Over the last few weeks, as I have considered this passage and written this post, God has impressed on me the fierce urgency of removing sin from my life. Do I want to be a host for sin or a vessel for God's glory?
This is not just a matter of my eternal resting place, but a question with eternal significance for others beyond myself. While my salvation is assured and I stand redeemed of guilt for all of my sin (past, present, and future), the choices I make each day have consequences both in my life and in the lives of others that I may never fully appreciate. Do I want those consequences to spread sin and darkness or advance the Kingdom of God? How much do I care? What am I willing to do, what am I willing to remove from my life, to maximize the impact of my life for the good of others?
I hope that you will join me in asking these questions of yourself. Let's remember that our choices have consequences that we often cannot predict, but through fellowship with God and obedience to His Law and His Will, we can join Him in His redemptive work.
1 Joshua 1:9
2 Joshua 3
3 Joshua 6
4 Joshua 5:13-15
5 Joshua 5:1
6 Joshua 1:7
7 Joshua 1:6-17, 3:7-17, 4:1-8, 4:15-18, 5:2-3, 6:2-21
8 Joshua 7:1
9 Joshua 6:17-19; Deuteronomy 7:1-6, 20: 16-18
10 Deuteronomy 20:14
11 Joshua 8:2
12 Joshua 7:21
13 Acts 5:1-11
14 Joshua 7:25; Acts 5:5, 10
15 Joshua 7:1-5
16 Joshua 2:9-11, 5:1
17 Joshua 7:9, 9:1-2
18 Joshua 7:24-26
19 Special thanks to Pastor Eugene at Fellowship Bible Church for helping to distinguish guilt and consequences of sin in his March 6, 2022, sermon entitled "Living with Consequences, Looking to Hope."
20 Romans 6:23; see also Proverbs 14:12; Romans 5:12; Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Jams 1:14-15; Revelation 21:8
21 Isaiah 59:1-2; John 15:6
22 Ezekiel 18. Some may point to Exodus 20:5 as a counterexample where some translations say that God will punish the children for the sin of their fathers to the third and fourth generation. However, the word sometimes translated as "punish" literally means "visit upon" and may more accurately be translated as "bringing consequences." This is an example of externalities that I will address later in this post.
23 Romans 3:23
24 Isaiah 53:4-6; Matthew 8:17; Mark 10:45; John 10:11, 11:50, 14:6; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 5:21; Galatians 2:20, 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:10; 1 Timothy 2:6; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 2:9, 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24, 3:18; 1 John 3:16
25 Deuteronomy 30:15-18; 1 Samuel 12:14-15
26 Hebrews 11
27 Joshua 7:16-18
28 Joshua 7:20-26
30 Genesis 4:7; John 10:10; 2 Corinthians 11:12; 1 Peter 5:8
31 Proverbs 6:27
32 Exodus 21:15-17, 22:20, 35:2; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 21:18-21, 22:13-21
33 Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Joshua 6:20-21, 8:3-28, 10:40
34 Deuteronomy 20:17-18
36 Deuteronomy 8:5; Job 5:17; Psalms 94:12, 118:18, 119:75; Proverbs 3:11-12; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; Hebrews 12:5-11
37 Acts 5:11
39 As an extreme, but all-too-common example, just think of a criminal who gets away with murder. Someone else lost their life. And, yes, the murderer likely faces a guilty conscience and other worldly consequences, but none of them amount to physical death.
40 Romans 3:23
41 Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3
42 Romans 5:12, 8:22
43 Genesis 3:14-15 (creating enmity between man and animals), 3:17-19 (making it difficult labor to harvest plants); some also infer from Genesis 1:30 and various prophecies in Isaiah that animals were originally designed to only eat plants and that the carnivorous "dog-eat-dog" nature of the animal kingdom came about only because of the fall, and this will be corrected in the New Earth.
44 Joshua 2:9-11, 5:1, 7:1-5, 7:9, 7:24-26, 9:1-2
45 2 Samuel 24:1-17, 1 Chronicles 21:1-17
46 Matthew 5:21-24, 18:15; 1 Corinthians 8:12
47 Romans 5:8
48 Genesis 3:15
49 John 1:1-18
50 Joshua 7:20-21
51 Communal repentance is a topic that has seen some controversy in recent years, especially in light of some discussion around the present need for communal repentance for racism and slavery. A deep dive into the topic is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that scripture is filled with references to the Israelites engaging in communal repentance before God and, indeed, the entire Old Covenant and sacrificial system is designed for communal repentance. Here in this story, we see that God holds all of Israel accountable for the sins of a single member of its population. So, whether or not that is how God relates to His people and the church today, that is clearly how God related to the Israelites. Regardless, we can still draw parallels from the pattern of repentance we see with Israelites under the Old Covenant and how we engage in repentance under the New Covenant.
52 Joshua 7:11
53 Joshua 7:6-9
54 John 16:8
55 Joshua 7:10-15
56 Joshua 7:16-18
57 Joshua 7:24-26
58 Leviticus 17:11
59 Hebrews 9:11-18
60 Matthew 5:29-30
62 Hosea 6:1-2
63 Joshua 7:26 (the Lord "turned from" His burning anger).
64 1 John 1:9
65 Acts 3:19-20
66 Joshua 8:1-9
67 Romans 8:28
68 Genesis 37-50
69 Genesis 50:20
70 Joshua 8:30-35