Achan, a Man Who Troubled His Entire Nation
JEHOVAH GOD is always desirous of giving good things to his people. (Luke 11:13; Jas. 1:17) But sometimes he has to discipline them in ways not so joyous to him or to them. (Heb. 12:11) It hurts him to do so, and if there existed any other way that would accomplish betterment for an individual or a nation, he would use that way. (Gen. 6:6; Isa. 63:10) In every case, however, the results prove him to be right in his action.
A case in point is his disciplining of the nation of Israel in connection with the man Achan of the tribe of Judah. Achan was in the Israelite army that fought under Joshua for the possession of the Promised Land. It was then occupied by Canaanites, Amorites and other peoples hostile to Jehovah and his worship. These nations carried on very corrupt, idolatrous forms of worship and immoral practices. God had commanded Israel to clean them out of the land.—Lev. 18:24, 28.
God had performed miracles in bringing Israel across the Red Sea under Moses’ leadership, giving the people food and preventing their clothing from wearing out during 40 years of life in the wilderness. He fought for them, defeating their enemies. (Ex. 14:21-28; Deut. 8:3-5; 29:5) The news of these things caused a spirit of dejection and a fear of Jehovah to fall on all the cities of Canaan.—Josh. 2:8-11; 5:1.
Now they had crossed the Jordan River and had experienced a marvelous demonstration of God’s care and direction in their conquest of Jericho. There Jehovah the God of armies miraculously caused Jericho’s walls to fall down flat. Not a single Israelite soldier was lost.—Josh. 6:20, 21.
As God had commanded, Jericho, as the firstfruits of Canaanland, was to be wholly devoted to Jehovah; everything in it was to be destroyed and burned with fire. The metal objects—gold, silver, copper and iron—after the burning, were to be turned over to the treasury at the tabernacle of God. (Josh. 6:17-19, 24) According to the covenant that God had made with Israel, everything “devoted” was under a ban or a curse. For any person to take a banned thing would cause him to be “devoted” or cursed like it—devoted to destruction.—Deut. 7:25, 26.
DEFEAT AT AI
The city of Ai was next in the path of Israel’s armies. But here a humiliating defeat occurred. The Bible account tells why: “The sons of Israel went committing an act of unfaithfulness respecting the thing devoted to destruction in that Achan the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the thing devoted to destruction. At this Jehovah’s anger grew hot against the sons of Israel.”—Josh. 7:1.
Ai was smaller than Jericho was, so the spies sent out by Joshua recommended: “Let not all the people go up. Let about two thousand men or about three thousand men go up and strike Ai. Do not weary all the people with going there, for they are few.”—Josh. 7:2, 3.
The Bible report continues: “So about three thousand men of the people went up there, but they took to flight before the men of Ai. And the men of Ai got to strike down about thirty-six men of them, and they went pursuing them from before the gate as far as Shebarim [stone quarries] and continued striking them down on the descent. Consequently the heart of the people began to melt and became as water.”—Josh. 7:4, 5.
What had gone wrong? Had Jehovah forsaken them? It was not primarily the loss of 36 soldiers that had been so crushing, for there were normally at least a few casualties to be expected in any battle. The real calamity was that Israel, the army of Jehovah, had fled in defeat before his enemies.—Josh. 7:8.
JOSHUA APPEALS TO JEHOVAH
Consequently, Joshua was in great distress. He “ripped his mantles and fell upon his face to the earth before the ark of Jehovah until the evening, he and the older men of Israel, and they kept putting dust upon their heads.” (Josh. 7:6) These leading men of the nation had great sorrow and dread that, for some reason, God may have been displeased; they not only mourned, but, more than that, showed their penitence before God, feeling strongly that it was some sin that had caused him to withdraw his help. The fact that they stayed there until the evening revealed their deep concern and their fear that God was angry. They did not blame the spies for their recommendation or charge the soldiers with cowardice, but they looked to God to find the cause and to show them what they could do to regain his favor.
Joshua spoke to God: “Alas, Sovereign Lord Jehovah, why did you bring this people all the way across the Jordan, just to give us into the hand of the Amorites for them to destroy us? And if only we had taken it upon ourselves and continued dwelling on the other side of the Jordan! Excuse me, O Jehovah, but what can I say after Israel has turned his back before his enemies? And the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and they will certainly surround us and cut our name off from the earth; and what will you do for your great name?”—Josh. 7:7-9.
Joshua cannot rightly be accused of complaining against Jehovah on this occasion. As Bible commentators Keil and Delitzsch remark, Joshua was simply using the bold language of faith in wrestling with God in prayer—faith that could not comprehend the ways of the Lord—and in making the most urgent appeal to the Lord to carry out His work in the same glorious manner in which it had begun. (Compare Genesis 18:23-26.) Joshua may have felt that the longing the people had before crossing into Canaan was mixed with selfishness, and was not a completely wholehearted desire to do God’s will. He wished for Israel’s good relationship with God to be reestablished as it was on the other side of the Jordan.
We see here that Joshua poured out his heart and feelings without reservation, as should be done in prayer. (Compare Hebrews 10:19-22.) Then, feeling that what he was about to say might sound like a reproaching of Jehovah—as though God had forgotten His own honor, Joshua asked God how He himself could now uphold His “great name” before the world. The name of Jehovah was tied up with the Israelite nation, and, to Joshua, the reproach that the news of Israel’s defeat would bring upon Jehovah’s name was the most grievous part of the entire matter.—Compare Moses’ words in interceding for Israel after they had sinned seriously.—Ex. 32:11-14.
GOD REVEALS THE CAUSE OF HIS ANGER
God’s answer to Joshua was: “Get up, you! Why is it that you are falling upon your face?” It was as if to say, ‘You have lain there long enough. You should realize that it is not a change on my part. It is time to find out where the trouble lies, namely, in the sin of the people.’ God then said, plainly: “Israel has sinned, and they have also overstepped my covenant that I laid as a command upon them; and they have also taken some of the thing devoted to destruction and have also stolen and also kept it secret and have also put it among their own articles.”—Josh. 7:10, 11.
Israel had (1) broken the covenant in disobeying God’s commands (Ex. 24:7, 8), (2) taken the forbidden thing, (3) actually stolen that which belonged to God, (4) kept the fact hidden, as though Jehovah could not see (Joshua likely had asked all the people, after Jericho’s fall, if they had obeyed by devoting everything to destruction, but, if Joshua did so, then Achan kept hiding his wrong), (5) and put the forbidden material in among their own things, just as though it belonged to them, and thereby made themselves a detestable thing like the thing they took.—Josh. 6:18, 19.
Since the guilty party or parties did not come forth and acknowledge their sin, an exposure had to be made. Even then, Jehovah had Joshua uncover the criminal in a gradual way, giving this one opportunity to lessen his guilt to an extent by a voluntary confession. God could have named the wrongdoer at once, of course. But he had Joshua call the people by tribe, family, household and individual. This was done by lot, Jehovah directing the procedure.—Josh. 7:14; Prov. 16:33.
Someone may ask, Why did God get angry with the nation for what one man did? Bible scholars agree that it was a matter of community sin before God. The Israelites as a nation had God’s name upon them. What they did represented their God and his ways, in the eyes of the other nations. An act of greed, theft and lying on the part of one individual reflected on the reputation of the whole nation, and therefore on the name of the God whom they served.—Deut. 21:1-9.
SIN OF ONE MEMBER ENDANGERS THE WHOLE BODY
Furthermore, such a sin, if allowed to go uncorrected, would infect the whole body of people. The nation would deteriorate into fighting battles, not to uphold God’s name and true worship, but for mere selfish conquest. The apostle Paul showed that allowance or condoning of serious sin is insidious and perilous when he wrote to the Christian congregation in Jerusalem to beware “that no poisonous root may spring up and cause trouble and that many may not be defiled by it; that there may be no fornicator nor anyone not appreciating sacred things, like Esau, who in exchange for one meal gave away his rights as firstborn.”—Heb. 12:15, 16; compare 1 Corinthians 5:6, 7, 13.
When the casting of lots pointed directly to Achan, Joshua was kind, even though he knew that Achan was guilty. He said to Achan: “My son, render, please, glory to Jehovah the God of Israel and make confession to him, and tell me, please, What have you done? Do not hide it from me.” (Josh. 7:19) Achan then ‘rendered glory to God’ in that he acknowledged that Jehovah’s direction of the lots was right and that God was justly angry at him. Achan had “committed a disgraceful folly in Israel,” a crime bringing great dishonor on God as it disgraced Israel who then represented God in the earth.—Josh. 7:15.
GUILT REMOVED FROM THE NATION
Then, to demonstrate before all Israel the cause of their disaster at Ai, and to prove that Achan was the guilty party, Joshua had the stolen articles brought from Achan’s tent and laid before the people. (Josh. 7:22, 23) According to the command of God, Achan had to be put to death. His family, tent and belongings had to be burned to ashes also, so that this contaminated, leaven-like element would be cleared out from Israel, for even the mention of Achan’s name would be abhorrent. After Achan was stoned to death, then burned, the account says that a big pile of stones was heaped over his ashes and the place was called Achor (ostracism, trouble) as a reminder of the calamity that he had brought upon Israel.—Josh. 7:24-26.
Some persons may feel that the execution of Achan’s family and the destruction of his property was unjust. But consider the reproach and trouble that this greedy desire of Achan brought. Not only this, but 36 men had lost their lives. Furthermore, the family of Achan could hardly have been ignorant of the fact that the cursed, stolen things were in the earth under Achan’s tent.—Josh. 7:21.
That Joshua did the right thing is made evident by Jehovah’s subsequent action in bringing the defeat of Ai. Jehovah’s judgment proved to be a blessing and protection to Israel as they went ahead with the six-year fight to conquer the land, defeating king after king. There is no record that anyone repeated a deed like Achan’s. Even later, in the time of the judges, when serious sin appeared, the nation exhibited great zeal in clearing themselves before God by removing the wickedness, even at the cost of many lives.—Judg., chap. 20.