Joshua 7 – Israel under the Ban
1. Unexpected, complete defeat! (7:1‑5)
This chapter begins with what Achan did. He robbed the LORD! His place in Israel, indicated by his ancestors, is carefully pointed out. This is the place in Israel where the rotten apple is.
It is remarkable that we do not read in verse 1 that Achan violated the ban on Jericho, but that the Israelites did. Afterward, they are not punished for Achan's sins, but for their own sins; the LORD never punishes someone because of the sins of another (Deut 24:16; Ezek 18:1‑4;20). The LORD had impressed on the minds of the Israelites that the taking of devoted things was prohibited. This should have prompted the Israelites to set guards around God's holy and devoted articles. They should have tried to prevent sin such as what Achan committed; if nothing else, they at least should have punished Achan. This would certainly not have been impossible. Jericho was a small city (see outline 5 section 3). By neglecting their duty, Israel did not treat with care what God had devoted to himself. That is how everyone participated in the sin of Achan.
The Israelites laid hands on the devoted things. In other words, they committed a blatant act of faithlessness; they profaned God's covenant. This history shows how important it is to surround God's holy institutions with proper safeguards. The verses that relate this history serve as solid Scripture proof for what we confess in HC, Q&A 82.
Joshua did not know what had happened. He was unaware, yet guilty (cf. section 2). Therefore he simply continued with the plans. He sent spies to Ai, the next city that was to be taken.
Ai probably means 'ruins'. It was a very small city, built on the ruins of an older, much larger city.
The spies report back that 'they are but few' and that it will not be necessary for all of Israel to rise up against Ai.
For this reason, Joshua employed 3000 men to fight against Ai. They were, however, completely defeated by the men of Ai, who were but few in number. Thirty‑six men of Israel were killed. Thirty‑six men who would not enter their rest in the Promised Land. Had the LORD not promised them that they would?
The Israelites were stunned. A trembling fear took hold of them. How was this defeat possible? "And the hearts of the people melted, and became as water." Compare this with what you read in 2:11, 5:1, and outline 1 section 3.
2. Defeat because of the ban (7:6‑13)
When Joshua heard the tidings of the spies, he rent his clothes as an indication of intense mourning. In addition, he and the elders of Israel put ashes on their heads (today we still speak about someone sitting in sackcloth and ashes). Immediately, they turn to the LORD, that is, to the ark. There Joshua remained until evening.
Joshua complains to the LORD about the distress Israel is experiencing. The LORD had not helped them this time! Joshua is completely confused. Notice how he addresses the LORD: "Lord God". First he addresses God as Lord, the Lord of heaven and earth who rules over everything, the almighty God, the Creator. Later he addresses him as LORD, Jahweh, the God of the covenant, who established his covenant with his people. He is the LORD who is always faithful to those promises! He is faithful both to the promises and the demands.
Question 1: On the basis of the names of God that Joshua uses, are you able to demonstrate that the cause of the defeat lies with Israel?
Up until now things had gone so well. The LORD had brought them through the Jordan into the land of Canaan. However, it now seems that the LORD had done this in order to let them fall into the hand of their enemies, the Amorites. The rug seemed to have been pulled from under their feet. Without the presence of the LORD they would be in the lion's den.
Question 2: Reading Deuteronomy 7:7 will help to explain why Joshua was so afraid. Actually, the entire chapter seven is of importance when reading the book of Joshua. Why is that so? Why does Joshua believe that the LORD will again take up the cause of his people (v.9)? What is the connection between God's name and Israel's name?
The LORD reproves Joshua. He has nothing to complain about. He could have known better. Is the LORD not faithful (section 2, second para.)? We may never doubt his faithfulness either. Read Joshua 1:7 and Deuteronomy 28:7 and 25.
The LORD immediately points out the cause of Israel's failure to take Ai. It is true that the LORD does not leave them at their own mercy, but the fact must be faced that Israel transgressed the covenant. They did not take God's sacred judgment over his enemies serious enough; they should have taken all possible precautions to make sure that nothing would have been stolen from Jericho, something that Achan now had done.
In v.12, the LORD demonstrates that Israel did exactly what he had warned them about in 6:18. Compare this with Deuteronomy 7:26 and 13:17.
In addition, the LORD shows how Israel can be delivered, how the one who ignored the ban on Jericho can be singled out, and how the ban on Israel can be removed. The people have to sanctify themselves. After that the LORD himself will reveal who took some of the devoted things.
3. Achan singled out (7:14‑18)
All the people have to appear before the LORD. The LORD himself is going to mark the person in Israel who transgressed his covenant and did this shameful thing (v.15). Psalm 14:1, Psalm 74:18, and Matthew 7:26 show what it means to do a 'shameful deed': it means that God's Word is not taken into consideration.
First, the LORD points out the tribe; next, the family, the household, and finally, the person who committed the shameful deed will be singled out. No mention is made of how the lot was cast.
Finally, Achan is chosen. He waited until the inevitable would happen. He could have prevented the LORD himself choosing him through the casting of lots.
The LORD had said to Joshua what should happen to the offender (v.15). We will pay attention to that in the following section.
4. The devoted things removed from Israel
Nothing is hidden from the LORD. He points his finger at Achan. Joshua requests Achan to give glory to the LORD God and admit his sin. If Achan had denied the allegation of God, he would have accused God of being a liar.
Achan acknowledges his guilt. Furthermore, he tells Joshua where and how the stolen goods can be found (vv.20 and 21).
Joshua dispatches some men to recover the stolen goods. What Achan had said was indeed true. The goods are displayed before the LORD. The people of Israel must have been standing there gaping at the devoted things, the stolen possessions of the LORD that belonged in Jericho.
Following this, the ban is radically removed from Israel so that Israel can remain God's people. Everything in Israel that was under the ban has to be removed: the stolen goods, Achan, and everything that belongs to him, including his family, his cattle, and his possessions.
Question 3: Everything that belongs to Achan had to be removed as well. Wouldn't it be remarkable if Achan's family had not noticed anything about the goods that had been buried in their tent? Recall what is written in Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18. Achan's family members were accomplices!
The punishment is executed by Joshua and all Israel with him (v.24). In this way Israel shows repentance.
Being stoned to death and burned thereafter was a terrible punishment. The place where this execution took place receives its name from this event: Valley of Achor (= Valley of Trouble). The execution that had to take place was terrible, but we have to remember who ordered it (v.25).
Over the executed, a great heap of stones is raised. Another heap of stones is raised in the Promised Land. It serves as a lasting, visible warning of the LORD (6:18).
In this manner, the ban is removed and the anger of the LORD is turned away from Israel.
Question 4: Why is it only now possible to make plans again to conquer the rest of Canaan, including Ai?
At the threshold of Israel's life as a nation in Canaan, the LORD severely punished the breaking of his covenant as a deterrent for his people. In the Holy Scriptures we can find similar examples: Nadab and Abihu were punished at the institution of the priesthood (Lev 10); Ananias and Sapphira were killed at the initiation of the first Christian congregation (Acts 5).
There are a number of other references in the Bible to the Valley of Achor (e.g. Is 65:8‑ 10). In Hosea 2:13‑18 it is written that the LORD will turn the Valley of Achor into a door of hope. Achan is stoned to death outside the camp of Israel, in the Valley of Achor. Christ died outside the city on the hill Golgotha. Christ became a curse for us (Gal 3:13). God poured his judgment on our sins out on his own son. Through Christ, the Valley of Achor has become a door of hope.