In Joshua chapter 2, we have the prelude to Israel’s first battle in Canaan to conquer the land God had promised centuries earlier to Abraham. Their first conquest would be Jericho, which was strongly defended in a strategically critical location. Israel’s leader, Joshua, secretly sent spies across the river to look over the land, especially Jericho. The news they returned with was encouraging, as they affirmed, “The Lord has surely given the whole land into our hands” (Joshua 2:24). A few days later the Israelites were led to the Jordan river where they saw the water stop flowing as soon as the priests carrying the Ark of God stepped into the river, so that the people were able to cross the river during the high flow of spring runoff on dry ground, a demonstration that God was with Joshua as he had been with Moses (3:7) and that “the living God is among you” (3:10). So, “that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they stood in awe of him” (4:14). Right away after that Israel began to enjoy the spring bounty that was already available in Canaan, and the manna they had eaten for 40 years no longer appeared. At that time the Israelite males who had not been circumcised during the Israel’s wanderings were circumcised, and then they celebrated the Passover (5:2-12). Soon Joshua received explicit instructions from the Lord about how to approach Jericho and how to deal with the city when God brought down the walls for them.
God’s instructions to Joshua made sense only if God were going to help Israel defeat Jericho. Joshua then told the men of Israel exactly what God had commanded them to do. For seven days they followed God’s instructions, and at the climax, as they did what God had said, the walls of the city collapsed, providing unimpeded access into the city and an easy victory over what had seemed insurmountable adversaries. Part of the instruction for defeating Jericho, clearly emphasized by Joshua, was to take no loot from the city, but rather devote items of silver, gold, bronze or iron to the Lord and abandon everything else to destruction and fire. This event again affirmed that “the Lord was with Joshua” and had the effect that “his fame spread throughout the land” (6:27).
Shortly after the victory at Jericho, Joshua and Israel set out to conquer a smaller and less defended town now remembered as Ai. Again Joshua sent spies to look the situation over, and again they brought back an encouraging report, except that instead of stressing God’s hand in the matter, they reported that Ai would be easy to take and only a small portion of the army was needed to do it. Joshua and Israel made the mistake then of planning and attempting to defeat Ai without consulting the Lord. What looked like easy success turned into disaster. Fifteen centuries later James warned Christians against the error of presumption when we don’t know what the future holds, so we should always seek God’s will (James 4:13-17). When Joshua belatedly sought the Lord, he was upbraided for his attitude and Israel’s sin (7:10-11). Even though we already know that a man named Achan took some of the “devoted things” that were to have been reserved for God or destroyed (7:1), the unfaithfulness is attributed to the Israelites (7:1) and Israel (7:11). God didn’t tell Joshua “someone” had sinned, but “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed... they have taken... they have stolen... they have lied” (7:11). What followed was a God-given process to make everyone participate in sorting out what had happened, and who had done what. The result was Achan being singled out and admitting his greed and theft and lies (7:20-21). Then Achan and his whole family, all his possessions, including the stolen objects, were destroyed, as the things he stole had been devoted to destruction. This was a potent reminder to Israel that God meant what he said and that unfaithfulness was disastrous for all concerned, and that they should seek God’s will in everything.
For Achan (and his family) the penalty was horrible, but consider the circumstances. Achan had seen God’s works every day of his life, eating the manna, seeing God guide and discipline his people in the dessert. He drank water from the rock a few months earlier (Numbers 20:1-13). He’d crossed the dry Jordan only a few weeks before and experienced the cessation of manna. The day he sinned he saw the walls of Jericho fall and knew that what Joshua commanded came from God. Knowing all of that, he somehow thought he could steal from God and get away with it. Not because he was poor, he had family, he had livestock, he had everything he needed, but he saw some things that he wanted more than he wanted to obey God. Nor is it likely he carried off a beautiful robe from Babylonia, 5 pounds of silver and another 1 1/4 pounds of gold with no one noticing, and then hid it under the floor of his tent without even his family being aware.
Remember, Paul’s instructions to Timothy included do not “take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22b).