But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israel. And Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is beside Bethaven, on the east side of Bethel, and spake unto them, saying, Go up and view the country. And the men went up and viewed Ai. And they returned to Joshua, and said unto him, Let not all the people go up; but let about two or three thousand men go up and smite Ai; and make not all the people to labour thither; for they are but few. So there went up thither of the people about three thousand men: and they fled before the men of Ai. And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty and six men: for they chased them from before the gate even unto Shebarim, and smote them in the going down: wherefore the hearts of the people melted and became as water. And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads.
The fall of Jericho in such a miraculous way, without any real effort on Israel’s part, evidently led to overconfidence and forgetfulness of the fact that it was God alone who had destroyed this first barrier to their possession of the land. The next city to be subdued was small compared to Jericho and a detachment sent out to reconnoiter reported that it would be easily captured and that it would be quite unnecessary for the entire host to move against it. So about three thousand men undertook to destroy it, but were defeated ignominiously. We are told they fled before the men of Ai and thirty-six of them were slain. It was a great shock naturally to Joshua and to the people as a whole, but we are told at once of the reason for the defeat.
God had commanded Israel to take nothing for themselves of the spoil of Jericho. The silver and the gold and metallic vessels were to be devoted to the service of the Lord, but all else was under a curse and was to be destroyed. One man and his family failed to obey the Word of the Lord and committed a trespass in the accursed thing. Thus Israel had no power to stand against their foes.
There are two important lessons that we may take to our own hearts from this incident. First, note how God looked upon the twelve tribes of Israel as a unit. They formed one nation, and what affected one part of the nation affected all. Though strife and division came in afterwards, God still speaks of the twelve tribes of Israel. To them the Epistle of James is addressed and the Apostle Paul speaks of the Resur- rection as that to which “our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hoped to come.” In the Christian dispensation one of the great outstanding truths set forth in the Word is that of the entity of the body of Christ. So intimately are the members of Christ linked to one another by the Spirit that it is written: “If one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; if one member be honored all the members rejoice with it.” This is very precious, but it is also exceedingly solemn. As individual members of Christ we need to realize that our attitude and behavior has an effect for good or ill upon the body as a whole. We know how true this is in the human body: often some affected hidden gland is the cause of great discomfort and misery to the entire body. When this condition is rectified the whole body is freed of its distress. And so the secret of Israel’s defeat at Ai was the fact that one man and his family had disobeyed the Word of the Lord and committed a trespass in the accursed thing. When the defeated soldiers of Israel came fleeing for their lives back to their brethren in the camp, the hearts of the people melted. All their hopes of a speedy defeat of their enemies seemed to be at an end and they were utterly bewildered and discouraged. Their great leader himself was shocked and perplexed at what had taken place, and we are told that “Joshua rent his clothes and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads.” This was the expression of utter self-abnegation and grief.
We have Joshua’s prayer recorded in verses 7 to 9:
And Joshua said, Alas, O Lord God, wherefore hast Thou at all brought this people over Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us? would to God we had been content, and dwelt on the other side Jordan! O Lord, what shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land shall hear of it, and shall environ us round, and cut off our name from the earth: and what wilt Thou do unto Thy great name?
Note the two things that troubled him: “O Lord,” he exclaimed, “what shall I say when Israel turneth their backs upon their enemies?” The story of their defeat at Ai would spread rapidly throughout the land and the other nations of Canaan would be encouraged to defend their cities with renewed valor, whereas before the fear of the Lord had fallen upon them. Then Joshua also asked: “What wilt Thou do unto Thy great name?” But Jehovah can be depended upon to defend His own name. He will not condone sin in His own people to do this. Sin must be dealt with before God will manifest Himself openly on their behalf.
We are told that the Lord said unto Joshua:
Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face? Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even among their own stuff (verses 10, 11).
This was the cause of their defeat. Prayer is always good in its place, but this was not the time for prayer. It was the time to deal in unsparing judgment with the family who had committed the sin that had weakened Israel before their foes. It was because of this sin that they had no strength to stand before their enemies, and God declared that He would not be with them any more until they destroyed the cursed thing from among them.
How often similar conditions have prevailed even in the churches of God in this dispensation of grace! Hidden sin, unconfessed, unjudged, has made the people of the Lord as weak as water when they came in conflict with their satanic foes.
In accordance with the Word of the Lord all Israel was called to stand before God, and Joshua cast lots to determine the particular tribe in which the guilty party was to be found. The casting of lots was an Old Testament way of determining the mind of the Lord. We read in the book of Proverbs: “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (16:33). Again and again we find this method used in determining the will of God. The last time which God seems to have recognized is that recorded in the book of Acts, when the apostles cast lots to determine whether Joseph or Matthias should be appointed as successor to Judas. After the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, no such method is ever indicated in the New Testament. The believer today is able to determine the will of God as he searches the Scriptures in dependence on the Holy Spirit.
The story is told of a young curate in the Church of England who was greatly helped in his understanding of the Scriptures by frequent conversations with an uneducated cobbler, who was, nevertheless, well acquainted with the Word of God. On one occasion when a friend of his, a young theologian, was visiting him, he mentioned the remarkable knowledge of the Bible which this cobbler possessed. The young theologue, in a spirit of pride, expressed a desire to meet him, saying he felt sure he could propose some questions to him on the Scriptures which he would be quite unable to answer. Upon being introduced to him in his little shop the question was put: “Can you tell me what the Urim and Thummim were?” The cobbler replied: “I don’t know exactly; I understand that the words apply to something that was on the breastplate of the high priest. I know the words mean ‘Lights and Perfection’ and that through the Urim and Thummim the high priest was able to discern the mind of the Lord. But I find that I can get the mind of the Lord by just changing one letter. I take this blessed Book and Usim and Thummim, and I get the mind of the Lord that way.”
When the lots were cast in this particular instance, the tribe of Judah was taken; then the various families of Judah stood before the Lord; lots were cast for them and the family of the Zarhites was taken. The households of this family were then brought before God and lots were cast and the household of Zabdi was taken. His household was brought man by man before the Lord and the lot fell on Achan, the guilty person whose disobedience to the word of the Lord was responsible for Israel’s defeat at Ai. Adjured by Joshua to make confession of his sin and tell what he had done, Achan answered:
Indeed I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done: When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it.
Unhappily, this confession came too late. Had Achan come to God of his own accord and acknowledged his sin and brought a proper offering, doubtless there would have been forgiveness for him. But the confession wrung from him only after the lot had indicated who the wicked one was, could not avail to shield him from judgment.
We need to remember that this event occurred in the dispensation of the law. Law knows no mercy; law is absolutely just. Therefore Achan and his family had to be destroyed because of their sin. It is very evident that the family were implicated in the evil deeds of the head of the house, because the law strictly forbade putting the children to death for the sins of the parents, but inasmuch as all were devoted to judgment, it is evident that all participated in the evil. They were brought down into the Valley of Achor; that is, the valley of trouble. As they stood there before the Lord and His people,
Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? the Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones unto this day. So the Lord turned from the fierceness of His anger. Wherefore the name of that place was called, The valley of Achor, unto this day.
It is a sad story, but it has a serious lesson for God’s people everywhere. Sin in the camp will weaken the host of the Lord and hinder blessing and victory. Sin judged and dealt with leaves God free to work in the way in which He delights.
In the book of Hosea there is a word of comfort even in connection with this sad story. The Lord tells Israel that in the latter days He is going to recover them from their wandering and restore them to Himself and He will give them the valley of Achor for a door of hope (Hos. 2:15). The valley of Achor speaks of the trouble that we bring upon ourselves by our own sins: retributive justice because of our departure from the Lord. But if we judge ourselves before God and turn to Him in sincerity of heart, He will give deliverance, and even the valley of Achor will become an entrance into blessing.
We need to remember that grace does not set aside government. It is still true that “whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap,” and “he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong that he hath done and there is no respect of persons with God.” We cannot sin with impunity because we are saved by grace. But on the other hand, if we judge ourselves we shall not be judged of the Lord.