Achan’s sin has often been used and misused to identify sin in the life of Christians today. But what does it mean in its original context? And how should we apply it today? Here are ten things about Achan, his sin, God’s wrath, and God’s grace, all found in Joshua 7.
1. Joshua 7 is not (primarily) about prayerlessness or sinful self-reliance.
What is Joshua 7 about? Many want to single out Joshua’s lack of prayer or the spies foolish self-confidence as the problem in Joshua 7. Others want to commend Joshua for taking the next step into the land without waiting. Wryly, Dale Ralph Davis cites these conflicting interpretations and observes,
One expositor blames Joshua for acting without prayer while another commends him for acting with haste; one says it was bad that action was taken without prayer, yet the other claims it was good to have action without sloth. We are at hermeneutical sea unless we take seriously the writer’s own intention as expressed in verse 1. (Joshua, 59)
Indeed, Joshua 7 demonstrates many evidences of the author’s intention and by paying attention to the literary shape of the passage, we can see that God’s presence and the satisfaction of God’s wrath stand at the center of this story.
2. Joshua 7 centers on God, his presence and his wrath.
As with any passage in Scripture, the literary shape gives tremendous insight into its meaning. And here we find a very clear narrative arc (i.e., chiasm) that centers the story on God’s presence and highlights the problem and solution of God’s wrath. We can outline the story like this (cf. Dale Ralph Davis, Joshua, 58).
A The Anger of the Lord aroused (v. 1)
B Joshua sends scouts (v. 2)
C Ai defeats Israel (vv. 3–5)
D Joshua intercedes for Israel (vv. 6–9)
E God identifies Israel’s sin (vv. 10–12a) – Get up! (v. 10)
F God threatens abandonment (v.12b)
E’ God announces judgment (vv. 13–15) – Get up! (v. 13)
D’ Joshua interrogates Israel (vv. 16–19)
C’ Achan confesses (vv. 20–21)
B’ Joshua sends messengers (vv. 22–23)
A’ The Anger of the Lord abated (vv. 24–26)
From this outline, we see that the center of the story revolves around the problem of God dwelling with Israel. Similar to the problem at Sinai, where Moses pleads for Yahweh to remain with Israel (Exod. 33:15), so here, God says, “I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.”
Interestingly, this divine abandonment is framed in the larger story of God’s anger. Verse 1 identifies the problem—Israel has sinned and invited God’s wrath. Verses 24–26 tell us God’s anger has been satisfied. And in between, we discover how God’s anger has been provoked through Achan’s sin (vv. 2–12) and how Joshua will lead Israel to resolve the problem before God (vv. 13–23).
From this outline, we learn this story centers on God, his holiness, man’s sin, and Joshua’s obedience in resolving the issue through leading the people to cut off Achan and his family. This does not deny other concerns, but this should focus our interpretation and help us see how God resolves our problem of sin with his provision of atonement.
3. Reading Joshua in the context of Joshua 6–8 helps explain God’s justice
Additionally, we should read this story in conjunction with Joshua 6 and 8. As Achan’s trades on the word “trouble,” we were already clued into the fact that “trouble” is coming. In Joshua 6:18, we read, “But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it.”
The mention of “trouble” foreshadows the events of Joshua 7, and it is not simply the name Achan that is troublesome; it is his breach in God’s command. He brings trouble on Israel (7:25) by stealing God’s devoted things. To put it differently, he steals from God’s house. In Joshua 6:19, 24, the devoted things were to go into the Lord’s treasury. But instead, they Achan took him into his house.
Reading Joshua 6 and 7 together helps us to see why this was such a wicked act. And because his sin involved his house, it makes great sense why his whole house was put to death. Though hidden, it is likely they were aware of the breach.
Reading Joshua 7 and 8 also helps us see how God resolves the problem brought by Achan’s sin. Once Israel obeys, God’s favor rests on them again. Clearly, God’s judgment begins with the household of God and once his house is in order (Joshua 7), Israel’s role of purifying the land will continue. Indeed, God’s implacable holiness with Israel reminds us how impartial he is.
God’s judgment on his own people is also another evidence Joshua 8–12 is not in any way a form of genocide. Rather, all those who die in Joshua 6–12 die for their wickedness. This is true for Jew and Gentile alike (cf. Rom. 2:9–11).
4. Joshua’s scouts bring clarity to the identity and mission of two spies in Joshua 2.
Widening our gaze in Joshua, we find corroboration in Joshua 7 that the spies in Joshua 2 went into Jericho with a message of mercy. How do we see this? Joshua 7 tells us.
In Joshua 7:2 Joshua sends scouts to look at Ai. When they return they give a report that only a small band of soldiers is needed. This is obviously wrong, but the point is that they went to look upon Ai for the purpose of warfare. Nothing like this occurred in Joshua 2. As Richard Hess observes,
The instructions given to the men, ‘Go up and spy out’ [v. 2] are different from those given to the two who went to Jericho in 2:1, ‘Go, look.’ The response of the spies and their report suggests that they perceived their mission differently. If the mission of the first group had been to report on the condition of the inhabitants and to discover supporters, that of the second seems to centre around the strength of the opposition and whether it can be overcome. The purpose of the mission to Ai resembles the instructions that Moses gave to the original group of spies (Num. 13:17—20). Perhaps this similarity also prefigures the defeat. (Joshua, 160)
Additionally, in Joshua 7 we find language of “messengers” that confirms this contrast between Joshua 2 and Joshua 7. In other words, in Joshua 7:22 Joshua sends “messengers” to look for the stolen treasure. They find it and bear witness to their findings. Interestingly, the word for “messengers” is the same used in Joshua 6:17, 25 to describe the “spies” whom Rahab hid. By comparison, we learn that the original spies were messengers of salvation and judgment, sent by Joshua to save Rahab (6:25). This is different than the purpose of spies/scouts in Joshua 7:2–5.
5. Achan’s exclusion from Judah’s line (Joshua 7) should also be read (or, red) with Rahab’s inclusion (Joshua 2).
Another connection in Joshua is the comparison and contrast between Achan and Rahab. Though it takes some work (mainly flipping pages), we see the connection between Achan and Rahab through the scarlet thread. Only, this thread does not bind them; it separates them.
In Joshua 2 the two witnesses tell Rahab to identify herself with Israel and Israel’s God by hanging a scarlet thread in the window. This harkens back to the Passover, but it also harkens back to the one place where we find a scarlet thread in Israel’s history—namely, in the birth narrative of Zerah and Perez. Genesis 38 describes the event of Tamar’s delivery of Judah’s twin sons.
27 When the time of [Tamar’s] labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah. (vv. 27–30)
In this account, Zerah is identified as the firstborn, i.e., the son by primogeniture who would enjoy the strength and blessing of Judah. Later in Genesis 49:9–12, Judah would be given the blessing of the kingdom. Hence, we can imagine that Israel’s king would come from Judah, by way of Zerah. Only in Joshua this is going to change.
Joshua 7 goes to great lengths to identify Achan as the great, great grandson of Zerah—the son of Tamar with the scarlet cord. Verse 1 and verses 16–18 both identify Achan with Zerah, and we might identify Achan with the scarlet thread. Only, like Esau, Achan forsakes his birthright by stealing the devoted things, including a robe from Shinar (Babylon), which identifies him and Jericho with that wicked city-state.
In this way, we see why Achan is cut off. But we also need to see how his execution transfers the promise of the kingdom from Zerah to Perez. And this is where we come back to Rahab.
As Matthew 1:5 indicates, Rahab is brought into the family of David by means of marrying Salmon. Joshua 6:25 says that Rahab “has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.” Yet, from her inclusion in Israel we can also now see that God gave her a scarlet thread was meant to replace the one tied to Zerah. Though imperceptible by itself; read with Joshua 7, Joshua 2 shows us how God is moving in redemptive history. As Warren Gage observes (Gospel Typology in Joshua and Revelation: A Whore and Her Scarlet, Seven Trumpets Sound, A Great City Falls),
The scarlet cord appears in two other passages in the Hebrew Bible, both in records of the royal genealogy. The first account tells of Tamar (Heb. palm tree), the Gentile daughter-in-law of Judah who dressed herself like a whore in order to secure her right to be the mother of Judah’s levirate first-born. After Tamar’s deception of Judah, two sons emerged from her womb, the first one presenting in the birth was Zerah, whose arm was tied with a scarlet cord by the midwife to mark his status as the first-born. The second account occurs in the Rahab narrative. The Gentile Rahab was a whore in Jericho (Heb. city of “tamars” or “palm trees”, Deut 34:3). After Rahab’s deception of the king of Jericho, two men emerged from her window, which was then tied by a scarlet cord.
Simply amazing! As confirmed by the place of Tamar and Rahab in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, this connection shows how God is working bring Jesus into the world.
6. The sin of Achan cannot be directly applied to Christians today.
As we read of this typology between Tamar and Rahab, we begin to learn that we cannot simply apply this passage directly to ourselves. Instead, we must read Joshua 7 in the history of redemption. In particular, we must consider how the events of Joshua flesh out the covenant with Moses.
Now this principle of interpretation is true for all passages in the Old Testament. However, it is most easily forgotten in texts where it looks like there is a simple direct correlation between the Old Testament the New. For instance, with Joshua 7 many commentators want to make the point that sin has a communal effect. And, of course, this is true. What happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas. Sin always creeps. Yet, this general principle needs further covenantal explanation, lest we misapply the passage and miss the import of God’s Word.
7. The non-pardon of Achan and the judgment on his family are related to Achan’s place in redemptive history.
There are at least two ways we need to see Joshua 7 in its covenant context. First, the confession of Achan does not lead to pardon because God said that Israel’s sin would not be pardoned. In Exodus 23 we find the harrowing words that when the “Angel of the Lord” led Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land, there would be no pardon for sin. Verses 20–22 describe this condition.
Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. 22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.
Already, we have seen that Israel’s first generation died in the wilderness, as did Moses. Clearly, there was not sense of pardon under the Mosaic covenant. The same principle holds in Joshua with Achan.
Second, the judgment on Achan’s family also depends on the covenantal arrangement in Israel. Whereas the new covenant would enjoy direct mediation between God and man, through the God-man Jesus Christ. Under the old covenant, circumcised males stood as the covenantal heads to their families. In this administration, blessing and cursing came through the respective obedience or disobedience of these family heads. Therefore, when Achan sinned, it makes sense that his family was punished with him.
For both of these reasons, we must be cautious in applying his sin directly to Christians today. As Ken Mathews puts it,
Teachers must avoid using Achan’s experience as a paradigm for punishment. The punishment that the Lord inflicts is not the norm in Israel, and Achan’s situation is a rare circumstance. Achan’s family is horribly executed too. This is difficult to understand because of today’s emphasis on individual accountability. The Bible too acknowledges that individuals should suffer for their own sins, not the sins of others (Jer. 31:29—30; Ezek. 18:1—32). The principle of corporate solidarity, however, takes precedence in this case since the objective of entirely destroying the city is to cut off pagan influence. Achan’s action places him and his family under the same judgment of death, as the Lord has forewarned. (Joshua, 65–66)
Mathews is right that corporate solidarity plays a role, but he neglects to see the weakness of the old covenant. Indeed, the reason why God does not forgive Achan is deeply related to the weakness of the old covenant.
8. God’s response to Achan’s sin is evidence of the old covenant’s weakness.
If we placed Achan’s words in the context of the new covenant, we would be hard pressed to deny him forgiveness. Or at least, to the church who is given the delegated authority to grant forgiveness (John 20:22–23). Listen to what he says in verses 20–21
“Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: 21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
His confession is true, as the messengers find the materials as he describes. And his words include acknowledgement of sin. Therefore, it seems that there’s no reason he would not be forgiven. And yet, there is no forgiveness (see again Exod. 23:20–22).
This reminds us that the precision of our words is not what says us. Confession is never enough to merit God’s grace. Nothing “merits” grace. Rather, it is God who saves. And under the old covenant, there is not a guarantee of pardon. The freedom and fullness of grace that we know today would wait for the new covenant.
9. We must remember the new covenant as we read Joshua 7.
In Joshua 7, Achan’s execution is the resolution of the chapter. Yet, this resolution is the beginning of our problem. How can we remain in fellowship with a God who is so severe towards sin? The answer is not found in redefining who he is or mitigating the gravity of his holiness.
Rather, the answer is found in Christ. Indeed, Joshua 7 must be read in the context of the whole book, which is all written to prepare us for Jesus. Joshua, son of Nun, could never provide forgiveness for Achan’s sin. While he led a people whose obedience towered over the generation of Moses; he did not lead a people to find ultimate rest.
Hebrews 3–4 makes this plain and we find it in Joshua too. In Joshua 8 and 24, Joshua leads Israel to renew the Mosaic Covenant. He does not offer a new covenant. That would wait for Christ, who would seal a covenant with his own blood. Indeed, today men and women who sin like Achan can make his confession and trust their sins will be forgiven. Why? Is it because God has learned to be more gracious? No!
The reason is found in the new covenant, which Christ inaugurated with his own blood. Jesus took the place for sins like that of Achan; he died for covenant-breakers. And thus he has made 1 John 1:9 possible: If you confess your sins to God, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. This verse could not be written in the Old Testament, because Jesus had not come. But since Christ has come, there is a greater promise of grace and forgiveness based on the fact that God is just and the justifier.
10. Joshua 7 leads us to confess our sin, because Jesus Christ is a Door of Hope.
Finally, Joshua 7 finishes with pile of stones standing over Achan’s bones (vv. 24–26). It is not a pretty picture, but it is one God intends for Israel and us to remember. The Valley of Trouble (Achor) is meant to recall God’s judgment on sin. Yet, judgment is not the last word in this valley. For in Hosea, another book that focuses on Israel’s sin, we find these words,
14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 16 “And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. 18 And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. (Hosea 2:14–18)
Wonderfully, Hosea (which is Joshua’s first name, by the way) points to a new covenant that God will bring in the future. This new covenant is described in terms of a new creation (v. 18) and it will begin in the Valley of Achor. Indeed, Hosea 2:15 says that this place where Achan is buried will become a “door of hope.” How? By means of Christ coming from the line of Rahab and redeeming God’s people from the penalty of their sin. (Hosea 3:1–5 speaks of a new David).
In fact, o bring the story full circle. Achan’s sin starts by stealing a gold and robe from Babylon (Shinar is Babylon, Gen. 10:10). Incredibly, Jericho is presented as a city drinking in the riches of Babylon. The significance of this is found in Revelation, where Babylon is presented as a harlot making drunk the nations. And yet, in the midst of this idolatrous city, we find that there are “Rahabs” that are brought out and made part of God’s celestial bride. Revelation 18:4–5 puts it like this, speaking to the elect in the city of Babylon,
Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; 5 for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.
This is the final word from the Valley of Achor. While pardon was not possible for Achan, pardon is possible today. Why? Because it is not Joshua that is bringing salvation, but Jesus. And in his death and resurrection, the victorious Lamb has made a way of salvation for the worst sinners. For that reason, we can take double comfort in God’s purposes. We can confess our sins and know without a doubt that he is faithful and just to forgive us . . . because of Jesus Christ.
This was not available in the Old Testament, but praise be to God it is today!
Soli Deo Gloria, ds