Move Beyond Failure

The Point:  Leaders confront failure, deal with it, and move forward.

The Lord’s Instructions:  Joshua 7:10-8:1.

[10]  The LORD said to Joshua, "Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? [11]  Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. [12]  Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. [13]  Get up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the LORD, God of Israel, "There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you." [14]  In the morning therefore you shall be brought near by your tribes. And the tribe that the LORD takes by lot shall come near by clans. And the clan that the LORD takes shall come near by households. And the household that the LORD takes shall come near man by man. [15]  And he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.’" [16]  So Joshua rose early in the morning and brought Israel near tribe by tribe, and the tribe of Judah was taken. [17]  And he brought near the clans of Judah, and the clan of the Zerahites was taken. And he brought near the clan of the Zerahites man by man, and Zabdi was taken. [18]  And he brought near his household man by man, and Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken. [19]  Then Joshua said to Achan, "My son, give glory to the LORD God of Israel and give praise to him. And tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me." [20]  And Achan answered Joshua, "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." [22]  So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and behold, it was hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. [23]  And they took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and to all the people of Israel. And they laid them down before the LORD. [24]  And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. [25]  And Joshua said, "Why did you bring trouble on us? The LORD brings trouble on you today." And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. [26]  And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his burning anger. Therefore, to this day the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor. [8:1]  And the LORD said to Joshua, "Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land.  [ESV]

“What a short step there is between a great victory and a great defeat. One moment we are riding high on the cloud of some great spiritual success. The next moment we are plunged into the dark valley of some grim spiritual failure. One moment we are Elijah standing on Mount Carmel, calling down fire on God’s altar. The next moment we are Elijah at Horeb, complaining to God: I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away [1 Kings 19:10]. It is that way in Joshua. When people think of Joshua, most think of the victory of the armies of Israel at Jericho, that great walled city that stood at the entrance to the Promised Land. It is right that they do. The victory of the Israelites at Jericho was a great victory, carried out in strict obedience to the battle plan of God and accomplished by His power in throwing down the city’s towering stone ramparts. But that is chapter 6. Joshua 7:1-5 tells of the army’s terrible defeat at Ai, a much smaller city. It is the only defeat of the invading forces recorded in Joshua, and it contains the only report of Jews actually slain in combat. What caused such a change? How could a defeat like this follow so closely after a great victory? God’s explanation for the defeat was that there was sin in Israel’s camp. We must learn from this that God takes sin seriously, even if we do not, and that sin is the real cause of defeat for God’s people. What happened to Achan is recorded for our edification, to show us how sin starts and progresses if it is not confessed early and forsaken. Achan was one of Israel’s soldiers in the battle of Jericho. He was on the right side in the conflict, but he was not obedient. One of God’s commands was that the entire city of Jericho be destroyed. All metal articles were to be taken to the treasury of the Lord as the firstfruits of the conquest, but everything else was to be consumed by fire. The people were to be killed. Achan heard those commands along with everyone else. But when he entered the city and actually saw some of the forbidden spoil before him, he coveted what he saw and took it. The fact that Achan hid the plunder shows that he knew he was doing wrong. It was for this willful sin that the judgment of God came upon the whole people in the next military encounter.”  [Boice, chapter 7: Sin in the Camp]. 

“The Lord’s response to Joshua’s and the elders’ mourning was directed to Joshua alone, and it was a rebuke couched in holiness terms. Israel (not just Achan) had sinned, and God would not tolerate it. This passage shows that God was not open to the charge of a double standard with reference to His treatment of Israel and the Canaanites. He had ordered Israel to exterminate the Canaanites because of their sin, but here He allowed all Israel to be affected by the sin of one man. The overriding concern in all such episodes was His demand for holiness and obedience and the concern for purity of worship. [11]  Despite the indication in 7:1 that only Achan had violated the instructions concerning the things banned, this verse extends the responsibility to the entire nation, in an example of what has been called ‘corporate solidarity’. This concept embraces at least the following ideas: (1) the entire group is treated as a unity; (2) sometimes the entire group is represented by a single individual; and (3) sometimes the individual and the group are merged. The third of these ideas is embodied here; the individual and the group are closely identified: the verse affirms that Israel has sinned, and yet later Achan confesses, I have sinned [20]. This verse indicates the seriousness of the sin and God’s outrage at it, because of the slow, climactic buildup of the language and the differing terms for sin, which become more specific with every word. First, the general word sin is used. Next, the more specific term transgressed is used. Next, the specific sin is mentioned in two different ways: the Israelites had taken some of the devoted things and they had stolen. They had also lied and they had put the devoted things among their own belongings. Six verbs are thus used to describe Achan’s actions, four of which indicate sin in their own right and the other two do so in this context. The linking of the verbs and clauses in this way indicate a progressive buildup of specificity and, in the process, they describe the totality of what Achan did [11]. Israel had violated God’s covenant. The word covenant refers to many different dealings of God with His people at different times, but here the specific reference appears to be to the portion of the covenant he had made with His people through Moses that referred to the annihilation of the Canaanites [Deut. 20:10-20]. [12]  The reason for Israel’s defeat is now revealed: Israel itself – just as Jericho before it – was made liable to destruction because of its sin, and it had suffered a humiliating defeat because of this. What’s more, God would no longer be with Israel, until they removed the sin from the camp. God’s threatened withdrawal of His presence was a serious thing, since He had specifically promised to be with His people earlier in the book [1:5,9]. God’s presence was withdrawn on two occasions in later times, with dire consequences: 1 Samuel 4:19-22; 16:14. This threat to withdraw emphasizes once again God’s absolute standards and demands of holiness. [13-15]  The sin needed to be dealt with, and verses 13-15 detail God’s instructions for this. In verse 13, the instruction is again to Joshua: he was to sanctify the people in preparation for what God would do on the morrow. The language here echoes that of 3:5 in an ironic way, where Joshua ordered the people, Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you. Here, the people also were to consecrate themselves, but, in contrast with the wonders that would be among the Israelites, now the devoted things were among them. The need for purification was due to very different things in the two cases. Verse 14, by its orderly instructions and by the verb used here, indicates that the Lord was in control of the entire process of identifying the culprit through the basic social units of society: tribe, clan, and family. Three times the verb takes or captures is used in verse 14, again at the beginning of verse 15 and once each in verses 16-18. The punishment was severe and total: Achan and everything that belonged to him were to be burned with fire [15], a sentence that was carried out after stoning [25]. Achan’s sin involved violating the Lord’s covenant and doing an outrageous thing which denotes behaving treacherously toward God.

Discovery and Consequence [7:16-26].  Achan was found out for the sin he had committed, and he and his family were stoned and burned. Because he had violated God’s command concerning the booty from Jericho, Achan found himself in the position of the inhabitants of Jericho: he himself was devoted to destruction. He in effect had become a Canaanite by his actions. This account masterfully builds, slowly and deliberately, to its climactic conclusion in verse 26. [16-18]  Chapter 3 is again echoed here, since the first three words in Hebrew are identical to those in 3:1: Then Joshua rose early in the morning. The first time, it was for a noble cause: to prepare the Israelites for entering the land. This time, it was for a far more grim cause: to identify and punish the one who had violated the covenant. In verses 16-18, Achan is methodically and inexorably identified by the process God specified in verse 14. The specific means by which he was identified is not indicated, but the expressive vocabulary of verse 14 continues here: Achan was caught by the process. [19]  Joshua addressed Achan as My son, an indication of his assuming a leadership – even paternal – role in the incident. He issued four commands to Achan: give glory to the Lord … give praise to him … tell me now what you have done … do not hide it from me. The first two clearly parallel each other, as do the second two. However, it would appear that the two sets of verbs also parallel each other. That is, the four actions commanded by Joshua are part and parcel of one event. By confessing his sin, he was indeed glorifying and praising God. Joshua was not instructing Achan to indulge in a disengaged act of glorifying and praising God and then to confess his sin; rather, by his very confession, he was glorifying God. [20-21]  Achan immediately confessed that he was guilty [20] and gave the details of what he had done [21]. He had taken plunder that was very valuable. Achan’s actions, besides violating (1) the Eighth Commandment (about stealing [Ex. 20:15], (2) God’s instructions in Deuteronomy 20:10-20, (3) the injunction against lying [Lev. 19:11], and (4) the First Commandment (about not having any other gods before the Lord [Ex. 20:3], also directly violated the Ninth Commandment (about coveting [Ex. 20:17]. A telling parallel to this passage is Genesis 3:6, where the same verbs are used of Eve: both she and Achan saw and coveted (desired) and took what was forbidden to them. Achan attempted to hide his sin from the God from whom nothing could be hidden. [22-26]  This section brings the Achan incident to a brisk conclusion, in a continuous narrative stream. In verse 22, the veracity of Achan’s words in his confession [21] is confirmed, since the wording concerning where the booty would be and how it was arranged is identical in both verses. Achan now was indeed telling the truth and glorifying God [19]. In verse 23, the items of booty were laid down before the Lord. The word used here for laid down  is significant, since it is translated most commonly as ‘poured out’, referring to the use of oil in anointing and other religious contexts. The stolen items were ‘poured out’ before the Lord, returning to Him what belonged to Him. Achan was brought out to be stoned, not only with each of the items he had stolen, but also with all his possessions and his entire household, including his children [24]. This was an extremely severe punishment, but it illustrates again God’s absolute demands of holiness. Achan’s sin had infected the entire nation of Israel [7:1], and ridding Israel of the stain of this sin required the annihilation of everything with which he had had intimate contact. Ironically – and tragically – for Achan, God allowed the Israelites to take booty in the next victory, at the second battle of Ai [8:2]. He could have had anything he wanted if he had only waited on God. Like Adam and Eve, he lost sight of the character of our generous God and thought that satisfaction required taking. Achan’s greed was his downfall. Also ironically, it was Joshua and all Israel who did this to Achan. Previously, all of Israel has been indicted because of Achan’s sin [7:1], but now the nation was acting to purge itself of the contamination, and it could again move ahead confidently in the task of taking the land of Canaan. Achan’s self-centered actions resulted in terrible consequences not only for himself but also for his family. This illustrates the principle that sin does have its consequences. Joshua’s question in verse 25 – Why did you bring trouble on us? – is turned on its head by his next statement, and assertion that the Lord would now bring trouble on Achan. Joshua used the same word for bringing trouble here that he had earlier used in warning the people against taking the devoted items, since doing so would bring trouble on the entire camp [6:18]. The story of Achan proves the veracity of Joshua’s earlier words. Sin always would have its consequences. The punishment for Achan and his household was stoning and burning. The exact sequence of events is not entirely clear in verse 25 where stoning is mentioned twice, once before and once after the burning. The two verbs for stoning here are different. It is possible that one of the words for stoning refers more properly to the heaping up of a pile of stones over Achan’s corpse, a point made explicitly in verse 26. In Joshua 8:29, the wording concerning the king of Ai is exactly the same, making the point clearly that God would not favor His own people when they blatantly disobeyed, any more than he would favor wicked Canaanites. Because of his sin, Achan was expelled from Israel and treated as a Canaanite. In this way, the Lord’s anger was abated. The connection between this pile of stones and the earlier set of twelve memorial stones that Joshua erected on the banks of the Jordan River is hard to ignore. The reason for each one was different, but both piles of stones remained in their place to this day [4:9; 7:26; 10:27]. The first set was specifically to be a reminder to Israel of God’s presence with them. The pile of stones over Achan is not infused with the same meaning, but the very fact that it remained to this day shows us that it was a reminder to Israel of the story of Achan and the consequences of sin. The name of the place – Valley of Achor – means “Valley of Trouble”, undoubtedly given to it because of the events that transpired here. [8:1]  The account of the destruction of Ai follows immediately upon the story in chapter 7 of Achan’s sin, the resulting defeat at Ai, and the punishment of that sin. In the larger perspective of the book, there should never have been any question concerning the Israelites’ ability to take Ai, since Yahweh would be its warrior and guarantor of the land. However, in the immediate context of Achan’s sin, the defeat at Ai brought great distress: it caused Joshua and the people to fear and to raise questions of God [7:5-9]. The trauma was alleviated by Israel’s rooting out the evil in its midst, the abatement of Yahweh’s anger, and the great victory achieved after the events of chapter 7. God was no longer angry with Israel, since atonement had been made for its sin, and the task now was to get on with the conquest. Thus, he gave the city of Ai into the Israelites’ hands: they captured it via an elaborate ambush. In chapter 8, that victory is described in some detail, more so than for any other battle in the book. Yahweh’s words of encouragement to Joshua in 8:1 reinforce the statement of 7:26, that He was no longer angry with Israel. Atonement had been made for the nation’s sin, and the task at hand was to get on with the conquest. The encouragement consisted of two parts. The first – Do not fear – is found more than seventy times in the Old Testament, most commonly (but not exclusively) in battle contexts. The second – do not be dismayed – is similar, and it echoes God’s encouragement to Joshua in 1:9. God’s encouragement here is a fitting introduction to a battle narrative and represents a welcome promise from God, particularly in light of the previous problems. We should note that there were no words of promise, assurance, or guidance from God when Israel attacked Ai the first time, a significant contrast. He was not with them because of their sin.”  [Howard, pp. 192-199]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why was God angry with His people? How did He show His anger? Why was God angry at all of Israel instead of just Achan? [Note here the impact of the presence of sin on the community as a whole.]

2.         What was Achan’s sin? Compare it to the sin of Eve. Note the similarities of language between the two events: saw, coveted, took. Is not this the progression that takes place in our lives when we give in to temptation? We must learn to attack temptation in our lives at the first step (seeing) before it progresses to the next two steps (desiring and taking).

3.         What do we learn about the seriousness of sin in this passage? What impact does open, unrepentant sin have in the life of the church? Do we see evidence today of God withholding His blessing from His people when they allow sin to continue in their midst?

4.         What do we learn about God in this passage?


Joshua: An Expositional Commentary, James Boice, Baker (Kindle eBook).

The Book of Joshua, Marten Woudstra, Eerdmans.

Joshua, David Howard, Jr., NAC, B & H Publishing.

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