The destruction of the city—and the curse Joshua pronounces—are pretty harsh things. Today, of course, there are rules of war, and the international community would punish this kind of military action. But that wasn’t the situation in Canaan. The Israelites are invaders in the land, badly outnumbered, and their victory and decisive actions send a message to all the other cities and towns: there’s something different—and very dangerous—about these invaders. Moreover, it is essential to purify the land of polytheistic worship before Israel settles in the land with their worship of the Lord.
7 But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in one thing: they did not allow everything from Jericho to be destroyed, as God had ordered. Achan (the son of Carmi, grandson of Zabdi, and great-grandson of Zerah of the tribe of Judah) had carried some things away from Jericho, so the Eternal was angry at the Israelites.
2 After Jericho fell, Joshua sent some men to Ai, a town near Beth-aven and east of Bethel, to spy out that region of the land. 3 They returned to Joshua with a report.
Spies: You don’t need to send all the people since there are so few defenders in Ai. An army of 2,000 to 3,000 men should be plenty.
4 So Joshua sent about 3,000 soldiers to Ai; but they were easily repulsed by the defenders, 5 who killed 36 of them and pursued them from the gate even to the descent toward Shebarim. When the Israelites heard their soldiers had been defeated, their courage melted away like water. 6 Then Joshua and the elders of Israel tore their robes and fell to the dirt in front of the covenant chest of the Eternal, putting dust on their heads and remaining there until evening.
Joshua: 7 Why, Eternal One, our Lord? Why have you brought us across the Jordan if only to let the Amorites destroy us? It would have been better for us to settle on the other side of the Jordan! 8 Lord, how am I going to explain that our fighting men have had to run for their lives? 9 The people of Canaan, all the inhabitants of this land, will hear that we have been defeated. They’ll surround us and destroy us as a people forever, and then how will the world remember Your great name?
Eternal One: 10 Get up. What are you doing in the dirt? 11 There’s a simple explanation: Israel has sinned. They have lied and have violated the covenant I gave them by stealing some of the property that should have been destroyed along with the rest of Jericho and by hiding it among their own belongings.
12 That is why the Israelites can no longer resist their enemies. They run from their foes because they are under a curse and doomed to destruction. I will not be with you or fight for you unless these things devoted to destruction are truly destroyed. 13 Get up, and tell the people to purify themselves for tomorrow. Tell them that the Eternal One, the God of Israel says, “There are items among you that were supposed to be destroyed as I commanded. You will not be able to resist your enemies unless you remove the banned items from among you.”
14 Then in the morning, the people will pass before you tribe by tribe, and by drawing lots you will know which tribe I pick. Then that tribe will come clan by clan, and the chosen clan will come family by family, until at last they come before you one by one and I show you who is guilty. 15 With the person selected by lot, you will burn him and all his belongings, including his family and his livestock, with fire as a punishment for breaking the covenant with the Eternal and for bringing dishonor upon Israel.
There’s always an explanation in the Book of Joshua when the people of Israel are defeated in their battles for the promised land, and that explanation is not that God has been unfaithful. It’s the other way around: God tells the people of Israel to do something, and they don’t. God allows their defeats so that they can see the error of their ways. He corrects His people and punishes them so that they may learn to do better.
16 So Joshua arose early, and the Israelites passed before him, tribe by tribe. First the tribe of Judah was chosen by lot. 17 From the clans of Judah, the clan of the Zerahites was chosen, and from that clan, the family of Zabdi. 18 From that family, the Lord indicated that Achan (the son of Carmi, grandson of Zabdi, and great-grandson of Zerah from the tribe of Judah) had taken the banned items.
Joshua (to Achan): 19 My son, I urge you now to show honor and thanksgiving to the Eternal One, the God of Israel, and confess. Tell me what you have done, and tell the truth.
Achan: 20 It’s true. I am the one who broke the commandment of the Eternal God of Israel. 21 Among the spoils of the city, I found a beautiful Babylonian robe, 5 pounds of silver, and 20 ounces of gold. When I saw them, I wanted them and I took them. They are buried now in the ground inside my tent with the silver at the very bottom of the hole.
22 Joshua sent men to Achan’s tent, and there they found the valuables with the silver at the bottom just as he had described. 23 They carried them back from the tent to Joshua, displayed them in front of the Israelites, and offered them to the Eternal. 24 Then Joshua and all Israel led Achan, the son of Zerah, with the robe and silver and gold he had taken, with all his sons and daughters, with all his cattle and livestock, and with his tent and everything he possessed, to the valley of Achor.
Joshua: 25 Why did you bring such trouble upon us? Well, now the Eternal is bringing trouble on you.
The people stoned Achan and his family and burned them and all their belongings. 26 Afterward they erected a pile of stones over Achan that still stands today. When all of this was done, the Eternal put away His anger; so to this day that place is called the valley of Achor, which means “trouble.”