Achan appears in the seventh chapter of Joshua. All the spoils of Jericho were supposed to be devoted to the Lord. All of its gold and silver should have been taken to the treasury in the tabernacle and everything else destroyed by fire. Achan helped himself to some gold, silver, and a beautiful robe and buried them in his tent. God’s anger became apparent when the Israelite army suffered a humiliating defeat. He told Joshua to cast lots to find who sinned to cause it. The lot fell to Achan. He confessed his deed. As a result, not only he but his wife, children, and cattle were stoned to death and their bodies were burned.
The modern mind finds this whole story repellant. What was the justice in God becoming angry with all Israel for the sin of one man? What was the justice in executing Achan’s entire family? And where is the love and forgiveness of God? As always, when we ask those questions honestly, the Bible provides answers.
Why did all Israel suffer for one man’s sin?
Achan confessed that he saw the contraband, coveted it, took it, and hid it (Joshua 7:20-21). He described the general progression of sin. Seeing and coveting took place only in the privacy of his own thoughts. Not until he took the objects did anything happen that anyone else could see. He hid them because he knew he was deliberately doing wrong.
Man looks on the outward appearance. God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). “You shall not covet” is the only one of the ten commandments that anyone can commit without leaving any outward evidence. Jesus said that looking at a woman in lust (that is, a desire to possess) equals committing the sin of adultery (Matthew 5:28). That is, the man who does so has formed the intention of committing adultery with that woman given the chance. He has sinned whether he ever acts on his intention or not. Achan broke two commandments: coveting and stealing.
No one else stole any of the devoted goods. How many others coveted them? Be honest. We all know the answer to that. Not to bring the full tithe to the storehouse is stealing from God (Malachi 3:6-11). How many Christians today do not pay a tithe to God? And how many Christians give money grudgingly, mourning the things they cannot buy for themselves with it? We know ourselves. We know what people are like.
Only one man stole the spoils of Jericho from God. Many coveted. God’s anger did not demand judgment against Israel for the visible sin of one man. It demanded judgment against the sin of the many, visible only to God. A fair number of men must have recognized that they were secretly tempted to do what Achan did, and Achan’s fate made them secretly glad they had chosen not to.
Why did Achan’s wife and children have to die with him?
What most people today find particularly pathetic or even repellant about this story is that innocent people had to die as a consequence of one man’s sin. Now that we have recognized that many of Achan’s countrymen participated in the invisible aspect of his sin, we need to question our assumption that his family was somehow innocent. Punishment of the innocent with the guilty is injustice at its worst.
God himself commanded that the people destroy whatever was devoted to destruction. Killing the wife and children had the effect of killing not only Achan but any chance of posterity. Revulsion at the punishment is tantamount to accusing God of injustice, a very serious charge. It won’t stick.
Deuteronomy 24:16 specifically commands that fathers shall not be put to death for the sins of their sons and that sons shall not be put to death for the sins of their father. Everyone in the family knew that Achan had taken devoted goods and buried them in the tent. Apparently, no one in the family told him to get that stuff out of the house. No one thought that the sin would be discovered. No one objected. Everyone must have felt some satisfaction that they had put one over on the rest of the nation and its leaders. No one in the family took seriously the thought that God would either know, care, or have a right to an opinion. Such an attitude always invites and justifies God’s judgment.
Where is the grace and love of God?
When the lot fell to Achan, Joshua addressed him as son and invited him to glorify God. He made no accusation, and after Achan confessed, Joshua sent others to investigate. They carried out the execution only after the evidence was brought into the open. I believe everyone carried out the execution more in sorrow than in anger. Does not even Joshua’s tenderness and concern display grace? Sin was purged from the camp, and God again took his place with his people.
Many committed the sin of covetousness. One man died for them all, and God restored them all to full fellowship. Sound familiar? It is the foreshadowing of what Jesus did for all of us on Calvary. God placed the sin of the whole world on Jesus as he hung on the cross and temporarily abandoned him, but never stopped loving him. He never stopped loving Achan, either. Achan freely confessed. 1 John 1:9 gives the assurance that in that moment, God forgave Achan and cleansed him from all his unrighteousness. Surely he forgave the rest of the family, too. They suffered death as consequence of their sin, but God in his grace received them into heaven as consequence of their confession.
The death of Achan and his family reminds us not only of the enormity of sin and the implacable demands of judgment, but also that God’s love and grace are greater than all our sin. No one at the time knew of the promise of eternal life. As the stones first bruised and then crushed the life out of their bodies, surely no one was thinking of God’s grace and mercy. That came as a pleasant surprise to Achan and his family soon after they drew their last breath.
Illustration credit: public domain