Achan’s sin and the judgment and grace of God

Stoning of Achan

The stoning of Achan, Mid-fifteenth-century Flemish miniature

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 exemplified 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?

Achan and family stoned

Achan & his family stoned to death, Maciejowski Bible, 13th c.

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.

Punishment of the innocent with the guilty is injustice at its worst.

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.

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. He temporarily abandoned Jesus, 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.



Achan’s sin and the judgment and grace of God — 6 Comments

  1. I see 1 John 1 :9 has been mentioned in connection with confession of sin. This is correct for the unbeliever at the time on salvation but not for the believer.

    This is write up I posted on another blog.

    1 John 1:9 has become the Christian’s bar of soap but very few have actually studied the verses before and after (as we should always do) to put the verse into context as well as who was the writer writing to and what was the background.

    If you apply the antithesis rule to the verse, you will see it is obviously not for Christians. If we DO NOT confess our sins, He is NOT faithful and just to FORGIVE our sins and to CLEANSE us from all UNRIGHTEOUSNESS”. All our sins HAVE been forgiven past, present and future. As Christians we cannot ask Jesus Christ to do something He has ALREADY done. Read Hebrews.

    John was writing a letter to the elders/pastors who had mixed congregations of saved and lost. There were Gnostics who believed that Jesus hadn’t come in the flesh and that they were without sin – John was correcting them – 1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; then he explained in 1 John 1:8 about their wrong belief of having no sin… If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth (Jesus) is not in us. He then explained in 1 John 1:9 how to get saved. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

    John writes in 1 John 4:2-3 about the Gnostics… 2. Hereby know you the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3. And every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof you have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.

    We often hear terms like, parental, positional, experiential, familial or judicial, when discussing forgiveness and breaking of fellowship with God when we sin. This is a man made teaching and is nowhere to be found in Scripture. 1 Cor. 1:9 (fancy that) says we have been brought into fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. We are brought into fellowship when we get saved – never to be broken. Salvation = fellowship and vice versa. You cannot lose fellowship – in order to do that you would have to become “unsaved” which is impossible.

    Of course a Christian must acknowledge when he has sinned and agree with God that his actions are wrong but nowhere in Scripture is the believer told to confess his sins to God for forgiveness of sins or to restore fellowship. How can we, by our actions make ourselves more acceptable to God? That’s works. We didn’t WORK to get our salvation and we can’t WORK to keep it.

    Hebrews 10:17… “And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more”. If God remembers our sins no more, how can we confess our sins to Him. This Scripture also proves the wrong teaching of the Holy Spirit convicts Christians of their sins. How can He when He remembers them no more? John 16:8 And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:9 Of sin, because they believe not on me;10 Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more;11 Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.
    The Holy Spirit convicts Christians of their righteousness – pointing out that they are righteous – no “finger wagging” or condemnation.
    The teaching that 1 John 1:9 is for Christians, keeps Christians in a state of confusion and does not allow them to enter into the rest.
    What do they do about the sins they have forgotten about and don’t confess? If they go to bed and die, how can they go to heaven as God will not allow sin in heaven? They live in a constant state of worry – I used to do that. I would start my prayer time with “Lord, please forgive me of the sins I’ve committed knowingly and unknowingly.” That’s just not Scriptural. The Lord HAS forgiven our sins. Thinking like this is not believing in the finished work of the cross.

    What I have found when sharing this with Christians is that they put forward all sorts of arguments/points, none of which are based on Scripture and reduce God to a human level with statements like…….”It’s like when a son sins against his father – the relationship hasn’t been affected but the fellowship has”. 1 Cor 1:9 takes care of this thinking.

    I hope this will help some Christians out there like it helped me.

    In Him,

    Norman Silva.

    • i”m not sure I understand your point. It’s hard to imagine that any scripture in the New Testament does not apply to Christians! I have not studied formal logic. The antithesis to 1 John 1:9 is absurd, as you point out. But does that falsify the verse or interpretation of the verse?

      It’s certainly true that salvation comes as a gift by grace and not as a result of doing works of the law. No one earns salvation. But are you saying that praying for forgiveness is a work? It’s part of the prayer that Jesus himself taught!

    • Thanks for your comment. I didn’t actually call Achan a type of Christ. I do know that the only people the Old Testament who can be called a type of Christ are sinners. As far as calling the significance of Achan’s death a foreshadowing of the significance of Jesus’ death, I don’t see that as pushing the interpretation too far at all. It’s not like I’m equating them. The grace shown to and through Achan is a glimmer of the same grace shown through Jesus in all its full glory.

  2. I am concerned by the information potraid in this document as fact when most of it is infact the writers own opinion which can not be qualified what so ever by the content of joshua 7 or any other material used as reference. While it is true that there is obviously serious lessons to be learnt by us as Christian from this scripture there is no where where it says that the rest of the israelites where punished for their own sin not achan’s sin. There is no where where it points out that the other israelite where also covertous or that they did this or that to anger god. On the contrary the scripture categorically points out that god’s anger was kindled because of achan’s action.

    • Achan’s sin was overt. Of course Scripture would specify that God acted against Israel because of it. Covetousness is a covert, hidden sin that people cannot notice. Why should Scripture point out covert sins? As I said, if we know our own hearts, we should recognize opportunity for covert sin when we see it.

      If you want a scriptural basis for seeing that others besides Achan were covetous, look at how Jesus expanded on the Ten Commandments. Lust is the moral equivalent of adultery. Anger of a sort is the moral equivalent of murder. Why on the same principle would covetousness not be the moral equivalent of stealing?

      I do not say that the rest of the Israelites were punished for their own sin. I say that it was just for God to punish them for Achan’s sin. I say it’s by grace that he commanded execution only for the one man who acted on covetousness and overtly stole.

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