“Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come a-tumblin’ down.” Then he and his people sinned. The next part of the story didn’t go as well for them. Joshua decided to attack the small town of Ai next. They chased his warriors out of town and killed some of them. What happened?
Most obviously, someone named Achan took some of the spoils and hid them in his tent. God didn’t appear to Joshua and tell him what had happened and what he thought about it. He hardly ever does.
I have written previously about Achan’s sin, how God revealed it to the people, and how they had to carry out his gracious judgment. But less obviously, Joshua sinned, too.
Joshua’s sin after Jericho
Joshua decided to attack the town of Ai. There were three roads out of Jericho. One went to Jerusalem, which was heavily fortified. Ai was the more strategic location along the other two roads. He sent spies, who reported that Ai was small and easy to defeat.
Now there’s something wrong with this picture that I never noticed until I had read and studied the account in Joshua 7 for years. Joshua has a reputation as the humble follower of the Lord. He had meekly served Moses most of his adult life. He had taken up his position as leader of Israel with some trepidation and gained a great victory at Jericho chiefly by doing exactly what God told him to and nothing else.
But then he followed up that victory by choosing the next target himself, sending out spies, and acting on their advice without ever praying. I believe that if Joshua had prayed, God would have revealed the sin in the camp then and there. But Joshua neglected to seek God before he made his plans.
On the advice of his spies, Joshua sent 3,000 men. I don’t know if it would have been enough to defeat Ai in a fair fight or not. But in human terms, it isn’t exactly a fair fight when God actively takes sides. The men of Ai killed 36 Israelites and made the rest run away. Only after this humiliating and unexpected defeat did Joshua decide to pray, and a pathetic prayer it was.
He groveled. He asked why God had brought Israel across the Jordan so the Amorites could wipe them out. That sounds just like what his own generation of Israel had continuously asked Moses. He knew very well that he and Caleb alone survived from that generation precisely because of what their whining and sniveling had brought them to. Surely Joshua knew that God had led Israel out of Egypt to give them the land of Canaan. Surely he knew that they would have been celebrating 40 years in the land if the rest of his generation had been as faithful as he.
God had not had Joshua lead the people across the Jordan so that the Canaanites could destroy them. He sent Israel into the land to destroy the Canaanites.
God told Joshua to stand up and demanded to know why he was on his face. As Joshua obeyed and stood, God told him about Israelites taking devoted things from Jericho.
We have a saying in this country that to the victor belongs the spoils. The concept is thousands of years older. In the ancient Middle East, whoever won a battle for control of a town got to plunder all of its wealth.
God’s law required that he receive the first fruits of everything. Since Jericho was the first town that Israel would conquer west of the Jordan, all the plunder belonged to God and no one among the Israelites could keep any of it.
Everyone understood that before they walked that first lap around the walls. After all, God was the only victor in that battle. The Israelites did nothing but march silently around the walls a few times, then shout on cue. The walls collapsed, and the warriors went in and killed the mainly unarmed residents.
The reward of repentance
Once the people had been forced to confront Achan and punish him, God ratified Joshua’s choice of Ai as the next target and gave him a plan for defeating it.
When night fell, Joshua sent 30,000 men to set an ambush behind the city. He himself led a band of fighters a little larger than the previous force to attack the city.
The King of Ai saw Joshua’s group and went out to chase them away as before. Joshua pretended to turn and flee, so the king called all of the rest of the fighting men from the town to finish them off.
That’s when Joshua’s band turned, stiffened, and began to fight. When Joshua gave the signal, the large ambush team fell upon the defenseless town and set it on fire. Then his men easily killed the town’s fighting men and king.
Sin matters. We find it easy and convenient to forget, but sin matters. God never again ordered the public stoning of an entire family for the sin of one of them.
In the New Testament a man and his wife separately lied about an offering and separately dropped dead as soon as they had done so. That, too, happened only once in all of Scripture.
When God makes a new beginning, the consequences of sin befall more suddenly and more quickly than usual, but let us not neglect to notice all of the things that happened in this story that are strictly business as usual.
- God withdraws from sinful people. Not only does he stop helping them, he actively opposes them.
- When people pray, God speaks back and reveals his truth. Joshua was listening. If God speaks to someone who is not listening, he has still spoken and revealed the truth. Speaking into human hearts is God’s work; receiving and acknowledging it is ours.
- Confession of sin restores fellowship with God, but does not necessarily prevent or soften the consequences of the sin.
- It is much easier to accomplish our goals if they are the same as God’s goals than if they’re only our own.
- We can more easily accomplish our goals if we are in fellowship with God and hearing what he reveals than if we are either out of fellowship or not paying attention.
- It is much easier to accomplish goals with God’s active help, which sin cuts off.
When the Bible records sin, it’s easy to trace the consequences. When you and I sin, God will probably not carry out his response to it in public. Without careful soul searching, we may never even connect bad outcomes with particular sins.
But however easy or difficult it is for us to identify sin and its consequences, we can be sure that we will more easily discern the results when we truly and earnestly repent.