To this point we have studied the first six chapters of the book of Joshua. In chapters one and two we saw Joshua’s preparations for the crossing of the Jordan River. And then in chapter three we saw the actual miraculous crossing of the river.
In our application of the passage, we noted that Israel’s crossing of the Jordan is a type of the New Covenant experience of entire sanctification. As the children of Israel entered the Promised Land by means of a physical miracle, so we enter the promised land of holiness by means of a spiritual miracle. In both cases the faith was, or is, the key.
In chapter four, we saw Israel memorialize the crossing of the Jordan. Joshua summoned the twelve men who had been selected from each tribe, and instructed them each to take a large stone from the middle of the Jordan and carry it to the place of encampment, where the stones were made into a pillar as a sign, in the sense of a memorial. The pillar was to be a constant reminder of the day when God miraculously cut off the waters of the Jordan and enabled the people to cross on dry ground. Indeed the stones would prompt questions from the children, which would provide opportunities to tell the story to new generations.
In the first part of chapter five, we saw Joshua do something very significant. He took advantage of the fact that the inhabitants of the land were in great fear of Israel because of the miracle that God had worked in drying up the Jordan River bed. But instead of using that advantage to attack, Joshua used it to bring the nation back into covenant relationship with the Lord. Joshua remembered that the Lord had said, “Only be strong and courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law . . . do not turn from it to the right hand or the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go” (1:7).
In order to bring the nation back into covenant relation, Joshua had to circumcise the multitudes of men who had been born since the Exodus and get the people to begin to obey the requirements of the law. In order to do the latter, the former had to done immediately, because the time to celebrate the Passover was only four days after the people crossed the river; and the law declared of the Passover, “no uncircumcised person shall eat of it” (Ex. 12:48). So while the Canaanite nations were immobilized by fear, Joshua circumcised all of the males, and the nation celebrated the Passover together for the first time in about 40 years.
In our last essay, we took up the conquest of Jericho in 5:13-6:27. With the nation back in covenant relationship with God under the law, Joshua could turn to the task at hand. “The commander of the army of the Lord,” whom we identified with Christ himself, gave Joshua direction on how to take Jericho. Those directions were carried out and the victory won just as the Lord had said.
In this essay we take up chapter seven, which is one of the scariest stories in the Bible. Verse one informs us that during the capture of Jericho, a man named Achan had violated the ban (described in the previous essay) against the city and its contents, which was a grievous sin. Then in verse two the scene shifts to the next step in the conquest of the land; namely, to take a small town named Ai.
Spies told Joshua that Ai offered no special problem. Compared to Jericho, Ai was small; it was unfortified; and Israel had a battle-hardened army that could take it with ease. Yet as verses 3-4 tell us, when Joshua sent three thousand men to take it, the people of Ai routed them; and 36 of Israel’s war party were killed.
Shock isn’t a strong enough word to express the reaction. This was not supposed to happen. Joshua sent those people to Ai out of a feeling of invincibility. Hadn’t the Lord miraculously cut off the waters of the Jordan and felled the walls of Jericho. Who could stop Israel now? Apparently a few amateur soldiers from the little insignificant town of Ai could do it now. The question is, why?
So Joshua begins to pray, or perhaps whine would be as better term; and he gets a very specific answer in verses 6-15. The implication of Joshua’s prayer is that the Lord was somehow at fault. But the Lord replied with anger. The fault lay with Israel. The ban was violated. Someone had stolen some of the devoted things. The covenant relationship so recently restored had been broken.
So the Lord challenged Joshua. “Why have you fallen on your face?” he asked (v. 10). In other words now is not the time for prayer. Now is the time for action to discover who brought the consequences of the ban on the nation. The reason the Israelite soldiers turned their backs on their enemy was because of the sin of violating the ban. God declares that he will not help Israel any more unless the ban (NIV, “whatever among you is devoted to destruction”) is removed from the nation (v. 12); and the Lord explained to Joshua how that could be done (vv. 13-15).
The next morning Joshua followed the directions given by the Lord; and Achan was discovered to be the one who stole the items and brought the ban on the people (vv. 16-26). The discovery was made by means of the sacred lot. No one today knows exactly how they cast the lots to determine the tribe, clan, family, household and individual; but they had a set procedure that they followed. God evidently manipulated the lots, because the guilty man was found (v. 18). And once found, he confessed (v. 20).
The punishment seems harsh to many modern readers. Not only Achan, but also all of the animals he owned and his children were stoned to death. And all of his possessions were destroyed. As for the killing of the children, it can be presumed that they participated in the crime, since he hid the things in the tent, which would imply their knowledge. Moreover Deut. 24:16 clearly forbids the killing of children for their parents crimes.
But we must not lose sight of the interconnectedness of the people under the Old Covenant. Notice that the consequences of the ban didn’t come down on Achan personally until he was discovered. But the consequences came down upon the nation at Ai. The blessing of God was withdrawn from the nation because of the act of an individual and his family, and 36 men lost their lives as a result.
Turning now to application, we first want to deal with the failure at Ai. There are at least three reasons for the failure. First, was prideful overconfidence. After the taking of Jericho Israel felt invincible. They believed they could take a village like Ai with a small band of soldiers. They either believed that they didn’t need the help of the Lord, or they presumed it would be there. Either way they were wrong. In our own Christian lives, we often are vulnerable after high moments or experiences. We have a great spiritual victory, and in the flush of that victory comes the temptation of prideful over-confidence. And sometimes we fall.
The second reason for failure at Ai was lack of prayer. There is no indication whatsoever that Joshua prayed before the attack on Ai. As Alan Redpath says, “Had he prostrated himself in humility at the time when the people shouted for victory at Jericho, he would never have been humbled to the dust over the defeat at Ai. If only he had sought God’s counsel at the moment of triumph, he would have discerned immediately that there was sin in camp. Failure to pray always makes us insensitive to sin.”
As for us, if we will pray during victory, we will not have to plead in a time of defeat. Indeed as we have seen here, pleading with God at a time of defeat is a waste of time. Rather that is a time to do something about the sin. And that brings us to the third reason.
The third and obvious reason for failure at Ai was the sin itself. Notice in verse 11 that God told Joshua, “Israel has sinned.” It was an individual who stole the items, but the Lord declared that the nation had sinned. One man had fallen, but the entire nation was defeated at Ai.
Again in the case of our sins, we never affect only ourselves. Our culture says otherwise. It consistently screams that what we do is our business, and that we hurt only ourselves when we choose to do wrong. But that is a lie of the devil. Our sins always affect others. And if there is sin in the camp, it needs to be repented of and confessed so that God’s people can be pure before him. If it is our sin, our repentance and confession are in order. But no matter whose sin it is, it is unacceptable to God.