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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Joshua 8:1-29 - Wiping out Ai

We saw in our last posting that Israel's defeat at Ai was due to her failure to ensure that all her members observed the command of God regarding not taking plunder-human or otherwise. This does not mean, of course, that Israel did not make other mistakes as well from a realistic military point of view. The Israeli scholar Abraham Malamat has correctly observed:

"From a realistic-military viewpoint, the 'transgression' was a breakdown in discipline at the time of the conquest of Jericho, that is, Achan's taking of loot which was under divine ban. The glory at Jericho resulted in an over-confidence which infected the Israelite command no less than the ranks; in the sphere of intelligence, this was manifest in the gross underestimation of the enemy. However, the setback at Ai had a sobering effect upon the Israelites. But Joshua seems to have been concerned less by the drop in Israelite morale than by an external factor of extreme significance: The fear of loss of image (note the indicative words attributed to Joshua in 7:8-9) led him to react swiftly with a force sufficiently large to assure an overwhelming victory" (History of Biblical Israel: Major Problems and Minor Issues [Boston: Brill, 2001] 78).

This time there would be no overconfidence and no underestimating Ai! Even the fearless and bold Joshua was afraid. Reassurance came from God:

"Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. 2 You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city" (Joshua 8:1-2).

No halfhearted measures: Even though God promised to deliver the enemy city into their hands, Joshua is commanded to "take the whole army with you." He is also to use his wits (i.e., military strategy): "Set an ambush behind the city". We moderns think of ambushes as tactics of extremely small fighting forces. In fact, for many of us the very concept comes out of movies about the Old West! Yet ambushes were often employed even by major imperial armies, such as the Hittites. Other tactics known in ancient Near Eastern military descriptions include forced night marches to permit early morning surprise attacks, and even nighttime attacks such as we see in the exploits of Gideon (Judges 7). The Bible's portrayal of military operations is perfectly in accord with what we know from sources outside the Bible and contemporary with the events of the biblical narratives.

This time God would allow the Israelite soldiers to take personal plunder from the enemy city (v. 2). "Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain" - Deut. 25:4; "The worker deserves his wages" - Luke 10:7; both verses cited in 1 Timothy 5:18 to justify the preacher's right to receive support.

The "ban" was not a permanent feature of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land: it only applied under special circumstances, of which Jericho is a prime example. Nor did wholesale burning of conquered cities apply: Jericho and Ai (v. 8) were among the few exceptions. For this reason it is irrelevant if skeptical archeologists claim no evidence for the Israelite conquest, since the kind of evidence that excavations would show would only be ash layers in the tells, whereas the biblical accounts in Joshua attest burning of only a very few cities.

Rather the norm of Israelite conquest is nicely expressed as follows:

"So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.'" (Joshua 24:13 NIV).

Israel simply took over structures already in existence!

God instructed Joshua to use an ambush, but he allowed the man to develop his own detailed plan, which we read about in verses 3-9.

You may wonder what is meant by "behind the city" (e.g., v. 14). Does a city have a front and a back? Chicago, New York, Boston, Atlanta and Knoxville may not have a front or a back, but in ancient times walled cities such as Jerusalem, Nineveh, Babylon, Troy and Hattusa, had a front, where the main gate was located, and the back was on the opposite side. The king of Ai and his troops marched out of the main gate and headed for the main body of Israelite troops in the valley to the north and east (vv. 14-17). The commando units in ambush were "behind the city" on the west side, where he could not see them!

Once the ambush forces seized and set the city on fire, the troops of Ai were caught in a pincers movement between the two Israelite bodies and were cut down by the Israelites (v. 20-23). Following God's orders, the troops took no prisoners, only delivering the King of Ai to Joshua (v. 24-29).

Ai symbolized a defeat of God's people that needed to be emphatically erased from memory. That was undoubtedly why God gave orders that no one from the city was to survive.

Sometimes we experience moral failures that not only shame ourselves, but threaten to erase our effectiveness as ministers of Christ's love to others. We need not only to ask God's forgiveness for these failures, but also take drastic and extreme steps to prevent their recurrence in our personal lives. Sometimes, if your failure involves another person, you need to make an apology to that person and share with him or her your determination never to allow this to happen again.

It is humiliating to have to admit your failures not only to God and to yourself, but also to another person. God does not ask you to share this information with persons not directly involved. But those who do know, must also know your repentence. Although this can be very humbling and embarrassing, there can also be joy that comes from such asking for forgiveness. New bonds of friendship and even of mutual prayer can arise from the ash heaps of your repentance.

This too is a gift of God's grace. This can be a Joshua moment.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Joshua 7—The Defeat at Ai and the Punishment of Achan

When at the end of chapter 5 Joshua stood before the Commander of the LORD’s army, he saw him blocking the way to Jericho with a drawn sword. Under those circumstances it was logical for Joshua to ask this person “Are you one of us or one of them?” The unspoken message of that stance and position was that what would prevent Joshua and Israel from accomplishing the conquest of the land would not be the Canaanite armies, but a failure to obey the Commander’s instructions. In chapter 6 Israel obeyed the LORD’s instructions by Joshua, and a great victory occurred. But in the aftermath of that victory the real failure occurred also. for as the Israelite soldiers entered the city of Jericho to slay the inhabitants, one of their number deliberately disobeyed the LORD’s orders not to take plunder. And immediately the seed of a terrible defeat was sown.
Joshua 7:1-5 (NIV) But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the LORD's anger burned against Israel. 2 Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, "Go up and spy out the region." So the men went up and spied out Ai. 3 When they returned to Joshua, they said, "Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there." 4 So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, 5 who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.
Verse 1 is inserted before the account of the defeat at Ai in order to explain it. Israel was defeated there because God was not with them, just as they were victorious at Jericho because God was with them.

Why was God with them at one time, and not with them at another?

God was with them at Jericho because they obeyed his instructions; he was not with them at Ai because they did not. To refer to this as “part of the Deuteronomist’s theology”, as biblical critics like to do, masks the fact that it is simply a fact of life, and should be a part of everyone's “theology”! God cannot be a partner in our sinful actions. St. Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body.” (1Corinthians 6:15-18 RSV)
Often readers assume that the reason for Israel’s defeat was simply over-confidence after their resounding victory at Jericho. Perhaps. But note that Joshua did take the trouble to send out scouts to do reconnaissance (v. 2-3). This indicates that he did not completely underestimate their foe.

The people simply assumed (wrongly so, as we know) that God would be with them as before. Overlooked sin causes any believer to wrongly assume that he is filled with the Holy Spirit and able to achieve spiritual victories. He is like the shorn Samson, unaware that the Spirit of God was no longer with him to overwhelm the Philistines (Judges 16:20), or like the Israelite armies at Ebenezer, who thought that because they had the ark of God with them, they also had God’s power to defeat the Philistine army (1 Samuel 4).

5 The loss of “about thirty-six” Israelites was not nearly as bad as the people’s total loss of morale: “At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water.” What hope would they have of inheriting the rest of the Land of Promise, if they could be put to flight so ignominiously by the men of Ai?
Joshua 7:6-9 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, "Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! 8 Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? 9 The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?
Joshua had been commissioned by God himself with the vital task of leading the people into the land to inherit what had been promised by God to Abraham. No more important task could be imagined by an ancient Israelite! And he was on the brink of utterly failing. Can you relate to that?

Even if—like Joshua—you believe that God controls everything that happens, and that defeats and calamities that befall you have a reason, there is always the problem of finding out what that reason is. How do you go about finding out? Prayer is an obvious start. This appears to have been Joshua’s first reaction. But how did Joshua pray? Look at his prayer in verses 7-9 and see what things you think were good about it and perhaps what things were in need of correction.

First of all, there is more to Joshua's prayer than the words alone. There is his posture and gestures. He lay facedown and prostrate before the ark, the symbol of God's presence with Israel. And he (and the elders) tore their clothes and scattered dust on their heads signifying both deep mourning (one did this when mourning a deceased relative), repentance, and utter desperation. for this reason perhaps we should not judge them too harshly if we miss in the words they uttered do not include a specific confession of sin.

Joshua was joined by the elders, who represent all the people. Thus, he leads the people in repentance and deep contrition for their sin.

What better way for a man to lead his people than to set the example of deep sorrow for sin and keen desire to make one’s ways right with God? When you pray with your children, do you ever let them know that you too are susceptible to spiritual failure and sin? Do they every hear you confess that failure to God? What do you think the effect of that would be upon them?

Yet Joshua is able to speak to God as Moses did, at times seemingly chiding God for foolish behavior that will only backfire upon his own reputation.

In v. 7 his discouragement and near despair expresses itself in the most radical terms possible: regretting ever crossing the Jordan by that spectacular miracle! Discouragement is a normal experience for a Christian. But despair should be seen as a denial of God’s love, mercy and grace. Still, I think that what we see in these words of Joshua is the keen perception that there is something contradictory about being brought into the land so miraculously, and yet failing miserably to follow up. Not a contradiction on God's part, but on Israel's. When we accept so glibly our own failures, despite all that Christ has done for us, not only in forgiving our sins, but in giving us the powerful Holy Spirit to live within us, empowering us for victorious, godly living — when we just brush off casually our sins with an "Oh well! We're all weak", we fail to see the terrible contradiction that Joshua so perceptibly saw!

But in the midst of his overwhelming sadness and discouragement about the fate of his people, can you see what Joshua’s main concern was? (v. 9)

“What will you do about your great name?” he asks. God’s very honor was at stake. God’s honor, as Joshua puts it here, was tied inextricably to the fate of Israel. When Israel flourished and was godly, God’s honor was magnified among the nations. If Israel failed or was destroyed,God was totally discredited. How is God’s honor affected by your life and mine? Do we not also bear His name?
Joshua 7:10-15 The LORD said to Joshua, "Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.
13 "Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, 'Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them.
14 " 'In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe that the LORD chooses shall come forward clan by clan; the clan that the LORD chooses shall come forward family by family; and the family that the LORD chooses shall come forward man by man. 15 Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!' "
God doesn’t reproach Joshua for some of the things we saw might have been wrong about his attitude and his prayer. Furthermore, although Joshua never in so many words directly asked God to tell him what their sin had been or how to deal with it, God tells him anyway! Isn’t it encouraging, that even when we are so foolish as to not even ask for what we need, God graciously will assume that we did and will answer the requests never made? Maybe this is what is meant by St. Paul’s claim in Romans 8, where he writes: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will” (Romans 8:26-27).

God’s reply here educates Joshua: it was not God’s failure, but Israel’s that brought this defeat upon them. Furthermore, notice that God does not say here that Achan has sinned, but the whole people of Israel. There was a corporate responsible on the part of the people of God to identify and punish offenders within their ranks.

This theological concept can be seen operating in other parts of the Bible, for example, with Jonah on the ship to Tarshish (Jonah 1:1-16). furthermore, it was not unique to ancient Israel: other peoples (and I think here principally of the ancient Greeks and Hittites) believed that a household, village or city that harbored (even unknowingly) one guilty of sacrilege would suffer punishment sent upon the whole populace by the offended god. This principle was part of the way the True God operated in both ancient Israel and the earliest Church.

But here at Ai it was not too late for Israel to act to rectify the situation. There was still hope to turn things around. But drastic measures were necessary: the offender must be identified and punished by the entire people.

God turns Joshua's remark "What will you do about your great name?" into "What will you do about obeying my instructions?"
Joshua 7:16-26 Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. 17 The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. 18 Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen. 19 Then Joshua said to Achan, "My son, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me." 20 Achan replied, "It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath." 22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. 23 They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the LORD. 24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, "Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today." Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since.
Richard Hess in his excellent commentary of the Book of Joshua (Joshua, 144) thinks the listing of a four-generation genealogy to Achan was to make a theological point: that his sin was merely the culmination of the sins of these generations of Israelites.

Perhaps. But I am inclined to believe that real reason was much simpler: it anticipates the methodical narrowing of the range of possible culprits used in discovering the guilty party in Josh 7:16-18. Achan was descended from Zerah, twin brother of Perez, sons of Judah by his widowed daughter-in-law, whose birth is described in Gen 38:27-30.

16-18 The method of discovering the offender was a kind of sacred lot, which step-by-step identified
  • first the tribe,
  • then the clan,
  • then the sub-clan,
  • then the family, and
  • finally the individual responsible.
Once Achan was revealed as the guilty party, he was given the chance to confess. But when did he come forward? Actually, he never came forward: only after he was caught was he given a chance to make a clean breast of what he had done! In legal terms (my source is Law and Order!!) what he did was “allocute”.

What good did it do after he was caught?
  • For one thing, by confessing he was able to identify the place where the stolen plunder was hidden, and it could be restored to God.
  • When the hiding place of the contraband was found, it would prove to the people that the sacred lot, guided by God’s invisible hand, had identified the right person as the culprit.
25-26 The capital punishment was preceded by the charge—he had brought calamity upon the entire nation—and then was carried out by representatives of the entire nation. The method was by stoning, which was always reserved for the most serious religious offences. The combustible items he had stolen (the Babylonian cloak) were burned. And a mound of stones was heaped over his and his family’s bodies, which marked their place of dishonorable burial.

Abraham Malamat is wrong to doubt the historicity of the sin by Achan and its use as an explanation for the defeat at Ai, but in a sense he is right when he writes:
“From a realistic-military viewpoint, the 'transgression' was a breakdown in discipline at the time of the conquest of Jericho, that is, Achan's taking of loot which was under divine ban. The glory at Jericho resulted in an over-confidence which infected the Israelite command no less than the ranks; in the sphere of intelligence, this was manifest in the gross underestimation of the enemy. However, the setback at Ai had a sobering effect upon the Israelites. But Joshua seems to have been concerned less by the drop in Israelite morale than by an external factor of extreme significance: The fear of loss of image (note the indicative words attributed to Joshua in 7:8-9) led him to react swiftly with a force sufficiently large to assure an overwhelming victory” (Malamat, 78).
A sad ending for Achan and his family, but a promising turning point for Joshua and Israel. Confession and punishment are never pleasant, but restored fellowship with God is like water on the tongue of a man dying of thirst!

The sin of Achan was violating the so-called "ban" (Hebrew ḥerem). In practical terms this amounted to stealing part of the plunder of Jericho, which had been consecrated to God and therefore belonged to him. Like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, Achan stole from God by holding back what was vowed to God (or in A. and S.’s case, to God’s people (see my commentary of the Acts 5 incident here).

Thus, when the text says “the Israelites violated the ban”, and therefore were punished by their defeat at the hands of the men of Ai, it refers to their responsibility to detect and punish covenant breaking in their midst by members of their community. Some have called this “corporate sin” or “corporate responsibility”. Once the Israelites identified and executed the offender, God’s anger against them subsided (Josh 7:26).

There is no hint in the Acts 5 account of Ananias and Sapphira that God would have punished the early church in Jerusalem, if they had not judged Ananias and his wife. But we do not know what might have happened, if Peter had not acted promptly. At the very least, the Jerusalem church would have been weakened spiritually, because of its allowing members with known sins to go unreproved and unjudged.

Israel’s sin is described in 7:1 as breaking faith with God (Hebr. ‏מַעַל ma'al). The NIV Study Bible Notes make an excellent point about the juxtaposition of the stories of Rahab and Achan:
“The tragic story of Achan … stands in sharp contrast to the story of Rahab. In the earlier event a Canaanite prostitute, because of her courageous allegiance to Israel and her acknowledgment of the Lord, was spared and received into Israel. She abandoned Canaan and its gods on account of the Lord and Israel, and so received Canaan back. In the present event an Israelite (of the tribe of Judah, no less), because of his disloyalty to the Lord and Israel, is executed as the Canaanites were. He stole the riches of Canaan from the Lord, and so lost his inheritance in the promised land.”
Over Achan’s body we raise the following epitaph, taken from the words of Jesus:
"What good is it for a man to gain the whole world,
yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36)