Joshua 7 and the story of Achan presents us with yet another difficult story for us to think about (listen to the sermon on this chapter here). The chapter recounts how Achan stole some of the spoils of the battle of Jericho, even after God had explicitly commanded the Israelites not to do so. This disobedience causes a military defeat in Israel’s next battle, at the city of Ai. God tells Joshua about the problem that caused the defeat, and Achan is confronted and confesses his sin. As a result, a punishment is in order. “Fair enough,” we think, as there is no sin that does not have consequences – either in this life or the next. But the thing about this story is the nature of Achan’s punishment, because it doesn’t just involve him – his whole family (even his animals!) bear the consequence of Achan’s sin.
Joshua 8.24, 25: And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and this tent and all that he had…. And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones.
Although most of us would agree that sin has consequences, we read about this consequence and punishment of sin and think that it goes too far. “Really?” we think, “did they really have to stone him and his children? Did they really have to kill all his livestock and burn his tent? Why?” It’s easy to read about Achan’s fate and to think that Israel went too far in his punishment – it was too drastic, too severe, and we are tempted to accuse God of being oversensitive when it comes to sin.
But did they go too far? Is God really oversensitive when it comes to sin? Just because something doesn’t sit well with me doesn’t mean it isn’t true or right. In these instances, we need to try to set aside our own personal and cultural preferences and try to see the text as clearly as we can. With that in view, let me give you three reasons why I believe Israel responded to Achan’s sin in the way they did.
1. The consequence that Achan suffered for his disobedience is the exact consequence described in Joshua 1, when the people dedicated themselves to obedience, even under pain of death. In Joshua 1.18, speaking as a representative for the people of Israel, the leaders of Israel made this oath to Joshua: “Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death.” So in its most natural sense, Achan’s punishment was fitting for one who rebelled against Joshua’s commandment and disobeyed his words. Like it or not, this is how the Israelite culture – in this time and place – dealt with lawbreakers.
2. A second reason for such a harsh punishment is that Achan’s sin didn’t affect just him – it affected the whole nation of Israel. As a result of Achan’s sin, 36 Israelite soldiers lost their lives (v. 5), and the whole nation was prevented from continuing its conquest of the Promised Land. In other words, Achan’s sin was felt community-wide, and hindered the whole nation’s relationship with God and negatively influenced their success in taking the Promised Land. Had the Israelites left his sin unpunished, they wouldn’t have been able to continue the conquest. Had they given him a lesser punishment – which could be interpreted by the rest of the nation as limp-wristed leniency – even more people could have been tempted to sin, which would further damage the community and their process of being obedient to God and taking the land, and perhaps even cost more Israelite lives. In other words, Achan’s punishment for his sin was severe because he did more than just hurt himself – he hurt the whole nation. And his punishment was also severe in order to serve as a deterrent for others who might be tempted to similarly sin in the future.
3. But the primary reason that Achan’s punishment was appropriate is that sin is serious, and it is exceedingly heinous before a holy God. We tend to judge the seriousness of a particular sin by its perceived personal, relational, and societal impact – or in other words, by how negatively it impacts us and those in our community. But this is not how God judges the severity of sin. All sin is inexplicably offensive to a holy God. This is why even one lie is worthy of an eternity in hell (Rev. 21.8): not because it’s a necessarily bad sin, but because the one who was sinned against (God) is infinitely holy. In this sense, believe it or not, the punishment for Achan’s sin was not as bad as it could have been.
Think of it like this: if I tell a lie to my child, there is little or no consequence to me. If I tell a lie to my spouse and am caught, the consequence of my sin might be a night of sleeping on the couch, or maybe even a divorce. If I tell a lie to my boss, I could be fired. If I tell a lie to the government, I could be tried for treason and imprisoned. In each case the sin remained the same: a lie. But also in each case, the authority of the one whom I offended with my lie was greater. The greater the authority offended, the harsher the punishment. Now imagine the offense against a holy God, who is infinitely more holy and powerful than any boss, spouse, or government. Put into perspective, punishment for sin is reasonable.
Here’s an interesting question: did Achan go to heaven after his death? Even though he sinned grievously, he did confess to it. The text doesn’t tell us so, but perhaps Achan even asked forgiveness from the Lord. I think it is possible that Achan could be in heaven. But note this: even if his sin was forgiven, the consequences of his sin still needed to be served – justice needed to be satisfied. This is why it is not enough for us to simply be forgiven of our sins. The consequences of our sins must be poured out. Thankfully, God made a way for us to not suffer the consequences of our sin, but to instead inherit eternal life, by sending his Son to earth and pouring out the consequences of our sin on him instead of those who will trust in him. That’s the lesson of Achan: to show us the horrible consequences of sin, and to urge us to put our trust in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.