Sin in the Camp

Joshua 7

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2019

Today, we come to one of the most important passages in the Bible on how to deal with sin.  It is very practical.  Joshua 7 is also a difficult chapter for some. It is all about a man named Achan and it raises all kinds of questions. Who was Achan?  What exactly does Achan do that was wrong?  Why was he put to death for it?  Why is he punished by death?

This is the story about a thief in Israel, but stealing was not a capital crime in the OT, so why is Achan executed.  Why didn’t he receive any grace?  If God is love, why was he put to death?  He confessed his sin and he was still put to death.

Why is his family put to death along with him?  The OT explicitly said that the faith was NOT to be put to death for the sin of the son and the son was NOT to be put to death for the sin of the father (Deuteronomy 24:16).  Why are the innocent children killed with Achan?

Why does God punish the whole nation for the sin of one man?  Achan was the one who committed the crime and yet God says to Joshua, “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.” (Joshua 7:11).

Why was all Israel held accountable for what Achan did? What exactly is going on in this chapter?   To understand it, you have to compare it to the previous chapter in the book.  Joshua 7 must be compared to Joshua 6.  They are radically different.  It is a good picture of the Christian life.

In Joshua 6, God’s people were obedient and were successful.  They marched around the city walls just like God told them to do and blew trumpets.  In Joshua 7, they were disobedient and not successful.  That describes us.  Sometimes we are obedient and in the will of God and sometimes we are out of the will of God and disobedient.

In Joshua 6, the Jews saw an incredible miracle.  Tall walls crumbled to the ground supernaturally.  They experienced blessing.  God was with them.

In Joshua 7, they experienced, not blessing but judgment.  God was not working for them.  He was not with them.  God withheld His blessings and said that He is not going to be with them anymore. Sometimes we experience blessing.  Sometimes we see god work in our life and sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we experience judgment.  Many Christians, and some churches, have lost their power because there is sin in the camp.  God withdraws his power and presence because of sin.

In Joshua 6, The Israelites experienced a great victory over the city of Jericho.  In Joshua 7, they experience a terrible defeat over the city of Ai.  Joshua loses in battle.  He suffers a military defeat.  They went from a spiritual high to a spiritual low.   Joshua 7 describes one of Israel’s darkest hours.

They beat the big city and then lose to a small village. They were not defeated because of someone on the outside.  They were defeated because of someone on the inside.  Sometimes we experience victory in our lives and sometimes we experience defeat.

Joshua 7 begins with the word BUT.  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. (Joshua 7:1 NIV)

To really understand what is going on here, you have to go back to Joshua 6.  God made a covenant with Israel.  They rededicated themselves to that covenant.  God performed an incredible miracle for the Jews in Jericho but He also gave explicit instructions for the city.  The first city they conquered was to go to God.

First things go to God.  They were not to take anything from the city for themselves.  Now, they could do that in other cities but not Jericho.  They could take things from Ai but not from Jericho.  Everything there was untouchable. It was consecrated.  God warned about this in Joshua 6 and even warned what would happen if they did it.

But you, keep yourselves FROM the things devoted to destruction, LEST when you have devoted them you take ANY of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it (Joshua 6:18 NIV)

Who Was Achan?

One soldier disobeyed those instructions.  His name was Achan.  Achan was not a pagan.  He was not a Canaanite.  He was an Israelite.  He was Achan ben Karmi ben Zimri ben Zerah (Joshua 7:18).  He was part of the people of God.  He was part of the Chosen People.

He came from one of the most prominent families in Israel.  He had a good lineage.  He was from the tribe of Judah.  Kings were selected from this tribe.  Judah was the Messianic tribe. Jesus came from the Tribe of Judah. Jesus was a descendant of Judah through his son Perez (Matthew 1:3).  Achan was a descendant of Judah’s other son through Tamar.  He was a descendant of Zerah (Joshua 7;1; Genesis 38:30)

Achan was a man who witnessed incredible miracles.  He witnessed the parting of the Jordan River.  He witnessed the walls of Jericho supernaturally fall.  He knew who God was and saw Him work first hand in the life of the nation.  He was recently circumcised and rededicated himself to the Abrahamic Covenant.

If Achan can sin like this, anyone can sin, even if you are from a prominent religious family.  Even if you are baptized and attend church, you can sin.  Even if you are a deacon or elder, you can fall into sin.  Even if you are a missionary, you can fall into sin.  Even if you are a pastor, you can fall into sin and that includes a famous pastor or a celebrity pastor.  Even if you are an Apostle, you can fall into sin.

It is surprising that more people did not sin but apparently only one person in two million disobeyed this command and the Bible says that God got angry.

Some say that God doesn’t get angry with people but Joshua 7:1 says, “So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel” (NIV).  Joyce Meyer wrote a book entitled God is Not Mad at You.  Some think that God does not get mad.  Some think that He does not get angry but in Joshua 7 we learn that God has anger.  He not only has anger, but his anger was kindled against people.

The shocking thing is that God was not angry with the Canaanites.  He was angry with the Israelites.  He is angry with God’s people.  Many think that God only judges unbelievers.  He doesn’t.  God can judge believers. He even take the life of some of them occasion.  You say, “God used to do that but He doesn’t do it anymore.”  That is not true.  The NT speaks of a “sin unto death” today (I John 5:16).

If you read your Bible, you will know this happens in the OT and in the NT.  Someone drops dead the beginning of the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 7) and at the beginning of the church in the NT (Acts 5).  Both committed the same sin.  Both lost their lives over financial sins. The death of Achan was a warning to Israel and the death of Ananias and Saphira brought fear on the church (Acts 5:11).  God judges believers.  Sometimes He judges them severely.

Why was He angry with all of the nation and not just with Achan?  Does God punish the innocent with the guilty?  Proverb 17:15 says that God detests or hates people who acquit the guilty and condemn the innocent.

Ben Franklin said that it is better to let one hundred guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person.  God says it is wrong to do both.  We have done both in court cases.  Lots of juries have let the guilty go free (e.g., OJ)

If God hates it, why is He punishing the nation for the sin of one man?  Sometimes a whole group is affected by the sin of one person.  If a person in a church is living in open sin and the church tolerate it and allows it, the church is affected.

In this case, the group did not even know about the sin of Achan.  It was a secret sin.  It was a private sin.  No one knew about it, except his family.  His friends talked across his floor and had no idea what was under it.

Achan was part of a group of people.  He was part of a nation.  God’s covenant was with the whole nation. It wasn’t just with one man.  We think that our sin only affects us.  Achan was the one who sinned but his sin not only affected him, it affected his family.  It affected the whole nation.

Achan’s Six Sins

What sin did Achan commit?  Most do not really understand what he did.  Most think his sin was just stealing.  That is part of what he did but not the entire thing.  He actually committed six sins.  As we look at the sins of Achan, ask yourself if you have ever done any of these things.

1. His first sin was REBELLION

He disobeyed God’s command.  Achan was a rebel.  He deliberately disobeyed a clear command.  His first sin was REBELLION.  People still do that today.  Christians do that today.  There is a clear command in Scripture about something, but it seems to have absolutely no affect on some Christians.  They know that it is wrong to marry an unbeliever but they do it anyway.

It is wrong to live with someone before marriage.  Many know that the Bible teaches but do it anyway.  Do you disobey clear commands of Scripture?  Is there anything that you know God says in His Word, but you say, “I am not going to do it?”

2. His second sin was THEFT

He stole something.  What did he steal?  He stole three things.  He stole a beautiful robe, a gold bar and lots of silver (Joshua 7:21).  Achan did not simply take some things that did not belong to him. This would have been bad in itself. He stole what was “dedicated to God.”

He stole from God.  This was not just stealing.  it was sacrilege.  The gold and silver were supposed to go in the treasury of the Lord.  It was supposed to go to God.  Do you steal from God?  The Book of Malachi says that it is still possible to do that today.

3. Achan’s third sin was GREED

He was covetous. Achan said, “I saw; I coveted; I took” (Joshua 7:21).  He saw something that was not his and wanted it.  He craved it, had to have it and took it.  Have you ever done that?  On top of that he craved and wanted something that was specifically forbidden.

The irony is that what he stole in Jericho, God would have freely given him at Ai.  If he could have just waited (cf. Joshua 8:2), he could have taken some things.  He stole what God would have given him.

4. Achan’s fourth sin was IDOLATRY.

Achan put these things above God and above what God said.  Paul said in the NT that covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).  Achan not only broke the Eighth Commandment, he broke the First Commandment.  Do you put God first or are there other things that come before God in your life?

5. Achan’s fifth sin was UNBELIEF

Apparently, he did not believe what God said.  God warned what would happen if anyone took the devoted things but he thought he could get away with it and not get caught.  He tried to cover it up and hide his sin, so no one finds out about it. Numbers 32:23 says, “you may be sure that your sin will find you out” (NIV)

6. Achan’s sixth sin was SELFISHNESS

Achan’s sin led to the death of thirty-six men.  It hurt the nation.  It hurt his family.  He did not seem too concerned about who was hurt as long as he got that he wanted.

Achan and Rahab

Two people who are often contrasted are Achan and Rahab.  Achan was the polar opposite of Rahab.  Rahab was a Canaanite.  Achan was an Israelite.  Rahab  was an outsider.  Achan was an insider.  Rahab demonstrated her faith through actions.  Achan demonstrated his unbelief through actions.

Both hid some things.  Rahab hid the spies on her roof.  Achan hid the spoils under his floor.  Achan lost his inheritance. He lost everything he had.

Achan got his whole family in trouble.  Rahab saved her whole family. Rahab gained an inheritance.  In fact, Rabab marries into the Tribe of Judah, the very tribe that Achan was from.

Historical Background

In this chapter, Achan sins but no one knows about it.  The Israelites go off to battle and they lose.  This was the first major sin in the land and the first military defeat for Israel. Joshua sent men to spy out the region (Joshua 7:2).  Men were sent to spy out Ai like they were sent to spy of Jericho

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. (Joshua 7:3-5 NIV)

The spies come back with a good report.  They are not like the twelve spies to went into Canaan and came back with a bad report.  They came back with a good report.  They just defeated the city of Jericho.  Israel was on a roll.  They thought they were unstoppable.  They thought they were invincible.  They are upbeat.

They are positive.  They are optimistic.  They had faith.  They believed that they could win but they lost.   No matter how much faith they had, it wouldn’t matter. They still would have lost, because there was sin in the camp.  Joshua 6 shows the POWER of faith.  Joshua 7 shows the LIMITATION of faith.

Israel is defeated.  Thirty-six men die.  They were shot in the back as they ran out of the city.  The nation is terrified.  At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water (Joshua 7:5).  Instead of the Canaanites melting in fear over the Israelites (Joshua 2:11), the tables are now turned, and the Israelites are melting in fear over the Canaanites.

Joshua is devastated.  He humbles himself, falls on his knees and prays for hours.  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. (Joshua 7:6 NIV)

There is no mention of him praying before battle, but he does pray after the battle is over and God says something amazing to him.

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. (Joshua 7:11-12 NIV)

This is interesting.  Joshua blamed God for what happened.  God blamed Israel.  He said, “Don’t blame me.  Israel has sinned.”  How many times have we blamed God for something in our life that is our own fault?  Then He says something you would never expect Him to say.

God rebukes Joshua for praying.  He says, “Get off your face. Get up.”  We are to pray without ceasing.  Is there ever a wrong time to pray?  If you are having an affair with someone and a brother or sister confronts you about it, you don’t need to pray about it.  You just need to obey.

Apparently, God takes sin very seriously and the person who committed this sin was to die but there had to be proof of the crime.  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!’” (Joshua 7:15 NIV)

God does not tell Joshua who the culprit is.  He is identified by lots (by tribes, by families, by households and by individuals).  We do not discover the will of God through lots.  We do not establish guilt through casting of lots but that is what God used in this case to identify Achan and when he is identified, Joshua confronts him.

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.” (Joshua 7:19 NIV)

Achan’s Confession

Joshua confronts Achan and he makes a confession. Was his confession genuine?  Many people make a confession but are not sincere.  Let’s look at the good and the bad here.

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.” (Joshua 7:20-21 NIV)

Achan doesn’t hide what he did.  He admits it.  He says, “I have sinned.”  He said the right words.  Some never do that.  When Achan was chosen by lot, he could have protested.  He could have said, “You have the wrong man.”  He didn’t do that.

However, not everyone who says the words, “I have sinned” genuinely repented.  Pharaoh said, “I have sinned” (Ex. 9:27; 10:16).  Judas said, “I have sinned” (Matt. 27:4). Balaam said, “I have sinned” (Numbers 22:34).  King Saul said, “I have sinned” (I Samuel 15:24, 30) but there is no evidence that any of them have real repentance.

All kinds of people confess to a crime only because they are caught or because they want to plea bargain and get a lighter sentence, not because they feel really bad for what they did. He confesses when it is impossible to hide and he cannot deny it anymore.  This is the Bill Clinton confession almost twenty years ago.  He confessed to an affair in 1998 only when he was caught.

If you notice, Achan tells what he did, why he did it and where the items are but there is one thing missing from his confession.  He shows complete honesty but there is absolutely no remorse.  There is no regret.  The doesn’t apologize for the action or the affect it caused on the nation.  All that he says are the words “I have sinned” but it was too late.

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.

Achan’s Punishment

What was Achan’s punishment?  He was executed.  How was he killed?  He was stoned to death (Joshua 7:25).  He dies a violent death just like the citizens of Jericho.  Fire was also used in that judgment.  Achan dies like a Canaanite.  Achan was not just put to death.

He experienced a painful death.  It was bloody.  It involved torture.  That doesn’t sound too humane.  It doesn’t sound like they were too concerned about the man’s feelings.  Stoning was the method of capital punishment in the Law of Moses.

Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death. (Leviticus 24:16 NIV)

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21 NIV)

It sounds a little barbaric by today’s standards. The ACLU would call this cruel and unusual punishment. Today, when a serial rapist or mass murderer dies, we do everything we can and bend over backwards to make sure that the most hardened criminal on death row not suffer at all when they die.

How does this chapter apply to us today?  Are we to stone people today and burn them with fire?  No.  We are not under the Law of Moses but the concept of capital punishment, especially for murder is biblical.  It was biblical long before the time of Moses and is even repeated in the NT.

Practical Applications

1) We need to take sin seriously.

We need to realize what affect it has on our lives. Our sin also affects other people.  It does not just affect us.  It also affects our relationship to God.  Sin blocks our blessing.  We cannot see God work in our life and perform miracles when we are living in open sin.   This chapter also shows that we cannot hide sin.

It shows that God judges sin.  He judges everyone who sins: believers and unbelievers.  God does not have a double standard: one for Jews and a different one for Canaanites.  He does not discriminate.

If a Canaanite prostitute repents and believes, that person is included in Israel.  If one, even from the royal tribe, is disobedient to the clearly expressed will of God, that person is judged and judged severely.  We do not want God’s anger kindled against us.

2) The church today must judge sin

This chapter is all about sin in the camp.  What about sin in the church? The church is to judge sin. Paul said, What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (I Corinthians 5:12-13 NIV)

The church is not to execute people and put them under a pile of stones but it is the job of the church to judge sin.  If a church does not judge sin in its midst, God will judge that church.  We have churches today that tolerate sin.  They tolerate all kinds of sins (premarital sex, homosexuality).

Few churches today even exercise church discipline.   What happens if there is an Achan in the church?  The sad fact is that almost no church today would exercise church discipline today for Achan’s sin, as Alexander MacLaren pointed out.[1]  The modern church would never excommunicate anyone for greed.

Paul said, “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” (I Corinthians 5:11)


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