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The House of Achan’s Collective Punishment

January 5, 2012

I regret the delay, but I promise I will finish up my comments on Achan, the Gileadites, et al., today. So now I’m going to jump right into the story of Achan. What Yahweh wanted the Israelites to do to Jericho and Canaan was not just massacre for the sake of massacre. Not entirely, although Israel would get that whole city without any pesky Canaanite competition for the area’s resources. The deal was that Yahweh would get “all the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron” (Jos. 6:19, NASB) for his treasury. However, the story goes that Achan took some gold, some silver, and a cloak/garment. This is summarized at the beginning of Joshua chapter 7 as “the Israelites were unfaithful” (NIV), rather than just Achan. You may notice that I didn’t cite the same translation as before, but all Bible translations use the same sort of language (the NASB’s “sons of Israel” is just a little bizarre). This collective mindset is central to everything else that happens in this passage.

First, Joshua and company fail to receive the right inspiration, apparently, for what battle plan to choose for the defeat of the town Ai. They decide to send only three thousand warriors against a city of twelve thousand total people (Jos. 8:25). Thirty-two of the warriors are killed in battle, and perhaps more important, the rest of their warriors are pushed back from Ai. Joshua and the Israelites take this as a devastating defeat, for Yahweh is the creator of heaven and was supposed to be on their side. Yahweh then informs Joshua that nothing in his plan has changed; he is exacting collective responsibility for the violation of his command by one of the Israelites.

I can’t really blame Achan for thinking it all right to take some treasures from Jericho. What interest did he have in filling up the treasury of Yahweh? And I’m not sure about any incident that the Hebrew scriptures ascribe to the time period of Achan in which he should have become aware of the Israelite god’s far-seeing and mind-reading abilities. And, of course, Yahweh has n0 trouble pointing out the culprit. Joshua then tells Achan to “give glory to… the God of Israel” (Jos. 7:19, NASB). Doing so would not get Achan away from punishment, however, so I think this is an awkward request.

We then read that all of Achan’s possessions, along with his sons and daughters, are gathered together in the Valley of Achor (Trouble). (For some reason, I doubt his wife escaped, though.) Many excuses have been made for this collective execution, but what is fairly obvious is that this was entirely based on the idea that there was a “taint” of rebellion on Achan’s family as well as himself. In other words, Achan was the collective “head” of all of them. Today, the modern mind tends not to think in this sort of terms. Again, as with the people of Jericho, we wonder why a god couldn’t have separated the actions of the father, the elders, the leaders, the culture, etc., from the culpability of the individual. One of the more ridiculous arguments for excusing this judgment for Achan’s children is that they were somehow more likely than the other children of the Israelites to excuse Achan’s act. Never mind that they did not know about it, as far as we’re told. Never mind that the execution of Achan would have created made Achan’s children, and all others in Israel, less likely to try anything similar. And don’t forget that many people interpret the Bible as teaching everyone has an innate drive to sin.

In the following chapter, Israel goes after Ai once more, and this time has no problem taking the city. However, no miraculous victory ensues, as is told about a later battle in Joshua 10:11-14. And for some reason, all of the threatened peoples of Canaan have not yet united against this massive force of more than a million Israelites. Joshua instead uses a strategy of ambush, which I, of course, have trouble believing Ai would fall for. Perhaps the strategy was more sophisticated than told by the passage. This time Israel gets to keep “its spoil and its cattle” all for themselves (Jos. 8:2, NASB). Someone didn’t want to risk another Achan, I guess.

I hadn’t expected this post to get this long. I always say that, don’t out. Well, I shall try not to be any longer in denial of the length of my topics, but I promise I shall finish my comments on the next chapter within the next twenty-four hours.

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