Notes on Joshua 7:1-15
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Jos 7:1, KJV But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against the children of Israel.
As incredible as this sounds, the LORD had spoken by Joshua that anyone who took anything from the “accursed things” would bring trouble on not just himself but all Israel (Joshua 6:18). This disobedience brought disaster soon enough.
2 And Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which (is) beside Bethaven, on the east side of Bethel, and spake unto them, saying, Go up and view the country. And the men went up and viewed Ai.
Joshua used the same strategy for Ai as he had done at Jericho. Here, we are not told how many spies were sent to view Ai and the country.
Bethel was mentioned several times in the Old Testament. These are a few examples: Abraham had stopped at Bethel before his journey to Egypt (Genesis 12). Jacob had stopped at Bethel on his way to Laban’s territory (Genesis 28) and later led his extended family in a re-dedication to the Lord (Genesis 35). Bethel was one of the places where Samuel ministered to the people of Israel (1 Sam 2:16) and may have established a type of seminary for the “sons of the prophets”, which was still in existence during Elisha’s time, many years later (2 Kings 2:3). Sadly, Bethel was also one of the places where Jeroboam set up one of the golden calves as an object of worship—the northern tribes never completely repented of that sin (see 1 Kings 13). Jeroboam himself experienced a three-fold miracle at the word of a prophet of the True God, also in 1 Kings 13.
Bethaven was on the east side of Bethel and is only mentioned a few times in the Old Testament, not at all in the New Testament.
3 And they returned to Joshua, and said unto him, Let not all the people go up; but let about two or three thousand men go up and smite Ai; (and) make not all the people to labour thither; for they (are but) few.
Ai was apparently not the same size as Jericho. God had told Joshua to send all the soldiers, but here, the spies suggested a much smaller group. The spies failed in one significant area, namely that they didn’t mention making an inquiry of the Lord about this report.
4A: So there went up thither of the people about three thousand men:
They did not inquire of the Lord about this.
4B And they fled before the men of Ai.
The Israelites were not expecting a defeat. Yet, because of two things—sin in the camp (as will be described later) and being presumptuous—in a word, failing to follow or even seek the will of God in this campaign, the men of Ai defeated the army of Israel.
5 And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty and six men: for they chased them (from) before the gate (even) unto Shebarim, and smote them in the going down: wherefore the hearts of the people melted, and became as water.
The men of Ai killed 36 Israelite soldiers. These were the first recorded casualties in the campaign to conquer the Promised Land. The “going down” may refer to Ai perhaps being elevated or on a hilltop. The men of Ai would be going downhill, using gravity and their own knowledge of the land to defeat the Israelites in this first battle of Ai.
Note the comparison, where the hearts of the Israelite people melted—the exact same words used by Rahab in Joshua 2:11.
6 And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the LORD until the eventide, he and the elders of Israel, and put dust upon their heads.
These were signs of grief. We are not told when, as in the time of day, the word came to Joshua about the defeat at Ai (he apparently had not himself gone to the battle) but they-he and the elders-spent a good portion of the day in mourning and grief over the losses.
7 And Joshua said, Alas, O Lord GOD, wherefore hast thou at all brought this people over Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us? would to God we had been content, and dwelt on the other side Jordan!
Joshua is speaking out of distress and grief. Amazingly, he
seems to be blaming God for the troubles which Israel had just endured. It is true that at least some of the eastern (“other”) side of Jordan was good for livestock. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, plus half of Manasseh, chose to live there and gave this as the reason why. God, however, had promised the land of Canaan—the west side of Jordan— to Israel as their inheritance.8 O Lord, what shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies!
There was nothing they could say. Joshua asked a rhetorical question. 9 For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land shall hear (of it), and shall environ us round, and cut off our name from the earth: and what wilt thou do unto thy great name?
The Canaanites would encircle the Israelites—this is the strategy implied here—and destroy the Israelites utterly. This may be a reference to the way in which the Israelites conquered Jericho (see chapter 6).
Joshua closed his prayer with a reference to God’s name’s sake. This phrase was used several times, by David and others, in prayers and some of the Psalms. Example: Psalm 23:5.10 And the LORD said unto Joshua, Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?
God’s answer to Joshua’s “prayer” is straight to the point. Notice how He starts by asking Joshua a question, “Why are you lying down on your face?, meaning, It’s time to take action, even drastic action, as will be seen later.
There is a time for repentance, and a time for grief, but sometimes, even these have to take a lesser place (“back seat”) to what is really important. This was one of those times to act. Sin had once again crept into the camp and it had to be dealt with.11 Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put (it) even among their own stuff.
God lays out each sin which, even though only one person had done it (as will be seen), made the whole nation accountable for the sin. “Dissembled” has several possible meanings, according to Strong’s concordance, and the basic idea seems to be dishonesty. The articles of silver, gold, and so on were supposed to be dedicated to the Lord, never kept by any of the Israelites (Joshua 6:19).12 Therefore the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies, (but) turned (their) backs before their enemies, because they were accursed: neither will I be with you any more, except ye destroy the accursed from among you.
A similar incident had happened before. When the spies came back from viewing the Promised Land, the ten spies caused the people to reject God’s promises. Even though Moses warned the people to not fight the Amalekites, they went to war, and lost (See Numbers 14). Disobedience brings defeat.13 Up, sanctify the people, and say, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow: for thus saith the LORD God of Israel, (There is) an accursed thing in the midst of thee, O Israel: thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the accursed thing from among you.
This was the second time, at least, that God commanded the people to sanctify themselves after they had reached the Promised Land. The first time was just before the people crossed over and had undergone circumcision. This time was for a more serious incident.14 In the morning therefore ye shall be brought according to your tribes: and it shall be, (that) the tribe which the LORD taketh shall come according to the families (thereof); and the family which the LORD shall take shall come by households; and the household which the LORD shall take shall come man by man.
God tells Joshua how to find the guilty party: first by tribe, then families, then households, finally each male member of the household. The method, however, was not specified, whether by casting lots, Urim and Thummim, or any other means.15 And it shall be, (that) he that is taken with the accursed thing shall be burnt with fire, he and all that he hath: because he hath transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he hath wrought folly in Israel.
This was a very dire punishment. Burning someone to death with fire was reserved for only two offenses: first, when a man married both a woman and her daughter (Lev. 20:14), or if a priest’s daughter became actively involved in prostitution (Lev 21:9).