Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.VII.
(1) Achan . . . of the tribe of Judah.—The tribe of Judah is distinguished in sacred history both for great crimes and great achievements. (See Names on the Gates of Pearl.—Judah.)
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.(2) Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai.—Why Ai should be the next town selected for attack after Jericho, is a question which perhaps we cannot answer with certainty. But we may observe that the next step after the capture of Ai, before the further conquest of the country, was to set up the Ten Commandments in Mount Ebal, in the heart of the country, and to pronounce there the blessing and the curse which are the sanction of the law of God. It may well be that the course of the first military operations was directed to this end. The capture of Ai would put the Israelites in possession of the main road running north and south through Palestine, and enable them to reach the centre immediately. Thus the character of the war, which was no mere human enterprise, is maintained; and it is probable that the Divine reason for the movement is that which we are intended to observe. For the first mention of Ai, see Genesis 12:8. It is noticeable that there Abram fitst pitched his tent after his return to Canaan out of Egypt. (See also on Joshua 8:1.) Note also that Beth-aven and Bethel are distinct, although adjacent, places. The one is not a later name of the other, as has been sometimes supposed, although one is “the house of vanity” (i.e., perhaps of idols) and the other “the house of God.”
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.(3) Make not all the people to labour thither.—In these words we see, by a sort of side-glance, the (not unnatural) comment of Israel on the seven days’ march round Jericho. They thought it useless labour, and were unable to appreciate the lesson which it taught. Again our attention is directed to the peculiar character of the warfare. It was not that kind of war which men would naturally have been disposed to wage. But the narrative is consistent throughout. (See Note on Joshua 2:1.)
So there went up thither of the people about three thousand men: and they fled before the men of Ai.(4) They fled before the men of Ai.—A very natural reaction from overweening confidence to utter dismay is exhibited in this incident and its effect (Joshua 7:5), “the heart of the people melted and became as water.” The demoralisation of Israel was a suitable penalty for their assumption, quite apart from its supernatural cause. It was absolutely necessary that the character of the conquest of Canaan should be vindicated, at whatever cost.
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.(5) Shebarim—i.e., the crevices, or ravines. A short distance below Ai the road passes the head of steep glens, which open into the plain of Jordan.
In the going down—i.e., until they escaped into these ravines.
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.(6) Joshua rent his clothes . . .—The words of Joshua and his behaviour on this occasion are consistent with all that we read of him, and confirm the notion that he was not a man of a naturally daring and adventurous spirit, but inclined to distrust his own powers; and yet utterly indomitable and unflinching in the discharge of his duty—a man of moral rather than physical courage.
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?(9) The Canaanites . . . shall environ us round.—A thing extremely probable in itself, apart from the supernatural character of the invasion.
And the LORD said unto Joshua, Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?(10) Wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?—“Why is this, that thou art fallen upon thy face? Israel hath sinned.” The pronoun “thou” is emphatic.
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.(11) They have also transgressed my covenant.—The law is again brought prominently forward in this scene. “The words of the covenant, the ten commandments,” are first of all a pledge that Jehovah is the God of Israel. “I am Jehovah, thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt.” And He brought them out that He might bring them in—and He made them the executioners of His wrath against the idolaters. They must have no other gods but Him, and they must not treat the things that had been defiled by association with idolatry as their own spoil. The words which specially apply to this case are to be found in Deuteronomy 7:25-26 : “The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire (see Joshua 7:21) the silver or gold that is on them. . . . Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it.”
The whole spoil of Canaan was not so treated; but concerning that of Jericho there had been express orders, possibly because the city was especially defiled with idolatry. God had proclaimed it abomination. It was ahêrem—devoted or accursed—and no Israelite was to appropriate any of it, under penalty of becoming chêrem himself, and making his household chêrem. This Achan had done.
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.(14-18) In the morning therefore ye shall be brought.—That is, brought near, or presented. The word used here, and throughout the passage, is the same that is commonly used for the presentation of an offering.
(14) The tribe which the Lord taketh.—There is nothing in the language of the passage, when closely considered, which would lead us to suppose that the discovery of the criminal was by casting lots. The parallel passage—viz., the selection of King Saul from the tribes of Israel (1Samuel 10:20-21)—shows that the oracle of God was consulted. “They inquired,” and “the Lord answered.” So it was, perhaps, in the case of Achan. We seem to see the High Priest of Israel “asking counsel for Joshua after the judgment of Urim before the Lord,” as it had been foretold in Numbers 27:21; and the elders of Israel standing by, at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. The representatives of the tribes enter the sacred enclosure in succession, and pass before the High Priest, in awful silence, broken only by the voice of Jehovah, who pronounces it intervals the names of Judah, Zarhite, Zabdi, Carmi, Achan. It must have been a terrible ordeal. But all present must have felt that no human partiality, or private animosity, was seeking its victim. The Judge of all the earth was doing judgment. And when the accusation of Jehovah was followed by the explicit confession of the criminal, and this again by the discovery of the stolen spoil of Jericho, which was brought in by the messengers, and “poured out before the Lord,” and when this discovery was followed by the execution of the awful sentence, all who were present must have received a lesson, which it was impossible to forget, as to the reality of the covenant of God. And if, as seems most probable, the voice of the oracle was uttered from the inner sanctuary, from between the cherubim, but “heard even to the outer court, as the voice of the Almighty God, when He speaketh” (Ezekiel 10:5), we learn once more the majesty of the law given to Israel. The arrest of Jordan, the overthrow of Jericho, and the discovery of Achan, are all manifestations of power proceeding from the same source.
And Joshua said unto Achan, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the LORD God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me.(19) Give . . . glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me.—We can hardly read these words of Joshua without being reminded of his great Antitype. In New Testament language, to tell Joshua is to “tell Jesus “—the only way in which confession of sin can bring glory. Joshua could only pronounce sentence of death on Achan. But “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The Hebrew word for “confession” also means “thanksgiving.” Acknowledgment of sin and mercy are not far apart, in making confession to God. (See Ezra 10:11 for a parallel to the phrase.)
When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it.(21) A goodly Babylonish garment.—Literally, A certain goodly mantle of Shinar.
I coveted them.—The very word employed, not only in the tenth commandment (Deuteronomy 5:21), but also in Deuteronomy 7:25, the passage which forbids Israel to desire the spoils of idolatry. This coincidence of terms makes it somewhat probable that the whole were found in some idol’s temple, and were part of the spoils of the shrine.
And they took them out of the midst of the tent, and brought them unto Joshua, and unto all the children of Israel, and laid them out before the LORD.(23) And laid them out before the Lord.—The silver and the gold, by His order, should have been brought into His treasury (Joshua 6:19). The spoils of Canaan might have been consecrated as holiness to Jehovah. But in this instance the spoil of Jericho had become the sin of Israel, and it must therefore be no longer preserved, but consumed.
And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them unto the valley of Achor.(24) And his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had.—All were evidently destroyed together (comp. Joshua 22:20). For any other sin but this, Achan must have suffered alone. “The children shall not be put to death for the fathers.” But in this case, warning had been given that the man who took of the accursed thing, or chêrern, would be an accursed thing like it, if he brought it into his house (Deuteronomy 7:26), and would make the camp of Israel chêrem also (Joshua 6:18), and thus Achan’s whole establishment was destroyed as though it had become part of Jericho. It is not necessary to assert that the family of Achan were accomplices. His cattle were not so, and yet they were destroyed. See also 1Chronicles 2:7, where his line is not continued. Observe also the incidental reference to the fact in Joshua 22:20, “That man perished not alone in his iniquity.” The severity of the punishment must be estimated by the relation of Achan’s crime to the whole plan of the conquest of Canaan. If the destruction of the Canaanites was indeed the execution of the Divine vengeance, it must be kept entirely clear of all baser motives, lest men should say that Jehovah gave His people licence to deal with the Canaanites as it seemed best for themselves. The punishment of Saul for taking the spoil of Amalek (1 Samuel 15), and the repeated statement of the Book of Esther that the Jews who stood for their lives and slew their enemies, the supporters of Haman’s project, laid not their hands on the prey, are further illustrations of the same principle. The gratification of human passions may not be mingled with the execution of the vengeance of God. (See Esther 8:11; Esther 9:10; Esther 9:15-16.)
The valley of Achor.—In 1Chronicles 2:7, Achan himself is designated Achar (one among several examples of the alteration of a name to suit some circumstance of a person’s history. Compare Bathsheba for Bathshua, Shallum for Jehoiachin, Ishbosheth for Eshbaal, &c.). There is a double play upon the names in Hosea 2:15 : “I will give her her vineyards (Carmêha. Compare Carmi, “my vineyard”) from thence, and the valley of trouble (Achor) for a door of hope.” The valley of Achor is a pass leading from Gilgal towards the centre of the country, or, as it might be represented, from Jericho towards Jerusalem—i.e., from the city of destruction to the city of God. So it was to Israel in the conquest. The future state of Achan is in the hands of the Judge who “doeth judgment.” No mercy to his crime on earth was possible. It would have been injustice to all mankind.