But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel.
Verse 1: In the previous chapter we saw the command that everything in Jericho was to be given as a sacrifice to the Lord, whether to slaughter or as donations to the Lord’s treasury (See Joshua 6:17-19). And every man save one followed this command. There are times in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, where we see examples where one person’s disobedience can affect others. This is one of those examples, as we see God holds his anger toward all of Israel and not just Achan, and we also know that we all inherit sin from Adam and his choice back in the Garden of Eden. Yet on the other hand, there are examples in there of God’s love and mercy being poured out upon many through the actions and decisions of one. No greater example can be found than that of Jesus and his sacrifice upon the cross. We may not be able to control what people do in their lives, but we can work to be the best possible influences by living out the Gospel, sharing the Gospel with others, and praying for families, friends, and future generations of our children and grandchildren.
2 Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth-aven, east of Bethel, and said to them, “Go up and spy out the land.” And the men went up and spied out Ai. 3 And they returned to Joshua and said to him, “Do not have all the people go up, but let about two or three thousand men go up and attack Ai. Do not make the whole people toil up there, for they are few.”
Verses 2-3: One of the major themes that I catch time and again throughout the book of Joshua is that of the unexpected happening. Rahab is an unexpected helper for the Israelites and becomes an unexpected contributor in the genealogy of Jesus. The Israelites cross the Jordan River in an unexpected manner that is similar, yet different, from the parting of the Red Sea. The Israelites conquer Jericho in an unexpected manner by marching for seven days and shouting and blowing trumpets. It is something we’ll continue to see moving forward. And here, once again, something unexpected is about to happen. Joshua’s spies note that Ai has only a few men who would be able to retaliate when they attack, so they advise Joshua to send only a small portion of their army to handle this threat. This is a strategy that makes perfect sense: why tire your entire force when a small band could do the job effectively? Yet, as we’re about to see, things will not go as expected for the Israelites.
4 So about three thousand men went up there from the people. And they fled before the men of Ai, 5 and the men of Ai killed about thirty-six of their men and chased them before the gate as far as Shebarim and struck them at the descent. And the hearts of the people melted and became as water.
Verses 4-5: We can safely assume that the men of Ai numbered less than 3,000. After all, the spies would not recommend sending a force of equal, or lesser, strength to take Ai. Most likely the number would be around 1,500-2,000 to give a fair advantage in numbers to the Israelites. Yet they flee from the men of Ai after only 36 men died. That is only 1.2% of their force that traveled to take Ai. So what went wrong here? It had to have been something strong enough to make the men turn and flee even though they likely still outnumbered the men of Ai. The most likely guess would be that God turned their hearts toward flight and I’d like to think this was to spare them from losing more men in that failed attack. You would expect far more men to die before one side or the other would flee, barring something like divine intervention. And if this speculation holds true and God worked to make them flee so soon, it would be yet another example of God showing mercy even when he could hold his anger against them. This encounter is serving as a wake-up call to the Israelites to remind them that obedience is expected and, so long as they obey, God will deliver on His promise to give them the land. Without that obedience on their part, they can expect a long, arduous, bloody campaign through the land.
6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, “Alas, O Lord God, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan! 8 O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! 9 For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?”
Verses 6-9: We can learn a few things from Joshua’s response to this unfortunate turn of events. First, he demonstrated active sorrow by tearing his clothing and having him and the elders put dust on their heads. This was about the equivalent of wearing sackcloth and putting ashes on the head, another common action seen in the Old Testament. Next, he seeks to understand God’s reasoning for bringing them this far just to destroy them. Instead of criticizing God for it, he mentions that they would have been content to remain on the other side of the Jordan River instead of facing this fate. Contentment can be a difficult thing to express, but it is often a right attitude to hold. Instead of being mad at God for withholding something we desire, we should remember the blessings in our lives that we already possess and try to be content with where we are and what we have. That thinking runs counter to some of the popular ideas of the Prosperity Gospel, but it is the right heart to have. Finally, Joshua turns the problem toward how God holds a stake in the results. Prayers to obtain that bigger, fancier house are typically man-centered and offer nothing in terms of glory to God. But in this case, Joshua points out that the defeat of the Israelites will lead to a lack of respect toward God’s power from the other nations. Bear in mind that Jericho’s hearts had melted prior to the Israelites’ arrival because they had heard of the things God had done for them. The opposite is about to happen here if God continues to forsake the Israelites. God made promises, and He will deliver on them. Prayers that align with His promises, or that will bring glory to His name, are a lot more likely to be answered than prayers that are wrapped solely around things of the world.