If Joshua 1-6 presented the ideal transfer of power from one leader to the next and the perfect entrance into the land of Israel, precisely as promised in the earlier books of the Torah, and particularly in Deuteronomy, Joshua 7 is the example of failure.
Unlike the failures of the Pentateuch, like the sin of the spies or the Golden Calf, this failure is the failure of but a single soul in Israel, the forever infamous Achan Ben Carmi. Joshua 7 opens by informing us that this is the story of the first failure of the entire people, even as it singles out Achan as the sole violator. The extent to which all of Israel are responsible for one another, and responsible to God as a whole is simply unbearable, unlivable! Consider:
א וַיִּמְעֲלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מַעַל, בַּחֵרֶם; וַיִּקַּח עָכָן בֶּן-כַּרְמִי בֶן-זַבְדִּי בֶן-זֶרַח לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה, מִן-הַחֵרֶם, וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה, בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
1. But the children of Israel committed a trespass concerning the devoted thing; for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the devoted thing; and the anger of the LORD was kindled against the children of Israel.
God is angry over the trespass of one man, from one family, from one clan, from one tribe; his anger is kindled against all of Israel. This state of affairs, this collective punishment, is too high a standard for mortals.
The Jewish people are as unreasonable as God, though. They turn out to defeat Ai, a smaller town, with only 3,000 troops; compare to the total adult population of Ai, which was about 12,000 people. In their first encounter with the men of Ai, the Israelites are defeated, and thirty-six soldiers are killed. All of a sudden, despite the miracles perceived at Jericho, the Israelites lose courage, and their hearts turn to water. Bunch of wusses, right?
Joshua, playing his best Moses, immediately puts on the sack-cloth and ashes, and confronts God, saying:
ז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, לָמָה הֵעֲבַרְתָּ הַעֲבִיר אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן, לָתֵת אֹתָנוּ בְּיַד הָאֱמֹרִי, לְהַאֲבִידֵנוּ; וְלוּ הוֹאַלְנוּ וַנֵּשֶׁב, בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן.
7 And Joshua said: ‘Alas, O Lord GOD, wherefore hast Thou at all brought this people over the Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to cause us to perish? would that we had been content and dwelt beyond the Jordan!
It’s so all-or-nothing. The paradigm for the relationship is Holiness – kedusah, as can be seen from these verses.
God is heavily involved in this process of sanctification – it is He who, with no details provided, selects first the tribe, then the clan, then the family, and finally the man, Achan, who has taken from the spoils. Joshua approaches Achan, and Achan confesses to taking a mantle, 250 shekels of silver, and a ‘tongue’ or bar of gold weighing 50 shekels and buyring them in the earth near his tent.
When the story is confirmed, God, who had been so involved in brining this matter to the Israelites’ attention, and in pointing out the guilty party, is no longer the active party. The next thing that happens defies my understanding as a person, even as it fits perfectly the holiness paradigm that we have seen to this point.
Achan, the spoils, his sons and daughters, his flocks, his tent, and all his possessions were gathered together. Then they were all stoned, and burned, and a cairn of stones was erected over them. Collective punishment. Murder. A very difficult passage to come to terms with.
Achan appears, in my mind, to be a foil to Rachav from Jericho. This is a bit of a stretch, but it seems as though the destruction wrought upon Jericho was incomplete, not only because of the spoils that Achan took, but also because Rachav and her family were saved. The destructive powers unleashed on Jericho were not fully satisfied; Achan, by taking from the spoils, unleashes those forces on himself and his own family, even as Rachav managed to save her whole family through her faithfulness to the spies. Her proper hiding of the spies and deception of the searchers led to salvation. Achan’s improper hiding of the spoils and admission to the searchers of its location leads to his destruction.