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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 7

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Contrasting sharply with the previous chapter, this one reveals a shocking setback to Israel’s progress, namely, the defeat at Ai. Many Bible students have been impressed with the manner in which the experiences of Joshua parallel those of the early church in the Book of Acts.

(1) The glorious success of Pentecost was soon followed by the shameful episode of Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Here the great success at Jericho is quickly followed by the shameful defeat at Ai.

(2) Secret sin was, in both cases, the cause of the sudden reversal of fortune - that of Achan here, and that of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts.

(3) The capital punishment of the offenders was immediately enforced - that of Achan by Joshua, and that of Ananias and Sapphira by the Lord.

(4) The punishment in each case was executed in the presence of all of God’s congregation.

(5) The original success of God’s people was at once resumed in both cases.

(6) Greed, or covetousness on the part of the offenders was the cause of the trouble in both cases.

Verse 1

“But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the devoted thing; for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the devoted thing: and the anger of Jehovah was kindled against the children of Israel.”

Matthew Henry, and others, have pointed out that, “This chapter begins with a “BUT.”(F1) That word, with all that is entailed, echoes like a sour note in a symphony throughout the entire O.T. This also is echoed in the writings of the New Testament. The name “Herod” in Matthew 2:1, is exactly the same kind of change as that noted here.

We are amazed at Jamieson’s comment on Achan’s ancestry, which he called “infamous.”(F2) Yes, it is true enough that his ancestry is here traced back to the incestuous union between Judah and Tamar, but apparently Jamieson overlooked the fact that this is also the ancestry of the Lord Jesus Christ! Therefore, we must look to something else besides the ancestry of Achan to discover the cause of his sin.

There is no problem with the genealogy of Achan here, which contains only five names to cover the period reaching all the way back to Judah and Tamar. “In this genealogy (as in many others in the Bible) several generations are omitted.”(F3)

One of the significant things here is the fact that the sin of a SINGLE person could bring down the wrath of God upon the WHOLE congregation of Israel.

Verses 2-5

“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 spy out the land. And the men went up and spied out Ai. 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; make not all the people to toil thither; for they are but few. So there went up thither of the people about three thousand men: and they fled before the men of Ai. And the men of Ai smote of them about thirty-six men; and they chased them from before the gate even unto Shebarim, and smote them at the descent; and the hearts of the people melted, and became as water.”

At this point, we should summarize what is called the “big problem” with this narrative. It is clear enough, of course, except that the scholars cannot pinpoint the location of Ai with any degree of certainty. We have frequently noted in our study of the O.T., that problems of this kind are no problem at all for believers. Frankly, it does not make the slightest difference exactly where Ai was located. Even, if men should never know, it would not challenge the historicity and utmost accuracy of this account in any manner whatever. As Francis Schaeffer stated in his dedication of a recent book of his:

“The Bible is what it claims to be, the written Word of God without error in all that it teaches concerning history and the cosmos.”(F4)

Nevertheless, out of regard for those who are much concerned about such things, we include here an analysis of the problem and proposed solutions as summarized by Blair.(F5) We have abbreviated and paraphrased this material from Blair:

The problem is that the place scholars have chosen as the location of Ai was, according to the findings of archeologists, utterly destroyed not later than 2,500 B.C., long before the times of Joshua. They also believe that it was not resettled until long after Joshua’s time. This would make Ai no place at all when Joshua took it!


(1) The archeologists are simply mistaken in their calculations, and this is by no means an unlikely thing.

(2) Joshua was written so long after the events recorded (by imposters, of course) that they included errors in their book. This alleged solution is unchristian and absolutely impossible for believers to accept.

(3) Albright said that the capture of Ai was probably the capture of Bethel, the principal fortification of which was at Ai, on the ancient ruins mentioned in the above paragraph. His reason for this allegation was that there is no mention of the capture of Bethel in Joshua, although the architectural evidence shows that Bethel fell about the same time of the fall of other cities that fell in Israel’s conquest of Canaan.

(4) L. H. Vincent identified Ai with Bethel, as the fortified military outpost of Bethel, under the king of Bethel, called the king of Ai (Joshua 8:12), since he was indeed the ruler of Ai. This explanation also includes the supposition that only the military were at Ai, and that no permanent settlement was there, and this would account for no ruins having been found at Ai that can be dated in the times of Joshua.

To us, this “problem” is too remote chronologically to be of any great concern to Christians. All studies in the O.T. are perplexed by the names of places that have been changed, and re-changed, one or more times, and by many conflicting opinions about where this or that “place” was located. This is especially observable in a study of those forty-two places where Israel encamped during the forty years in the wilderness. Some of the questions pertaining to that far-off period are, at the very best, answerable only by conjectural solutions. The question here is certainty of that nature.

What information that exists seems to us to favor the solution presented in (4) above. J. A. Thompson, for example, said that, “If Ai was only a military outpost, there may not have been any substantial buildings there, and so nothing tangible would remain.”(F6)

“Achan” This name appears as “Achar” in 1 Chronicles 2:7; but we are not told, whether or not Achan had two names, or if the Hebrews merely nicknamed him “Achar” (by changing only one letter) because the latter name means “trouble.”(F7)

Verses 6-9

“And Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of Jehovah until the evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust upon their heads. And Joshua said, Alas, O Lord Jehovah, 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! Oh, Lord, what shall I say, after that Israel hath turned their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites, and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and will compass us round, and cut off our name from the earth: and what wilt thou do for thy great name?”

The distress of Joshua is certainly understandable. A stunning defeat of Israel by a garrison that the Israelites themselves had evaluated as so small that they would need no more than a relative handful of men to take it that such an outpost should be able to put Israel to flight, that was indeed a disaster. Skilled commander that he was, Joshua, knew what a boon this would be to Israel’s enemies, and he feared that it would result in a massive counter-attack against Israel by the whole population of Canaan.

Some have criticized Joshua for sending out spies, apparently without Divine instructions to do so, and for going forward with the attack without specific instructions such as he had received prior to the victory at Jericho, and even for the humiliation of himself in this episode of falling on his face before the ark and casting dust on his head. We do not find that the Lord rebuked Joshua for any of these, and, therefore, we shall dissent from the views of critical commentators. The only thing that appears to us as detrimental to the attack on Ai was the seeming over-confidence that did not send enough men to take it in the first place. Nor can we buy that report of the spies. Later on, when Israel took Ai, they put to death 12,000 men (Joshua 8:25); and from that we know that the spies simply failed in their mission. “John Calvin made some severe remarks on Joshua’s folly and want of faith here, but it may be paralleled by most Christians in adversity.”(F8)

Verses 10-15

“And Jehovah said unto Joshua, Get thee up; wherefore art thou fallen upon thy face? Israel hath sinned; yea, they have even transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: yea, they have even taken of the devoted thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also; and they have even put it among their own stuff. Therefore the children of Israel cannot stand before their enemies, because they are become accursed: I will not be with you any more, except ye destroy the devoted thing from among you. Up, sanctify the people, and say, Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow: for thus saith Jehovah the God of Israel, There is a devoted thing in the midst of thee, O Israel; thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the devoted thing from among you. In the morning therefore ye shall be brought near by your tribes: and it shall be, that the tribe that Jehovah taketh shall come near by families; and the family which Jehovah shall take shall come near by households; and the household which Jehovah shall take shall come near man by man. And it shall be that he that is taken with the devoted thing shall be burnt with fire, he and all that he hath; because he hath transgressed the covenant of Jehovah, and because he hath wrought folly in Israel.”

Whatever the extent of God’s displeasure with Joshua, the Lord ordered him to get up! It appears that Joshua should have been able, apart from Divine revelation, to have figured out what was wrong. Could he not have remembered the defeat at Kadesh-Barnea? In any event, the Lord gave specific instructions for overcoming the disaster. A large part of this chapter is taken up with instructions for the casting of lots to determine where the guilt lay, and this is a good place to glance at the large number of instances in the Bible when the Lord’s people, acting upon heavenly instructions, had resort to that manner of making decisions.

Here is a list of occasions:

The division of Canaan among the twelve tribes (Numbers 26:55).

The choice of the Levitical cities (Joshua 21:4 ff).

Regarding spoil or captives in war (Joel 3:3).

To determine guilt in the case of Achan (here in Joshua 7).

To determine guilt in the case of Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:42).… and in the case of Jonah (Jonah 1:7).

To choose men for a mission (Judges 20:10).

To make appointments (Acts 1:26).

By Haman to choose “the day” (Esther 3:7).(F9)

There was the utmost confidence among ancient peoples as to the efficacy of such a method, especially, as here, when God Himself had instructed the use of the device. “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of Jehovah” (Proverbs 16:33).

Although Joshua 7:15 mentions only burning with fire, the execution of Achan also involved “stoning.” See in Joshua 7:25. The reason for the stoning, which probably came before the burning was that all of Israel might participate in the execution.

Verses 16-21

“So Joshua rose up early in the morning, and brought Israel near by their tribes; and the tribe of Judah was taken, and he brought near the family of Judah; and he took the family of the Zerahites: and he brought near the family of the Zerahites man by man; and Zabdi was taken: and he brought near his household man by man; and Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken. And Joshua said unto Achan, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to Jehovah, the God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me. And Achan answered Joshua and said, Of a truth I have sinned against Jehovah, the God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done: When I saw among the spoil a goodly Babylonish mantle, 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.”

“Brought Israel near” The repeated use of “bring near” for the casting of the lots indicates that these proceedings, “took place at the sanctuary, i.e., the tabernacle of Israel.”(F10)

“My son” (Joshua 7:19). “This is no mere hypocritical affectation by Joshua, who really feels for the criminal, (although the Commander is already under orders from God Himself to execute Achan). In our own times, we have seen a judge melted to tears at the necessity of condemning a man to death.”(F11)

“Of a truth I have sinned” (Joshua 7:20). It has long been apparent that physical death as inflicted for punishment in the O.T. did not always mean the eternal condemnation of those who thus died. Adam Clarke said of this case, “This seems a very honest and hearty confession, and there is hope that this poor culprit escaped perdition.”(F12)

“I saw… I coveted… I took” Behold here the three steps in the commission of sin, these being exactly the same steps taken by our mother Eve in the Paradise of Eden. “Sin always begins in the mind. As a work of art begins in the mind, and then is externalized, so also does sin.”(F13) Dummelow pointed out that Achan’s confession is of special interest, because, “Its wording is practically identical with that of the traditional form of confession which was used by those who brought sin and trespass-offerings, as enjoined in Leviticus 5:5, and in Num. 5:6.7.”(F14) Matthew Henry pointed out that “Sin often begins in the eye.”(F15) Examples of this which he cited included those suggested by the following: (1) look not thou upon the wine that giveth his colour in the cup; (2) nor upon the woman that is fair; (3) nor upon the kingdoms of this world as Satan showed them to Jesus.

“A goodly Babylonian mantle” It is unfortunate that recent translators of the Bible saw fit to change from the original language here which is, “one fine mantle of Shinar.”(F16) The word “Shinar” here, like so many other indications in Joshua, points squarely at the times of Joshua for the date of this book, because, “Shinar is the name given to Babylon in the earliest records of the Hebrews.”(F17)

It appears that this exceedingly beautiful mantle from Shinar was the principal temptation that lay back of Achan’s fatal sin. “The very word used of this mantle here is the one that is used to describe the king’s robe in Jonah 3:6.”(F18) Schaeffer applied the lesson here as follows: “Christians should beware of affluence, of prestige, of trying to be a VIP.”(F19) There were two parts of Achan’s sin: (1) simple greed, or covetousness; and (2) the desire to dress in such a manner as to make himself stand out above others. The mantle fed that latter desire; and the gold and silver fed the other. The seriousness of this crime lay, partially at least, in the fact of Achan’s taking what specifically belonged to the Lord and to no one else. In short, he was robbing God! And here indeed is a lesson that all Christians should note. A considerable measure of any Christian’s wealth, of whatever extent, belongs to God. Some would say at least one-tenth; but whatever is the right amount, a portion of every man’s money is the Lord’s. And what about those who will not give it? Their sin is exactly the same as Achan’s.

Woudstra gave the value of the gold shekel mentioned here as 13.5 times the value of a silver shekel, thus the wedge of gold would have had the value of about 675 silver shekels.(F20)

Verses 22-26

“So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran unto the tent; and, behold, it was hid in his tent, and the silver under it. And they took them from the midst of the tent, and brought them unto Joshua, and unto all the children of Israel; and they laid them down before Jehovah. And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the mantle, 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 up unto the valley of Achor. And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? Jehovah shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones; and they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones, unto this day; and Jehovah turned from the fierceness of his anger. Wherefore the name of that place was called The Valley of Achor, unto this day.”

The big question regarding this event is whether or not all of Achan’s sons and daughters were put to death with him? The most logical understanding of what is written here indicates that, indeed, they were all put to death along with Achan. The question that comes up regards the law given in Deuteronomy 24:16 which clearly prohibited innocent people from being put to death for a relative’s crime. This writer cannot pretend to know the exact answer to this. Keil and others affirm that all of the family of Achan suffered death, since they were, by the very nature of the hiding place of the loot, accomplices after the fact, and therefore guilty. Besides, Keil pointed out that in this particular case, God had specifically commanded the execution here carried out.

Unger’s comment is:

“Did Achan’s family share in his death? Apparently, but Deuteronomy 24:16 clearly prohibits innocent people from being put to death for a relative’s crime. The plural pronoun `them” in Joshua 7:25 may refer grammatically only to Achan’s possessions, and Joshua 22:20 may refer to the thirty-six men who perished because of Achan’s sin. Korah’s relatives were spared (Numbers 16).”(F21)

Rea stressed the fact that all of Achan’s family would necessarily have known of the theft and that “they could not but have been accomplices.”(F22) We might multiply quotations from many writers, but Blair summed it all up, “It is difficult to be certain.”(F23)

In Joshua 7:25, the word used for “stoning” is a Hebrew word, one of a couple of words the Hebrews had for stoning, and “The word used here is the one that means `stoning as a form of capital punishment.’“(F24) As stoning was certainly a more merciful death than burning, this word probably indicates that the burning took place after those executed were dead. Here again, no certainty is possible.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Joshua 7". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/joshua-7.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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