Immediately after the triumph at Jericho, the Israelites fight against the city of Ai, but are unable to take it. God tells Joshua that Israel lost because of God's anger. One of the Israelites has kept some of the "devoted things" from Jericho for himself instead of destroying them. Therefore, Israel herself has become a "devoted thing," which will be destroyed unless the sinner is punished and the stolen objects destroyed (Joshua 7:12).
Following instructions from the Lord, Joshua assembles the Israelites tribe by tribe, then clan by clan, then household by household. God reveals Achan, of the tribe of Judah, as the culprit. He and his household, along with the devoted things he kept, are taken and destroyed.
This story is an illustration of the importance of the "devoted things"--both people and possessions of Canaan--that the Israelites are to destroy. Deuteronomy commands such action in Deuteronomy 7:2 and 20:17. The ban seems to be in part a precautionary and a punitive measure, calling for the destruction of the Canaanites, "so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 20:18). The call to destroy devoted things also has overtones of sacrificial language. Like a burnt offering, the devoted things are to be destroyed by fire (Joshua 6:24; 7:15). Like a sacrifice, they are to be "devoted to the LORD for destruction" (6:17). The ban also means, of course, that Israel cannot profit from war.
While it is troubling to modern readers that Achan's family and household are killed with him, one must keep in mind the communal aspect of ancient Israelite life. One's actions affected one's family, for good or ill. Rahab's actions saved her whole household. Achan's actions destroyed his.
7But the Israelites broke faith in regard to the devoted things: Achan 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 Israelites.
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. 3Then they returned to Joshua and said to him, Not all the people need go up; about two or three thousand men should go up and attack Ai. Since they are so few, do not make the whole people toil up there. 4So about three thousand of the people went up there; and they fled before the men of Ai. 5The men of Ai killed about thirty-six of them, chasing them from outside the gate as far as Shebarim and killing them on the slope. The hearts of the people failed and turned to water.
6 Then Joshua tore his clothes, and fell to the ground 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. 7Joshua said, Ah, Lord God! Why have you brought this people across the Jordan at all, to hand us over to the Amorites so as to destroy us? Would that we had been content to settle beyond the Jordan! 8O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has turned their backs to their enemies! 9The Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and surround us, and cut off our name from the earth. Then what will you do for your great name?
10 The Lord said to Joshua, Stand up! Why have you fallen upon your face? 11Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I imposed on them. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have acted deceitfully, and they have put them among their own belongings. 12Therefore the Israelites are unable to stand before their enemies; they turn their backs to their enemies, because they have become a thing devoted for destruction themselves. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. 13Proceed to sanctify the people, and say, Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, There are devoted things among you, O Israel; you will be unable to stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you. 14In the morning therefore you shall come forward tribe by tribe. The tribe that the Lord takes shall come near by clans, the clan that the Lord takes shall come near by households, and the household that the Lord takes shall come near one by one. 15And the one who is taken as having the devoted things shall be burned with fire, together with all that he has, for having transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and for having done an outrageous thing in Israel.
16 So Joshua rose early in the morning, and brought Israel near tribe by tribe, and the tribe of Judah was taken. 17He brought near the clans of Judah, and the clan of the Zerahites was taken; and he brought near the clan of the Zerahites, family by family,* and Zabdi was taken. 18And he brought near his household one by one, and Achan son of Carmi son of Zabdi son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken. 19Then Joshua said to Achan, My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and make confession to him. Tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me. 20And Achan answered Joshua, It is true; I am the one who sinned against the Lord God of Israel. This is what I did: 21when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them and took them. They now lie hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.
22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and there it was, hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. 23They took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites; and they spread them out before the Lord. 24Then Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan son of Zerah, with the silver, the mantle, and the bar of gold, with his sons and daughters, with his oxen, donkeys, and sheep, and his tent and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. 25Joshua said, Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today. And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, 26and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger. Therefore that place to this day is called the Valley of Achor.*
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org