It Doesn’t Pay to Be Sneaky

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The story of what happened to Israel at Ai is a favorite Bible story among preachers because it illustrates the danger and folly of “secret sin” in the most graphic way possible. It’s a powerful story that serves as a warning to believers in any generation of how seriously God takes disobedience.

In human history, the story of poor old Achan’s secret sin is second only to the sin of Adam and Eve in terms of making plain the awful consequences of thinking “you can get away with it.” Coming in a very close third place would be the sin of Ananias and Sapphria in the New Testament. If anything, all three stories show the seriousness of disobedience and sin but also the ridiculous notion that somehow you’ll be the one God lets off. But there is another lesson, and it’s a less than obvious one. If we take the examples of Adam and Eve and Achan and his family, we learn that sometimes – though not always, thankfully – the sin of one or two may bring punishment upon many. In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, the punishment was their own but the lesson was for the whole church.

Corporate consequences of sin

The Israelites had taken Jericho. Taking the city of Ai should have been just as easy.

Soon after Jericho’s defeat, Joshua sent some of his men to spy on the city of Ai, east of Bethel. Upon their return they told Joshua, “It’s a small city and it won’t take more than two or three thousand of us to destroy it; there’s no point in all of us going there.” So approximately three thousand soldiers were sent-and they were soundly defeated. About thirty-six of the Israelis were killed during the attack, and many others died while being chased by the men of Ai as far as the quarries. The Israeli army was paralyzed with fear at this turn of events. (Joshua 7:2 – 5 TLB)

Ultimately, what happened to the Israelites shows us that the worst enemy is really within ourselves. Disloyalty and unfaithfulness are twins that conspire to take us down and often others around us. Marriages, families, businesses, churches, communities, and even whole nations have been ruined by the disloyalty and unfaithfulness of the individuals involved. In this case, the problem was caused a man named Achan. Verse one gives us a kind of summary statement of the whole sordid mess:

But there was sin among the Israelis. God’s command to destroy everything except that which was reserved for the Lord’s treasury was disobeyed. For Achan (the son of Carmi, grandson of Zabdi, and great-grandson of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah) took some loot for himself, and the Lord was very angry with the entire nation of Israel because of this.

What Achan did was a direct violation of the covenant Israel made with the Lord. Even though one man broke this covenant, the whole nation was deemed guilty and every single citizen stood guilty and condemned. Paul made some astute observations about this idea of “corporate sin” in 1 Corinthians 5:6 – 13. Ultimately, Paul taught, unconfessed and especially judged sin taints an entire congregation.

What a terrible thing it is that you are boasting about your purity and yet you let this sort of thing go on. Don’t you realize that if even one person is allowed to go on sinning, soon all will be affected? (1 Corinthians 5:6 TLB)

It may seem unfair, but in many ways the sin and wrongdoing of one person may have disastrous effects on others.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me… (Deuteronomy 5:9 TNIV)

That’s good to keep in mind. In the life of a church, oftentimes a church may experience problems due to the sin of a single member. Again, the apostle Paul comes to the rescue with updated advice applicable, not just to Old Testament Israel, but the New Testament church:

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26 TNV)

Now, before we get too carried away with this part of the teaching, it would be good to take a step back and read a handful of verses from Ezekiel:

“What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
” ‘The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.'” (Ezekiel 18:2 – 4 TNIV)

In essence this is what we see with Ananias and Sapphira. They were punished directly, but the whole congregation was not. God’s point with Ezekiel is that individuals alone are responsible for their sin before God. So your child is not held accountable for your sin. However, it may well be that your sin may hold undesirable consequences for your child. God won’t shield your child from those consequences.

The big takeaway here is that the whole nation of Israel suffered because of Achan’s wrongdoing. That’s how powerful sin is. And it also proves the truthfulness of something Moses said:

“But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” (Numbers 32:23 TNIV)

Joshua’s conundrum

You can imagine how confused Joshua must have been. He knew nothing about what Achan had done, so the embarrassing and costly defeat at Ai was discombobulating to say the least. And as a believer in God, he did what came naturally: he prayed. But God had other ideas:

The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?” (Joshua 7:10 TNIV)

That’s a curious way for the Lord to respond to one of His people! But God was angry with the state of Israel. And that anger found a target: Joshua. Instead of praying, Israel’s leader should have been doing something to find out why what happened happened. There was no time for self pity. This was a time for action.

Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. (Joshua 7:11 – 12 TNIV)

That’s tough talk from God, but it should have surprised no one. In fact, Joshua and his people should have known why they were experiencing defeat all of a sudden. God warned them!

But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. (Joshua 6:18 TNIV)

That explains why God rebuked Joshua and told him to stop his praying. The solution was simple.

Individual consequence of sin

Donald Madvig’s summary of God’s solution to the sin problem is true enough:

In the selection process each tribe, clan, and family was represented by a single individual. To us the procedure seems to leave everything up to chance. For them it left everything in the hands of God.

Indeed. The Israelites didn’t always get it right, but here they did and we need to learn from their example. They followed the prescribed process because they knew God was the one in control. How we have trouble with doing that!

We aren’t given the exact way the selection process was to be done (verses 13, 14 and 15 are all we have to go on). Perhaps they cast lots, which was a common enough practice among the Israelites, and a process God used.

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33 TNIV)

Joshua would use it later on, in chapter 18. At any rate, whether they cast lots or used some other determinative means, the culprit was found out.

Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen. Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.” (Joshua 7:18, 19 TNIV)

That phrase Joshua used, “give glory to the Lord,” is a way of appealing for an honest confession. The jigg was up, so there was good denying it. Achan confessed all.

Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” (Joshua 7:20 – 21 TNIV)

One Bible scholar made this observation:

This confession sets forth the three well-worn steps to ruin: Achan (1) saw, (2) coveted, and (3) took that which was not his. It also reveals that he used an inadequate method of dealing with sin: he tried to hide it (verse 21).

There are those who wonder about forgiveness. Why wasn’t this poor schlub forgiven? After, he did confess. Not so fast! Did he really confess? Or did he just “fess up” to what he’d done because he’d been found out? The latter is probably more accurate than the former. This “confession” was more or less dragged out of Achan; he didn’t really have a choice. After all, he knew all about the search for culprit. He could have come forward willingly at any time during the process. He didn’t. There was no forgiveness for this guy.

Reading Achan’s confession brings to mind the Biblical truism: the wages of sin is death. He loved what he saw, yet had to hide it. That doesn’t make any sense, but then sin never does. He experienced the thrill of lust. He experienced the thrill of acquiring something forbidden in complete secrecy. He experienced the thrill of having something nobody else had. And, in a strange sense, Achan experienced the thrill of the risk of being found out. But all those thrills were very short lived. It wasn’t long before his sin was dragged out of the darkness and into the light. Everybody knew what he had done. The evidence was gathered and judgement passed.

Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. (Joshua 7:25 TNIV)

The Hebrew wording is a bit vague: was the whole family also stoned to death? We can’t be 100% certain they were. The whole nation, including Achan’s family, suffered on account of his sin, but in the end, he was held accountable.

This man’s fate, incidentally, calls to mind a king of Judah named Jehoram. He was not a good king. In fact, he was quite sinful and despicable. He was so bad, the prophet Elijah wrote this letter to him:

Jehoram received a letter from Elijah the prophet, which said: “This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: ‘You have not followed the ways of your father Jehoshaphat or of Asa king of Judah. But you have followed the ways of the kings of Israel, and you have led Judah and the people of Jerusalem to prostitute themselves, just as the house of Ahab did. You have also murdered your own brothers, members of your own family, men who were better than you. So now the Lord is about to strike your people, your sons, your wives and everything that is yours, with a heavy blow. You yourself will be very ill with a lingering disease of the bowels, until the disease causes your bowels to come out.’ ” (2 Chronicles 21:12 – 15 TNIV)

Well, they did indeed “come out.” It must have been a particularly nasty way to die. Here’s how the Chronicler records Jehoram’s demise:

Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one’s regret, and was buried in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings. (2 Chronicles 21:20 TNIV)

“To no one’s regret.” In Achan’s case, we can be sure nobody regretted his death, and most were probably relieved!

Alexander Maclaren has rightly observed that:

…the victories of the church are won by its holiness far more than by any gifts or powers of mind, culture, wealth, eloquence, or the like. Its conquests are the conquests of an indwelling God.
The church would do well to heed the example a pathetic man who was anything but holy in his personal life. Perhaps, as we look at the impotent American church of the 21st century, the problem might be as simple as a single member living an unholy life. What are the odds that this member might be in your congregation?

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