Can you explain the sin of Achan in Joshua 7 and God’s subsequent punishment?


In Joshua 7, we are told that Israel lost their battle against the people of Ai, because God did not help them. The reason was that Achan had taken “from the accursed things” of Jericho. These “accursed” things were devoted to God and not to be used for personal pleasure, and as Joshua 6:18 states, the person taking those things would become accursed and make the camp of Israel a curse and trouble it. Taken from the accursed things constituted sin and the transgression of God’s covenant (Joshua 7:11). It constituted idolatry and theft from God (to whom those things had been devoted to be destroyed or placed in God’s treasury, compare Joshua 6:19).

As the story unfolds, Achan’s sin is revealed, and punishment is inflicted.

The nature and extent of the punishment has been the subject of much controversy.

Some claim it meant the execution of Achan and his family and all of his animals, as well as the destruction of his goods. If so, what would have been the reason?

Commentaries are divided when addressing the reason, and we will give examples below of the most common explanations.

The first line of thinking is that the children were innocent, but had to be killed anyhow, to serve a bigger purpose.

Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary stated:

“Achan took some of the spoil of Jericho. The love of the world is that root of bitterness… We should take heed of sin ourselves, lest by it many be defiled or disquieted, Hebrews 12:15; and take heed of having fellowship with sinners, lest we share their guilt. It concerns us to watch over one another to prevent sin, because others’ sins may be to our damage…”

The Pulpit Commentary pointed out:

“Commentators have largely discussed the question how the sin of Achan could be held to extend to the whole people. But it seems sufficient to reply by pointing out the organic unity of the Israelitish nation. They were then, as Christians are now, the Church of the living God. And if one single member of the community violated the laws which God imposed on them, the whole body was liable for his sin, until it had purged itself by a public act of restitution (see Deuteronomy 21:1-8). So… Paul regards the Corinthian Church as polluted by the presence of one single offender, until he was publicly expelled from its communion (see 1 Corinthians 5:2, 6, 7).”

It should be pointed out, however, that in regard to the sin committed by the “single offender” in Corinth, the whole congregation knew about it and refused to act; in fact, they had become proud of their “tolerance” (see especially 1 Corinthians 5:2, 6).

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers wrote, in commenting on Joshua 7:24-25:

“And his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had.—All were evidently destroyed together… For any other sin but this, Achan must have suffered alone. ‘The children shall not be put to death for the fathers.’ But in this case, warning had been given that the man who took of the accursed thing, or chêrern, would be an accursed thing like it, if he brought it into his house (Deuteronomy 7:26), and would make the camp of Israel chêrem also… and thus Achan’s whole establishment was destroyed as though it had become part of Jericho. It is not necessary to assert that the family of Achan were accomplices. His cattle were not so, and yet they were destroyed. See also 1 Chronicles 2:7, where his line is not continued. Observe also the incidental reference to the fact in Joshua 22:20. ‘That man perished not alone in his iniquity.’

“The severity of the punishment must be estimated by the relation of Achan’s crime to the whole plan of the conquest of Canaan. If the destruction of the Canaanites was indeed the execution of the Divine vengeance, it must be kept entirely clear of all baser motives, lest men should say that Jehovah gave His people license to deal with the Canaanites as it seemed best for themselves. The punishment of Saul for taking the spoil of Amalek (1 Samuel 15), and the repeated statement of the Book of Esther that the Jews who stood for their lives and slew their enemies, the supporters of Haman’s project, laid not their hands on the prey, are further illustrations of the same principle. The gratification of human passions may not be mingled with the execution of the vengeance of God…”

This last comment presupposes that the children were innocent, but had to be killed anyhow so that others could not question God’s righteousness.

The Benson Commentary wrote:

“Why did God punish the whole society for this one man’s sin? All of them were punished for their own sins, whereof each had a sufficient proportion; but God took this occasion to inflict the punishment upon the society. 1st, Because divers of them might be guilty of this sin, either by coveting to do what he actually did, or by concealing his fault, which, it is probable, could not be unknown to others, or by not sorrowing for it, and endeavouring to purge themselves from it: 2d, To make sin the more hateful, as being the cause of such dreadful judgments: and, 3d, To oblige all the members of every society to be more circumspect in ordering their own actions, and more diligent to prevent the miscarriage of their brethren.”

This commentary allows at least for the possibility that the children were not innocent. It also repeats the idea that they should have paid closer attention to what their father was doing.

And so, some commentaries follow a second line of thinking, concluding that the children were not innocent, but participants in their father’s sin.

Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary wrote::

“His sons and daughters were put to death with him. It is probable that they helped to hide the things; they must have known of them.”

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible agreed, stating:

“It would appear too that Achan’s family must have been accomplices in his sin; for the stolen spoil could hardly have been concealed in his tent without their being privy thereto.”

Even apart from active participation, the Bible also commanded witnesses to report the crimes they were aware of. We read in Leviticus 5:1:

“If a person sins in hearing the utterance of an oath, and is a witness, whether he has seen or known of the matter–if he does not tell it, he bears guilt.”

Also note Proverbs 29:24:

“Whoever is a partner with a thief hates his own life; He swears to tell the truth, but reveals nothing.”

As we have seen, all commentaries quoted above concluded that Achan’s children were executed.

However, other commentaries pursue a third line of thinking and feel that it is possible that only Achan was executed, and not his family.

The Benson Commentary wrote:

“It is very probable, Achan being an old man, that his children were grown up, and the things which he had stolen being buried in the midst of his tent, it is likely they were conscious of the fact, as the Jewish doctors affirm they were; and if they were not accomplices in his crime, yet, at least, they concealed it. This is said, on the supposition that they were stoned and burned. But, according to the LXX., who say nothing of his children, only he was put to death. And it is not necessary to understand even the Hebrew text as affirming any thing further. It says, all Israel stoned him with stones, without mentioning his family.

“And what it afterward adds, And burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones, may be understood of the oxen, and asses, and sheep which belonged to Achan, and which God willed to be destroyed, together with his tent, and other effects, to excite a greater horror of his crime. For the brute creatures, though not capable of sin, nor of punishment, properly so called, yet, as they were made for man’s use, so they may be justly destroyed for man’s good. And as they are daily killed for our bodily food, it surely cannot seem strange that they should sometimes be killed for the instruction of our minds, that we may hereby learn the contagious nature of sin, which involves innocent creatures in its destructive effects.”

It should also be pointed out that the killing of the animals was not a willful and deliberate act by the people, but it was in pursuance of God’s explicit commandment.

The Jamieson, Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary stated:

“As the divine law expressly forbade the children to be put to death for their father’s sins (Deuteronomy 24:16), the conveyance of Achan’s ‘sons and daughters’ to the place of execution might be only as spectators, that they might take warning by the parental fate; or, if they shared his punishment (Joshua 22:20), they had probably been accomplices in his crime, and, indeed, he could scarcely have dug a hole within his tent without his family being aware of it.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible wrote:

“… and his sons and his daughters; who… were not brought forth to be put to death, only to be spectators of the sentence of judgment, and the execution of it, that they might keep themselves from such evil things; though, as Achan may be supposed to be a man in years, being but the fourth generation from Judah; his sons and daughters were grown up in all probability, and might be accessories in this affair; and so, as some Jewish writers remark, were worthy of death, because they saw and knew what was done, and were silent and did not declare it; and it seems by what is said [in] Joshua 22:20, that they died as well as Achan, since it is there said, ‘that man perished not alone in his iniquity’; though it may be interpreted of his substance, his cattle, perishing with him; and indeed from Joshua 7:25, it seems as if none were stoned but himself, that is, of his family; no mention is made of his wife, who, if he had any,…  knew nothing of the matter, it being hid from her…

“… ‘and all Israel stoned him with stones’; hence some gather, that only Achan himself suffered death, and not his sons and daughters; ‘and burnt them with fire’ after they had stoned them with stones; which the Jewish commentators understand of his oxen, asses, and sheep… likewise his tent, and household goods, the Babylonish garment, gold and silver, were burnt, and he himself also.”

It was also pointed out by the Keil and Delitzsch Bible Commentary on the Old Testament that this clause in verse 25 “does not refer to the stoning as a capital punishment, but to the casting of stones upon the bodies after they were dead and had been burned, for the purpose of erecting a heap of stones upon them as a memorial of the disgrace.” Compare Joshua 8:29; 2 Samuel 18:17.

It should be noted, however, that God killed David’s son because of David’s sin of adultery and murder, even though the child was innocent. God gave the reason in 2 Samuel 12:14: “…because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.” But this was an extraordinary circumstance and did not reflect the rule that a child would not die for the sin of his father.

In fact, the “discussion” between God and Abraham regarding the destruction of Sodom is quite illuminating on this point. When God announced to Abraham that He would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham responded:

“‘Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’” (Genesis 18:23-25). God told him that He would not destroy Sodom if ten righteous people would be found there, but as it turned out, not even ten righteous persons dwelled in Sodom. Still, God delivered righteous Lot (and even his less righteous wife and daughters), showing that He would not destroy the righteous with the wicked.

We also read that many in Israel died because of David’s sin of numbering the army, but they were guilty too. It says that God’s anger was aroused against Israel (2 Samuel 24:1).

As was pointed out above, Achan did not perish alone in his iniquity (Joshua 22:20), but this does not have to refer to his family, but it might refer to all of Israel because they lost their battle at Ai, when about 36 men died (Joshua 7:5). In fact, this conclusion is warranted based on the context of Joshua 22 which contains a warning for the congregation of Israel.

Also, in the rebellion of Korah (compare Numbers 16), not all his family members died, as subsequently, some of the sons of Korah wrote many psalms (compare Psalm 42; 44; 45; 46; 47; 48; 49; 84; 85; 87; and 88). This means that they were not punished for the sin of their father.  This is remarkable, as the wording is quite similar to the one used in the episode about Achan. Regarding Korah, we read:

“So they got away from around the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, their sons, and their little children. And Moses said: ‘By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. If these men die naturally like all men, or if they are visited by the common fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the LORD.’ Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods” (Numbers 16:27-32).

It says specifically in Numbers 26:11: “Nevertheless the children of Korah did not die.”

In Joshua 7:15, the warning that the one taken from the accursed things would be burnt, “he and all that he has,” does not have to refer to Achan’s family; it could very well refer to his possessions, such as his animals and other physical belongings.

Regarding animals, God would have destroyed the animals in Nineveh as well, if the people of Nineveh had not repented. Sometimes, He does this to show the gravity of man’s sins. Because of it, the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea will be destroyed (Hosea 4:3). We read that when God pours out the seven last plagues over this sinful earth, “every living creature in the sea” will die (Revelation 16:3). In Noah’s Flood, all the animals on land and in the air were killed, mostly because of man’s sins as “his wickedness was great in the earth” (Genesis 6:5). Only those in the Ark survived.

This being said, it should be pointed out that the nature of animals may change and become wicked and hostile due to the influence of evil people, who in turn are being influenced by Satan the Devil. We read, for instance, that apparently due to the wickedness of man at the time of Noah (see again Genesis 6:5), animals had become corrupted too:

“The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth’” (Genesis 6:11-13).

Based on all the arguments presented herein, it appears doubtful that Achan’s children were executed with Achan. If they were, they would have had knowledge of Achan’s sin and would have done nothing about it, perhaps even agreeing with their father’s conduct and having become proud of their tolerance, as had been the case regarding the church in Corinth. It appears, however, that God required that Achan’s animals were to be killed and subsequently stoned and burned, to show the magnitude of Achan’s sin and the consequence not just for himself, but also for animals.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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