Joshua, Achan, and the Sin of the Israelites
By Avi Lazerson
The Tanach, that is the Jewish name for the section of the bible that has the writings of the prophets, has many very interesting stories in it. One of them is in the Book of Joshua which deals with the conquest of the the land of Canaan by the Jews as they entered the promised land after wandering for forty years. In one part of the Book of Joshua, chapter seven, there is the story of a man by the name of Achan who took something that did not belong to him and the entire Jewish nation was punished. This raises an interesting question: Why is it that if one person sins should an entire nation should be punished. This is an interesting question that requires some understanding. Generally, if a person sins, he, and he alone is guilty it is he alone who is punished, so why in this case should an entire group (we might mention it was several million people, an entire nation) who were not involved in the sin be punished?
To understand this, let us review some background information. When Joshua and the Jewish tribes conquered the land of Canaan, they generally were instructed to kill all the inhabitants (perhaps a bit strong perhaps for our peace loving generation) as was the standard mode of warfare in those days. In many instances, G-d told Joshua (who was not only a chief warrior but also a prophet who took over leadership from Moses when he died) to completely destroy the cities that were captured. Often G-d told Joshua that the Jewish warriors should give the captured gold and silver over to the sanctuary for the future purpose of the yet un-built Temple.
With this in mind let us look into Chapter Seven of the Book of Joshua:
1. And the children of Israel trespassed in relation to a dedicated thing (meaning the spoils of war which they were not to take for themselves), for Achan the son of Carmi, the son of Zavdi, the son of Zerach, of the tribe of Judah, took a dedicated object; and G-d was angry with the children of Israel.
What had happened here was that Achan had taken some gold and silver from the spoils of war and had hidden it in the earth beneath his tent. No one else knew what he did.
In the verses that follow, Joshua sends spies to the city of Ai, which is north-west of Jericho. They tell Joshua that this city is easy to conquer, only three thousand men should be needed for the battle. Joshua sends the recommended three thousand men and they are routed and defeated retreating from the warriors of Ai, with thirty-six Jewish warriors killed. This bad turn of events was a total shock to Joshua since G-d had promised him success in the military conquest of the land – so he prayed to G-d and G-d answered him (verses eleven and twelve):
11. Israel has sinned; they have even transgressed My covenant which I commanded them; they have even taken of the devoted thing; and have also stolen, and denied also, and they have even put it among their own vessels.
12. Therefore the children of Israel cannot stand before their enemies, they turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become accursed; I will not be with you any more, unless you destroy these from among you.
Notice that in verse eleven, it states that Israel has sinned. The Hebrew verbs are in the plural form, not the singular form if one person sinned. All the Jews are considered as sinners now. The truth is that Achan was the only person to sin by taking the objects that were forbidden for him to take; yet all of the Jewish people are called sinners and because of that the G-d's presence has left them and they are with out His divine protection as He had promised to Joshua. This highlights our question at the beginning: how is it that one man sin and the entire nation is punished that thirty-six innocent men die at the hands of the enemy?
Eventually Joshua does find out that Achan is responsible for the theft and he is put to death for his transgression against G-d and all of his possessions are destroyed. After this G-d's divine presence returns to the Jewish people and they again become successful in their subsequent wars and battles.
To fully understand what happened, why the entire nation was considered as sinners from one man's action, we must remind ourselves that this generation which came into the land of Canaan to conquer it and settle it, was not at all like our present generation. Their's was a generation that wandered in the desert for forty years due to the sins of their fathers. Their parents were the generation that left Egypt; they had seen the signs and miracles that G-d did for them as they left Egypt. This was given over to this generation in a first person narrative from their parents. They, the children, witnessed the many miracles in the desert: the manna from heaven, the wandering well of Miriam, and the clouds of glory that protected them. They saw revelations of G-d both at Mount Sinai and also during the long forty years that they wandered in the desert. They conquered kings and armies greater than themselves.
They became the people of G-d; they were His army. They were to be united in arms and in brotherhood and devoted to carrying out His will by fulfilling His commandments as given through Moses and the holy Torah and also by listening to His prophets, in this case Joshua. They were to be a people united totally devoted to G-d and settling the promised land to fulfill His commandments and to live the type of life that He so desired.
The level of unity that these people had is incomparable to anything that we have today. They had total belief in Joshua's prophecy and in G-d. Yet this one man, Achan, was the one weak part that began to break the achdut, the unity of the Jewish people. We were like one person, not just one people; with a bond that brought the presence of G-d into our midst. When one man felt so 'liberal' and 'liberated' from the group that he felt that he could steal from G-d's portion with out any worrying about any repercussions; with out any worry of sin, so much so that he felt that he could privately benefit from stolen booty, property that belonged to G-d – and that such a feeling could exist in a person in generation like this; this was the sin of the generation, not just an individual. The group lacked and caused such a sin.
Since it was possible for one person to feel that he could do what ever he wanted; that G-d did not 'see' and that in this environment a sinner could exist, pointed to a deficient mentality amongst the other Jews even though they themselves did not steal, yet they provided Achan with an environment to feel that he could steal with impunity – that was the sin of the Jews. They were held communally responsible for creating an atmosphere where such thought of diversion could be tolerated.
We do not live in such a generation. We are now coming back to our native land, the land of Israel, the land that G-d promised to our fathers. He promised to bring His children back to His land but we are not entering it as one people with one heart devoted to G-d. Instead we are a divergent people coming from divergent cultures with many different views on life ranging from the ultra-Orthodox to the ultra liberal. We have collectively seen many types of life outlooks. Our small Jewish country has blossomed and bloomed creating a beautiful country with a wonderful life for those who live here. Our army has been successful, but we must realize, that our success is dependent on G-d's will and desire to see us succeed. For this end, we must insist not just on external unity, but on internal unity. We need to emphasize the need for love between the various factions in our people. We need a unity based not only on our common needs, but also on our common backgrounds. We need a unity that we eventually bring us all back to our one G-d.
We are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our ancestors sinned and were exiled from their lands for two thousand long and miserable years. We collectively went from massacre and torture to oppression and coercion. Now in His great kindness, G-d has decided to bring us back to our lands. Let us learn from the mistakes of those who preceded us. We must maintain our unity, our national purpose and our loyalty to our Creator. In this manner we can only succeed in redeeming our ancient lands.
from the October 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine