V.1 – Despite explicit instructions from GOD (through Joshua), one member of Israel (Achan) steals some of the riches that should have been given as tribute to GOD. This is noted in v.24 of the previous chapter; all plunder from the conquest of Jericho (precious metals) was considered to be a “first-fruits” offering to GOD. Israel was free to partake of all future conquests, but Achan decided that his own desires were more important than GOD.
The details of this petty theft will be revealed later, but the effect of his action(s) is immediately apparent. Elsewhere in Scripture, we see sin compared to yeast: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” If one Israelite is guilty of sin, the entire nation is tainted; Achan doesn’t yet realize it, but he has jeopardized/ruined Israel’s (immediate) future by disobeying GOD’s command.
V.2-5 – Compared with Jericho, Ai was just a small suburb; Joshua sent only a token force to fight because he (and Israel) didn’t expect the fight to be any great difficulty. However, Israel’s force of 3,000 is routed by the men of Ai, and they kill 36 Israelites as they flee. This is, after a fashion, a repeat of a past mistake: in Numbers 14, the older generation (who were sentenced to die in the wilderness) tried to go into battle against the Canaanites without GOD’s help, and they too suffered a humiliating defeat. In light of this present loss, the Israelites under Joshua lose their confidence and will to fight.
V.6-13 – Joshua grieves Israel’s loss at Ai, wondering how it happened. He knows that, if the Canaanites rally themselves now, Israel will surely be on the brink of destruction. For a moment, he even contemplates what life would have been like if Israel had never entered the Promised Land!
Thankfully, GOD addresses Joshua’s question, bringing to his attention the unfaithfulness in Israel’s midst. If Israel is not faithful in following Him, then He will not be with them anymore. The people of Israel now has a choice to make: 1) allow the corruption to remain (and face certain doom from their enemies), or 2) end the moral corruption by finding (and punishing) the one who caused it.
V.14-21 – Following the revelation and instruction, Joshua summons Israel by tribe, clan, family, and household. The most likely method (although not explicitly stated) would have been by casting lots; this could take many forms (tablets, cast stones or stones, etc.), and is seen many times throughout the Old Testament. It was believed that the outcome (differentiating guilt and innocence) was guided by the hand of GOD, and until the coming of the Holy Spirit was one of the most accurate means of making an official decision. Eventually, Achan is singled out, and he confesses his crime before Joshua, even pointing out where the stolen goods are kept.
V.22-26 – Joshua’s “messengers” (chosen representatives) search Achan’s tent, and the pilfered plunder is found exactly where he said they would be. With the evidence in hand, Israel delivers punishment as commanded by GOD (and was traditional for the time/culture): Achan, his family, and all they possess, are marched outside the camp to the Valley of Achor (“trouble”). There, they are stoned to death, and everything that remains (possession included) are burned with fire as GOD told Joshua to do. This includes the valuable plunder that Achan stole; having been tainted by Achan’s sin, they are no longer acceptable to be given to GOD.
Some may argue that it was unfair to execute Achan’s family because of his misdeed, but let us recall a couple of things: 1) Achan hid them in/under his tent, so they would have been aware of what he had done, and 2) having seen/known what Achan had done and saying nothing, they were guilty of the sin of omission; they were willing to tolerate wrongdoing in their midst than confess and be made right with GOD.
Having finished the stoning, they raise a pile of memorial stones over the remains of Achan and his household, naming the valley so that future generations would remember the trouble that happens when Israel disobeys GOD. With the matter now closed, GOD is no longer angry with Israel, and the nation can now move forward with Him.