You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.
Licking her wounds from the embarrassment at Ai, Israel is crestfallen and befuddled. Joshua voices the whole nation’s consternation when he asks the Lord, “Why have you brought [Israel] over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us?” He rightly interprets God’s unwillingness to let Israel prevail against her enemies, but misinterprets His rationale. It’s not due to some oversight on God’s part that Israel failed at Ai. It was for her breaking covenant with the Lord. A member of the nation had disobeyed the Lord’s command by pilfering some of the spoils of Jericho—booty which had been expressly consigned to destruction.
But this was no mere larceny. It represented an insidious precedent of unbelief in the authority and sufficiency of God. You see, Israel’s enduring weakness was that she rarely met a religion she didn’t like. Whether in close proximity to, or exiled within, a nation who worshipped some other alleged deity, Israel’s mode of interaction was not simply to appreciate the diversity of her surroundings but to actually forswear allegiance to her core beliefs in the supremacy of Yahweh. The command, therefore, to set ablaze all the remains of Jericho was not to prove Israel’s might but to prevent Israel from becoming attached to things that might ultimately lead her to infidelity.
As we noted last week, the ruthlessness of the punishment evidenced God’s overarching interest for his entire creation: that they would know that He is God and that He is holy. The Lord had displayed His mercy to Israel on several occasions before. Here He demonstrated His singular justice. To underscore that priority, the Lord makes an unforgettable cautionary example of Achan and his family. But not before He explains what must be true for Israel if she is to exist in the center of God’s will: “You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.”
Israel would consistently fall before whatever threatened her unless one thing changed.1 She would have to relinquish her hold of the things that represented a mistrust of God’s sufficiency. Her enjoyment of God in whatever enterprise or circumstance was tied to her trust in what He had promised. Trusting Him would not insulate her from threats, but it would allow her to face them with peace and courage.
Along the way we collect things. Possessions, to be sure, but also attitudes, priorities, and positions. Some of them seem entirely harmless. Over time, though, some grow to become so important to us that whenever we risk losing them we find ourselves compromising something important in order to preserve them. We place their value somewhere above our fidelity to God and His commands.
When real threats to our stability, identity, and peace come, we find ourselves unable to face their onslaught. Why? Because we’ve come to entrust ourselves to something other than the God who entrusted us to His Son (John 17:12). Like Achan buried his contraband in his tent, we hold to things we think can substitute for the promise of God. Deeply in our hearts, we stash the acceptance of a parent, a boss, or a peer group as if that were the only thing that mattered; we place a fortification around our desire for control; we place productivity over a praise-filled life and work over a worshipful soul.
And then, like Joshua, we wonder why our hearts melt before whatever threatens our peace. What Achan kept back was not intrinsically evil but nevertheless represented an affection for something greater than God. Jesus does not hate mothers and fathers, wives and children, but He does say that unless we hate those things—i.e. value Him more than them—we do not understand what it means to follow Him (Luke 14:26); we will not know His peace in believing.
Not all our losses or sorrows stem from sin (cf. Job and the blind man in John 9), but some do. It’s therefore worth asking the question from time to time: What have I come to cherish more than God’s adoption of me? What priority, position, or possession have I become so enamored with that I would find it difficult to relinquish if God asked it of me? Your answer may very well reveal why your heart melts before what threatens you.
1. Why refer to all Israel as complicit in Achan’s sin? This Sunday will address how the consequences of sin are rarely confined to the one who commits it.