Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Achan Story

Jericho was decimated. Except for Rahab and her family, every living thing within the walls was killed. They burnt the city with fire, all men, woman, children and any unborn babies were burned alive, but before destroying the city and all the lives in it, Joshua, as verse 6:24 tells us, hauls out all the silver, the gold, the vessels of brass and iron to keep in the Lord’s treasury. Joshua was feeling pretty good about himself, in Joshua 6:27 it says his fame was noised throughout all the country. Joshua could feel the power, he could feel the fear emanating from the neighboring peoples.

Joshua, as the text hints, is feeling a might bit of pride. He immediately wants to continue his victories, so he sends some spies out to check out the city of Ai. Presumably the spies tell him that because our army is so tough and you are such a great leader Joshua it won’t take much to smite little old Ai.

Joshua, still partying and enjoying his victory and new found fame, doesn’t find it necessary to send a full force of people to conquer Ai, he doesn’t even find it necessary to go himself. He sends a small contingent of men to labor in the battlefields of Ai. The soldiers are probably wondering why do they have to go and do this harsh duty while everybody else gets to stay back and continue the party. Joshua is probably even showing off all the loot in the treasury to the better connected people. Joshua like any proud man is sure that Ai will fall at the very mention of his name. He is convinced that the people Ai will start running as soon they see Joshua’s army.

The soldiers know something isn’t right. Joshua isn’t coming with them. They remember the words of Numbers 27:15-21, Joshua is supposed to go out before them and Joshua is supposed to lead them back in, not some just a small contingent of them, but all of Israel.

The predictable happens, the soldiers without their leader pretty much turn tail and run at the slightest sign of resistance. A small number of them are killed. Joshua is not there to lead them. If Joshua doesn’t consider it important enough to be on the battlefield they don’t think it is either. They want to get back and take a look at all that loot in the treasury too, to sit back and bask in the victory at Jericho a little longer, just like their leader Joshua.

Word gets back to camp that the army has been beaten, beaten bad, humiliated even. Joshua and all the elders immediately get all dramatic. Something bad has happened and they, of course still full themselves, know that it’s not their fault. They will blame somebody else. He immediately starts blaming the soldiers for the defeat, and they’re thinking, well Joshua it’s not really our fault you were supposed to be out there with us. Our buddies and brothers have been killed because you stayed home and didn’t send an adequate force. Joshua doesn’t immediately sense the anger being directed at him, he’s more worried about how he will be perceived by the Caananites.

Israel is in crisis, Joshua tells them that this defeat means that Yahweh is no longer with them. Joshua threatens them with looming destruction. The people are scared, angry at Joshua, angry at one another, actual internecine violence may be taking place, recrimination and blame are circulating. Joshua, to deflect criticism of himself, tells them that the only possible cause of the defeat is the sin of the people. Someone has taken the accursed thing, and that is the only reason that Israel was defeated. Forget all the strategic considerations, sin is the reason for the defeat. The story only names Achan as the transgressor, but it also says that all Israel sinned. This might seem contradictory, but I can see how people might reconcile the two statements, but that’s not all we have to consider, verse 8:2 says, after all the commotion in verse 7 about the accursed thing, that after Ai it is OK to take the plunder and accursed thing. I’ll use this little detour to lay the basis for my belief that Achan was not the only one in the story that was in possession of the accursed thing.

Joshua thinks he has discovered the cause of defeat, and of course it isn’t him. It is one person, only one person. To accuse more will more only cause greater dissension. He already knows who will be blamed for the defeat, it’s definitely not him or any of the elders. It will be someone who cannot fight back, and more importantly it will be someone who is isolated, weak and unattractive, with no one to defend him or become his advocate. There is no advocate for the defense in this story, the voice of the victim/scapegoat will be almost totally crushed. (Unlike Isaiah 53, many Psalms, Job and the Gospels)

Because of all the dissension/retributive violence/fear/guilt in the community Joshua decides to conduct an Atonement ritual. Atonement literally means “At one ment”. The goal of all atonement rituals is to unite the people. This idea of atonement, this idea of a scapegoat ritual, is not just common in primitive communities, it is nearly universal. The Greek pharmakos immediately comes to mind. The idea of all atonement rituals is for the sin/dissension/violence of all the people to be transferred to a scapegoat/pharmakos. (we see the pharmokos ritual in the New Testament in Luke 4:28-30, there was nothing magical about Jesus walking through the crowd, in the pharmakos ritual no one person was designated as the executioner, the people couldn’t touch the pharmakos, they just kept crowding around him until he jumped off the cliff of his own accord, but Jesus had nothing to do with this, his desires were not in accordance with the mob, so he just walked right out between them. Keep this in mind when Achan makes his confession)

Joshua isn’t searching for justice, he will be running an atonement ritual. He wants to remove the fear/violence/sin from the community. He needs to designate one person to do this. He tells the people that he will use the Urim and Thummin to find the wrongdoer. He lines them all up, a lot of people are worried because they have loot at home, maybe by this time though they were smart enough to get rid of it. He makes it clear that the person who he designates is guilty of causing the defeat at Ai. That this person, not Joshua, is guilty of causing the deaths of their loved ones, for causing all the internal dissension and for causing the shadow of destruction to hang over them. These are serious crimes that affect everybody. A logical disconnect here, of course, but mobs and people in crisis aren’t really concerned with logic. How does the privatization of a small amount of loot, especially if the possession of said loot is not common knowledge, bring about a military defeat.

So the atonement ritual begins, one by one, in great fear, they approach Joshua. One by one Joshua forgives their sin, he pronounces them not guilty, and as the ritual sin bearer he absorbs their sin. Joshua frees the people of their sin, this is a very intense situation. There is a lot of anger here, the people are waiting to unload. Joshua is going to deliver them a scapegoat and it’s not going to be him.

The ugly despised and isolated Achan is chosen and Joshua discharges the sin upon him. Joshua is a substitute for all the people, he has absorbed their sin and Achan becomes the substitute for Joshua and accordingly becomes the substitute for all the people, the doom that was to befall them now will befall Achan and only Achan. At this juncture in the story I’m going to assume, even though there are differing opinions, that no one brings up Deuteronomy 19:15. That no one brings up the fact that it is Joshua who was gone astray, because he has forgotten that a man’s guilt can be proved only through two witnesses, not through the Urim and Thummin. That no one brings up the fact that Joshua wasn’t subject to the ritual.

So Achan is taken out by the angry and delirious mob and murdered. Not only Achan though, but his whole family, his sons and daughters. His sons and daughters were not guilty, but Joshua didn’t want them around to bring up doubts about Achan’s guilt later on.

Achan is a scapegoat, just like Jesus. Achan wasn’t a perfect man, but he was innocent of the charges that were made against him. Achan was not killed because he had some loot, he was killed, in Caiaphas’s words, because it was better that one man die than the whole nation be destroyed. The murder of Achan by the collective caused the community to be “At-One” again. Achan in this story is a precursor or an expectation of the Christ figure. Achan became the bond of the convenant. The murder of Achan was what kept the people together. The New Testament, of course, condemns this idea of “At-One-Ment” at the expense of an isolated individual.

One more thing at the end here. Jesus is the good shepherd, He leads them in and out, he doesn’t lose any of his sheep, he doesn’t scapegoat any of them. Joshua can’t say the same.

One more thing, almost immediately after the homicidal rage that consumes Achan is quenched, while the people may still be covered with the “At-One-Ment” blood of Achan, Joshua lifts the ban. Peace has returned, but it is the peace of the world, not the peace of Yahweh, it is the peace born from unanimous hatred of a supposed evildoer, which Rene Girard has found to be the foundation of all pagan religions.

I realize that there are a lot of themes here that need further expansion, but I’m only a lowly blogger.

1 comment:

SaintSimon said...


Thank you for taking the time to develop this further in a well thought out manner, and dealing with the issues in my previous comment.

You have given me much food for thought here and challenged many of my presuppositions.

I still feel there are flaws in the logic.

EG - Achan's family would have been included because they would have known about the treasure in their tent.

I feel it is significant that the story starts with "But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things [a] ; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, [b] the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the LORD's anger burned against Israel." It seems to me that Israel collectively was responsible for the sin of just one of their number. It says Israel acted unfaithfully, and when it explains what the sin was, it mentions Achan by name. This is the verdict of the writer, and is the point of the story he is telling, and so if you come to a different conclusion you could be distorting it. In other passages where all of the people sin, it says so. here it singles out the individual, and i therefore think it was the individual that sinned, although the whole community sufered.

You point about 'two or three witnesses' is a valid one.

However, I still feel that you are underestimating the use of Urim and Thumim - they were a standard method (which if i remember rightly had been given by God). THis was not a case of one man bringing a malicious false prosecution against his neighbour to the court, it was a case of the whole community being affected by a secret sin. Also, a significant feature of the story is that Joshua spends a lot of time face down in the presence of God before taking these actions. I think it is reasonable to take it that his subsequent actions derive from the time he has spent with God. And in fact the text says that what Joshua did was in accordance with god's instructions to him in front of the ark v14.

You point about Joshua not going to Ai is a valid one. But again, the writer would have said so explicitly if this was the problem - after all if Moses's sins are explicitly identified, why not Joshua's? And in the text God identifies the sin of keeping devoted things as the casue, not Joshua staying at home. So while you are right, i think this was a secondary factor to the main one which was that one man's sin incurred guilt on the whole community.

In summary, whilst there is much in your discussion of atonement that I feel is a positive contribution to the study, I still think that you are excessively maligning Joshua and that Achan died for his own individual sin and that this is a contrast to the death of Christ, not a picture of it.