What Happens When We Fail? Audio
Jericho has been destroyed. The people are no doubt rejoicing at how well the battle has gone and now the next stage is to climb the pass to where the city of Ai stands defending the entry into the hill country of Canaan. But things don’t go quite as well as they imagine.
If you skipped over the first verse of ch 7 you might think that Joshua and his spies have been a bit over-confident following the triumph at Jericho. After all they only send 3000 men to attack Ai without really knowing what awaits them. Some commentators suggest that the problem was that Joshua didn’t stop to ask God for guidance. That’s certainly the case in a couple of chapter’s time when the Gibeonites trick him into accepting them as members of their community. But it’s not the case here.
The text tells us clearly what the problem is. A man named Achan has taken some of the booty from Jericho, things that had been devoted to God, and as a result God’s anger has burned against the Israelites.
Joshua’s actions are those of a good leader. He listens to the advice of the spies and sends a small battalion to attack what appears to be a weak city. But they’re totally defeated! And he can’t understand it. What’s gone wrong?
He and the elders turn to God to ask why he’s abandoned them. The news of this defeat will spread through the hills and no-one will fear them anymore. What’s worse no-one will fear the LORD. He says: “Then what will you do for your great name?” It’s a plea that Moses used when God told him he was going to abandon the Israelites in the desert.
But God doesn’t leave Joshua wondering. In his mercy he gives Joshua the answer he needs: “11Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I imposed on them. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have acted deceitfully, and they have put them among their own belongings.” He’s saying the evils of Jericho that were to have been burnt away have been brought with them into their own camp in the form of this illicit booty.
There are a number of issues here that we need to come to grips with. The first is this concept of corporate identity and corporate responsibility that I mentioned last week. It’s something that we 21st century people struggle with. If this were happening now we’d probably point out that it was just Achan who stole the devoted things. The rest of us are innocent so why should the rest of us suffer? There are certainly some builders and construction workers asking that sort of questions at the moment. But there are times when we all need to bear responsibility corporately even if we weren’t personally involved in some failing. When Kevin Rudd made that Apology speech in Parliament 7 years ago he was expressing our corporate failings as a nation in our treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters over a 200 year history. The Churches of Australia have joined the National Redress Scheme, taking responsibility for the actions of a small number of our leaders who have abused those under their care. We see a similar question arising with the call for national vaccination against Covid-19. Some people have conflated the idea of personal freedom with that of personal choice. But when you live in a community personal freedom is always tempered by corporate responsibility. We don’t drive on whatever side of the road we feel like, otherwise we’re likely kill someone going the opposite direction. If we smoke we don’t do it in places where others’ health might be affected by our smoke. We pay our taxes because the community needs them to provide the public services we all rely upon.
And this corporate identity is even more significant for Israel. We saw last week how God had renewed their place as his special people. They are uniquely the people of God. And if one of them sins, then all of them are involved.
Did you hear how God expressed the problem? “They have transgressed my covenant that I imposed on them.” We saw last week how their covenant commitment had been renewed through the act of circumcising all the uncircumcised men. Their covenant unfaithfulness had been rolled away, we were told. And straight away they’ve broken that covenant again. They’ve ignored the command to not take anything away from Jericho for themselves or they would make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. And that’s what’s happened. The objects brought from Jericho have tainted the whole camp.
So they need to make amends. They need to find the devoted things and destroy them along with whoever carried them away.
So they go through a filtering process, narrowing down the search by tribe, then by clan, then by family, then by household. And finally Achan is identified and he confesses. He’d seen among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels; he’d coveted them and took them.
It was a simple thing really. He liked what he saw and took it, thinking no-one would know. But what was at the root of this act of disobedience? Well, he tells us: he coveted it. But what’s wrong with coveting? Our world would say there’s nothing wrong with that. Out entire advertising industry is built around the idea of getting us to covet what they’re trying to sell. But for God’s people, for Achan in this instance, the problem was one of faith. Did he trust God to provide him with good things? The issue is the same for us today: Do we trust God to provide us with those good things that we need? Do we trust him to supply the pleasures of life that we long for? Do we trust him to look after us when we’re locked down and unable to do all the things we like to do in normal times? Do we see all the good things that God has already given us even while experiencing these hard times?
Well, Joshua sends someone to look for the stolen items and they’re brought back and spread before the Lord. Achan and his family and all their belongings are taken to the valley of Achor, which means ‘Trouble’, along with all the stolen items. There they’re put to death, their remains and the stolen items are burnt and a great pile of stones is placed over them as a reminder of God’s anger at their unfaithfulness.
But then, in his grace, God speaks to Joshua again, with a similar command to that at Jericho. He tells him to go up to Ai and attack it again, but this time to set an ambush. Part of the army is to feint an attack then retreat and when the people of Ai come out to chase them away again the rest are to move in, set fire to the city and attack from behind.
One of the things you notice in these accounts is that the battle is orchestrated by God. He’s the one who gives Joshua the strategy. He gives him the timing for the ambush to be sprung. All Joshua has to do is follow instructions and the battle is won. Ai is taken and the city destroyed just like Jericho.
The significant difference with this battle though is that this time the people are allowed to take the plunder for themselves. If only Achan had trusted God he would have shared in this bounty along with everyone else!
And so the entry into the Promised Land has begun.
But then the narrator takes us in a leap some distance north to carry out one of the instructions that Moses left for Joshua before he died.
They march north to one of the significant places in the history of Israel. Here between two mountains is the city of Shechem, modern day Nablus. It was here that God appeared to Abraham when he first entered the land and built his first altar to the Lord. It was here that Jacob settled after escaping from Laban with Leah and Rachel. Jacob built a well near here, a well where one day Jesus would meet a Samaritan woman. And it was here that Joseph’s bones were buried when the conquest of the land was complete (Josh 24:32).
For our story the significance of this place is that before he died Moses told Joshua that when he got to there he was to build an altar to God on Mt Ebal and offer up burnt offerings to the LORD. Then the people were to be divided by tribes with half standing at the base of Mt Ebal and half at the base of Mt Gerizim. Then they’re to listen as the Levites read out all the Blessings and Curses of God’s Covenant with them.
So there are two mountains, one the mountain of blessing, the other the mountain of curses. What will happen to them as they enter the land will depend on whether their life fits Mt Gerizim or Mt Ebal. If they keep God’s law, God will bless them: they will become the greatest of the nations, their land will be fertile, all the other nations will look at them in envy; but if they disobey God’s law they’ll suffer God’s judgement.
Remember how this account of the entry into the land began with a renewal of the covenant through the circumcision of all the men and the celebration of the Passover? Well it’s as though this gathering at Shechem is the climax of this stage in their conquest of the land, as the covenant conditions are read out to remind them of what God promises them.
Notice that the altar here is built on the mountain of curses, Mt Ebal. The people need to be reminded from the start that God knows they can’t keep the commandments perfectly. They will always need to return to God in repentance. They need to be reminded that God has made it possible for them to come back to him and receive his forgiveness. Notice: the altar was to be of undressed stones. God was telling them that there was nothing a human being can do to add to his grace.
Before the curses and blessings are read out Joshua offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the grace of God in calling them out to be his people. And he does it on the mountain of curses. Can you see the significance of this? He gives thanks for God’s choice of them on the mountain that reminds them of his grace in the face of their own unworthiness. As I said, this is a great object lesson. Your unworthiness is the very reason that God chooses to save you. If you didn’t need saving God wouldn’t bother. Remember, Jesus said only the sick need a physician.
You know, when the Assyrians captured Samaria and took the people of the northern kingdom into exile they replaced them with people from other nations. These people became the Samaritans. And when they arrived they decided they should worship the god of the land they’d come to. So they found out about Israelite history and the way God was to be worshipped, and because they couldn’t go to Jerusalem they built their own temple. Well where do you think they built it? Certainly not on the mountain of curses! No, they built their temple on the mountain of blessing, Mt Gerizim. You see they didn’t understand the nature of God’s grace. They weren’t part of God’s chosen people. They thought if they sacrificed in the place that represented the blessings of God then God would be happy with them. But in fact what they needed was to acknowledge their sinfulness and ask for God’s grace.
This explains some of the conversation that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman in John 4: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain (Mt Gerizim), but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem’” (Jn 4:19-21). Jesus’ point was that no human system of being right with God would suffice. Neither Mt Gerizim, nor even Mt Zion would be the place where the effective sacrifice was carried out. In fact that place would be the hill of Calvary. And once his sacrifice was complete there would no longer be the need for any earthly temple because the reality of God’s nature would become clear. He goes on to say “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24 NRSV) Jesus’ death and resurrection led to the giving of his Holy Spirit to all believers so we can now connect with God directly.
But we’ve moved well beyond Joshua haven’t we? All of this raises the perennial question: if there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves right with God why does he make such a fuss of the blessings and curses? Why all this theatre?
Well let me ask you, what do the commandments teach us? Some of you will immediately think “They teach us how to do the right thing.” Or “They teach us what we should avoid doing.” And that’s true. But that’s not their main purpose. You see, what the commandments really teach us is the nature of God. God’s commandments are his propositional statements about his character. These are the family characteristics. They won’t help you join the family but if you’re adopted into the family they’ll help you behave as one of them.
God’s promise to Abraham was unconditional. His descendants would become a great nation. All the world would be blessed through him. Yet as the blessings and curses are read out the people discover that the blessings of God in this life are conditional. They’ll prosper as long as they live according to the family values. If they choose to ignore God he’ll abandon them until they work out how foolish they’ve been, as we’ve just seen with the debacle in Ai and as they’ll discover some four or five hundred years later when first the Assyrians then the Babylonians take them into exile.
But what about us? Do these blessing and curses still apply? Well, Jesus has in fact replaced those blessings and curses with some others. You might like to read the Sermon on the Mount later, from Matthew 5-7. Here’s a sample: Matt 6:1-21: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ... 3when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. …6whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you… 14if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Finally Jesus says: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall!” (Mat 7:24-27)
Jesus words are different because the context has changed. We now have his Spirit guiding us. But the need to maintain our purity of life, our faithfulness to God, is just as great. One big difference for us is that God has given us his Word, his propositional revelation of himself, written down so we can study it and learn how to live as faithful servants and as members of his church, his body here on earth.
Let’s pray that we might be people who remain faithful to his covenant with us and live always under God’s blessing because we hear his words and act on them.