Friday, November 19, 2010

Atonement and the sin of Achan: Joshua 7 (Guest post)

The following is a guest post by the Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham. 

The deep truth of one man standing for the whole people is powerfully and fearfully revealed in Joshua chapter 7.  See how the chapter begins:

The Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel.

One man acted unfaithfully to the LORD.  One man took plunder from the sack of Joshua for his personal treasure.  Achan alone disobeyed the LORD’s instructions.  Yet, we are told “Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things” and “the LORD’s anger burned against Israel”.

Here we see one of the deepest truths in the Bible displayed in the clearest possible terms.  One of the most foolish claims that we make in our fallen mess is that each person must stand alone, that the actions of others have nothing to do with us.  In a highly individualistic age this gets even stronger.  Today we even find people who call themselves Christian yet are not part of a local church family.  They imagine that they stand completely alone before the Living God, that their atonement is a purely personal, individual transaction.

The story of Achan is a great reminder of the fact that we are joined together as a body.  The actions of one effects us all, for good or ill.  The Living God did not create us as a conveyor belt of individual items, but he created a human family that would stand or fall together. 

He deliberately created us so that the actions of one man could have decisive effects for all.

Achan had sinned.  He secretly hid away the plunder that was devoted to the LORD alone.  His secret sin publically corrupted the whole community.  His actions brought guilt on the whole people and had already cost people their lives.  When 36 Israelite soldiers were killed in the defeat at Ai, Joshua knew that the LORD was no longer with them.  When he enquired of the LORD he received a very straight answer.

Joshua 7:10-12 – “The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.”

Israel has sinned.  Israel has lied.  Israel has violated the covenant.  Why?  Because in the community there was a man who had done these things.  The covenant was broken by one man and the LORD was no longer with them because of this one man.

As the story unfolds we see how his whole family were caught up in his sin, probably sharing his greed and his hatred of the LORD and His ways.  Why didn’t his family run away from him when they knew what he had done?  What Achan had secretly done was fully known to the LORD God and in verses 14-18 the target of condemnation narrows down until it is fixed squarely on Achan.  Can we imagine what it was like as the tribe of Judah was selected, then the clan of Zimri is selected and then the families are narrowed down to the guilty one.  Why didn’t Achan repent long before he was found out?  That is the nature of our unbelief and sin.  We will not come into the light but instead we cower in the darkness of our guilt and shame.

When the lights were switched on and Achan and his family were revealed, how could the situation be fixed?  How could atonement be made?  If the covenant with the LORD had been violated, then what would it take to restore it?  Would it be enough to say sorry?  Would it be enough to simply do the right thing with the stolen plunder?  No.  Atonement requires more than mere repentance or restoration.  When we violate the LORD’s covenant, when we offend against His Holy Majesty, when we stand before Him with our corruption and guilt rotting around us, it is not enough to regret what we have done and it is not enough to attempt to patch up the mess we have made.  The cleansing and healing required is very costly.

Only death, only blood, can cleanse away the decaying death of our guilt and sin.

It is in the blood and fire of sacrificial atonement that our sin and corruption is put to death.  What can turn away the fierce anger of a Living and Infinite God?  What can pay Him off?  What can soothe the angry heart and mind of such a God? 

We might not like it.  We might prefer to imagine a thoroughly civilised ‘god’ who likes to deal with problems in a round table discussion, with compromises made on both sides.  We might like a genteel, polite religion with no blood, no sweat and no tears… and yet, when we face the sheer filthy evil of our greed and violence before the Living God, when we feel the desperate darkness of our world, when we are falling into the decay of our own death moments from facing our Maker, surely then we know the value of a blood and fire atonement that reaches to the very depths and soothes even the heart of that Most Holy One who inhabits eternity.

Joshua 7:24-26 – “Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold wedge, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor.  Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger.

Achan brought trouble on Israel.  The guilt and sin of the whole community was focused on him.  One man had brought the sin onto the people and now this one man carried the sin away from the people.  As that one man was killed and burned, it was as if the LORD’s anger against that sin was focused and satisfied.

The end of verse 26 is incredible.  The LORD’s covenant had been violated and He was rightly angry about this.  Yet, through the death of troublesome Achan He showed us, once again, that His own Man, His own Messiah, really would be able to take on the sins of the whole world and turn away, once and for all, the fierce anger of the Most Holy God against all our sins.

The ancient promise of atonement through the one Seed from the earliest days of Genesis was given a powerful if disturbing illustration in the death of Achan.

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