Shortly after their victory at Jericho—which likely never happened—the Israelites, according to the Book of Joshua, are facing some military setbacks (Josh. 7). Naturally, the cause of these new problems is related to the reason for their prior victory: following God’s ritual nitpicking. Apparently, despite their miraculous win at Jerich0–for no other reason (we are told) then carting the Ark of the Covenant around the walls of the city–some of the Israelites have failed to heed their miracle-workers precepts. So it’s no surprise now that the Israelite’s failure to follow YHWH’s anti-pillaging policy has led to their failure to capture Ai.
So God commands:
Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the Lord and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!’ (Josh. 7:15)
The book quickly tells us that it was Achan’s (also called Achor) pillaging from the city. Achan, perhaps sensing trouble, quickly melts under the interrogation by Joshua; he confesses to the crime straightaway. In his own words:
When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath. (Josh. 7:21)
Joshua’s minions find the pillaged property, nicely tying everything up. One might expect, after such a quick confession, Joshua and Israel might be merciful upon Achan.
I laugh a deep, spiteful Old Testament laugh.
Remember: this is the Old Testament. Mercy* has no place:
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. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since. (Josh. 7:25-26)
Pay close attention to the end, there. Does it look familiar? It should, and the language it uses should provide—if you have been following us along on the site—some key phrases that should make you reconsider the entire reason for this story. The reason for this story, then, it seems, was probably an etiological one. (See a previous post for an explanation of “etiological.”) Basically, again, the idea is this: the entire story here is concerned with finding an explanation for why this particular portion of territory is called “Achor” and why it has a pile of stones in it. At this point in the story, given ancient geography, the Israelites, post-conquest of Jericho, would have likely passed right through the Valley of Achor. So it made sense, then, for there to be a story explaining why it had that name—which Josh. 7 conveniently does.
Thus, we cannot take this story very seriously, at least other than in the context of a narrative explaining why the Israelites thought it was important not to plunder. (Good for them—unfortunately this lesson is somewhat contravened by the fact that they killed everyone who was living in the city just one chapter ago.) Like most etiological narratives, history and faith were secondary concerns, if they were even concerns at all. The important aspect was explaining how something came to be, usually with some lesson for the present attached. Keep that in mind when reading these types of stories—they appear all over the Old Testament.
*This is part of what made Jesus’ message so appealing.