When God’s people fight God’s battles according to God’s ways, they will be victorious. Because the ancient Israelites followed the strategy God gave them of marching around Jericho and blowing trumpets, the Lord brought down the walls of the city and enabled the people to conquer it (Josh. 6).
But if victory requires us to fight according to God’s ways, defeat will come when we disobey our Creator. Just as the fall of Jericho taught the Israelites that obedience brings victory, it taught them that disobedience leads to defeat. As we see in Joshua 7, not all of God’s people were faithful to His commands in the capture of Jericho. At one point, some of them failed to fight according to God’s orders, causing their next battle to end in disaster.
After defeating Jericho, the Israelites next moved to conquer the city of Ai. No doubt they expected a spectacular victory, but they endured a humiliating defeat. Thirty-six Israelite men were killed and the fighters from Ai chased them far from the city (vv. 2–5). Joshua and the elders lamented greatly at this, even suggesting that God was not keeping His promise to give them victory (vv. 6–9).
However, the problem was not that the Lord had failed to keep His promises but that the Israelites had failed to keep theirs. God rebuked Joshua for his insinuation that He was breaking His covenant oath and pointed to Israel itself as the covenant breaker. Someone had kept some of the “devoted things” from Jericho, and Joshua had to identify that person and remove him and the devoted things from Israel if they were to continue to have success in Canaan (vv. 1, 10–12). Remember that God told the Israelites that they had to put all of the silver, gold, bronze, and iron from Jericho into the Lord’s treasury. But Achan of the tribe of Judah kept some of the treasures for himself, leading to Israel’s defeat and finally to the death of Achan and his family so as to remove the curse of God (vv. 13–26).
The consequences of Achan’s sin may seem harsh, until we remember that sin is never a wholly private matter. If serious sins are not dealt with, they can contaminate the entire church (1 Cor. 5). Truly, Achan’s sin and the defeat of Israel at Ai confirms that judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Note also that Achan and his family did not come forward willingly to admit sin, but they had to be discovered by lot (Josh. 7:13–21). Perhaps things would have gone better for them had Achan confessed on his own.