Who Was Achan in the Bible?

The story of a man who singlehandedly lost a battle for God's people

06.30.14Achan.jpg
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The Bible is full of minor characters who played major roles in the larger events of God's story. In this article, we'll take a brief look at the story of Achan -- a man whose poor decision cost his own life and nearly prevented the Israelites from taking possession of their Promised Land.

Background

Achan's story is found in the Book of Joshua, which tells the story of how the Israelites conquered and took possession of Canaan, also known as the Promised Land.

All of this happened about 40 years after the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea -- which means the Israelites would have entered the Promised Land around 1400 B.C. 

The land of Canaan was located in what we know today as the Middle East. Its borders would have included most of modern-day Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine -- as well as parts of Syria and Jordan.

The Israelites' conquest of Canaan did not happen all at once. Rather, a military general named Joshua led Israel's armies in an extended campaign in which he conquered the primary cities and people groups one at a time.

The story of Achan overlaps with Joshua's conquest of Jericho and his (eventual) victory at the city of Ai.

Achan's Story

Joshua 6 records one of the more famous stories in the Old Testament -- the destruction of Jericho. This impressive victory was accomplished not by military strategy, but simply by marching around the city's walls for several days in obedience to God's command.

After this unbelievable victory, Joshua gave the following command:

18 But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. 19 All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.
Joshua 6:18-19

In Joshua 7, he and the Israelites continued their advance through Canaan by targeting the city of Ai. However, things did not go as they planned, and the biblical text provides the reason:

But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, 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.
Joshua 7:1

We don't know much about Achan as a person, other than his status as a soldier in Joshua's army. However, the length of the spontaneous genealogy he receives in these verses is interesting. The biblical author was taking pains to show that Achan was not an outsider -- his family history stretched back for generations in God's chosen people. Therefore, his disobedience to God as recorded in verse 1 all the more remarkable.

After Achan's disobedience, the attack against Ai was a disaster. The Israelites were a larger force, yet they were routed and forced to flee. Many Israelites were killed. Returning to the camp, Joshua went to God for answers. As he prayed, God revealed that the Israelites had lost because one of the soldiers had stolen some of the devoted items from the victory at Jericho.

Worse, God told Joshua that He would not provide victory again until the problem was resolved (see verse 12).

Joshua discovered the truth by having the Israelites present themselves by tribe and family and then casting lots to identify the culprit. Such a practice may seem random today, but for the Israelites, it was a way to recognize God's control over the situation.

Here's what happened next:

16 Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. 17 The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. 18 Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen.

19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.”

20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 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.”

22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. 23 They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the Lord.

24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 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. 26 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.
Joshua 7:16-26

Achan's story isn't a pleasant one, and it can feel distasteful in today's culture. There are many instances in Scripture where God demonstrates grace to those who disobey Him. In this case, however, God chose to punish Achan (and his family) based on His earlier promise.

We don't understand why God sometimes acts in grace and other times act in wrath. What we can learn from Achan's story, however, is that God is always in control. Even more, we can be thankful that -- although we still experience earthly consequences because of our sin -- we can know without ​a doubt that God will keep His promise of eternal life for those who have received His salvation.