I wonder how many of you saw one clause in Joshua 8:2 jump off the page as we read the chapter on Sunday morning. It certainly got my attention, but as is so often the case, it was not absolutely essential to the message of the chapter, so it ended up on the cutting room floor. Still, there is a great lesson there, so I wanted to bring it to you here.
In the Lord’s instructions to Joshua at the beginning of the chapter, He says in v2, “And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.
The Lord instructs Joshua to destroy Ai just like he destroyed Jericho, but with one caveat – the people were allowed to take the spoils, that is, they were given permission to take the material riches of the people of Ai for themselves.
A short passage from Joshua 6 should refresh the memory. Ch6 tells of the Israelites following the Lord’s instruction, marching around the city of Jericho once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day. On the seventh day they rose early, at the dawn of day, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, "Shout, for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction...But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it. But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD" (Jos 6:15-19).
Jericho was to be the first city conquered in the conquest of Canaan. As such, it represented the first fruits of the land, so all of it – the people, the animals, the belongings of the people, and the city itself – were to be devoted to the Lord for destruction. The silver, gold, bronze, and iron were to be brought into the treasury of the LORD. Everything else was to be destroyed.
The conquest of Jericho appears to be a rousing success, until we come to 7:1, But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the LORD burned against the people of Israel. Later in ch7, Achan gives a full confession: "Truly I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath" (vv20-21).
As a result, Achan, along with all of his possessions and family, was stoned to death and burned. The price was steep, but just. It is this episode with Achan that makes that one clause in 8:2 light up: “And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves."
The the sin and death of Achan are ironic. But we need to be careful in how we understand the irony. We may be tempted to think, “If Achan had only waited, he could have had all the spoils he could get his hands on at Ai,” as if Achan’s problem was a lack of patience. If he had known that the spoils would be permitted in Ai, and for that reason waited until Ai, his “patience” would still have been motivated by the desire for selfish gain. The lesson is not that if we are just patient we will eventually get our heart’s desire.
No, the irony here is that if Achan had treasured God above material things, he would have received both God and the spoils. Even more ironic is that if he treasured God above material things, he would have been perfectly content without the spoils.
This points to one of the many problems with the prosperity gospel. It values the blessings of God above God Himself so that God is nothing more than a means to our preferred end. We jump through whatever religious hoops we have to in order to get what we want, rather than desiring God above all things.
But we ought not limit the lesson to the desire for material things. It is true of anything else we might pursue, including respect, success, happiness, etc. The lie in the garden was “God is holding out on you, so take what you desire.” In reality, as the woman took what she desired, she was forfeiting the greatest treasure of all, perfect fellowship with her Creator. She deprived herself of that singular blessing by valuing blessings above the God who gives them.
Salvation history tells of the implementation of God’s plan to return to us that lost treasure. God demonstrated the true value of fellowship with Him by spending His Son to buy it back for us. How foolish then for us to consider any other pursuit to be worthy of our energy and passion. When God is not our chief desire, we not only devalue our fellowship with Him, but we also discount the price He paid for it.