The execution of Achan, son of Carmi, rescuer of children

The execution of Achan, son of Carmi, rescuer of children June 16, 2013

Adapted from the book of Joshua, chapter 7. I made a few slight changes in the last four paragraphs — the rest is pure canon:

But the Israelites broke faith in regard to the devoted things: Achan 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 Israelites.

Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth-aven, east of Bethel, and said to them, “Go up and spy out the land.”

And the men went up and spied out Ai. Then they returned to Joshua and said to him, “Not all the people need go up; about two or three thousand men should go up and attack Ai. Since they are so few, do not make the whole people toil up there.”

So about three thousand of the people went up there; and they fled before the men of Ai. The men of Ai killed about 36 of them, chasing them from outside the gate as far as Shebarim and killing them on the slope. The hearts of the people failed and turned to water.

Then Joshua tore his clothes, and fell to the ground on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust on their heads. Joshua said, “Ah, Lord God! Why have you brought this people across the Jordan at all, to hand us over to the Amorites so as to destroy us? Would that we had been content to settle beyond the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has turned their backs to their enemies! The Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and surround us, and cut off our name from the earth. Then what will you do for your great name?”

The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! Why have you fallen upon your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I imposed on them. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have acted deceitfully, and they have put them among their own belongings. Therefore the Israelites are unable to stand before their enemies; they turn their backs to their enemies, because they have become a thing devoted for destruction themselves. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. Proceed to sanctify the people, and say, ‘Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “There are devoted things among you, O Israel; you will be unable to stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.” In the morning therefore you shall come forward tribe by tribe. The tribe that the Lord takes shall come near by clans, the clan that the Lord takes shall come near by households, and the household that the Lord takes shall come near one by one. And the one who is taken as having the devoted things shall be burned with fire, together with all that he has, for having transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and for having done an outrageous thing in Israel.'”

So Joshua rose early in the morning, and brought Israel near tribe by tribe, and the tribe of Judah was taken. He brought near the clans of Judah, and the clan of the Zerahites was taken; and he brought near the clan of the Zerahites, family by family, and Zabdi was taken. And he brought near his household one by one, and Achan son of Carmi son of Zabdi son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken.

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

And Achan answered Joshua, “It is true; I am the one who sinned against the Lord God of Israel. This is what I did: when I saw what it meant to devote to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, my conscience cried out within me. I saw among the spoil the children of Jericho who do not know their right hand from their left, and I hid them. They now wait hidden in a cave outside our camp, and their mothers with them.”

So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the cave; and there they were, 40 children of Jericho and their mothers with them. They took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites; and they spread them out before the Lord.

Then Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan son of Zerah, with the 40 children of Jericho and their mothers, with his sons and daughters, with his oxen, donkeys, and sheep, and his tent and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor.

Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger. Therefore that place to this day is called the Valley of Achor.

(Inspired, in part, by this post from Richard Beck and by this post from Danny Coleman.)

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  • Lorehead

    I recall reading, some time ago, a study in which passages from the Bible or the Koran about death and destruction were presented to Jewish or Muslim children, either verbatim or moved to some other time and place. And in both cases, the children recognized that it was wrong—except when they were told it was their tribe that was doing it, by divine edict.

    There is a long, long history of people being able to suppress their sense of ethics because their leaders claim to speak for God.

  • Asha


  • Buck Eschaton

    They of course did save some of the children of Jericho, i.e. Rahab.

    This story is the undoing of literalism and fundamentalism, you can’t read this story literally. Obviously no one can say with a straight face that Achan caused the defeat at Ai. It was a screw up strategically on Joshua’s part. Achan is simply a scapegoat. It’s really hard to defend the literal reading of this story, you look like an ass if you do. Achan is quite simply not guilty of what he is accused, and what he is accused of is causing the defeat at Ai. Instead of taking responsibility for his own strategic failings Joshua kills Achan as a scapegoat.

  • One wishes, but literalists, if determined, will twist stories into absurd constructions in order to justify that they be exactly the way they’re read. Oh, there are several different accounts of the Resurrection? No problem. Jesus went back into the tomb after talking to one group and then came out and talked to them again and they used the same overall dialogue each time, but it was totally several separate events. Duh.

  • Buck Eschaton

    Here’s James Alison on Achan and the Hunger Games

  • God is very useful that way.

  • It probably says something, no idea what, that I can now recognize Book of Jonah talk instantly.

  • Lorehead

    When I re-read this passage as a teenager and had developed some ability to think about it, what immediately jumped out at me was that my ancestors decided, even before they began the investigation, that their defeat must be the fault of a single person who had broken taboo, and they used a method that was guaranteed to put the blame on one and only one person. Realistically, and even ignoring for the moment the genocidal racism in this book that said not burning everything was the worst thing anyone did, a lot of Israelites would have looted rather than pointlessly destroying absolutely everything.

    I agree this passage (and others such as Judges 20) does present a serious problem for literalism and fundamentalism, but I don’t think it’s the same one you do. It’s very possible to believe that only one person kept a forbidden cloak and God was angry about that. (God said it! I believe it! That settles it!)

    I think the problem comes in when you start to ask whether what the Judges claim God says to do is right. Could the benevolent Creator of all Mankind possibly have said those things? If you need to make excuses for them, why? If morality is something that comes from Divine command, these are clearly-stated Divine commands. If you can judge a commandment in the Bible as wrong, or even especially problematic, then morality cannot be something that comes from the Bible; it must be something that you apply to the Bible, and the value of the Bible is not that it gives you all the answers on a superficial level, but that it forces you to think about its stories in moral terms.

  • Fusina

    Uuuuuhhhh…I don’t understand. Explain, please?

  • do not know their right hand from their left
    -Fred’s post.

    And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
    -Book of Jonah 4:11

  • Fusina

    Ah. Like the way I can recognize what many refer to as “Christianese” on hearing it. Go to an AG church long enough, either you get out or you get absorbed. I got out. I don’t do being absorbed at all well. I don’t do “Because God said so” very well either. I always want to know why. AG people don’t do why, or at least, the church my Mom dragged us to didn’t. Shut up, sit down and let us think for you, that they did. Questions were discouraged.

  • flat

    This is why the third Commandment is: you shouldn’t use the Lord’s name in vain.

  • themunck

    Heresy! Clearly, that means you shouldn’t swear, and nothing else! Or, at least, that’s what people seem to think -.-

  • Robyrt

    Yes, you can totally say that Achan caused the defeat at Ai.

    Joshua is not exactly Napoleon here, he’s relying on God to run his military strategy and knock down the walls for him. He’s also had decades of experience with Moses where God is extremely particular about his commands being followed to the letter – see Exodus 17, “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.” These books are very clear that any military success or defeat is directly attributable to Israel’s current theological situation. The author specifically explains that Ai is a small village, which normally couldn’t stand up to the invading Israelites.

    Also, there’s the point that the divination method leads straight to Achan, who admits that he sinned. Joshua’s not looking for a scapegoat, he’s looking for the person who is actually responsible.

  • ohiolibrarian

    He “sinned” by not massacring a bunch of kids? Really.

  • Daniel

    but the person who dispensed that commandment was doing so in the Lord’s name…or at least he said he was.

  • P J Evans

    very young children, too, since they don’t know which hand is which.

  • There are actually plenty of adults who can’t. I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but whatever disorder prevents people from knowing right from left seems fairly common as these things go. If Fred weren’t deliberately making reference to the Book of Jonah with that line it’d be little different from making fun of dyslexia and saying people who have it are clearly incompetent.

    The actual book of Joshua reads thus:

    It is true; I am the one who sinned against the Lord God of Israel. This is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them and took them. They now lie hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.

    The first of the posts Fred says he was partially inspired by was one pointing out that Joshua was written in exile, as partial explanation for the exile, and it’s a story of a strategy that doesn’t work. Joshua goes around on a campaign of genocide and the book ends on a sort of, “Well, fuck. That totally failed to accomplish anything useful,” note.

    The second post was about how people do horrible hateful things out of fear of God.

    Combine the two, sprinkle in the story where God says that he’s not actually pro genocide with the Jonah reference, and you get the rewritten version Fred wrote.

  • Ben English

    It’s still good advice. Whether you read it as simply swearing a false oath by YHWH or claiming God’s divine favor on vain or immoral things, no good comes of it. One modern example that’s not so life-or-death serious is those damned Christian Mingle commercials, which take a Jesus ™ brand online dating site and make it sound like some divinely ordained matchmaking service.

    Complete with an even creepier use of Jars of Clay’s creepy song “I want to fall in love with you.”

  • Daniel

    except that by saying “don’t take the lord’s name in vain” you lead people to believe you yourself never would, then when you tell them the lord told you to put however many thousand to the sword because they’ve begun worshipping golden cows, those same people say “well, he wouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, so God must want however many thousands put to the sword.” or as in the charming example above, the Lord says “commit genocide” though a conduit, and people do. Joshua, Moses et al are still venerated, despite their having committed murder in the name of the Lord.

  • Ben English

    Not any more so than saying “Don’t be an asshole,” should lead people to believe that you yourself have never been or will ever be an asshole. For all of the evil Joshua does in this story, he didn’t act alone. The people under his command were complicit.

  • Daniel

    Yes they were complicit, but it’s far easier to call someone on being an arsehole than a hypocrite, particularly when that hypocrisy is based on the claim that they are acting for God. There is a difference between saying “don’t make a common human error by being an arsehole” and saying “these words are inherently, magically, dangerous if they are said insincerely.”

    I doubt any army from any Christian country has ever failed to claim God was on their side- at least one must have been taking his name in vain, but the winning side was always clearly right. My point is that belief in the taboo around taking the Lord’s name in vain is what allows the Lord’s name to have any real power at all. To claim the Lord’s name has some inherent power means when awful things are done “because it’s God’s will” and no punishment is seen to follow- from Moses and Joshua all the way down to Marian and Elizabethan persecutions, Drogheda and beyond- it is implied that they were not taking the Lord’s name in vain and that God really did want those massacres to happen. He does, as it happens, at least in the old testament, but once you remove the taboo it becomes just another mild expletive and loses its power to motivate- no one goes to war because someone said “oh bugger”.

  • Ben English

    I see what you’re getting at, but I don’t really think the taboo is the thing that’s the problem. It’s not taboo becuase there’s magic, inherent power in those words but because they can be abused so easily. It’s just one symptom of the broader problem of authoritarian religious figures and the inability to or Taboo against thinking critically.

    Saying “Don’t use the name of the Lord your God in vein” as a general maxim doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) imply that anyone saying something in God’s name should be trusted. If anything it should be all the more incentive to look at what they’re saying and make sure it’s not vain. What someone tells you is God’s will or God’s words says little about God but volumes about their character.

  • Jay

    So Achan and the rest of the Israelites are “innocent” of saving some children, having obediently and faithfully hacked the kids to hamburger. I’m not sure that makes the story better, from a moral perspective.

  • Oh, it certainly doesn’t.

    The thing the first partial inspiration post was saying was that it’s possible the story was never meant to be good from a moral perspective.

    The story is, apparently, generally agreed to be a, “We fucked up, that’s why we’re in exile now,” story. The question that such a story demands one to ask is how one fucked up.

    Some, in fact I believe most, argue that the story is saying they fucked up by not being genocidal enough. (This being a religious, not a moral, fuck up.) Others, notably the person who wrote the partial inspiration post, argue that they fucked up by being genocidal in the first place.

    The question becomes whether the book is saying that the exile was because they weren’t enough like genocidal Joshua, or because they were too much like genocidal Joshua.

    If you’re pro-bible and anti-genocide then you want the answer to be that the actions in the book are being held up as an example of, “Don’t fucking pull this shit,” (note that killing Achan did not prevent the exile.) On the other hand that comes from a desire to read the texts in a way that does not endorse genocide. People know what they want to read into the text and so that is what they find when they read the text.

    I myself am not knowledgeable enough about the book of Joshua to know if the anti-genocide reading is defensible.

    What is defensible is that this is a book written to explain why it all went wrong, and Achan was not the cause. His “sin” was dealt with and the exile still happened. It had to have happened because the book was written in exile so: no exile –> no book. (Plus the exile is, I’m pretty sure, a matter of historical fact.)

  • Daniel

    OK so I think I was talking at cross purposes to you- you meant “take” as in “accept” and I thought you meant it as just a substitute for “use”.
    I think as well as religious authoritarianism there is an equivalent to “the Lord’s name” in any authoritarian system, and I agree with you that the precept should be understood as an encouragement to be critical.
    Slightly tangentially, how would you suggest it’s possible for someone to know they’re acting in the Lord’s will and be able to prove it?

  • Daniel

    “I myself am not knowledgeable enough about the book of Joshua to know if the anti-genocide reading is defensible.”
    This presents a major problem, I think, for literalists in that if this book is divinely inspired, or at least overseen by God, then why does it allow for two readings that completely contradict each other? It’s not the usual “well this part of the Bible says this, and later parts seem to contradict it but don’t really” this is one story that supposedly can be read as either an endorsement of genocide or a complete condemnation of it. Why would God make it this way and then punish us for not believing?

  • Ben English

    If there were an easy answer to that, then we’d have a lot fewer problems. You can’t prove something comes from God because you can’t prove even the existence of God.

    I don’t know what your religious background is, but for me as a Christian, the test is ‘does this message you’re dispensing in God’s name mesh up with the life and teachings of Jesus, as best as I understand them?’

  • Daniel

    I wasn’t being facetious and expecting an easy answer. I was asking because it always seems that people claiming to have acted in the Lord’s name are proved wrong by being punished or “proved right” by being rewarded. This means the outcome decides the pretext- it must have been god’s will because otherwise we wouldn’t have won. It seems that things (like genocide in the old testament) that are clearly wrong are not so clearly wrong if someone makes the claim that God told them to do it- so long as no obvious punishment is visited on that person. So Moses or Joshua can kill thousands, Abraham can be fully prepared to kill his child and because they are not explicitly shown to be punished they are instead given respect and adulation. It means the action- both the killing and the taking the Lord’s name in vain- become immoral only if they are not pragmatic.

    If the message someone dispenses in the name of God doesn’t correspond with your understanding of Jesus’s life and teachings, but is beneficial do you think this is still taking the Lord’s name in vain?

  • SkyknightXi

    The bit with Abraham is interesting, given Talmudic tradition about that event. An interpretation of the verses speaking of Sarah’s death and burial in there is that she died of sheer horror right after Isaac explained to her WHY he and Abraham had been gone. Meanwhile, Abraham was following behind, slowed down by trying to figure out what flaw in Isaac could have prompted Yhwh and Zadkiel to stop the sacrifice. Talk about missing the point.

    The Torah itself might have let Abraham off the hook. The rabbis weren’t as willing to be so charitable, though. Although I do wonder if that and all the failsafes they put on the capital punishments to make ABSOLUTELY SURE that the criminal was acting in cold blood might be attributable not to old, dating-to-the-time-of-the-Judges Hebrew thought, but to Zoroastrian influence.

  • SkyknightXi

    It’s interesting that God didn’t merely arrange for Achan to die ignominiously during the attack on Ai, but instead undermined the entire Hebrew offensive. According to the implication of the author of Josue, the entire community was somehow to blame for Achan being able to consider stealing the robe. Was the author suggesting that his contemporary Hebrews needed to be more like a hive mind or something? (Almost certainly NOT the same author as of Jonah and/or Amos…)

  • Daniel

    I have recently been reading Jewish mythology but I hadn’t come across that story, so thanks for the information. I find the extra information the Jewish legends add to the existing biblical (I’m never sure which books from the Bible are in the Torah, and if that’s different from the Pentateuch or Talmud- ignorant I know but I always muddle them up) narratives because I think they’re attempts to explain the bits that seem to make no sense- like this detail about the reaction of Sarah to the sacrifice which Genesis doesn’t mention. They’re wonderful for fleshing out characters and trying to answer the personal, human questions raised by divine intervention. So thanks again for telling me this one.

  • Old Testament God is very fond of collective punishments. Three times in the Old Testament, God even goes so far as to say that the sins of the father will be visited upon his son’s son’s son.

  • Cissa

    …And this is an example of why reading the entire Bible made me reject Christianity.