Contrary to what some oddball evangelical leaders have said in the last several years, the Old Testament has plenty to teach Christians in the New Testament age.
As the Apostle Paul said in Romans 15:4, “whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction.” What we call the Old Testament was certainly instructive for the Jews, but for two millennia it has also been instructive for Christians – most of whom come from non-Jewish backgrounds.
Therefore, as we study the Old Testament, we find that that portion of Scripture is also “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). In fact, when Paul wrote those words to Timothy, he actually had the Old Testament in mind.
One such area of instruction is the conquest of the Promised Land by the people of Israel under the leadership of Joshua. Even when God declared in advance that this land would belong to the descendants of Abraham through Isaac, they still had to go to war to fulfill their destiny.
They also had to do things God’s way. This is why the Book of Joshua, which describes the ebb and flow of that conquest, doesn’t begin with a battle. It doesn’t start with the victory over Jericho, the largest, strongest, and best fortified city in Canaan. Instead, Joshua begins with five chapters highlighting, not warfare, but things like the Word of God, the testing of faith, consecration, and cleansing.
The devastation of disobedience
In the aftermath of the victory over Jericho in Joshua 6, Israel forgets its earlier lessons, resulting in a crushing defeat to a small army from an obscure little city named Ai. This devastating loss was due to a number of factors, but the most evident cause was disobedience.
Even today, many Christians are experiencing lives filled with defeat, yet how many of us ask ourselves if we have opened the door to the schemes of the Devil through disobedience?
Of course, one must avoid blanket explanations about tribulation in our lives, because the Bible teaches that a number of distinct causes are possible for such troubles. Disobedience is not the only cause of defeat. It can be caused by ignorance, immaturity, the tribulations of this world, persecution, God’s testing, etc. Moreover, hardship is not always a sign of God’s displeasure, either. And difficulty does not always equal defeat. For example, Joseph was imprisoned because he was faithful to God, not disobedient.
But disobedience is the main issue in Joshua 7. So, when defeat occurs – or simply a time of difficulty – Christians should examine themselves to see if they’ve been disobedient. Once they are clear of that explanation, the believer can move on to other possibilities.
In terms of spiritual warfare, the principle is this: Our enemy has authority to act wherever we yield ground to him through sin.
Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, 27, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.”
The word “opportunity” means literally a “place.” The Greek word is topos, from which we get the English word “topography,” meaning the study of terrain in a geographical location, as well as the study of that terrain on a map. Paul is saying that we can yield to the devil an actual spot or place in our lives – a topos – when we are disobedient.
Israel’s instruction and warning
In Joshua 6, we see that as the time for warfare drew near, God provided both instruction and warning for the people of Israel.
The fall of Jericho was evidence of an amazing partnership between Almighty God and the frail people He had called to Himself. Yes, the city stronghold was destroyed by the power of God, but that power was released by faith and obedience.
In the first place, the men and women of Israel believed God’s promises, because He had said He would destroy the walls of Jericho. As it says in Hebrews 11:30,
By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.
Note in this verse that true faith includes obedience because the faith-filled Israelites did as they had been commanded – they marched, they blew trumpets, and they shouted. Faith does – it acts.
But God’s instructions to Israel in chapter 6 are not limited to how the walls will fall. He also tells Israel what they are to do afterward – and what they were not to do (Joshua 6:17-19).
The city of Jericho is described as being “under the ban” (vs. 16). This expression is a single Hebrew word that refers to something that is separated out for the purpose of destruction – like fish caught in a net that cannot escape but can only await their “doom.” As a result, “under the ban” came to mean something that is doomed or accursed.
As per the promise of God, only Rahab and her family were to be spared. The Israelites were prohibited from owning anything in Jericho, for everything in it was given over to destruction. They were not to personally profit from what was in the city. This is the exact opposite of what pagan armies did after they “sacked” a city. In the case of Israel, anything that was to survive would be used by God, not the individual people.
The stain of the curse
These instructions were very clear. The fact is, a Christian can’t obey a little. You can’t almost obey. We either obey or we don’t. Not obeying completely is called disobedience.
That is hard for humans to accept. We are prone to rationalizing everything in order to excuse what we want to do, even if we know it’s wrong.
God warned Israel that, if they disobeyed, there would be consequences. It would “make the camp of Israel accursed and bring trouble on it” (Joshua 6:18). Interestingly, this word “accursed” is the same word translated “under the ban” in vs. 17.
In other words, if you take for yourself what God has cursed, the resulting judgment gets on you! You bring that destruction on you and your family. Moreover, God says that which is accursed causes spiritual problems and consequences that ripple into the natural realm.
Jesse Penn-Lewis, a Welsh evangelical writer and speaker of the last century, said this in The Conquest of Canaan:
“How solemn this [warning] is. The curse that is on the devil will come on God’s people if they touch the things that have their source from Satan, and hence have his power upon them.”
Now, there was nothing about the gold of Jericho that was intrinsically bad, evil, or dangerous. The trouble was caused by the fact that God had cursed it.
Joshua 7 starts with a simple explanation of what was about to cause Israel’s defeat: Achan “took some of the things under the ban” (7:1).
Apparently, the only thing that Achan thought would be a problem was getting caught. But Achan was wrong. The thing itself was cursed – whether he was caught with it or not.
It is interesting to note that the sin of one man brought defeat to the community of Israel. How many Christians have brought ruin into their lives – into their very homes and families – by desiring and embracing things in this world that are “under the ban?”
The defeat of Israel
The next several verses spell out the stunning rout of the warriors of Israel – the very ones who had tasted victory over the enemy stronghold of Jericho (Joshua 7:2-5).
Christians who fear God will learn the lesson of wisdom in this passage, for it is a startling spiritual truth: When God is with Israel, she can defeat bigger and stronger enemies; but when God is against Israel, she loses to smaller and weaker enemies!
Neither result is what you would expect in the natural, but then again, this is a spiritual war in which we are engaged.
Either way, we should learn that we can’t win without God’s help. He won’t let us beat Jericho without Him, but He won’t let us beat Ai without Him, either – for He loves us too much to let us win while living in disobedience.
That’s why there is something familiar in Achan’s explanation of his disobedience:
So Achan answered Joshua and said, "Truly, I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel, and 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 fifty shekels in weight, then I coveted them and took them; and behold, they are concealed in the earth inside my tent with the silver underneath it” (Joshua 7:20, 21).
I saw. I coveted. I took.
This clearly echoes the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3), and it is a temptation that has befallen all of us at one time or another. We see something beautiful or valuable. We want it. We scheme to gain it. Ruin follows – and defeat. Make no mistake, far too often, we act like Achan.
As human beings, sometimes we rationalize sin by thinking, “but it’s only a handful,” or “it’s just this once.” But it’s not necessarily the quantity that matters but the nature of it. What Achan took was cursed – and God’s people were not to possess it.
Like Israel, we need to learn the relationship between sin and defeat (vv. 11-12). It is a startling statement that God makes here: “I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy the things under the ban from your midst.”
The way back
Joshua didn’t understand what went wrong, and he complains to God. He and his elders even mourn over the defeat (Joshua 7:6-9). But just because Joshua didn’t understand why they lost doesn’t mean there wasn’t a reason, and it doesn’t mean God didn’t have a purpose in it.
God explains the cause of Israel’s defeat (Joshua 7:10-13), but the explanation begins with this: “So the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Rise up! Why is it that you have fallen on your face?’” (vs. 10).
This might seem strange to us. After all, Joshua and the elders are being “spiritual” in their reaction by falling on their faces in mourning.
However, what is it that usually vexes Christians? Isn’t it usually the pain of our difficulties? When circumstances in our lives have turned bad, we squirm to escape. We gripe, we lash out, and we might even do religious things to get God’s attention. After all, we want to enlist His power to end our suffering. All of that is a typical and perfectly human response, even for Christians.
But God is after something else entirely: Christlikeness in His children. This is why God turns Joshua’s attention somewhere else by basically saying, “Stop complaining! There is a reason for the defeat – and there is a cure!”
When sin has caused defeat, only finding that cause, confessing it, and repenting of it – i.e., properly dealing with it – will cure the problem.
If there is darkness in the living room, lighting a lamp in another part of the house is not the answer. God will always point to the real matter at hand.
There is abundant mercy for every sin and grace for every battle. Defeat can be turned into victory. The way back is always through the cross.