The heady mood of self-confidence engendered among the Israelites by the spectacular collapse of the walls of Jericho was quickly punctured by the disaster at the city of Ai , caused by the sin of Achan ben Karmi in embezzling from the treasures of Jericho that Joshua had dedicated to God. "And Israel sinned with the devoted treasure." A single individual's sin is the sin of the whole people, for we are all responsible for one another! The Hebrew root of the word sin in v. 1 is MA'AL. While referring generically to sin, this word specifically indicates stealing from HEKDESH, property dedicated to God, such as Temple property, for one's own personal benefit. This sin leads to the corruption of religion when people use what belongs to God for their own personal pleasure and enrichment.

"Pride comes before a fall": heady after the capture of Jericho, the spies sent by Joshua to check out Ai (mentioned in Genesis 12:8 as one of Abraham's first stopping places in the Land and site of his second altar there) returned and advised that only a small force was needed to take the city "for they are few" (v. 3). In saying this they showed that they did not yet understand that for God, victory in the Land of Israel depends not on numerical advantage but only upon our loyalty to Him. It was the fatal flaw in loyalty expressed in Achan's embezzlement that caused the reverse at Ai. "And they smote ABOUT thirty-six men" (v 5). Rabbi Yehuda said literally 36 men were lost, but Rabbi Nehemiah pointed out that the verse says "LIKE thirty-six men " (the KAF of KISHLOSHIM is comparative). The one man who was lost in the battle was LIKE (the equivalent of) thirty-six men (36 = a majority of the 71-member Sanhedrin): this was Yair ben Menashe (Numbers 32:41; Bava Basra 121b) - it was a national disaster for even a single Israelite to be lost.

Our text shows the proper reaction of a true Israelite leader when even a single man looses his life in war. "And Joshua tore his garments and fell on his face on the ground." (v.6). Unlike contemporary leaders, who appoint commissions of enquiry into their failures in order to blame someone else, Joshua took personal responsibility. Indeed God told him that it was his own fault because he had stayed back in the camp instead of going out to battle against Ai in front of his men. Moreover it was he who declared Jericho CHEREM (dedicated/destroyed) on his own initiative without being so commanded by God. Therefore Israel would be CHEREM until the sinner was punished (Rashi on v. 10).


God could have simply TOLD Joshua directly who the guilty man was, but instead He revealed his identity indirectly through a series of lotteries that were held publicly to establish from which tribe the sinner was, from which clan of that tribe and from which family. There was an ulterior purpose in turning the exposure of Achan into a national spectacle using the lottery (GORAL): this was because the Land was destined to be divided up among the tribes and families using the very same method of LOTTERY, as Moses had been commanded (Numbers 33:54). Having seen how the holy spirit governed the lottery in a capital case like Achan's, the people would accept its validity in matters of property (Rashi on v. 19; Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 86).

Rashi (on v. 20) explains that before Achan's confession the situation was explosive. Achan was in denial and the members of his tribe (Judah) were getting ready to make war against Joshua (Ephraim) for accusing their leader of a crime. It was only when Achan realized his continuing silence would cause the death of many Israelites that he confessed. Joshua's messengers RAN to Achan's tent to find the booty (v. 22) in order to prevent men from the tribe of Judah getting there first to hide it.

"And I saw in the booty a robe of Shin'ar." (v.21). Shin'ar is Babylon (Genesis 10:10). Explaining what a Babylonian robe was doing in Jericho , Rashi (v. 21) says that every foreign power wanted a foothold in Israel and no king felt content until he established his influence there. Thus the king of Babylon had a palace in Jericho , and left special robes there for him to wear when he visited. The presence of foreign kings explains why the tiny country of Israel had no less than THIRTY-ONE of them, as we will see in the continuation of the book of Joshua. Likewise today every self-respecting nation demands a say in what happens in Israel !

It was through his confession that Achan redeemed himself, becoming the archetype of the sinner that confesses (following in the footsteps of his tribal ancestor, Judah, who was the first to confess - Genesis 38:26). "Everyone who confesses has a share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin 43b). The law that a condemned man confesses before his execution and that this brings him atonement is derived from our text. Thus Joshua said to Achan, "As for your having sullied us, God will sully you ON THIS DAY" - i.e. in THIS WORLD but not in the World to Come, because confession brings atonement. Achan's atonement before Joshua is one of the main foundations of Rabbi Nachman's teaching on confession of one's sins before a Torah sage (see Likutey Moharan Vol. 1 Discourse 4).


Achan's confession and punishment cleansed the Israelites of the flaw that led to their defeat at Ai. At God's command they now used a brilliant military ruse against Ai, engaging the men of the city in battle and then feigning retreat in order to lure them out of the city so that a waiting ambush could enter unopposed and set the whole place on fire (Joshua 8:1-29). Sometimes the best way to advance and make gains is by first retreating a little.

After the capture of Ai, the text gives an account of the ceremonies that took place at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival after the entry of the Children of Israel into the Land. Rashi (chapter 8 v 30) comments that the narrative is not written in order, because Joshua's building of the Altar on Mount Eival, the writing of the Torah on the stones and the solemn ceremony of reciting the Blessings and Curses before the entire nation in fact all took place on the very same day that they crossed the Jordan (see KNOW YOUR BIBLE on Joshua ch 3). The description of the sacrifices and the ceremony in today's text relates back to the commandment given by Moses in Deuteronomy ch 27, where he says all this was to be done "on the day that you cross the Jordan" (v. 2).

Since the ensuing chapters of Joshua will recount the conquest of the Land in detail, the positioning of the account of the recital of the Blessings and Curses right here underlines yet again that Israel 's conquest and possession of the Land are conditional upon our observance of God's Torah.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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