Posted by: mattcolvin | June 25, 2012

Achan and Sortition

Monday of the third week after Trinity: Joshua 7:16-end.


The story of Achan is disturbing. Here is a man who makes a full confession of his sin (“Truly I have sinned against YHWH God of Israel, and this is what I have done:…”), and yet is punished to the uttermost with first stoning and then burning, a punishment usually reserved for extreme cases of high-handed sin against God, e.g. Nadab and Abihu. Joshua elicits this confession by appealing to Achan in terms of kindness (“My son, I beg you…”), only to turn and sentence him in the harshest terms (”Why have you troubled us? YHWH will trouble you this day”).On the one hand, this makes sense and is just: Achan’s greed has indirectly brought about the deaths of 36 of Israel’s fighting men. On the other hand, it is cold comfort. Most parents are probably like us in mitigating punishment somewhat for children who make a full confession.

Second, the narrative lays heavy stress on the method used to discover Achan. The sortition proceeds by tribe, clan, and father’s house until Achan is isolated. When I was a child, my schoolteachers subjected me to Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, which uses this scapegoating scene as its main plot device, and simply assumes that all readers will recoil from sortition and the claim of supernatural causation – both of which are found in the account of Achan.

Gary North has some good thoughts on the passage. He concludes that the destruction of Achan’s family and animals is consistent with God’s covenantal dealings:

By stealing holy objects in Jericho — goods that God had appropriated for Himself — Achan had not only stolen from God; he had also united himself and his family covenantally with Jericho. By stealing part of God’s required first-fruits offering, Achan became a citizen of Jericho. He also became profane: the violator of a sacred boundary placed by God around the city of Jericho. He was therefore required to suffer the judgment of every citizen in Jericho: death. Achan’s covenantal citizenship extended down to his children and his property: the animals and the stolen goods. Just as Rahab had become a citizen of Israel by hiding the spies and placing the red string publicly in her window, so did Achan become a citizen of Jericho by hiding the banned goods. Just as Rahab’s family had survived because of her covenant, so did Achan’s family perish because of his covenant. Achan and his family became Canaanites, and therefore the entire family came under the covenantal ban: hormah.

The ponderous narrative of the actual sortition – following as it does a step-by-step list of instructions from YHWH to Joshua – heightens the suspense and perhaps even makes us focalize the scene from the perspective of Achan himself. 1 Samuel will later trade upon this with three further “selection” typescenes: the two most similar are the choosing of Saul as king and the isolation of Jonathan as the one who broke the vow of abstinence from food that Saul had imposed on Israel. Both of these proceed by the use of lots, as in Achan’s case, and the use of that procedure lends an ominous tinge to the selection of Saul as king: is he actually being chosen for destruction? The other episode that echoes Achan is the selection of David from among his brethren. This, however, proceeds not by lots, but by the direct revelation of YHWH to the prophet Samuel: a significant difference highlighted by the otherwise similar narration of the process.


  1. I realize this is slightly tangential to your comment, but this brings up an (as of yet) unresolved apparent contradiction for me as regards the concept of the covenantal punishing of children for fathers’ sins (Ex 20:5; Dt 5:9). For as you know, later in Deuteronomy, in apparently contrary to Dt. 5:9, the baseline principle is laid out that sons will most emphatically NOT suffer for fathers’ sins (Dt 24:16; cf. Jer 31 [but see 32:18?!]; Ezek 18). Would you have any insight toward harmonization into what is (for me) an unbearable apparent tension within God’s covenantal principles? What am I missing?

  2. It’s a thorny question, and I don’t have an answer. David Daube has a useful article entitled “Communal Responsibility” in his Studies in Biblical Law, Cambridge, 1947, p. 154-189 (CWDD vol. 3, p. 471ff.). Part of his argument is that the Bible represents an advance over Mesopotamian law codes by gradually elucidating just principles of individual responsibility (Dt. 24, Ezekiel 18, etc) out of a historical origin in which such principles were very much not “of course”. Of course, communal guilt and merit, ruler-punishment and ruler-reward are still very much at work nonetheless in the NT: Jesus’ own death may be considered as the main example.

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