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Joshua Chapter 7 tells the story of the Israelite attack on Ai being repelled due to Achan's sin, and the ensuing process of bringing Achan to justice. However, the story is somewhat confusing.

In Verse 15 God tells Joshua:

And he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.'" (ESV)

The punishment decreed by God for the perpetrator is death by fire, as well as the burning of everything that he has.

In Verses 24-26 the punishment is carried out:

And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, "Why did you bring trouble on us? The LORD brings trouble on you today." And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. (ESV)

We see here that the Israelites did four things:

  1. They stoned him
  2. They burned them
  3. They stoned them
  4. They made a heap of stones

Where do 1, 3, and 4 come from? Only 2 was mentioned by God in Verse 15. Furthermore, the pronoun "them" is rather vague. Who is them? Is it referring to the same group both times? Is it referring to Achan's possessions? Is it referring to his sons and daughters mentioned in Verse 24? For that matter, why were his sons and daughters involved? God made no mention of them (unless they are included in "everything he has"), and there does not seem to be any textual evidence that they were complicit in his crime in any way.

In short, what actually happened? Did it conform to God's directive? And if not, why did they deviate?

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God's directive was clear - the person who had stolen what was set apart for destruction would himself be burned with fire, along with everything he has (Joshua 7:15). "Everything he has" would include all the stolen goods.

The English Standard Version Study Bible makes this comment about Achan's family:

"While it is possible that Achan's family must have known of his offense and thus rightly shared in his fate, the text does not comment on this. Achan's offense is not a civil infraction (for which he alonemight be held responsible; cf. Deuteronomy 24:16), but a religious one that defiled the camp and, most especially, those closest to him."

However, God did not say the person had to be burned alive. Prior to the events in Joshua, stoning to death was a proscribed method of execution (Exodus 19:13). Stoning involved the entire community, and this freed any single individual from the responsibility of being the sole executioner.

In this instance, God's instructions were followed. Achan and his family were stoned to death, then their bodies and all the goods that had been stolen were burned.

Afterwards, the burned bodies were covered over with a great heap of stones as a reminder of the consequences of disobeying God.

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  • Burning was also a method of execution. See Leviticus 21:9.
    – Alex
    Jun 28 '18 at 7:20
  • @Alex - Fair point. Genesis 38:24 says that a shrine-prostitute could be burned to death. Burning became the legal penalty for prostitution. In Joshua 7, there is no mention of prostitution, though.
    – Lesley
    Jun 28 '18 at 8:39

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