It is not clear from the first verse of Joshua (Joshua 7:1) whether the whole nation was unfaithful or just one man, Achan. But if it was only one man who sinned, as the story later discloses, why was the transgression imputed to the whole nation? It would appear that Achan alone should have been punished on the principle that "the soul who sins is the one who will die" (Ezekiel 18:4).
Another troubling feature in this text is the identification of the "devoted things." What were they, and why should their possession jeopardize the Israelites' mission of attacking Ai?
The best way to begin is to start with the question of the "devoted things." This is a very distinctive concept in the Old Testament. The word used, ḥerem, means the "curse" or, more accurately, the "thing dedicated for destruction." This word comes from the verb "to separate"; hence the Arabic word harem, an enclosed living area set aside for women. In many ways, the act of dedicating ḥerem is the reverse of the voluntary dedication spoken of in Romans 12:1-2. Both are acts of separating oneself or something unto God. But in the case of ḥerem, the placing of an item under "the ban," or its dedication "to destruction," is an involuntary act, whereas what is "holy" to the Lord is separated unto him as a voluntary act.
Behind this concept lies the fact that all the earth and all that is in it belongs to the Lord. After mortals had tried the patience of God to the limit, he finally stepped in and required that what he owned should come back to him. The judgment of fire and death meant that all life and all gifts returned to the Lord, their owner. Items that could not burn, such as silver, gold and certain metals, were declared to belong to the Lord. They were to be placed in the tabernacle or temple of God. They had been set apart for destruction and hence were sacred.
Under no circumstances could these items be sold, collected or redeemed by substituting something else for them. There was a compulsory dedication connected with them. Jericho was one of the few places to be placed under this curse or ban in the Old Testament (Joshua 6:21). Other such cities included Ai (Joshua 8:26), Makkedah (Joshua 10:28) and Hazor (Joshua 11:11).
Interestingly, the word ḥerem is the last word in the Old Testament canon (in English order). Malachi 4:6 warns that God might come and take a "forced dedication" if men and women persist in refusing to give a voluntary one.
Perhaps it will be seen, now, why Achan's sin was viewed with such severity. He had done more than take several battle mementos; he had robbed God of items that specifically indicated that he was the Lord of the whole earth and should have received praise and honor from the Canaanites of Jericho.
Make no mistake: Achan was responsible for his own sin. Whether other members of his family were participants in the crime cannot be determined for certain, though it seems likely. Joshua 7:24 tells us that "his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had" were brought to the Valley of Achor ("trouble"), and there "all Israel stoned him" (Joshua 7:25). While the text begins by focusing on Achan, saying they "stoned him," it continues noting that "they stoned the rest" and "they burned them." Thus it would appear that the children were accomplices to the crime.
Since Achan had violated the ban and brought the goods from Jericho into his tent, he in essence made his tent, its contents and whatever was under the aegis of that tent part of the destruction and judgment that was on Jericho.
Finally, we must ask why the whole nation was viewed by God as an organic unity. Can the sin of one member of the nation or group defile everyone?
That is exactly the point made by this text. It is not difficult to see how the goodness of one person can bring blessing on the whole group. God blessed the whole world through Abraham (Genesis 12:3). And we rarely complain when we enjoy the blessing and accumulated goodness of God on our nation as a result of the godly lives of our ancestors.
In a real sense, our acts do have ramifications beyond our own fortunes and future. The act of one traitor can imperil a battalion of soldiers, a nation or a multinational corporation. In the same way, one thoughtless act of a member of a community can have enormous consequences for the whole group.
This in no way bears on the ultimate destiny and salvation of any one of the persons in that group, but it can have enormous implications for the temporal and material well-being of each member.
When an individual Israelite violated a specific command of God, it brought sin on the whole group. In that case, the sin ignited the anger of God against the whole group. Achan was not acting merely on his own behalf when he sinned. As a leader among the clans of the important tribe of Judah, he had committed sacrilege; he had stolen what God had declared to be both sacred and separated from ordinary objects. Such a crime was aimed directly at God and at his covenant. It impinged on his right to be Lord and infringed on his rights of ownership. It had to be dealt with immediately and severely, just as did the sin of Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament (Acts 5).
God holds each person individually responsible for his or her own sin; that is clear. But some, by virtue of their position or office, their offense against that which is sacred to God, or the implications that their acts have for their group, can also bring the wrath of God on their nation, community, institution or group. There are times where we are our nation's keepers. When we deny or ignore this reality, Western individualism runs amuck and biblical truth is neglected.