Communal Sin in the 21st Century, Pt. 4

Jul 07, 2020

Though we struggle mightily with the concept of communal sin in our 21st century context, it’s vital that we recover a basic understanding of wrongdoing that takes us beyond narrow individualism. How else can we account for grave systemic injustice in all of our institutions? Trying to lay the blame at a single person’s feet is not only naïve, it vastly oversimplifies the problem. In this six-part series, we’ll take a close look at some of our nation’s abiding communal sins, taking into account systemic racism, communal sin in politics, the church, the entertainment industry, and the workplace. Having traced these destructive patterns in our cultural moment, we’ll then turn to the biblical account of communal sin and see how it both makes sense of our dilemma and offers the only feasible hope. In this episode, we take a close look at a very disturbing scene in the Old Testament: Achen’s sin.

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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. Well, this is the next installment in our series, our six-part series on communal sin in the 21st century. In the previous episode we talked about Adam and Eve in the garden. And in this episode we are going to talk about an incident that occurs in the book of Joshua to a man named Achan. And actually not just to Achan, but to his entire household, his entire family.

And again, we're thinking through communal sin, which sounds very foreign to our 21st century ears until we really think about it and think about some of the deep-seated crimes and forms of corruption that we find in our own world that have multiple participants. And that also require complicity from those around them. And indeed from us. We have not outgrown communal sin and we have not explained it away. And we have not educated ourselves out of it. But here's another biblical incident that I'm going to go ahead and say is very tough for most of us, because again...And let me just bring in one of the cautions that we need to remember as we are reading any ancient artifacts.

It's very important that we don't bring all of our own 21st century or whatever those current, all of our current assumptions to bear on the text. So it takes real effort, but we don't want to read the Old Testament through 21st century lenses any more than we want to read Homer's Odyssey through 21st century lenses. Now naturally that doesn't stop a lot of people from doing that, but that's an obvious hermeneutical mistake. It's going to lead to all sorts of misunderstandings and inaccuracies, because in essence, this was a different world. This was the ancient world. This was a different time, a different context. There were different practices going on. The whole structure of society was different. So judging it by the standards of our own society is pretty naive and pretty, and almost it's approaching a category mistake. So let's remember that. This is an ancient near Eastern text, the book of Joshua. And this is a marshal text.

This is involving warfare. This is involving national identities. And by the way, warfare, we haven't outgrown that either, have we? We've gotten more sophisticated at killing each other, but we haven't outgrown warfare. This was a time where warfare took place mainly face-to-face. There were no drones. For the most part, you were seeing the destruction up close and personal, but that's a side note. So let's look at Joshua, chapters six and seven. This is where this unfolds. So Israel, the nation of Israel under the leadership of Joshua, the baton has been passed on from Moses to Joshua. There's that real haunting scene where Moses...Moses actually never sets foot in the Promised Land. He toils for 40 years in the wilderness with this obstinate people, the nation of Israel, and goes through all sorts of travails with them only to come to the very threshold. There's that really moving scene where the Lord allows him a glimpse, a glimpse, but he doesn't actually set foot.

Joshua is the man to do that. And so they have a command from the Lord now to take the city of Jericho, which stands in their way. And this is one of those famous scenes. This is one of those famous stories that even in our biblically illiterate time, many people will know where they march around the walls of Jericho and the walls eventually crumble and fall. And here's where it starts to get very difficult for us. They are commanded to "commit everything to destruction." And the text goes to great lengths to communicate this to us, the reader. Everything, every living thing, every man, woman, and child, every animal committed to destruction. Let's have a look at that specific message. And well, there's a commandment that comes along with it, “But you keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction. Lest when you have devoted them, you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it.”

So in other words, don't loot. Don't take any of the stuff that's meant to be destroyed from this site of destruction because you will, what? You'll be guilty. You'll be found guilty, and you'll be put to death. No, you'll bring guilt on the entire nation of Israel. Now that's interesting. And we'll talk a little bit more about that as we go forward. But for the time being, total destruction. This is an extremely...So, not on the face of it. This is an extraordinarily challenging command.

What about all of the innocent people? What about the women and children? What about them? How is that just? I'm going to say something. I'm going to quote my dad, Stuart McAllister. He says this, and this is actually really deep wisdom and we need to hear it right now. I'm going to give you an answer here, but here's what my dad says, “the truth” he says, “emotional satisfaction is not necessarily a guarantee of truth.” Let me say it again. “Emotional satisfaction is not necessarily a guarantee of truth.” What does that mean? It means that sometimes the truth conflicts with our wishes. Sometimes the truth conflicts with our sensibilities.

When a grave diagnosis is given by a physician, it's true. But it's emotionally...not only is it emotionally unsatisfying, it's devastating. So my answer here is going to be devastating. Now there are a lot of ways and strategies for looking at this text and trying to mitigate some of what's happened here to "take God off the hook." But friends, I don't think God needs to be taken off the hook. So once again, let me say that I think the operating paradigm is not that God is answerable to us.

That's a 21st century assumption, by the way. That's how many of us come to the text of scripture by the way. We think, All right, let's give Christianity a shot here, but God's got a lot to answer for. No. If Christianity is true, the reverse is the case. We are answerable to him. Why? Because we are His creation. He made us, we didn't make Him. We are accountable to Him. And I told you in the last episode, which is worth going back and listening to if you haven't, because it will give you...It'll shed some light on these remarks. But when we consider the fact that all human beings are fallen, that means that in the technical sense of the term, nobody is innocent.

We are not innocent. All of us are born into a condition of sinfulness. And all of us are colored by that. That is not changed by our age. That's not changed by our circumstances. That's not altered by any of these surrounding factors. We are talking about a Holy God who is perfect. Let's just pause for a second and reflect on that. If God is morally perfect, then anything that is immoral, anything that is departed from His will is incompatible with His nature. Therefore, there has to be some kind of a mediating system set up to accommodate for sin. And if you look at the Old Testament, that's precisely what you see. You see an elaborate, sacrificial system that emerges. And in the New Testament, does that change?

Yes and no. It changes because of Christ, but Christ comes to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for us once and for all. It's an instructive exercise by the way to pair up the book of Leviticus, where you see the sacrificial system, and the book of Hebrews. In the New Testament, which presents Jesus as our high priest. Of course, in the book of Leviticus and in the Old Testament and with the nation of Israel, the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies to do what? To intercede on behalf of the nation. And it's a very comprehensive intercession process, by the way. It's a very comprehensive sacrificial system. Not only are there sacrifices offered for deliberate sins, there are sacrifices offered for sins committed in ignorance. But again, if God is perfect, that makes sense. Any departure from His perfection is sin. So it makes sense that we do stuff that is wrong, and we don't even realize it sometimes.

There's an ignorance that enters in. That is taken to account in that sacrificial system, but it has to happen over and over again. Over and over again. It's a continual process, but when Christ comes through His life, death and resurrection, we have eternal hope because He's our one. The one true high priest who enters into the Holy of Holies once and for all. And this is why Jesus says He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. How? He is the fulfillment of the law. So just making sense of that for a moment there, the sacrificial system, God's holiness. Yes, God is merciful, but He is also righteous and just, and Holy. And we need to pause to take account of the absolutely devastating truth. That word “justice served,” all of us would spend eternity apart from our Lord. That would be justice for us.

So complete destruction. Those who are perishing are not innocent. It's important to bear that in mind. We're thinking of innocent in 21st century terms. We're thinking of innocent in the types of terms that would apply in a US court of law sometimes. We are not dealing with the US court of law. We're dealing with the cosmic judge and ruler of all. So, what happens? The Lord gives Israel victory. They do commit Jericho to destruction, but we're told that one man takes some items and violates the commandment to not take anything. And in Joshua, chapter seven at the very beginning in verse one, we read these words, "And the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel." So let me look at the beginning of that, "But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things. For Achan, the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah of the tribe of Judah took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel."

Now, you notice that there's something very interesting happening here. The individual and the people are being used interchangeably. There's an equivocation happening here. The people of Israel broke faith because Achan did this. What? How did the people of Israel break faith? Achan broke faith. And again, that's so very American of us to think about it like that. That's very 21st century of us to think about it like that. It's Achan. He should be held accountable. But again, look at the text. It actually goes to kind of great lengths to communicate the communal nature here, because Achan is not introduced as some discrete individual, is he? This is Achan, the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah of the tribe of Judah. So look at that. His relatives are listed. The progenitors are listed there, and his tribe, the tribe of Judah. Isn't that interesting? There actually is a deep and powerful and theological and poetic reason in the Old Testament for those and indeed in the New Testament for those genealogies, which we're so tempted to skip. Maybe you did skip them.

Did you skip them? Shame on you. I've skipped them before too. But those genealogies. One of the lessons that they're giving to us is that we are not discrete, isolated individuals. And all of our actions have consequences for others. Achan steals some items from what is consigned to destruction. What's supposed to be devoted to destruction, he takes some of these things because he wants them. As we'll see, he says that, "I coveted them. I wanted them. So I took them and I hid them." And he brings guilt on who? Himself and his household? The whole nation of Israel. Now it's important to back up here and say something again about the communal nature of human relationships in general, but also the special circumstances that are happening here. We are talking about the nation of Israel. Now, why is Israel God's chosen people? Because He chose them. The word for this in scripture is “election.” They are God's elect. Why?

God chose them because He wanted to. Is it because they're so good and so special, and they're so much better than everybody else around them? Well, if you go on in scripture, that's clearly not the case. It's not that they're morally superior. In fact, later on the Lord...Yes, it's true. The Lord will use the nation of Israel to judge other nations who do not worship Him, who have idols. He uses the nation of Israel as His instrument of judgment. Yes. So you might conclude from that, they're special. They're God's elect because they're morally superior. But later on you keep reading. What happens? The Lord uses the Assyrians to judge Israel and to bring them to destructive. Indeed, they're taken into captivity. Look at the book of Daniel, where you see Daniel being a faithful witness in captivity. So it's not that they're morally superior.

No. Part of this is what the great missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin calls “the logic of election.” This is actually an entire chapter in his book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. And really what it is, is it involves the scandal of specificity. Say specificity five times fast. The Lord always works specifically through very specific nations and persons. He operates and brings into the world His will through human agency. So it's not just any nation or many nations. It's this one little group, the nation of Israel, the Jewish people. It's these people who carry the message of the Lord's salvation. And then in the New Testament, the Savior, the Messiah who we see foretold time and time again in the Old Testament, the coming Messiah, it's not many people. It's not a series of heavenly messages that are disseminated to many different groups spread throughout the world. It is this one man, Jesus of Nazareth.

And we are told that their salvation through no other person than Jesus. We're told that in the book of Acts. And Jesus himself tells us, “No one comes to the father except through me.” This one man. So specific. Some spiritual principle that's really broad. That's more inclusive. We like that. But this is the way life actually plays out. Because if the Lord of all creation is to reveal Himself to His creation, He's going to do so through specific means. This nation, this people group, finally, this person. And Israel is that nation.

So who are they here? They are God's ambassadors. And the Lord is using them as His ambassadors. And so therefore, when they depart from His will, this communicates to the rest of the world a very, very disjointed message. They are misrepresenting their Lord. The God they serve. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as is frequently said in the Old Testament. So as such, as God's representatives, anything that compromises the integrity of their nation, compromises the integrity of their witness to the nations around them, of the Lord's power, and might, and glory. And yes, that might is wonderful. And yes, that might is terrible as well. Committing to destruction those who are far from Him.

Those who have departed from His will. So we see that here. Now, as we go forward, this is tough stuff. And I'm aware this is deeply emotionally unsatisfying in many ways. There's also an amazing display of mercy in this passage, in these two chapters right here. And I want to talk about that toward the end as well. And on an encouraging note, as we make our way toward the cross. But again, I don't want to iron out any wrinkles in an artificial sense. Scripture should mess with us. Scripture should push us, and scripture should disrupt our neat lines of thinking, because our thinking about God is always, always too small and always tending towards idolatry.

He is Holy and He is greater than we can possibly conceive. And His goodness is more awesome than we can possibly imagine. So it's this people. And when there's a breaking of the covenant, that profoundly compromises, that runs the risk of compromising their representation of their Lord. That's who they're representing. So, and by the way, in our own culture we can see this as well. So there are instances where somebody is a representative of an institution and that person functions whether they like it or not as an ambassador. So if you have for instance a policeman who is convicted of police brutality, and it's brought to light, it's on camera, that can bring a lot of heat and a lot of condemnation on an entire police department. We see this time and time again.

And that's right. There's a sense in which that makes sense. Same with the military. If we have evidence of soldiers committing horrendous war crimes, what does that do? That casts a shadow over the entire military over and over again. Same with in the world of politics. Those...We can think of lines of work. We can think of vocations. We can think of jobs where in that role, when you put on the uniform, when you step into those shoes, you are not representing just yourself. It's not just some individualistic thing.

Your actions carry consequences for you and your unit, your department, your committee, the entire organization. We know this. In the world of diplomacy and in the world of politics, international leaders function as the ambassadors for their nations. And their behavior has profound consequences for the entire nation. And that's what's happening here with Achan. His actions do not occur in isolation. They affect the entire nation of Israel. And so what happens when you read on? They experience a military defeat at AI, after this has happened. Now this is before Achan's crimes, his sin have been uncovered. So Joshua, who's the leader, there's this military defeat. And by the way, he's really concerned not just with the defeat and the loss of life. People died by the way in this defeat. He's not just concerned for that. He's concerned about the public perception. Why? Because now they look profoundly vulnerable, and they look as though their God has forsaken them. And that they are no longer under His protection, under his anointing. That they are no longer His elect. That's what he's concerned about.

And so what does Joshua do? He gets on his knees and he pleads with God. What is happening? Did you lead us all this way only for us to be defeated by our enemies? Is that it? That's it? We see this great defeat in Jericho. We march around the walls and they fall, and now this? And in verse ten of chapter seven we read these words. "The Lord said to Joshua, 'Get up. Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned.'" Again, speaking communally. He's not saying “Achan.” By the way, if God is who I, as a Christian believe Him to be, He could just say that. He knows, right?

He could just out Achan has sinned. That's not what He says. He says, "Israel has sinned. They have transgressed my contract." No, "My covenant.” They have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them. They have taken some of the devoted things. That is, they have taken the things I commanded them not to touch. They have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore, the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies because they have become devoted to destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you." So, the Lord reveals just enough to Joshua, by the way. He's the leader, but not all of it. Joshua has to go through this very elaborate process now to find the guilty party.

And he eventually does. And he goes through all the tribes. He goes to the households. They go through ...And again, the assumption is that all of these people are...This is a community affair. And finally, we come to Achan and he admits his sin. And Achan answered Joshua, "Truly I have sinned against the Lord, God of Israel. And this is what I did. When I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar and 200 shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and I took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth, inside my tent with the silver underneath." And then Achan and his entire household are rounded up, and they are stoned and they are burned to root out the sin from the nation of Israel. This is really difficult again, and there isn't an emotionally satisfying response to this. And I think it's an insult to try to come up with one here because it robs it of its gravity.

And it robs I think some of the objections we feel of their dignity. We are understandably very, very concerned about the family members here. But again, Achan is not a person in isolation. And by the way, he's not acting in isolation. When we find people who are ambassadors and representatives who commit crimes, they almost never can do it alone. It requires cooperation and complicity. And that's definitely going on in the family as well. We can say that, that's a factor. That doesn't completely solve everything here, because there are members of households that are too young to understand the full implications. Are too young to even be participants in that sense, but that certainly will account for some of it.

But the truth of the matter is that Achan has brought condemnation on the entire people of Israel. And when he steps forward as the representative of his household, he brings condemnation on his household specifically. So the specific sin is dealt with by destroying not just the culprit, but the entire family of the culprit. And again, when we understand the outworkings of crime and sin, the way they are so often generational scriptural language for this is, sins of the fathers. And when we understand the ways in which we are bound together and the ways in which communal sin, it spreads so quickly like an infection, we can understand some of the urgencies in these passages. And this is not the only one like this in scripture, where a form of sin breaks out in the nation of Israel and very, very swift and very severe efforts are used to immediately contain it.

It's very difficult to resist drawing in the analogy of the Coronavirus right now, because so much of the difficulty, in fact, the principle difficulty here lies in trying to contain this virus and the ways in which it's spreading so quickly. And we hear talk when we have something along these lines or something of this scale, we hear the word “pandemic.” And we increasingly feel anxious and afraid. But why? Because we know the ways in which something like this, a virus like this can take root. And it spreads so fast. Sin is like that. And when you see communal sin, when you see corruption enter for instance, into a very... Some of our top tier institutions, whether it's politics or education, it's so, so difficult to root it out. If racism, for instance, is being taught and disseminated in some of the finest institutions of the nation as it has been in the past, very, very difficult to reverse the spread.

If corruption is being perpetrated and instigated in Washington DC, or in some of our local government branches, it's very difficult to arrest its progress because once it's been unleashed, it begins to infect people so, so quickly and to spread so quickly. And that's the urgency that's happening here. This is the nation of Israel in its infancy. They have just crossed through the wilderness. They're on their way to the Promised Land. And the incredible efforts to keep them pure before the Lord, and to keep corruption from destroying them from the inside out are monumental. And we see here the great pattern of all human life. The great challenge. That corruption, downfall happens from the inside out, always. The moral decay starts from within, and that's what's being stopped here.

And so when we think about this, it sounds very severe. It sounds very harsh because it is severe and it is harsh. There's no doubt about it. The harsh and severe side of the Lord is the side that we come up against in our sin, because that is what keeps us separated from the Lord, our sin. That's what causes alienation. But we see some mercy in this passage as well. And the mercy is shown to of all people, a prostitute. This is a really remarkable incident, but when spies are sent out to Jericho, the person who protects them by hiding them from the authorities is a prostitute named Rahab.

She hides them and she extracts...She's very clever. She's real shrewd here. She extracts from them a promise that she will be spared in exchange for hiding these spies from the nation of Israel and bringing, let's admit it, great, great risk on herself and on our entire household. She does it. So when we look at Rahab, she's almost like the redemptive counterpart to Achan here because this story showcases...If Achan showcases the severity of God's holiness, the terrible majesty of God's holiness and our inadequacy, Rahab showcases the absolutely scandalous mercy of the Holy God.

So when Jericho is devoted to destruction, some are spared. Rahab is spared, but again, as with Achan, it's not just Rahab who is spared, her entire household, her entire family is spared. Isn't that fascinating? So just as Achan, a man of the nation of Israel, condemned his entire family with his actions, so Rahab, a pagan woman, saved her entire family because of her actions. And then there's a lovely verse by the way. And this is kind of an ancient near Eastern trope, the word verbiage that's used here. But it says "She became a member of Israel and she is to this day."

And that "to this day," what that's conveying is a sense of permanence. So Rahab becomes a kind of foreshadowing for those of us who are Gentiles, who are not part of the nation of Israel. Those of us who are grafted in. She is saved and she is spared, and the Lord has mercy on her and her entire family because she doesn't act in isolation either. But she also demonstrates something remarkable. Mercy is available here. Mercy is available.

We see that over and over again actually in the Old Testament. Think about Jonah and Nineveh. They repent. They listen to His words of condemnation and they repent. There is mercy that is available here. And so we think about Christ once again, think about the terrible majesty of the holiness of God. That's the phrasing I used when I was talking about Achan. We see that there. And it's not the only incidence. There are other stories that we could point to, but that's one of the more severe. Think about that. And now think about Christ who offers us forgiveness and eternal salvation and eternal communion with this God, with Himself. Now, God hasn't changed. He's the same God. He's the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

Christ fulfills the law so that you, even you can spend eternity with Him. But you see, we, to borrow the words of Stanley Hauerwas once again, because of Christ's work, if we follow Christ, we are engrafted into the story of Israel through His life, death, and resurrection. That is absolutely astonishing. But once again, let's go back to the cross and let's recognize that both justice and mercy are at work here.

And I'm borrowing this thinking from John Stott here and his great work, The Cross of Christ. But when we see Christ on the cross, we see justice. He fulfills the law. He pays for our sins, the sins that should be on us, that should condemn us. He takes that condemnation for us. Justice, we receive justice that doesn't come at the expense of mercy. And mercy that doesn't come at the expense of justice. Justice is upheld. Christ fulfills the law and pays for our sin. That should, if justice were meted out to each and every one of us on an individual basis, which would result in our eternal condemnation, Christ takes that on Himself.

Suffers and dies as the perfect sacrifice and rises again, offering us the hope of eternal life. It's justice that doesn't come at the expense of mercy. And mercy that doesn't come at the expense of justice. But we have to understand that the Lord of all creation is Holy. When we are told in Matthew five that we are to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect, that is a serious statement. And through Christ's work, the hope of Christ is that we are becoming more and more like Him so that one day, on the day we come face-to-face with our maker, we will be like Him. We will be truly Christ-like, and we will be ready to spend eternity with Him. And we'll be able to withstand eternity with the living God.

So when we look at this incident here and when we modify our understanding and when we modify our expectations, I think we can begin to make better sense of it. There are some places in the world where this story won't meet with as much friction because people think in more communal terms about their actions and about their sins. But here in North America, we have a lot...We struggle with this a lot. I think we're coming to a growing awareness of it because we're dealing with the communal sins, if you will, of our nation. And we're seeing their outworkings that remain with us to this day.

But this has been once again...I'm aware, a challenging episode and that's not necessarily a bad thing. And once again, I thank you for listening. I thank you for bearing with me here. And if anything of what I've said has bothered you today, may I just ask that you just take time, consider it, wrestle with it.

It's very rarely the case when we are challenged, it's very rarely the case that we just want to accept what's challenging us. Or that when we're moved to take a different position and when we're moved to change our mind, it's very rarely the case that, that's a painless process. It usually involves some very real wrestling, and some very honest introspection. So if it's not too much to ask, if what you've heard has stirred you or bothered you, I'd ask that you not run away from it, but that you wrestle with it. And really think it over. Read the passages, take a look at them, do some further research, see what you think. But thanks so much for listening in here. This has been Vital Signs, the podcast exploring signs of life in today's culture. My name is Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at RZIM.

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