Jericho, being on the shore of the Jordan, placed all Israel in jeopardy. To the west lay the highlands. Strategically, Israel had to move to higher ground or their enemies would have the advantage. Three roads led from Jericho: One along the Jordan north. Another south and to the west to Jerusalem – a major fortified city Israel would not yet feel confident enough to conquer. The third road led west directly into the highlands, directly to higher ground, and that’s the one Joshua chose. He sent spies up that road as far as Ai, and they returned confident of an easy victory.
Of course, that didn’t keep them from taking 3000 soldiers, probably overkill in any event.
But victory was not to be their’s. Jericho was to come under the “herem,” a word meaning “devoted things.” Because it was the first city of conquest in the promised land, everything from that city was to be devoted to God. No booty of any kind was to be taken.
No one should imagine that Achan was just a poor slob overcome by greed. Achan’s prominence in Israel is noted by reference to four generations of his ancestors. “No other figure has been introduced in the book of Joshua with such detail about his family background.” The sin of this noted individual cannot go unpunished, and the punishment is harsh. You don’t steal from God.
I’m struck by two other things: First, that Joshua appears to “fall apart” after the defeat at Ai. Though he has the Spirit of God and the mantle of Moses, his faith as a leader is yet small. Everyone has to grow in faith, and that takes time and experience. Second, there is Israel’s tendency to leave God out. In Numbers, Israel believes she cannot conquer the land, leaving God out of the equation. In Joshua, she believes she can conquer Ai, but once more leaves God out of the equation. Both problems tend to recur repeatedly in the lives of God’s people.