The Principle of Context from Joshua 7:1-26

Something my study of Joshua examined this week was the correlation between the Old Testament literary devices (plot, characters, conflict), and the principles we the church try to pull from the Old Testament that don’t actually apply when viewed in the context of scripture. The post below was the result of that particular study.

Literary Features of Joshua 7:1-26

This section of Joshua addresses two interconnected stories, the defeat of Israel at Ai and the sin of Achan.  This was basically Israel’s first defeat in the conquest, and after a stunning victory by God at Jericho, Israel suffered a humiliating defeat by a small city said to be no match (Joshua 7:3) for Israel’s might of 30,000 men.[1]

In this narrative, the author, generally said to be Joshua, uses a bit of irony by comparing and contrasting, the previous story in Joshua 2 about Rahab and the sheltering of the spies.  The irony used by Joshua is that someone who had only heard of the God of Israel listened and obeyed (Joshua 2:21), while the sons of Israel who had actually witnesses God’s fulfilling promises and power, disobeyed (Joshua 7:1).  Throughout both narratives many parallels are seen like this one.  Rahab, a woman, was a Canaanite, and her family survived, while Achan, a man, was an Israelite, and his family perished.  Rahab hid the spies on her roof, and Achan hid his stolen items under his tent.  The Israelites, through God’s hand, won a great victory at Jericho by following God’s instructions, and they were humiliated at Ai when they failed to follow God’s instructions.

Another literary feature used in Joshua chapter 7 is a somewhat obvious cause and effect.  When looking at Israel’s sin, the author makes a point to show that this sin was a grievous act against God Himself.  More than just a theft and violation of the Eighth Commandment, (Exodus 20:15) it was an adulterous act.  This was the same Hebrew term used in Numbers 5:12-13 to describe the betrayal of an adulterous wife, now used to describe Israel.[2] This act of sin was the cause of Israel’s defeat at Ai as the Lord’s anger burned against Israel (Joshua 7:1, 11-12).  Joshua 7 is split into two sections, verses 1-15 dealing with Israel’s defeat, and verses 16-26 dealing with Israel’s sin.  One section examines the event or action that then caused the effect in the other section.  Ai was a small city, one that Israel should have easily taken (Joshua 7:3-4), but instead Israel lost 36 people (Joshua 7:5), and the previously promised city of Ai.

Interpretive Issues or Problems Often Presented Today

Many times the 21st century church is quick to point out all kinds of life application principles from the Old Testament that just are not present in the context of the written text.  Context is extremely important when dealing with the Old Testament and many times the principles taken can do, what Haddon Robinson describes as, “the heresy of application” by creating what was never there in the first place (see “The Heresy of Application” by Robinson).[3]

In Joshua 7, principles from all across the spectrum of sin can be used for life application.  Some principles are better than others, but some, like “effectively overcoming defeat” and “how to fight despair and depression” are probably not the principles the author had in mind when he wrote Joshua 7.  Yes, Joshua basically whined, moaned, and mourned about Israel’s sin and loss at Ai (Joshua 7:6-7), much like they had done in the past (Numbers 11:4-6 and many others), but the overall context of the entire book of Joshua was not out to teach a principle about how to overcome depression.

Contextual Application Principles from Joshua 7:1-26

The application we can take away from Joshua 7:1-26 is about sin.  This can be presented in so many different ways like fighting covetousness, secret sins, sin effecting more than just the individual, hidden sin that harms the whole church body, the small sin, fighting the sins of the flesh like gossip, criticism, envy, jealousy, and countless others examples that could be extracted from the reading of Joshua 7.  An overall principle in the context of the book of Joshua is probably closer to a statement like “the worst enemy that you have is yourself.”[4] “[You] are the greatest handicap that you have in your Christian life”, and often the most destructive block to God’s blessings.[5] Israel was given the land by God; all they had to do was take it.  There were three small enemies that stood in the Israelites way when they arrived, Jericho, Ai, and the Gibeonites.  Israel’s army of 30,000 fighting men (Joshua 8:3) was no match for Ai (7:3); all they had to do was to keep from defeating themselves.

Another similar, in context, principle that can be taken from Joshua 7 would be that Christians today are given enormous spiritual blessings by God, but how many Christians live as if they have none, as if that are not really entitled to the blessings of God.  Israel was given a huge piece of land (Joshua 1:3).  God gave them title to over 300,000 square miles of fruitful land, and even at the height of Israel’s day, they only took possession of 10% of God’s promise to them, only about 30,000 square miles of the Promised Land.[6] How many Christians or churches in our 21st century culture are not taking possession of 90% of God’s blessing because of sin and unfaithfulness to God? Principles, even heretical principles, can easily be taken from the Old Testament scriptures and applied to our 21st century culture.  Perhaps the most important principle in teaching from the Old Testament is the principle of context.

[1] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald B. Allen and H. Wayne House, , Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, ed. Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald B. Allen and H. Wayne House (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 284-285.

[2] David M. Howard, Jr., The New American Commentary: Joshua, Vol. V, Joshua (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 188.

[3] Haddon Robinson, “The Heresy of Application,” Preaching Today’s Sermons, 2001, (accessed June 18, 2010), 16-19.

[4] J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vols. 2, Joshua-Psalms, 5 vols. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1982), 16-19.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

One response to “The Principle of Context from Joshua 7:1-26”

  1. Dr. Steven Guest Avatar
    Dr. Steven Guest

    Seems like I’ve heard this before. Cool to see that the course is having an immediate impact on your ministry 🙂


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