My first Sunday School teacher was a pale, squat, balding man who retold dusty old Bible stories with a nasally voice and a moralistic heart. The more he taught me to be good, the more I wanted to be bad. So I’d hide from him. Under tables, behind curtains, inside closets. Sometimes he’d find me, sometimes not. When he did, he was certain to sit me down and teach me about everything except the thing that really mattered. Only when a stoned thief became my Sunday School teacher, did I learn that inside those dusty old Bible stories was a hidden treasure named Jesus the Christ.
This other teacher, his name was Achan. He lived long ago, and was executed for thievery long ago, but neither time nor crime hindered him from teaching me about the God whose greatest talent is turning death into life, despair into hope. Take a moment and sit with me at the feet of Achan. Let us learn his story, and, in so doing, learn the story of Jesus.
Crime and Punishment in the Valley of Trouble
This is what happened. When God brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down, He laid down the law that no man was to stuff his pockets with the loot of the city. These spoils of war belonged to God and God alone. But, wouldn’t you know it, there was this beautiful robe just lying there, and this gold, and this silver, all of it free for the taking. And Achan, victorious in battle, was vanquished in temptation. He coveted, he caved. He stuffed the treasures under his robe, hid them under his tent, concealed the matter under his heart. Not a soul knew.
No one, that is, except God. And He wasn’t keeping hush-hush about it. When Israel was massacred during the next battle, the Lord informed Joshua that their defeat was punishment for a secret theft that had been perpetrated when Jericho was laid low. By casting lots, Joshua narrowed down the nation by tribe, by family, by household, until the last man standing was Achan. He confessed; he really had no other choice. The stolen property was brought forth and the sentence against Achan pronounced.
Beneath a hill of rocks that the Israelites piled high that day, at the doorway to the holy land, was the stoned, burned corpse of my teacher. It bears an infamous name: the Valley of Achor, which means the Valley of Trouble. And it remained there, for generations to come, as a mournful monument to sin, defeat, and death.
Achan and Jesus: The Valley of Trouble Becomes the Doorway of Hope
My law-loving Sunday School teacher licked his lips over the moralistic morsels he thought he spotted within this story. Here was a cautionary tale, he assumed, about the punishments awaiting those who resort to a life of crime. Well, okay. This story can indeed be used to teach the commandment, “You shall not steal.” But if all you’re looking for in the Scriptures is law, then law is surely all you’re going to find—law by the truckload. But in that quest for thou shalts and thou shalt nots, you’ll miss what really matters. You’ll trample the cross while racing for the tablets of stone. From the tale of Achan’s theft, you’ll rob yourself of Jesus.
Hosea, he got this story. He spied Jesus in Joshua 7. He prophesied the day when the Lord would lead His bride, Israel, back into the wilderness. He would speak to her heart, woo her, show her His love. She would respond by calling Him her husband. He would betroth her to Himself forever, marry her in righteousness and justice and love and compassion. She would again enter the holy land, but not as in days of old, when that entrance was marked by a mournful monument to sin, defeat, and death. There would be no tears or moans, as when Achan brought all Israel to her knees by his rebellious act. Rather, Israel “will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.” Hosea foretells this day of salvation, which is the day of the Messiah, when “the valley of Achor [will become] as a doorway of hope,” (2:15). Do you see what Hosea just did? He read Joshua 7 through cruciform eyes, and he bids us do the same.
Jesus changes everything. He turns your valleys of trouble into doorways of hope. He turns His death upon the cross into life for the world. He changes your unrighteousness into His righteousness; your sin into His forgiveness; your mournful monuments consisting of the stones of death into a joyous monument consisting of an empty tomb from which the stone has been rolled away. The valley of Achor becomes the doorway of Jesus, who is the way into the heavenly promised land.
Beginning with Moses and with All the Prophets…
All of that good news is in the story of Achan, for every story in the Old Testament is the story of Jesus. Remember what Christ did for those depressed, bewildered Emmaus disciples as He walked with them that first Easter afternoon? Beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He “explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures,” (Luke 24:27). He taught them that all of Scripture, everywhere, deals only with Him. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, along the way, he retold the story of a stoned thief named Achan, whose sad story blossoms into the best of stories when you realize that even Joshua 7 is part of the Gospel of the Old Testament.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!