Why such harsh discipline?

I’ve heard it asked many times and in many different ways: “Why is God so harsh in the Old Testament?” Or perhaps it’s phrased like this:  “How could a loving God command His people to kill ‘innocent’ women and children?” One buddy of mine even suggests that the God of the Old Testament is not the same God as the one of the New Testament.
Does the punishment fit the crime?

For example, consider the story of Achan:  In Joshua 6:18 the people of Israel (Achan included) were told to keep themselves from the things devoted to destruction, otherwise they would bring trouble upon Israel. Then in Joshua 7:1, Achan decides that rule doesn’t really apply to him, so he took some of the devoted things. Next in Joshua 7:11-12, God is pronouncing Israel guilty of breaking the covenant and declares that they will be unable to defend themselves in any military engagement. For a group of desert nomads who just entered enemy territory, this is a death sentence!
Stoning of Achan
Joshua 7:24-25:  “The Stoning of Achan”
In order to satisfy God’s wrath, everyone in Israel stoned Achan and his entire family (Josh 7:24-25). All this because he took some silver, a cloak, and a bar of gold (Josh 7:25). Does the punishment fit the crime? Many skeptics use stories like this to claim that God is not good, but I think they fail to take everything into account.
However, before answering this question, I would like to point out what I believe to be a fatal flaw in its logic. In order to even ask this question, you have to assume that you have the authority to question the will and actions of God. You have to assume that you somehow have the authority to demand an explanation of God. I know this statement won’t be popular, but I believe that reveals an arrogant heart. So if you’re a believer, consider whether or not you have any authority to question God. If you’re a non-believer, then consider that, if there is a Creator-God, then why wouldn’t he have the authority to make these demands? Also, whether you’re a believer or a non-believer, ask yourself who gets to define what is and is not “loving.” People will often phrase this question “How could a loving God…” as though they understand what love is and God needs to correct His behavior to match our definition. The Bible says that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). Do we define what “love” is and then demand that God conforms to our definition, or do read the Scriptures in order to better understand God and, when necessary, make adjustments to our definition of love?
Before answering the questions posed at the beginning of this post, it’s important that you examine your heart to determine why you think this is unjust in the first place. And one last thing before we get into our answers:  it’s easy to take one small instance like this out of context and try to use it as “ammo” against God. In order to do this though, you have to ignore the 40 years that God was patient with a stiff-necked, faithless, disobedient people. You have to ignore the parts where God patiently and repeatedly spares the nation of Israel. You have to ignore the parts where God miraculously parts the Red Sea, saves His people, and within a week they’re already complaining about how much better it was in Egypt. You have to ignore the parts where God faithfully provided daily bread for His people. In order to find these nuggets of “ammo” you literally have to sift through a mountain of evidence for the grace of God. This is intellectually dishonest. So, with those two digressions out of the way, let’s look at the rest of the story.

God had clearly demonstrated His power to His people for His glory.
Read what happens earlier in the story, consider who these people were, and let’s look at just three miracles they had witnessed:  the bread, the sea, and the fall of Jericho.
Achan and his generation of Israelites were a group that had grown up subsisting primarily off of God’s manna. If anyone should have known to trust and obey God, it would have been a generation that had lived their entire life wandering in the desert, with God in their midst, living off his daily bread. At this point in Achan’s life, God should have earned at least the benefit of the doubt. Instead, Achan decided that God wasn’t really trustworthy and that he could make his own decisions for himself.
This group had also crossed the Jordan River; in fact, it had stopped much like the Red Sea (Josh 3:16-17). What I find most amazing about this account is that—as far as I can tell—it looks like the priests literally had to step out into the water and as their feet were coming down the water stopped and dry ground appeared. There was an element of “stepping out” that they were responsible for. Achan would have been one of the people who walked across the dry ground where a river had just been. Achan would have witnessed undeniable evidence of God’s power over nature and authority over all creation. What excuse would Achan have for denying such power and authority?
Next this group witnessed the walls of Jericho fall as the result of them shouting and playing some musical instruments; clearly the work of the Lord (Josh 7:20). There’s no way they could explain this except that the hand of God had been working for them. It’s likely they expected some brilliant military strategy to be revealed to them from God once they entered the Promised Land. But God wanted Jericho to fall in a way that would make it clear that He was responsible for the victory. God says as much in Joshua 6:2 when He tells Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor.” God had clearly demonstrated His power to His people for His glory.
Suicide.

Which brings me to a question:  After God had so clearly revealed Himself to His people, shouldn’t Achan have known better?
Wouldn’t it be foolish to disobey God after He had provided so many undeniable revelations of Himself? Who could deny both God’s power and His authority after literally subsisting off His daily bread, witnessing His supreme authority over creation, and witnessing His unstoppable power in war? It would be suicide to rebel against such authority—indeed, it proves to be just that. Achan, once he’s revealed as the traitor (by God, no less) readily admitted his guilt (Josh 7:20). Achan knew he was doing wrong and he knew Who he was disobeying. It’s honestly quite foolish, isn’t it? It’s suicide, isn’t it? Ravi Zacharias put it this way when he came to Alaska:  “Where there is a dramatic display of his power in the miraculous, there is an equal dramatic judgment when that miracle is disregarded and violated. To whom much is given, much is required.”
While doing a little background research for this post I ran across another good explanation for a similar account in Numbers 15 where a man is stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The argument basically goes that it’s not our place to determine which commands from God are important to follow and which are optional. Imagine if God’s people saw this man breaking the Sabbath so they decided they could also disregard many of the sanitary and dietary laws. In the long run, it’s not hard to imagine that thousands of people would have died as a result of infections, epidemics, food poisoning, and the like. Thus, it was far more merciful to kill one law breaker as an example to emphasize the necessity of following God than to be “merciful” and let thousands of people kill themselves through disobedience.
Another perspective is found in Daniel 4:34-35: 
For his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
   and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
   and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
   and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
   or say to him, “What have you done?”
Of course, we don’t like that explanation, do we? “How dare God assume any authority over His creation. How dare God assume that He can command us. We have rights! Doesn’t God know we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Duh, God; get with the times. It’s the 21st century! That authority thing is so out-dated.”
Just reading it like that should make you realize how ridiculous that mentality is. The truth is that the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and God does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, “What have you done?”  (Pastor Matt Chandler did an amazing series about authority that I would highly recommend.)
So here are—in my opinion—three good answers to why God was so “harsh” with Achan:
  1. Achan had seen God’s power in undeniable ways and knowingly signed his own death warrant when he denied God’s authority.
  2. Achan’s selfish trespass could have easily led to the deaths of thousands of others had they witnessed his disobedience go unpunished and decided to imitate his rebellion.
  3. Achan lacked any power or authority to question God or to stop Him.
The good news is that God is merciful and patient with us, but it’s certainly not because we deserve it.
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14748389127632031557 Pat Devine

    It's easy to dismiss God's administration of justice in the OT when we create God in our image. We would be way more understanding and merciful to Achen, right?

    You wrote: “in order to even ask this question, you have to assume that you have the authority to question the will and actions of God. You have to assume that you somehow have the authority to demand an explanation of God.”

    Agreed – totally. Add one more: We have to assume that we have the slightest comprehension of the HOLINESS of God, and what true defilement of pure HOLINESS demands.

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