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Achan (Bible)

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Achan (pronounced /ˈeɪkæn/) (Hebrew: עכן‎), also called Achar, is a figure mentioned by the Book of Joshua in connection with the fall of Jericho and conquest of Ai.

According to the narrative of the text, Achan pillaged an ingot of gold, a quantity of silver, and a costly garment, from Jericho; the text states "But all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron, are consecrated unto the Lord: they shall come into the treasury of the Lord." The Book of Joshua claims that this act resulted in the Israelites being collectively punished by God, in that they failed in their first attempt to capture Ai, with 36 Israelite lives lost. The Israelites use cleromancy to decide who was to blame, and having identified Achan, stoned him to death, as well as his sheep, other livestock, and, according to many interpretations, his wife and children. Their remains were burnt by the Israelites, according to the text, and stones piled on top.

Rashi, and many opinions in the Talmud, argue that the stoning was only carried out on the livestock and Achan himself, and that his children were merely brought forward to witness the Israelites ... stone them (Biblical text with emphasis added). The Talmud writers do however admit the possibility of the children being also stoned, arguing that since they had kept silent about their father's actions, they were complicit in the crime. One tradition, seemingly older, that is reported by the Classical Rabbinical literature, states that Achan's crime was far worse than the Biblical account appears - Achan had, according to these Rabbis, also stolen a magic idol with a golden tongue, silver votive gifts dedicated to it, and the expensive cloth that covered it. Other classical Rabbis portray Achan as guilty of more earthly crimes, claiming that he had committed incest, or performed work on the sabbath (equally immoral in their eyes).

In the narrative, before Achan is stoned to death, he first confesses his actions, which the Classical Rabbis argued would have saved him from Gehenna (the classical-era Jewish conception of hell). From a textual point of view, it exonerates the Israelites from any question of condemning a man without evidence other than cleromancy, and thus avoids questions over the validity of supernatural tests of guilt.

The narrative states that the location for this punishment of Achan, which lies between Jericho and Ai, became known as the vale of Achor in memory of him. Some archaeologists believe that the Israelite conquest of Jericho and Ai never happened (they may have been abandoned ruins at the time, depending on the dating method used), this narrative is seen by some biblical scholars as an aetiological myth providing a folk etymology for Achor, at the point in the narrative where the vale of Achor is necessarily crossed. Most biblical scholars see the evidence of the walls falling inward and food still being found in the 4th layer of building homes, as evidence that the event happened quickly instead of a long siege that brought down the wall. This supports the Biblical view point of its theological history.

It is significant that Achan's name means one who troubles, in Hebrew, supposedly in commemoration of his crime, and what it brought upon him; it is unlikely for a historic figure to be named in memory of an event that doesn't happen until many years after they are named, but quite plausible for a character in a folk story to be named descriptively.[1][2].

The narrative somewhat anachronistically describes the garment that Achor stole as Babylonish; the time of the Israelite invasion is usually dated to the 15th or 12th centuries BC, but between 1595BC and 627BC Babylon was under foreign rule. For this reason, some textual scholars believe that this part of the Achor narrative was written during the 7th century BC or later, but many Biblical scholars believe the judge Samuel may have put together this account from historical books from that time. This is much like historical accounts today when writer's use earlier works to write about historical events. (This does not invalidate the history, but give a great summary of the events that occurred) It is not certain, however, that the whole Achor narrative dates from this time, as textual critics believe that the Achor narrative may have been spliced together from two earlier source texts; the words in the first part of Joshua 7:25, all Israel stoned him with stones (emphasis added) show a different style and tradition from those at the end of the verse: they stoned them with stones (emphasis added)[3].

Notes

  1. Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed
  2. Matthew Sturgis, It Aint Necessarily So
  3. Jewish Encyclopedia

References

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