As the Israelites made their final preparations to take possession of the land of Canaan, which the Lord had promised them, their main threat was not an outside enemy but corruption from within. Like a cancerous tumor, the effects of sin may at first be difficult to detect, but if left untreated they can be deadly and affect many lives. This is a lesson the Lord taught forcefully to Joshua and his people as they entered their promised land.
While the Israelites were camped on the eastern edge of the Jordan River, the Lord solemnly and publicly invested Joshua with the authority to lead the people (see Num. 27:18–23). Joshua then bound his people by covenant to obey all of the Lord’s commands. The people assented and declared, “All that thou commandest us we will do. … Whosoever he be that doth rebel … , he shall be put to death” (Josh. 1:16–18).
Once across the Jordan River, the Israelites faced a most difficult obstacle—Jericho. If they could conquer this heavily fortified city, passage into the interior of the land would be easily achieved. To prepare the people for battle, Joshua said, “Sanctify yourselves: for to morrow the Lord will do wonders among you” (Josh. 3:5).
The Lord gave them the battle plan: Israelite soldiers, accompanied by seven priests with trumpets and the ark of the covenant, were to march around Jericho once a day for six days. Before going up to Jericho to march on the seventh day, Joshua specifically forbade the people from taking anything from the city for personal gain, saying, “Keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it” (Josh. 6:18; see footnote 18a). As they concluded their march this day, according to the Lord’s instructions, the people shouted, the trumpets blew, and “the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city” (Josh. 6:20).
During the destruction and occupation of Jericho, however, one Israelite man named Achan disobeyed and took of the spoils for himself, and “the anger of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israel” (Josh. 7:1). Joshua was not aware of what Achan had done or that his presence in the camp had caused the Lord to withdraw His support from the people.
When Joshua sent about 3,000 men to capture the city of Ai, a town much smaller than Jericho about 15 miles (24 km) to the northwest, the army returned in defeat, having lost 36 men. “The hearts of the people melted, and became as water.” And Joshua “rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the Lord until the eventide” (Josh. 7:5–6).
“Why had the Lord not supported Israel’s troops in the battle at Ai?” Joshua wondered. “Israel hath sinned,” came the Lord’s reply, “for they have taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled [been false]” (Josh. 7:11; see footnote 11b). Along with this news the Lord again commanded Joshua to sanctify the people by removing those who had sinned. The Lord said that until this was done “thou canst not stand before thine enemies” (Josh. 7:13). Thus the Lord made it clear that the principles of obedience and repentance were paramount to Israel’s success.
In an attempt to encourage Achan to confess, the Lord told Joshua to have each tribe present themselves before Him and He would point out to which tribe the offender belonged. When the Lord chose the tribe of Judah, He asked Joshua to have everyone in that tribe come before Him by family. He said He would identify which family had the guilty one. Achan was certainly present as the number of possible offenders was being narrowed. Then each man in the guilty family was brought one at a time before the Lord until it was Achan’s turn. When confronted, Achan finally confessed (see Josh. 7:20). At each step in the identification process, the Lord had given Achan an opportunity to come forward and admit his sin, but he had refused until he was directly exposed.
Before executing judgment, Joshua had the camp cleansed of all the “accursed things” and said to Achan, “Why hast thou troubled us? the Lord shall trouble you this day” (Josh. 7:25). Achan and his household were then stoned and burned, “so the Lord turned from the fierceness of his anger” (Josh. 7:26).
After Achan was removed, the Lord said to Joshua, “Fear not, neither be thou dismayed: … arise, go up to Ai: see, I have given into thy hand the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land” (Josh. 8:1).
Israel’s success in destroying its enemies and obtaining the land depended upon the people’s collective obedience to the will of God. “The inward vessel shall be cleansed first,” the Lord has said (Alma 60:23).
Achan’s sin had caused Israel to suffer. So also can the sins of even a few individuals in a family, a congregation, or a nation have a negative, even calamitous, effect on others. (For examples, see Alma 39:11; Alma 46:9; Hel. 2:13; D&C 136:34–36.) In a similar manner, sin affects our success and the presence of the Spirit in our individual lives (see Alma 12:9–11). If the full strength of the Spirit is to return, sinfulness must be removed or we will forfeit the Lord’s promised blessings. Elder Ray H. Wood, a former member of the Seventy, has said: “When a person violates any of God’s commandments, if there is no repentance the Lord withdraws His protective and sustaining influence. When we lose power with God, we know of a certainty that the problem lies within us and not with God. … Without God’s help, we are left to ourselves.”1
After we have participated in the process of repentance and forgiveness, we may have power to succeed where we first have failed. This blessing is made possible through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
Symbolically, the land promised to Israel could represent the divine inheritance promised to all the faithful who keep their covenants with God. In keeping with this idea, Joshua’s2 bringing Israel through the Jordan River and into the land of Canaan serves as a powerful image for our own return to the presence of the Father and the Son (see Acts 7:45). We must become free of impurities so that we do not risk forfeiting our divine birthright (see 1 Ne. 15:34; D&C 1:31–33). Let us move forward to eternal life by securing the blessings of the Atonement through faith in Him by willing, humble, and forthright repentance.
Apostles and prophets are still pleading with modern Israel today. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared: “My call to you … is something of the call Joshua gave to an earlier generation … who needed to perform a miracle in their time. To [those] who would need to complete ancient Israel’s most formidable task—recapturing and repossessing their promised land of old—Joshua said, ‘Sanctify yourselves: for to morrow the Lord will do wonders among you’ (Josh. 3:5).”3