I really want it.
Gotta have it.
Desire has many objects and comes in many forms. It’s not a bad thing in itself. The biblical question is not whether we have desires, but whether we desire the right things, desire the good, desire God.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture saturated by advertising, a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to the manipulation of desire. It’s not just that we crave things. Any honest advertising executive will tell you that the goal is to get you to associate the product with some deeper hunger: bodily pleasure, of course, but also status or significance, comfort and ease, even an escape from boredom.
Again, these are not bad things in themselves. There are legitimate hungers — but they can lead us down an idolatrous path. When our eyes begin to sparkle with desire, we may find it hard to see anything other than what we want, and we become morally and spiritually blind.
The Bible calls this covetousness.
And it is the underlying sin of Achan in Joshua 7, and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.
In Joshua 7 we read about a man named Achan, who coveted some of spoil taken from the conquest of Jericho: gold, silver, an ornamented robe. He knew he was doing wrong; why else would he bury the forbidden booty? But he was found out. The price of his covetous cover-up was his life, and that of his family.
In Acts 5, a couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property and brought part of the proceeds to the apostles. In and of itself, that could have counted as a generous act. But they lied, pretending that they had given all the money earned from the sale. Presumably, they craved the recognition; perhaps Barnabas had been celebrated for his gift (Acts 4:36-37), and they wanted the same. They wanted people to think they were being more generous, more spiritual, than they really were. And for that covetous lie, they too paid with their lives.
Stories like these can offend modern sensibilities. Surely these aren’t capital offenses! If every liar in the church got the death penalty…well, there wouldn’t be much of a church left.
But these stories, I think, aren’t primarily about the sin of lying but the sin of covetousness — and the blindness that results.
Consider the larger context of Achan’s story. In Joshua 1, Joshua rallies the troops with a pep talk about the Lord’s promise and command. The people responded, “Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. …Whoever rebels against your orders and disobeys your words, whatever you command, shall be put to death” (Josh 1:17-18, NRSV).
“Obeyed Moses”? Really? That’s a red flag already. But at least they know the stakes; God’s appointed leader must be obeyed, on penalty of death. And if that weren’t enough, three days later God did a miracle just to get them into the land in the first place, making the muddy waters of the Jordan River stand up in a heap so the people could cross on dry land (Josh 3:14-17).
The miracle, of course, was meant to remind them of Moses and the Exodus, and the people were commanded to set up a stone memorial so they wouldn’t forget. The story was to be repeated down through the generations: On that day, God did to the Jordan what he did to the Red Sea (Josh 4:23). Why? “So that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear the LORD your God forever” (vs. 24).
In chapter 5, Joshua circumcised all the men who had been born during the Israelites’ years of wandering in the wilderness, marking them as belonging to God. He has a vision of the Lord’s heavenly army. In chapter 6, the Israelites take Jericho in a miraculous fashion.
How is it then, in chapter 7, that Achan sees something he wants and just takes it? How could he just neglect the death-to-the-disobedient pledge of chapter 1? How could he forget the astounding miracles of chapters 3 and 6? How could he be so far from anything resembling a proper fear of the Lord?
Because in his covetous desire, Achan has become blind. He hasn’t so much forgotten the rules as forgotten God.
And as we’ll see in the next two posts, something similar can be said of Ananias and Sapphira.