Achan, Achar, and the Valley of Achor

This post summarizes Richard S. Hess, “Achan and Achor: Names and Wordplay in Joshua 7,” Hebrew Annual Review 14 (1994): 89-98. My words are limited to the sections written in gray.

The house of Achan

The tribe of Judah: Zerah > Zabdi > Carmi > Achan

The text gives us four generations of Achan’s genealogy. Hess points out that there are no other passages in Joshua that provide personal genealogies in such detail (Josh 7:1).

Names

  1. Achan: Josh 7:1, 18, 19, 24
    • Achar: 1 Chr 2:7 (“The sons of Carmi: Achar, the troubler of Israel, who transgressed in the matter of the devoted thing”)
  2. Achan’s grandfather, Zabdi
    • Zabdi: Josh 7:1, 17, 18
    • Zimri: 1 Chr 2:6
  3. Achan’s great-grandfather, Zerah
    • Zerah: Josh 7:1, 18, 24; 1 Chr 2:6 (In 1 Chr, Zerah is attested without any other names, unlike Achan/Achor and Zabdi/Zimri)
    • The clan of Zerahites: Josh 7:17 – In this case, Zerah is not a specific person’s name but a name of a clan.

Meanings of the names’ Hebrew roots

note: Hebrew root is generally composed of three consonants without vowels and conjugated in the stems of verb, noun, and adjective. If a root is conjugated as a proper noun, the noun’s meaning is related to the meaning of the root, of course.

  • Achan: the meaning is uncertain, but some argue that the word means”to be curved.” The name is attested in extrabiblical sources as well.
  • Achar: the root of the word means “to break, disturb, and destroy.” The name, Ochran, (in Num 1:13; 2:27; 7:22, 77; 10:26) shares the same root with it. Achar appears nowhere else, including in extrabiblical sources but in 1 Chr 2:7.
  • Charmi: vineyard
  • Zabdi: to give a gift
  • Zimri: to sing praise or prune
  • Zerah: to shine

Intriguing points

We have six names here, including alternative names. Except for Achar, all other names are attested in extrabiblical sources. Moreover, the cases of Charmi, Zabdi, and Zimri have a suffix, often used in personal names. But the name, Achar, does not appear elsewhere, and it does not have the suffix just mentioned. Moreover, this name has a highly negative meaning, unlike the other four names, Charmi, Zabdi, Zimri, and Zerah, which have positive meanings. So the name Achar in 1 Chr 2:7 might not have been recognized as a personal name used in ancient Israel. In other words, the term, Achar, might have been intentionally created as a wordplay with “the valley of Achor” to imply the “trouble” that Achan brought to Israel. Let’s look into it further.

Achan/Achar stole the devoted things from Jericho and hid them in his tent. This stirred God’s anger, so Israel’s first attempt to occupy Ai failed. God told Joshua why they failed, and Joshua searched the sinner through drawing lots. When Achan/Achor was found as the cause, Joshua said to Achan/Achor as follows (v. 25):

ʿachartā-nū yaʿ kor-cha YHWH (you brought trouble on us; YHWH will bring trouble on you).

To show how the verse uses the verb ʿchar, I omitted the first three words, which correspond to the following translation: “and Joshua said why”

In the sentence above, “to bring trouble” is from the word ʿāchar. In Joshu 7, the trouble maker’s name is Achan. But if his name is “Achar” as it is in 1 Chr 2:7, the sentence above becomes much more interesting; something like this: Achar did ʿāchar on Israel, so YHWH will ʿāchar on you.

(note: the name Achar (ʿāchār) only has a long vowel /ā/ whereas the verb ʿāchar has a long vowel /ā/ after /ʿ/ and a short vowel /a/ after /ch/. But there is no significant difference.)

What is important is that ʿāchār in 1 Chr 2:7 associates the sinner’s name with the verb ʿāchar used in Josh 7:25 in place of Achan so that the text more clearly shows that “trouble” is the keyword in this narrative through a wordplay. Also, the name of the valley, Achor, “the valley of ‘trouble'” where the sinner died, shares the same root with the verb ʿāchar as well as the name Achar. This too is a wordplay. The text of 1 Chr 2:7 dramatizes the wordplay. Check out an actual sentence below: 

ʿāchār ʿôchēr Israel (Achar, the troubler of Israel)

As mentioned, “ʿāchār” already means “trouble” or “trouble maker.”

The sinner’s name Achan in Josh 7 appears as Achar in 1 Chr 2:7, and the person is described as Ocher, a wordplay.

But we need to pay attention to this: Is Achan the original name and Achar an edited name just for another wordplay?; Or Is it not possible for the editor of Josh 7 to replace Achar with Achan?

Here is my thought. If Achan is original, Achar, a fairytale-like name, is an edited name to intensify the theme of the narrative, “trouble.” But if the opposite is true, that is, if the narrative is didactic fiction, and the protagonist’s name is “Trouble-Maker” (or Achar), then Josh 7 removes the tale’s fictional character by replacing the fairytale-like name, Achar, with Achan, a real name attested in other ancient documents. In the Hebrew Bible, some texts actually employ fairytale-like names in their didactic fictional stories. For instance, Abel, who absurdly died after his proper offering to God, means “breath” or more often “absurdity.” Mahlon and Chilion, Naomi’s two sons’ names in the book of Ruth, mean “sickly person” and “frailty,” respectively. These names are fictional names that disclose the texts’ fictional characteristics. By the same token, Achar “Trouble-Maker” in this narrative really brings trouble on Israel just like his name, and he himself faces trouble in the end just like his name. So if Achar is original, the narrative is didactic fiction, and the protagonist’s name characterizes the story as such. But the narrative is turned into a more historical account than the original by replacing the fictional name Achar with Achan as it was inserted into the larger narrative of Joshua. 

Hess points out that LXX only has Achar in place of Achan even in Joshua! So it might be true.

Nevertheless, Hess goes on to argue that one should not assume the texts of Josh 7and 1 Chr 2 in LXX to be from older sources than the Masoretic texts(MT) because the MT’s editors do not have a reason to change the name. Hess further argues that it is more probable that the editor of 1 Chr 2 wanted to change the name Achan to Achar to emphasize the theme and the keyword “trouble” along with the wordplay it creates.

One thought on “Achan, Achar, and the Valley of Achor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s