The transferability of sin: punishing
the innocent for the sins of the guilty
Passages in the Hebrew Scriptures
(Old Testament): Genesis to Numbers
This section discusses a theme that runs through the entire Bible: that is
is moral to punish innocent persons for the sins of the guilty. That is, that
guilt can be transferred from the person who did the sin to those who had no
involvement in the sin. This theme is in violation of the tenets of every
religious that we have studied. Yet it is frequently seen in many biblical
stories and thus influences Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i religions.
The following examples of this theme are taken from the first four books
of the Hebrew Scriptures
(a.k.a. Old Testament), primarily Genesis, and Exodus. Examples from the book of
Deuteronomy through to 1 Chronicles are listed elsewhere.
Adam and Eve's curse, from which the Christian concept of Original Sin was developed:
In the beginning of the book of Genesis:
Genesis 1:27 and 2:7-22 describe how God created Adam and Eve, the
first proto-humans. |
Genesis 3:5 describes how they lacked full humanity because they had
been created without a moral sense. They could not tell the difference between good and evil. |
In Genesis 2:17, God ordered Adam to not eat "of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil..." (King James Version, KJV) |
Genesis 3:5-6, after having been persuaded by a talking serpent of the
benefits of knowing the difference between good and evil, Adam and Eve ate the fruit. |
|God learned of their transgression and laid a series of curses on:|
||The serpent: He and his descendents could no longer walk on
legs, but would have to slither
on their belly, and eat dust. (3:14)
||Humans and serpents: They were henceforth to be each other's eternal
||The woman and her female descendents: They would suffer
excruciating pain in childbirth, and would be forced to submit to the
domination of their husbands. (3:16)
||The land: It would henceforth grow thorns and thistles,
decreasing crop yield and increasing the effort required to raise food
from the soil. (3:17-18)
||The human race: Instead of each individual being immortal, they will have
only a finite life and then die. (3:19)
These events have been referred to as "the fall" of mankind. It was the first
human sin. The description in Genesis, as interpreted by most Christians, indicates that the punishment for Adam and Eve's sin was to
extend far beyond the original humans in what is called "Original Sin."
Christianity has taught the concept of imputation:
that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, their sin was imputed or assigned -- not only to them, but to all humanity
for all time.
That is, the children of Adam and Eve, their grandchildren, and successive
generations would all equally bear the sins of their original parents even though the sin was committed before the descendents were born.
Christians have literally interpreted the creation story in Genesis and
have concluded that "the fall" of humanity occurred between 8000 and 400 BCE. According to their belief in "Original Sin",
God's curse is the longest curse in history, having lasted over 6,000 years
to date, and affecting Adam and Eve's descendents as far as
the 125th generation. It appears to have no limit, and will
continue indefinitely into our descendents' future.
The curse is confirmed in the book of Romans in the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament).
Paul wrote: "Wherefore, as by one man [Adam] sin
entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for
that all have sinned." (KJV) 1
This is the first instance in the Bible where individuals are punished for
the sins of others. It is unique in that every human who ever existed suffers
from the curse. Other curses in the Bible affect only persons from certain groups, sexual orientations, religions, or tribes.
However, a research team at Yale University has evidence that the Christian belief in Original Sin may be invalid! They found that young babies who are 6 to 10 months of age exhibit moral thinking!
In the team's abstract of "Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants" by J. Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom, they state:
"... infants prefer an individual who helps another to one who hinders another, prefer a helping individual to a neutral individual, and prefer a neutral individual to a hindering individual."
This appears to show that newborns may not be born with "original sin," but that they may develop sinful behaviors later in life, as a result of parenting. More details. As additional research findings are reported, this topic may become a prominent topic in the continuing "warfare of science with religion."
The flood of Noah:
Chapter 6 of Genesis describes the massive genocide by a world-wide flood, gravitationally dated at 2348 BCE.
If one measures the seriousness of a mass extermination by the percentage of
humans killed, this was the greatest genocide in history. Only one man and his
survived -- a total of eight individuals. Every other human on Earth died: the elderly, adults, youths, children, infants, and newborns. God, having the option of sending prophets to the various tribes of humans with a message of repentance -- as he did later with Jonah -- or of committing genocide, chose the latter.
||Genesis 6:5-7 describes that humanity was wicked and evil. God regretted
that he had ever created the first humans, and decided to kill all of the
humans, land animals and birds:
"And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was
great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart
was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on
the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy
man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and
the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have
||Genesis 6:12-13 gives further information: God felt that humans had
corrupted the earth, and had engaged in excessive violence:
"And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for
all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto
Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is
filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them
with the earth."
During the flood, all of the youths and adults who were responsibility for
the wickedness, evil and violence were drowned. Also drowned would be all the children, infants and newborns
in the world, all of whom had not reached the age of
accountability. Apparently, every land animal, and bird perished, except for those which
were sheltered in Noah's ark. One might assume
that with the massive dilution of the salinity of the oceans and the mixture of
the oceans of salt water with lakes and rivers of fresh water, that many species of fish who required
fresh water and other species which required a high level of salinity would not
have survived either.
The curse of Ham:
In 2347 BCE, an incident occurred which involved Noah and his three
sons. Noah had planted a vineyard, and became drunk on the wine. He was laying
naked in his tent. One of his sons, Ham, saw his father in this state and told
his brothers, Shem and Japeth. The latter sons carefully covered their father
with a garment without looking at him. Many theologians have suspected
that Ham did more than just look at his father, but may have engaged in some
form of forbidden sexual behavior. Genesis 9:24 simply says: "And
Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him."
Noah laid a horrendous curse. But it was not on his son Ham who had done the unspecified sinful act. Instead of punishing the
individual who had injured him, Noah punished that individual's son
-- Noah's grandson -- Canaan. There is no indication that Canaan was involved in
any way or even knew of the event. Still, he was to be enslaved to Shem and
Japheth and their children. Further, Canaan's descendents were to be slaves to the descendents of these two sons of Noah.
||Genesis 9:25-27: "And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants
shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem;
and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell
in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant." 2
The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) frequently referred to slaves by
various ambiguous terms, such as: bondmen, servants, maids, handmaid,
manservant, maidservant, etc.
This passage is often referred to as the "Curse of Ham." It was one of
the favorite biblical quotations of 19th century theologians who wished to justify
slavery on biblical grounds. The descendants of Ham were assumed to be Africans.
According to this verse, they were to be slaves forever. Thus the American and
Canadian slave owners saw themselves as simply implementing God's wishes. Under this interpretation, abolition of human slavery would violate the will of God. More details on slavery.
In Genesis 38:24, Tamar was discovered to be pregnant three months after conception,
presumably because her "baby bump" became visible at that time. This was positive proof that
she had been sexually active. Because she was a widow, without a
husband, she was assumed to be a prostitute -- a crime punishable by execution
at the time. Her father-in-law, Judah, ordered that she be
burned alive for her crime.
If, as many pro-lifers believe, Tamar's twin fetuses are to be considered full human
persons, then three people would die: one allegedly guilty of a capital crime,
and two innocent fetuses. There was
no condemnation on Judah mentioned for deciding to take this action.
Fortunately for Judah and her twin fetuses, Judah later changed his mind when he
found out that he was the man responsible for Tamar's pregnancy. The twins were
born and had Judah as their father and grandfather.
At the time that Genesis 38 was written, it is unclear whether the ancient
Hebrews considered human embryos and fetuses to be human
persons. If they were considered full persons, then their near execution
would be an other example of the transmission of sin and punishment from the
presumed guilty person -- Tamar -- to her innocent fetuses.
Plagues in Egypt:
The first chapters of the book of Exodus describe how the ancient Hebrews
were held and mistreated as slaves in Egypt. God selected Moses as the individual who was to
free his countrymen and take them to the land of Canaan. To do so, he had to
negotiate release of the slaves from the dictator of Egypt, an unidentified
God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" repeatedly so that he would refuse to
release the Hebrew slaves. This converted a difficult negotiation for Moses into a near
||Exodus 7:13-14: "And he hardened Pharaoh's heart, that he hearkened not
unto them; as the LORD had said. And the LORD said unto Moses, Pharaoh's heart
is hardened, he refuseth to let the people go."
God instructed Moses to have his brother Aaron perform a series of rituals
which brought plagues to Egypt: all of the water was turned to blood; there was
an infestation of frogs, lice, and flies. All of the Egyptian cattle died. Hail
mixed with thunder and fire afflicted the entire country. Locusts infested the
land. People broke out in painful boils. There was a three-day period of darkness. Finally, the ultimate
punishment came: God was to pass through the entire land of Egypt and kill every
first born animal and human. This included "...all the firstborn in the
land of Egypt...from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even
unto the firstborn of the maidservant [female slave] that is behind the mill; and all the
firstborn of beasts." (Exodus 11:5) Also included was "the firstborn of
the captive that was in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle."
(Exodus 12:29). 2 Only the Jewish firstborn, among all the firstborn in the land, were to be saved, and then only if
their family performed a specific ritual involving the killing of a lamb and spreading its blood over
the doorposts. The firstborn would involve both children and adults. Few
families, other than those of the Hebrews, would be spared. At this point, faced
with his country's devastation, the Pharaoh
relented and allowed the Hebrews to leave the country.
The decision to retain or release the Hebrews was made by the pharaoh alone.
Egypt was a dictatorship at the time, and the pharaoh held full political power.
Yet he was not killed. His eldest child was allegedly murdered, as were the
eldest children of all of the slaves, prisoners, and the general Egyptian public.
Even the first born among the animals were killed. Egyptians in poverty must
have suffered greatly at the loss of their cow(s) or goat(s) -- animals that
made the difference between their owners eking out a marginal existence and
starvation. Yet, none of those who were killed by angels under God's direct orders was responsible in any way for the pharaoh's decision to
the Hebrews to remain in the country.
The real goat that gave rise to the "scapegoat:
The book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Scriptures describe the first yearly
observance of the Day of Atonement. This is an annual religious observance
held on the tenth day of the seventh lunar month. During the ritual,
the sins of the community were transferred to a goat. It was then taken into
the wilderness, taking the
sins of the community with it. It was abandoned there, and expected to
starve to death, or to be killed by a predator.
||Leviticus 16:8-34 states, in part that the priest, Aaron:
take cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for
the scapegoat....the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be
presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him
go for a scapegoat into the wilderness....And Aaron shall lay both his hands
upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the
children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting
them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit
man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities
unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. And
this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the
tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all,
whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among
you: For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse
you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It shall be a
sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute for
The exact mechanism by which the sins of the Children of Israel are
transferred onto or into the goat is not defined.
- Paul, in Romans 5:12
- From the King James Version of the Bible.
Copyright © 2002 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2002-OCT-20
Latest update: 2018-MAR-18
Author: B.A. Robinson