The transferability of sin: punishing
the innocent for the sins of the guilty
Other passages in the Hebrew Scriptures
Deuteronomy and Joshua
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
The following examples of this theme are taken from the book of
Deuteronomy and Joshua. Examples from first four books of the Hebrew Scriptures
(a.k.a. Old Testament), primarily Genesis, and Exodus are listed
Punish the disabled:
Deuteronomy 23:1 states:
"He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off,
shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD."
"Stones" refers to testicles; privy member refers to penis. It is most
unlikely that a person would intentionally damage his testicles or cut off his penis. It
would have happened either by accident or as a result of a neutering
operation intended to produce a eunuch. Thus, this passages discriminates
against a person for an event that was probably outside of their control. He
was not allowed to enter into the Temple.
Punish illegitimate children:
Deuteronomy 23:2 states:
"A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to
his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the
The sin of a man and woman who had a child outside of marriage is
transferred to the innocent child, the child's children, grandchildren,
great grandchildren, great great grandchildren, down to the tenth generation.
All are excluded from the Temple.
This verse may have inspired some states and provinces in North America
to mark the birth certificates of children born out of wedlock
Racism or xenophobia:
Deuteronomy 23:3 & 4 states:
"An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the
LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the
congregation of the LORD for ever because they met you not with bread
and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because
they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia,
to curse thee.
This is another case where the sins of one generation are transferred to
their descendents for ten generations.
However, Deuteronomy 23:7 & 8 offers some leniency to Edomites and
"Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother: thou shalt
not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a stranger in his land. The
children that are begotten of them shall enter into the congregation of
the LORD in their third generation.'
The exclusion only lasts in their case for three generations.
The genocide of the Canaanites and other tribes:
The Israelites invaded Canaan and, under God's instructions, exterminated
seven nations during widespread acts of genocide: the Girgashites, Amorites,
Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Some references to
the slaughter are:
Deuteronomy 7:1-2: "... the seven
nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver
them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt
make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them."
Joshua 6:21: "And they utterly destroyed
all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep,
and ass, with the edge of the sword.
This latter passage describes how, after the walls of the city of Jericho
fell, the soldiers ran into the city, and killed all its inhabitants: elderly men and women, mature men and women, pregnant women, youths, boys, girls,
infants and newborns. Their goal was to entirely wipe out the Canaanite culture
by exterminating its people.
Joshua 10:40-41: "So Joshua smote all the
country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and
all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that
breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded. And Joshua smote them from
Kadesh-barnea even unto Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, even unto Gibeon."
People of all ages: men, women children, infants and newborns were also
killed in the cities of Ai, Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Elgon, Hebron,
Debir, Hormah, Bashan, and Sisera. They utterly destroyed "the men, and the
women, and the little ones, of every city." They "left none to
remain" alive. (Deuteronomy
The justification given for this genocide was that the Pagans who inhabited the land
worshiped Gods other than Yahweh (a.k.a. Jehovah). Again, what were considered sinful
religious acts by the adults
were used to justify the slaughter of children, infants and newborns who had not
reached the age of accountability.
God may have had second thoughts about these genocides. Faced with a similar problem with the people of Nineveh, he sent Jonah to the offending group to preach repentance. He was successful; God forgave the people of Nineveh and allowed them to continue living.
A soldier's theft:
When Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, God had ordered that "...all the
silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron" (Joshua 6:19) were to
be consecrated to God. That is, they were to be given to the priests. No soldier was to take any objects from the city
for himself. Achan of the tribe of Judah did exactly that. He took a "Babylonish
garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels
weight" and buried them under his tent for later personal use. (Joshua
This story contains two examples of the transfer of sin from a guilty
person to innocent people:
||Noting that the town of Ai contained few people, Joshua sent about 3,000
soldiers to attack it. Joshua's army was routed and about 36
soldiers were killed. God explained to Joshua that:
"Israel hath sinned, and they have have also transgressed my covenant
which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing,
and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even
among their own stuff."
God transferred the responsibility for the sin from one soldier -- the
thief -- to all of Israel. About unrelated 36 soldiers died because of the
transgression of one man.
Achan of the tribe of Judah, "the silver, and the
garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen,
and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had" were taken
to the valley of Achor. He and his children were stoned to death. Their bodies
were later burned. His wife may well have been included as one of his possessions who
wives at the time were often considered as property.
There is no indication in
the text that his wife bore any responsibility for the theft, or even had
knowledge of the stolen goods. His sons and daughters, of unknown ages, were
probably innocent of any criminal act as well. But again, the sin of their father was
transferred to his entire family.
Joshua's army attacked Ai for the second time. While one contingent of
soldiers fought with the army of Ai, another group entered Ai, set it on fire,
and massacred every human in the town. The king was hanged on a tree.
- From the King James Version of the Bible.
Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2002-OCT-20
Latest update: 2011-NOV-29
Author: B.A. Robinson