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The transferability of sin: punishing
the innocent for the sins of the guilty

Other passages in the Hebrew Scriptures
(Old Testament): Deuteronomy and Joshua

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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 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 elsewhere.

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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.

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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 LORD.

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 "illegitimate."

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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 Egyptians.:

"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.

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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:

bullet 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."
bullet 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.

bullet 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 2:26-35). 1

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.

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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 7:21)

This story contains two examples of the transfer of sin from a guilty person to innocent people:

bullet 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.

bullet 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 was burned; 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.

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Reference used:

  1. From the King James Version of the Bible.

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Copyright 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-OCT-20
Latest update: 2011-NOV-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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