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

From other passages in the Hebrew Scriptures
(Old Testament): Ten Commandments, 1 Samuel,
1 Chronicles, and Hosea.

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The Ten Commandments:

There are three different versions of the Decalogue (a.k.a. the Ten Commandments) listed in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are at Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

bulletExodus 20:3-5 states:

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;" 1

bulletDeuteronomy 5:7-9 differs by only one word.

This commandment describes that God will directly punish the children, grand-children, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren of a transgressor, even though they did not participate in the sin. They might not have even been alive when their ancestor worshiped another God or bowed down before an image or statue. Yet, they were still to be punished for the crime of a distant ancestor.

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Genocide of the tribe of Benjamin:

bulletJudges 19 describes how some men of the tribe of Benjamin, living in the town of Gibeah, raped and murdered a concubine owned by a visiting Levite. The Levite later butchered the concubine, dividing her body into twelve pieces, and sent each piece to one of the tribes of Israel.


bullet Judges 20 describes that, as punishment for this crime, an army from the remaining 11 tribes attacked the tribe of Benjamin, killing "all the city with the edge of the sword." This implies that they murdered all of the elderly, women, children, infants and newborns in the cities. Most of the men were also killed. The towns belonging to the tribe of Benjamin were burned to the ground.


bulletIn Judges 21, the 11 tribes realized that only a few hundred Benjamite males survived. But their wives and children had all been murdered. The remaining Hebrews vowed that they would not give their daughters in marriage to the Benjamites. That meant that the surviving males could not marry or have children; the entire tribe would eventually die out. Hebrew men were forbidden to marry non-Hebrew women. To preserve the tribe, they had to find a few hundred Hebrew women who could be given to the Benjamites as wives. They observed that no soldiers from Jabesh-gilead had taken part in the slaughter of the Benjamites. So they killed "the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the edge of the sword" including the children." (Judges 21:10) They killed "... every male, and every woman" who was a non-virgin, sparing only four hundred young female virgins. (Judges 21:11) These were kidnapped, and were given to the surviving Benjamite men as wives. This prevented the complete genocide of the tribe.

Lost in this story of bloodshed and murder in cold blood is the fact that the only persons guilty of the death of the concubine were some men from Gibeah. When the smoke cleared, thousands of innocent men, women and children from the tribe of Benjamin and from Jabesh-gilead were slaughtered as punishment for the acts of a few men.

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Punishing David by killing his infant child:

2 Samuel 11 describes how David arranged for one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite, to be killed in a battle. David's motivation was to cover his adulterous affair with Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, during which she had become pregnant. As soon as her period of mourning was finished, she married David.

2 Samuel 12 describes a parable that the prophet Nathan told to David; it closely paralleled the actions of David with Bathsheba. As recorded in 2 Samuel 12:14 to 18, Nathan prophesized that:

"the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die. And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick. David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died."

God killed the unnamed, innocent, son of David and Bathsheba because of the deeds of David.

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Transportation of the Ark of the Covenant:

1 Chronicles 13:7-11 describes that David and his retinue were transporting the Ark of the Covenant on a new cart. This was in violation of God's instructions that the Ark was to be manually carried by priests (Numbers 4:5 & 6; 10:33-36; Psalms 68:1 & 132:8).). They came to the threshing floor of Chidon (according to 1 Chronicles) or of Nachon (according to another account in 2 Samuel). One commentary on the Bible says that either the oxen who were pulling the ark stumbled, or the ark was tilting and about to be upset because of the incline. This situation could have been very serious because the ark could have been seriously damaged or even destroyed by falling off the cart.

"...reacting instinctively, Uzzah put his hand on it to keep it steady." 2 thus preventing any damage to the Ark. We know little about Uzzah or Uzza as he is called in 1 Chronicles, except that, according to Ezra 2:43-49, he was a Nethinim, a temple servant who performed menial work in the sanctuary. 3 God took immediate action. He did not punish the individual(s) in leadership positions who were responsible for ordering that the ark be improperly transported. God immediately killed the temple servant Uzzah/Uzza because he had touched the Ark. The guilt of the leaders had been transferred to the menial servant.

Again, in modern times, we don't kill people for touching religions objects, particularly if it is an instinctive action, or if it is done to save a precious object from damage. If anyone is to be disciplined or punished, it should be the person or persons responsible for endangering the object, not an individual who saved it.

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Punishing children for the sins of their parents:

Hosea conveys a message from God that is critical of the ancient Hebrews. Hosea 4:1-2 says:

"... there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood."

The punishment is outlined in Hosea 4:6 which says:

"... because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children."

That is, God will intentionally punish the Israelite children for the sins of their parents.

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Murdering women, children and fetuses for the sins of the men of Samarians:

The priests and othe male leaders of Samaria have abandoned the worship of Yahweh and worship idols. In Hosea 13:16 God says that he will murder -- not the perpetrators but the pregnant women, children and the fetuses that the women are carrying: Hosea 13:16 says:

"Samaria is held guilty, For she has rebelled against her God. They shall fall by the sword, Their infants shall be dashed in pieces, And their women with child ripped open."

Needless to say, with the state of medical science in those days, any woman whose abdomen was ripped open would have died of blood loss and/or infection.

The American Humanist Association quoted this passage in an advertising campaign during 2011-NOV. They were attempting to show that Agnostic and Atheist Humanists do not need the Bible to create an honorable moral system. Rather they can base a system of ethics and morals on rational grounds. More details

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References used:

  1. From the King James Version of the Bible.
  2. J.D. Douglas, Ed., "New commentary on the whole Bible: Old Testament volume," Tyndale (1991), Page 398.
  3. "Nethinim," Bible Encyclopedia, at: http://www.christiananswers.net/

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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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