Punishing the innocent for the sins of the guilty

May 23, 2007 at 4:11 pm Leave a comment

A recent discussion on this blog regarding individualism vs. corporate identity in the Bible raised a prickly problem: Does the Old Testament subordinate the individual to the community? Did God unjustly involve whole communities in the punishment of individual sins?

In light of those questions, I was particularly interested to read two particular biblical stories this week which indicate that corporate identity in the Old Testament did not wholly subordinate the individual to the community.

Exhibit A: Wandering in the wilderness

In the middle of the Ten Commandments, one finds the following familiar verse suggesting a strongly corporate view of human identity. The verse seems at first glance to violate the principles of justice:

I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:5-6)

The emphasis here is on God’s love, but the verse seems rather excessive in suggesting that innocent individuals will be punished for the sins of their family members. Can such a stance possibly be reasonable?

Skip over a few chapters to the story of the twelve spies scouting out the land of Canaan, however, and there’s a glimpse of how this works in practice—and it’s not as harsh as it seems.

When the twelve scouts bring back their reports on Canaan to the rest of the Israelite community, only two of the scouts advocate obeying God and going in to take the land; the other ten are intimidated by the strength of the native peoples and insist victory is impossible. The Israelites as a whole side with the ten, whereupon God punishes the whole lot by consigning them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until the current generation has died out and a new one has arisen to take their place.

Did the children suffer for the sins of the parents? Indeed: they had to wait 40 years to enter the land, demonstrating that one individual’s misdeed affects more than just himself.

But it is hardly true that God “punished” the children for the sins of their fathers in any literal sense. The suffering of the children was incidental to the punishment of their parents—and in fact, the children were preserved through the punishment so that they could eventually receive the promised country.

(It’s worth noting also that the two scouts who advocated going in to Canaan also lived beyond the 40-year wilderness experience and were allowed to enter the Promised Land. This detail that demonstrates a strong concern to reward individual faithfulness and not sweep up a few lone innocents in the chastisement of the masses.)

Exhibit B: Rahab

One of the hardest aspects of the Old Testament to understand is the presence of genocide. Can it possibly be just to wipe out entire populations en masse without any regard for individual guilt (or innocence)? Probably not.

But contrary to what it might seem at first glance, the Old Testament actually demonstrates a strong concern to avoid unjustly whisking innocent and/or repentant parties into the punishment of the wicked.

A good example of this is the story of Rahab. When her city of Jericho is destroyed, Rahab and her family are spared because of their faith and their friendly reception of the Israelite scouts. In the midst of mass punishment, individual faith is rewarded.

(Compare also the story of Lot and his rescue from Sodom, as well as the story of Noah and the flood.)

Is it true, then, that the Old Testament is largely communal in its orientation? Yes. But the above case studies evince concern for the individual as well. While the consequences for sin incidentally affect the innocent—sometimes for several generations—in practice it does not appear that the innocent are punished, per se, for other people’s sins.

What, then, of stories like that of Achan, where a whole family (in addition to 36 soldiers) dies for one man’s sin? I frankly don’t know.

What I do know is that the Old Testament demonstrates significant concern for justice and for individual faith. Multiple biblical narratives attest that God does see and reward the individual, and does not simply judge him or her as part of an entire community.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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