Chapter 7, Part 2

                      Why are innocents killed for another’s misdeed?


Why were innocents killed because of Achan’s theft?

Joshua 7 describes how Achan disobeyed Joshua’s command that Israelites may not take spoils from the city Jericho, how thirty-six Israelites died in the battle against the city Ai because of his theft, and how after he confessed to taking several articles and money, he, his family, and all his possessions were killed and burned. Why did God want the death of innocent soldiers and Achan’s children?

The answer is that God didn’t dictate their death; it was Joshua’s decision. While the text indicates that God spoke to Joshua, it doesn’t say that God ordered the execution of the children. More importantly, we can understand Joshua’s conversations with God as well as God’s assurances of success, as Joshua’s internal personal thoughts and struggles: “Is this what I am supposed to do? Is this how I should do it? Will I succeed?”

The text itself shows that Joshua did not rely on divine assurances and a miracle. If God really spoke to Joshua and if God really promised him success, why did Joshua feel the need to send spies to determine how to conquer the city Ai? If God was helping him, he could have conquered the city all by himself, one man, with no military strategy. The spies told Joshua that he could prevail over Ai with only two or three thousand soldiers and Joshua,[1] out of an abundance of caution, sent the larger number, three thousand. If he believed he was speaking to God and received divine assurances, why did he need to be over cautious? In verse 10, after collapsing in despair over the defeat at Ai, he received a divine message to get up, stop weeping, and act. The call to act could be understood as Joshua realizing that he needs to do something for no miracle is forthcoming.[2]

The text then states that God informed Joshua that someone had violated his command not to snatch spoils. This should be understood as Joshua thinking why his army failed so dismally at Ai. For if this was a divine communication, it was incomplete. Why didn’t God tell Joshua who stole the items? And why did Joshua feel that he had to find a way to discover the culprit?[3]

Did the early Israelites believe that people should be punished for another’s misdeeds, including innocent children?

If we accept the idea that God did not cause Joshua’s army’s defeat because of Achan’s theft, didn’t kill 36 men at the rout, or require Joshua to kill Achan’s children, we are left with the question: did the early Israelites believe that innocent people should be punished for another’s misdeed? And, even more, did they believe that an entire community should be punished in such a situation.[4] The answer is: they did believe this, as shown in the following.

The Ten Commandments[5] states “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”[6] Similarly, Exodus 34:7 states: God “will visit the iniquity of fathers upon children and upon children’s children unto the third and fourth (generation).”[7] Moses commands the Israelites[8] to destroy the Canaanite cities and “you mustn’t save anything that breaths.” Israelites are required to “smite all the inhabitants (of a city that worshiped idols, including children) with the edge of the sword.”[9] Isn’t it reasonable and morally correct to say there must have been innocent adults along with children in the Canaanite cities and in the town where idols were worshipped and innocents should not be punished for another’s misdeeds? Obviously, the ancients had another moral code. This explains Joshua’s behavior. However, as we will see, this worldview changed.

An unsatisfactory explanation for why innocents are killed

But before seeing how the ancient Israelites changed their attitude, let’s look at an attempt to justify what we consider an immoral notion. The Babylonian Talmud has a concept: all Israel are surety for one another.[10]

And for all of the transgressions of the Torah isn’t [it true that] the whole world punished? Isn’t it written: “And they shall stumble one upon another” [Leviticus 26:37]? [Meaning,] one [is punished] because of the iniquity of another. This teaches us that all Israel are sureties (responsible) for another! [They are punished] because it was in their power to prevent [the misdeed], and they did not prevent it.

While this teaching attempts to explain why innocents suffer,[11] it is really an unsatisfactory solution. Rabbis attempt to explain and justify this idea of “sureties for another” by saying it is like all Jews are in a boat and one person goes below deck and bores a hole in the boat; wouldn’t this individual kill all the innocent passengers? This solution assumes that Achan dug some kind of moral hole that brought calamity to Israel’s military force at the city of Ai. This is unreasonable. Furthermore, how could infants or adults that are far from the person acting improperly have the “power to prevent [the misdeed], and they did not prevent it”?


Another explanation

Rejecting the idea I presented in the beginning of this chapter, that God was not involved in the episode, Gersonides, Abarbanel, Malbim, and others suggest that once Achan committed his misdeed God withdrew the divine protection and people were killed during the battle as a natural event. This explains the death of the soldiers in battle but not the execution of Achan’s children.

What did Jeremiah and Ezekiel say?

Two prophets disagreed with the biblical view that children should be punished for their parents’ misdeeds. Jeremiah (655-586 BCE) wrote:[12] “In those days they shall say no more: ‘The fathers ate sour grapes and the children’s teeth were set on edge.’ But everyone will die for his own iniquity; everyone that eats sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.” Ezekiel (622-570 BCE) wrote:[13] “The person who does wrong shall die; the son shall not bear the guilt of the father with him; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”[14]


Achan in Joshua 7 steals items from the defeated city Jericho despite Joshua’s command forbidding the taking of spoils and, after he admits his crime, he, his family, and all of his possessions are killed and burned. The chapter also states that because of Achan’s crime the Israelites were defeated at Ai and 36 soldiers were killed. The drama raises the question: Did ancient Israelites, including the Torah, believe children should be killed for their parent’s misdeed and the misdeed of a single individual should cause the death of others in this guilty person’s community? I answered “yes,” the Torah accepted the view of the ancients that other people can be punished for the crime of an individual. The Torah had to accept this view.

As Maimonides revealed,[15] the Torah had to deal with the worldview of people of its time. It could not, for example, prohibit sacrifices even though God has no need of them, because people felt that they must sacrifice. Had the Hebrew Bible prohibited sacrifices, the Israelites would never have accepted the Bible. The Torah handled this problem by mitigating the practices as much as it could with the hope that has not always been realized that Jews would soon understand that what they prefer is immoral.[16]

This is what occurred with the notion that children will die because of their parent’s bad deeds and communities will be decimated because of the evils committed by a few. I showed that some attempts to justify the ancient immoral behavior and the teaching of later prophets, followed by the Talmudic rabbis, that changed the ancient view.

[1] 7:4.

[2] However, the call to action rather bewailing the situation is similar to what God said to Moses in Exodus 14:15, and that divine announcement was followed with the splitting of the Red Sea.

[3] The text is unclear exactly what Joshua did. The first century CE Josephus states in his Antiquities 1:15 that Joshua used a lottery. The ancients superstitiously believed that God reveals information through lotteries. King Saul also used a lottery in I Samuel 14:40-42 to discover why his military forces were not successful. Haman in the biblical book Esther used a lottery to determine the perfect day to murder the Jews. There is a legend in Rashi, based on Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43b and Numbers Rabba 23 that Achan mocked Joshua after the lottery revealed his guilt. He said that if Joshua would perform a lottery between him and the priest Eliezer, it would show that one of the two of them is the guilty party.

[4] This is the theology of those who claim that millions of Jews died in the holocaust because many Jews in Europe did not observe the Sabbath and thousands of non-Jews were killed by the hurricane Katrina because of homosexuality in New Orleans.

[5] Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9, speaking about fathers who worship idols.

[6] Rashi to Exodus 34:7 attempts to explain that 20:5 does not say that children are punished for their father’s misdeeds since the passage concludes with “them that hate me.” Rashi understands “them” applying to the children: the children are only punished if they act as their fathers. However, the plain sense of the verse is, as others recognize, referring to the idol worshipping fathers. Similarly, Rashi, based on Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 44a, supposes that Achan’s children were not killed; they were taken to see Achan’s execution so they could learn not to copy his behavior.

[7] Without the addition “them that hate me.”

[8] Deuteronomy 20:16.

[9] Deuteronomy 13:16.

[10] Shavuot 39a: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.

[11] It is the explanation of the event given by David Kimchi.

[12] 31:29 and 30.

[13] 18:20.

[14] This was later expressed also in the Babylonian Talmud: Berakhot 7a, Sanhedrin 27b, and Makkot 24a.

[15] In Guide of the Perplexed 3:32.

[16] An example of a still unrealized immoral behavior is the way women are mistreated.