The Punishment of Innocents
Why are innocents sometimes punished for the sins of others?1 This question lies at the heart of the story of Akhan in Yehoshua Chapter 7. The chapter describes how Akhan sins in taking from the banned, consecrated spoils of Yericho, resulting in national defeat at the Battle of Ai and the death of thirty-six soldiers. While these apparent innocents are punished, Akhan himself is originally spared. Where is Hashem's justice in this story? Why did the entire nation need to suffer for the actions of one individual? Moreover, why were dozens of innocent men killed while the guilty Akhan's personal punishment was suspended?2
Attribution of Sin
The chapter clearly implicates Akhan as the individual who took from Yericho's spoils. The opening verse of the chapter singles him out as the culprit, and later in the story, the lottery clearly defines him alone as the thief. Nonetheless, alongside this assigning of blame, the text simultaneously attributes the crime to all of Israel:
(א) וַיִּמְעֲלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מַעַל בַּחֵרֶם וַיִּקַּח עָכָן בֶּן כַּרְמִי בֶן זַבְדִּי בֶן זֶרַח לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה מִן הַחֵרֶם וַיִּחַר אַף י"י בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
(יא) חָטָא יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגַם עָבְרוּ אֶת בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אוֹתָם וְגַם לָקְחוּ מִן הַחֵרֶם וְגַם גָּנְבוּ וְגַם כִּחֲשׁוּ וְגַם שָׂמוּ בִכְלֵיהֶם.
(1) But the children of Israel committed a trespass concerning the devoted thing; for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the devoted thing; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israel.
(11) Israel hath sinned; yea, they have even transgressed My covenant which I commanded them; yea, they have even taken of the devoted thing; and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have even put it among their own stuff.
What do these verses suggest about the culpability of the nation as a whole? Do they imply that others besides Akhan also participated in the trespassing? If not, why is Israel being held collectively responsible? Finally, is collective responsibility the norm for Biblical justice, or is the case of Akhan unique?
The end of the narrative raises yet another potential case of punishment of innocents. In describing the stoning of Akhan, the text states:
(כד) וַיִּקַּח יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אֶת עָכָן בֶּן זֶרַח וְאֶת הַכֶּסֶף וְאֶת הָאַדֶּרֶת וְאֶת לְשׁוֹן הַזָּהָב וְאֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בְּנֹתָיו וְאֶת שׁוֹרוֹ וְאֶת חֲמֹרוֹ וְאֶת צֹאנוֹ וְאֶת אׇהֳלוֹ וְאֶת כׇּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְכׇל יִשְׂרָאֵל עִמּוֹ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֹתָם עֵמֶק עָכוֹר. (כה) וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשֻׁעַ מֶה עֲכַרְתָּנוּ יַעְכׇּרְךָ י"י בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּרְגְּמוּ אֹתוֹ כׇל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶבֶן וַיִּשְׂרְפוּ אֹתָם בָּאֵשׁ וַיִּסְקְלוּ אֹתָם בָּאֲבָנִים. (כו) וַיָּקִימוּ עָלָיו גַּל אֲבָנִים גָּדוֹל עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה וַיָּשׇׁב י"י מֵחֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ עַל כֵּן קָרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא עֵמֶק עָכוֹר עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
(24) And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the mantle, 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; and they brought them up unto the valley of Achor. (25) And Joshua said: 'Why hast thou troubled us? the Lord shalltrouble thee this day.' And all Israel stoned him with stones; and they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones. (26) And they raised over him a great heap of stones, unto this day; and the Lord turned from the fierceness of His anger. Wherefore the name of that place was called The valley of Achor, unto this day.
Though the verses explicitly mention that Akhan's children were brought to the site of the stoning, it leaves their fate ambiguous. The verse opens in singular "and they stoned him" implying that Akhan alone was killed, but then switches to plural, "and they burnt them and stoned them" suggesting that others were included as well. If Akhan's children were in fact killed with their father, how are we to understand why they deserved such a punishment? Are their deaths connected to the collective punishment of the nation, or to the different concept of "visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons"?3