Collective Punishment


Questioning Hashem's Justice

On two memorable occasions in Torah, leaders turn to Hashem to question His justice in punishing the innocent.  After being told of the impending destruction of Sedom, Avraham cries out to Hashem, "הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע" (Bereshit 18:23). Similarly, during the rebellion of Korach when Hashem tells Moshe to separate from the congregation, "and I will wipe them out",  Moshe responds by asking, "הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא וְעַל כׇּל הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף" (Bemidbar 16:22).

Both Avraham and Moshe seem to be bothered by the possibility that Hashem might collectively punish the innocent together with the guilty.  It is not clear from either story, though, if even Hashem was never really intending to do so or if He changed His mind in the end.1  Does Hashem agree that collective punishment is wrong or is it actually an integral part of His mode of justice?

Biblical Cases of Collective Punishment

The above cases are by no means the only stories in Tanakh in which there seems to be collective punishment. From the Flood in the time of Noach to the present day exile, it would appear that innocents often suffer with the wicked:

  • Divine punishments of Israel – At times, after part of the nation sins, Hashem seems to mete out undiscriminating punishments to the entire people. For instance, after the Spies' report, everyone aged twenty and up was decreed to die in the Wilderness, apparently regardless of whether they individually joined in the murmurings (Bemidbar 14:35).
  • Divine punishment of Gentiles – Hashem seems to do the same for non-Jewish nations, as evidenced by the killing of all the firstborns in Egypt, even though Paroh, and not they, was the one who enslaved the Israelites (Shemot 12:29-30).2
  • Punishment via nature – Sometimes, Hashem punishes the people by bringing some form of natural catastrophe, such as the famine in the time of David (Shemuel II 21:1-2), or the plagues after the sins of the Golden Calf (Shemot 32:35) and Baal Peor (Bemidbar 25:9).  In such cases, it would seem that even righteous people suffered.
  • Divine commands to punish – There are several places in the Torah where Hashem commands the people to enact collective punishments on others. These include the law to kill all inhabitants of a city of idolaters (עיר נדחת) (Devarim 13:16) and the decrees to annihilate Amalek (Devarim 25:19) and the Seven Nations (Devarim 20:16).  
  • Vicarious punishment – Perhaps the most troubling of cases is when the sinner himself is not punished while others suffer in his stead. This was the case when Akhan took from the prohibited spoils of Yericho and thirty-six others died in the battle with Ai (Yehoshua 7:5),3 or when Hashem brought plague on Israel when David wrongfully counted the nation (Shemuel II 24:15).
  • Human actions – In addition to the above examples where Hashem plays some role, there are also cases in Tanakh where humans act on their own to punish collectively.  Most notable of these is the slaughter of the city of Shekhem by Shimon and Levi (Bereshit 34:25).4

All these cases beg the question:  Is Hashem really not bothered when innocents suffer for the sins of others?  Why is collective punishment justified?  And if it is not, how are we to understand these stories?

Philosophical Considerations

The concept of collective punishment and reward is intricately related to several other philosophical issues:

  • Theodicy – The question of why bad things happen to good people lies at the core of the problematic nature of collective punishment.5
  • Hashem's providence – How does Hashem's providence work?  Does He watch every individual and their specific actions or only over the collective?  Which side of the debate one takes should naturally affect how ones views collective punishment.
  • Reward and Punishment – Do individuals get their just deserts in this world or only in the World to Come?  Is there a difference between national and individual retribution?  Is suffering in this world compensated for after death?
  • Collective salvation? Do the same rules apply for both reward and punishment? If an innocent person can share in the punishment of the wicked, can the wicked share in the good fortune of the righteous?  [See Avraham's Prayer for Sedom for discussion of the justice or lack thereof in collective salvation, and how it compares to collective punishment.]

Specific Circumstances

The above examples raise questions not only about the validity of collective punishment but also about its implementation:

  • Percentage of guilty – What percentage of the group needs to be culpable for collective punishment to be enacted?  Does it matter whether the guilty party comprises the majority or minority of the group?
  • Which sins?  Are there specific sins which call for collective punishment while others call for individual retribution?
  • Hashem vs. man – Is there a distinction between Divine and human inflicting of punishment? 
  • Direct vs. natural disaster – Is there a difference between cases in which the group suffers due to the bringing of a natural disaster and those in which Hashem actively targets the collective?