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

Passages in the Hebrew Scriptures
(Old Testament): Genesis to Numbers

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This section discusses a theme that runs through the entire Bible: that is is moral to punish innocent persons for the sins of the guilty. That is, that guilt can be transferred from the person who did the sin to those who had no involvement in the sin. This theme is in violation of the tenets of every religious that we have studied. Yet it is frequently seen in many biblical stories and thus influences Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i religions.

The following examples of this theme are taken from the first four books of the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament), primarily Genesis, and Exodus. Examples from the book of Deuteronomy through to 1 Chronicles are listed elsewhere.

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Adam and Eve's curse:

In the beginning of the book of Genesis:

bulletGenesis 1:27 and 2:7-22 describe how God created Adam and Eve, the first proto-humans.
bulletGenesis 3:5 describes how they lacked full humanity because they had been created without a moral sense. They could not tell the difference between good and evil.
bulletIn Genesis 2:17, God ordered Adam to not eat "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil..." (King James Version, KJV)
bulletGenesis 3:5-6, after having been persuaded by a talking serpent of the benefits of knowing the difference between good and evil, Adam and Eve ate the fruit.
bulletGod learned of their transgression and laid a series of curses on:
bulletThe serpent: He and his descendents could no longer walk on legs, but would have to slither on their belly, and eat dust. (3:14)
bulletHumans and serpents: They were henceforth to be each other's eternal enemies. (3:15)
bulletThe woman and her female descendents: They would suffer excruciating pain in childbirth, and would be forced to submit to the domination of their husbands. (3:16)
bulletThe land: It would henceforth grow thorns and thistles, decreasing crop yield and increasing the effort required to raise food from the soil. (3:17-18)
bulletThe human race: Instead of each individual being immortal, they will have only a finite life and then die. (3:19)

These events have been referred to as "the fall" of mankind. It was the first human sin. The description in Genesis indicates that the punishment for Adam and Eve's sin was to extend far beyond the original humans. Historically, Christianity has taught the concept of imputation: that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their sin was imputed or assigned to all humanity for all time. That is, the children of Adam and Eve, their children, and successive generations would all equally bear the sins of their original parents. Many Christians have literally interpreted the creation story in Genesis and have concluded that "the fall" of humanity occurred circa 4004 BCE. It would seem that God's curse is in fact the longest curse in history, having lasted over 6,000 years to date, and affecting Adam and Eve's descendents as far as the 125th generation. It appears to have no limit, and will continue indefinitely into our descendents' future.

The curse is confirmed in the book of Romans in the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament).  Paul wrote: "Wherefore, as by one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." (KJV) 1

This is the first instance in the Bible where individuals are punished for the sins of others. It is unique in that every human who ever existed suffers from the curse. Other curses in the Bible affect only persons from certain groups, sexual orientations, religions, or tribes.

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The flood of Noah:

Chapter 6 of Genesis describes the massive genocide by a world-wide flood, gravitationally dated at 2348 BCE. If one measures the seriousness of a mass extermination by the percentage of humans killed, this was the greatest genocide in history. Only one man and his immediate family survived -- a total of eight individuals. Every other human on Earth died: the elderly, adults, youths, children, infants, and newborns. God, having the option of sending prophets to the various tribes of humans with a message of repentance -- as he did later with Jonah -- or of committing genocide, chose the latter.

bulletGenesis 6:5-7 describes that humanity was wicked and evil. God regretted that he had ever created the first humans, and decided to kill all of the humans, land animals and birds:

"And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them."

bulletGenesis 6:12-13 gives further information: God felt that humans had corrupted the earth, and had engaged in excessive violence:

"And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth."

During the flood, all of the youths and adults who were responsibility for the wickedness, evil and violence were drowned. Also drowned would be all the children, infants and newborns in the world, all of whom had not reached the age of accountability. Apparently, every land animal, and bird perished, except for those which were sheltered in Noah's ark. One might assume that with the massive dilution of the salinity of the oceans and the mixture of the oceans of salt water with lakes and rivers of fresh water, that many species of fish who required fresh water and other species which required a high level of salinity would not have survived either.

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The curse of Ham:

In 2347 BCE, an incident occurred which involved Noah and his three sons. Noah had planted a vineyard, and became drunk on the wine. He was laying naked in his tent. One of his sons, Ham, saw his father in this state and told his brothers, Shem and Japeth. The latter sons carefully covered their father with a garment without looking at him. Many theologians have suspected that Ham did more than just look at his father, but may have engaged in some form of forbidden sexual behavior. Genesis 9:24 simply says: "And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him."

Noah laid a horrendous curse. But it was not on his son Ham who had done the unspecified sinful act. Instead of punishing the individual who had injured him, Noah punished that individual's son -- Noah's grandson -- Canaan. There is no indication that Canaan was involved in any way or even knew of the event. Still, he was to be enslaved to Shem and Japheth and their children. Further, Canaan's descendents were to be slaves to the descendents of these two sons of Noah.

bulletGenesis 9:25-27: "And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant." 2

The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) frequently referred to slaves by various ambiguous terms, such as: bondmen, servants, maids, handmaid, manservant, maidservant, etc.

This passage is often referred to as the "Curse of Ham." It was one of the favorite biblical quotations of 19th century theologians who wished to justify slavery on biblical grounds. The descendants of Ham were assumed to be Africans. According to this verse, they were to be slaves forever. Thus the American and Canadian slave owners saw themselves as simply implementing God's wishes. Under this interpretation, abolition of human slavery would violate the will of God. More details on slavery.

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Tamar's pregnancy:

In Genesis 38:24, Tamar was discovered to be pregnant three months after conception, presumably because her "baby bump" became visible at that time. This was positive proof that she had been sexually active. Because she was a widow, without a husband, she was assumed to be a prostitute -- a crime punishable by execution at the time. Her father-in-law, Judah, ordered that she be burned alive for her crime.

If, as many pro-lifers believe, Tamar's twin fetuses are to be considered full human persons, then three people would die: one allegedly guilty of a capital crime, and two innocent fetuses. There was no condemnation on Judah mentioned for deciding to take this action.

Fortunately for Judah and her twin fetuses, Judah later changed his mind when he found out that he was the man responsible for Tamar's pregnancy. The twins were born and had Judah as their father and grandfather.

At the time that Genesis 38 was written, it is unclear whether the ancient Hebrews considered human embryos and fetuses to be human persons. If they were considered full persons, then their near execution would be an other example of the transmission of sin and punishment from the presumed guilty person -- Tamar -- to her innocent fetuses.

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Plagues in Egypt:

The first chapters of the book of Exodus describe how the ancient Hebrews were held and mistreated as slaves in Egypt. God selected Moses as the individual who was to free his countrymen and take them to the land of Canaan. To do so, he had to negotiate release of the slaves from the dictator of Egypt, an unidentified pharaoh.

God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" repeatedly so that he would refuse to release the Hebrew slaves. This converted a difficult negotiation for Moses into a near impossibility:

bulletExodus 7:13-14: "And he hardened Pharaoh's heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said. And the LORD said unto Moses, Pharaoh's heart is hardened, he refuseth to let the people go."

God instructed Moses to have his brother Aaron perform a series of rituals which brought plagues to Egypt: all of the water was turned to blood; there was an infestation of frogs, lice, and flies. All of the Egyptian cattle died. Hail mixed with thunder and fire afflicted the entire country. Locusts infested the land. People broke out in painful boils. There was a three-day period of darkness. Finally, the ultimate punishment came: God was to pass through the entire land of Egypt and kill every first born animal and human. This included "...all the firstborn in the land of Egypt...from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant [female slave] that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts." (Exodus 11:5) Also included was "the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle." (Exodus 12:29). 2 Only the Jewish firstborn, among all the firstborn in the land, were to be saved, and then only if their family performed a specific ritual involving the killing of a lamb and spreading its blood over the doorposts. The firstborn would involve both children and adults. Few families, other than those of the Hebrews, would be spared. At this point, faced with his country's devastation, the Pharaoh relented and allowed the Hebrews to leave the country.

The decision to retain or release the Hebrews was made by the pharaoh alone. Egypt was a dictatorship at the time, and the pharaoh held full political power. Yet he was not killed. His eldest child was allegedly murdered, as were the eldest children of all of the slaves, prisoners, and the general Egyptian public. Even the first born among the animals were killed. Egyptians in poverty must have suffered greatly at the loss of their cow(s) or goat(s) -- animals that made the difference between their owners eking out a marginal existence and starvation. Yet, none of those who were killed by angels under God's direct orders was responsible in any way for the pharaoh's decision to force the Hebrews to remain in the country.

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The real goat that gave rise to the "scapegoat:

The book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Scriptures describe the first yearly observance of the Day of Atonement. This is an annual religious observance held on the tenth day of the seventh lunar month. During the ritual, the sins of the community were transferred to a goat. It was then taken into the wilderness, taking the sins of the community with it. It was abandoned there, and expected to starve to death, or to be killed by a predator.
bulletLeviticus 16:8-34 states, in part that the priest, Aaron:

"...shall take cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat....the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness....And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you: For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It shall be a sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute for ever."

The exact mechanism by which the sins of the Children of Israel are transferred onto or into the goat is not defined.

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References used:

  1. Paul, in Romans 5:12
  2. From the King James Version of the Bible.

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 Home > Christianity > Christian history... > Beliefs > Sin > Transfer > here

or: Home > Spirituality > Sin > Transfer > here

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Copyright © 2002 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-OCT-20
Latest update: 2010-JUN-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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