Each individual is morally responsible for what he does, and is held accountable for his own actions. But…we are [also] social creatures, and what we do as individuals will always have social implications and consequences. How all that gets worked out together is something we are not fully up to understanding and applying, but God certainly is.
Perhaps like me, you may have often thought about the notions of corporate identity and the judgment of God. The Old Testament often speaks to the notion of corporate guilt and responsibility, in which Israel was regarded as a whole. This idea of corporate personality is connected with the covenant relationship the people of Israel had with Yahweh.
But it is not just in the OT that we find this sort of thing. As but one NT example, how often in the book of Acts do we find that someone has become a Christian, yet we read about his whole household being baptised? Part of the reason these things may seem somewhat strange to us involves the fact that we Westerners live such highly individualistic lives.
But many other cultures – including the ancient biblical cultures – have a much more communal and social mindset, which of course also entailed the importance of the extended family, not just the nuclear family. But even accounting for our own Western biases here, Christians can still rightly ask about why we find entire groups being judged for the sins of just one person.
The sin of Achan as found in Joshua 7 is a classic case in point. More on that in a moment. But we do have passages that seem to limit moral responsibility to the one who has sinned. Two such passages that say we are responsible for our own sin are these:
Deuteronomy 24:16 Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.
Ezekiel 18:20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
Those texts seem clear enough, so how then do we understand this idea of corporate responsibility? First, it must be said that it can cut both ways. Just prior to the account of Achan and his punishment, we have the account of Rahab and her blessing in Joshua 6.
In Joshua 2:12-13 we read about how she protected the two spies sent from Israel. And in Joshua 6:22-25 we read about how she and her family were saved while Jericho was destroyed:
But to the two men who had spied out the land, Joshua said, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring out from there the woman and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.” So the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. And they brought all her relatives and put them outside t he camp of Israel. And they burned the city with fire, and everything in it. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord. But Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive. And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.
In contrast, in Joshua 7:24-25 we read about how the judgment on Achan was extended to members of his family:
And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones.