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There are many instances in the Bible where God or prophets state in God's name that a group or tribe is punished for the wrong-doing of a single individual. How is this just?

A perfect example is where Achan stole some gold that was to be given to the temple for God's honour (Joshua 7:1-13). Joshua and all the elders tear their clothes, fall on their faces, and put dust on their heads. They perform this rite because the Israelites lost a battle. God was punishing them because one man, Achan, "took of the accursed thing." I wonder what "the accursed thing" was.

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I think you have the question backwards. Given that God is the ultimate source of justice, how can we say Western society is just? –  Tal Fishman Sep 28 '11 at 10:02
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This phenomenon of group punishment incites this question and lengthy discussion among the commentators each time it comes up in the Bible. It should probably be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but @AviD gives a good general answer. –  jake Sep 28 '11 at 13:45

2 Answers 2

To supplement AviD's answer, also note that many instances of punishment in the Bible actually amount to letting things take their natural course. Indeed, for this reason the expression often used is that G-d "hides His face."

Consider your example, of Achan's sin and its consequences at the battle of Ai. Why indeed are Joshua and the elders going to pieces over one lost skirmish, and thirty-six casualties out of a force of two or three thousand soldiers? Any good general would probably remain stoic in the face of a much higher loss rate.

But the reason was that they knew that the conquest of the land of Canaan was not to be a regular military campaign following the usual laws of probability. If that were the case, then indeed they wouldn't stand a chance; "you [the Jews] are strong, but they [the Canaanites] are stronger than you" (Rashi to Deut. 11:23). So it would require divine aid every step of the way. And to deserve such supernatural aid would require them to maintain a super standard of behavior, such that out of a nation of millions, not one person would take something to which he or she is not entitled. (Bear in mind, too, that we're not even talking about stealing someone else's property; Achan's sin was taking property that was "banned" and "accursed" - i.e., slated for destruction.) So if that standard can't be upheld - and it doesn't matter whether it's one person or a thousand who are violating it, because it is a corporate national responsibility - then things revert to their normal course. And the normal course is indeed that a weaker army, not on its home turf, is going to lose. That's what upset the leaders so much: the realization that if the Jews can depend only on their own military might, then it's not just the one city of Ai that might hold out - the whole enterprise of conquering the Land is bound to fail.

To take another example, much of the Bible is full of prophetic warnings that the sinful behavior of the Jewish people (or segments thereof) is going to lead to foreign conquest, exile and destruction. Here, too, consider: is that a "punishment" or simply what's to be expected geopolitically? A small country with a largely agricultural population, sandwiched between two powerful empires and a bridge between three continents, is naturally going to be prey for one side or the other, if not both in a pincer movement. What kept Israel as an independent state for 800+ years - from Joshua's conquest to the Assyrian and Babylonian takeovers - was, again, G-d's protection. And again, for them to deserve that - to buck the history of every other nation in the world - required them to act as a nation that indeed is distinct from all of those other nations, and to make sure that every member of that "corporation" is aware of his or her duties and upholds them.

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I thought Achav was also mchalel shabbos at that time? –  Shmuel Brin Sep 28 '11 at 22:39
    
@tom, true, the Midrash says that (since Jericho was conquered on Shabbos). Nonetheless, the verses don't spell that out - they focus on his having violated the ban. –  Alex Oct 2 '11 at 1:52
    
Israel is independent for 800 years? I thought they are colonized by various tribes after that till one girl drive a stake at someone's head I forget the name. –  Jim Thio Mar 14 '12 at 10:01
    
@JimThio, the country (or parts of it) was controlled at one time or another by various internal and external non-Jewish nations, true. (The example you're thinking of is of the Canaanites, under their king Jabin and general Sisera, as described in Judg. ch. 4; but that lasted only twenty years before their army was defeated in battle and Yael killed Sisera.) In later times, there were periods when the Israelite and Judean kingdoms were vassals of Aram, Assyria, etc. Still, though, by and large they had some sort of independent rulership all that time. –  Alex Mar 14 '12 at 13:38
    
That looks quite natural to me. Be a vasal of those who are stronger. –  Jim Thio Jun 16 '13 at 9:31

I'm not sure I can account for all instances of this, however in general the punishment (or rather, responsibility) applies to the group for their fault in the wrongdoing, not the wrongdoing itself.

This could include a collective culture that lead to the one person doing something wrong; lack of education on right and wrong; the community did not automatically right the wrong that was done (such as in the case of Achan - see M'tzudat David on 7:1), and so forth.

This can be seen most clearly in the laws of egla arufah - the case where the elders of a city are responsible for bringing a special sacrifice, on finding an anonymous murder victim outside the city area. While the elders themselves are of course not suspected of being directly responsible for the murder, they still held indirectly responsible: either for not being hospitable to the victim, which led to him wandering outside the city; or for not yet catching and punishing the real murderer. (though there are also other explanations.)


Btw, I will admit that there are certain cases where the above does not apply, but we cannot really understand all the factors in heavenly punishment.
One case, though, might lead to a wider understanding: consider the case of Amalek, of whom G-d said He will destroy the entire people for attacking the Israelites on their way out of the Egyptian exile. However, on further perusal, it might be said that the destruction of all Amalekites is not necesarily because of that act, but rather the characteristics of the people which caused them to do so.

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