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We read that Achan confessed his sin of taking spoil that was proscribed for the Lord:

Achan answered Joshua, “It is true, I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I did: I saw among the spoil a fine Shinar mantle, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, and I coveted them and took them. They are buried in the ground in my tent, with the silver under it.”—Joshua 7:20-21 (NJPS)

But when it was time to punish the sin, Achan's children were included:

Then Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan son of Zerah—and the silver, the mantle, and the wedge of gold—his sons and daughters, and his ox, his ass, and his flock, and his tent, and all his belongings, and brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, “What calamity you have brought upon us! The Lord will bring calamity upon you this day.” And all Israel pelted him with stones. They put them to the fire and stoned them.—Joshua 7:24-25 (NJPS)

This seemed to mollify God's anger.

Why then were Achan's children destroyed? Was it because Achan's sin was transferred to his children, or because his children were considered his property and not separate individuals, or because they were complicit in the sin, or for some other reason?

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Simple answer: Achan had hidden buried the items in his tent. It is unlikely that his children, who would have lived in the same tent, would have been ignorant of his sin, and they were therefore also culpable. We do know that the children were not killed innocently based on the sins of the father, as Joshua would have known the unequivocal prohibition in Deut 25:16 - The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. For instance, in the rebellion of Korah (cf. Num 16:25-34), Korah's children were not killed (Num 26:10-11), a fact of which Joshua would have been very aware.

Another aspect: Whether or not we believe in God, we cannot transpose Biblical events into our context today while ignoring the framework in which they were written. For instance, God is central in the book of Joshua. One can call God a main character. The book would make no more sense if one removed God, than Shakespeare's Othello would if one removed Iago. This character God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and He seeks the good of His people, which is for them to worship Him alone. This is the God who is right to give life and to take life. When He commanded something to be done, e.g. to "purge evil" by giving the death sentence to the perpetrators, the morally worst thing Joshua could have done would have been to disobey - which would have been worse both for himself, and for Israel as a whole. We cannot treat this incident as if Joshua himself were the originator of the command to destroy Achan and his family - whether or not one believes that God exists.

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    Good answer @Niobius. God also prohibited the punishing of innocent children in Ezekiel 18:20 The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. – stwr667 Nov 20 '19 at 13:26
  • @stwr667 Thanks. It's concerning that most Christians think otherwise. – AngelusVastator Sep 16 '20 at 1:08
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The God of the Bible is covenantal in nature. He deals with nations, towns, families and sometimes with individuals. As Western believers we have a view of God as only dealing with individuals however he often places his mercy or judgment on larger groups.

Think for example of the Canaanites. Was each individual so wicked that they needed to be destroyed? Or how about Nineveh at the time of Jonah. They seemed to all be saved from destruction by the repentance of their King.

Examples abound in scripture of this sort of thing.

In the case of Achan's family I believe we have a similar case. As the covenant head of his family Achan was responsible for their fate. He failed, they died.

One more note. I do not believe that this sort of covenantal covering extends to salvation. God definitely extends His saving grace to individuals and not to groups.

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  • I agree the cultural context must be taken into account. And if all of Canaan was to be destroyed for the sin of their culture, it seems fair that all of Achan's line should be similarly destroyed. Support for your final paragraph comes from Jeremiah 31:27-34. (As you probably guessed, my question stemmed from yours. I'm glad you got some good answers over there even if I don't get the question. ;-) – Jon Ericson May 4 '12 at 19:03
  • Yup, glad to see the question over here. The idea of covenant has almost been lost to the west, we need to hear more about it! Actually, I think all of his line was destroyed. – Nate Bunney May 4 '12 at 19:10
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    I'm not sure. It sounds like punishment is per group but grace is per individual, which means it is much easier to get punished than to get grace. I suspect, somehow, that the others were complicit; God has previously stated He would not destroy many thousands for the sake of a few. – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE May 4 '12 at 19:11
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William G. Dever (Who Were the Early Israelites, and where Did They Come From?, page 38) says the Book of Joshua has long been controversial. He says:

The first, unsuccessful attempt to take 'Ai, up in the hills, is explained by the failure of the Israelites to "devote" the entire city to Yahweh - its inhabitants and all the spoils of war - in a holocaust or "burnt offering" ... Achan, one of the offenders, is stoned to death along with his children and even his animals. Then, when a second attack is successful, the entire population of 12,000 is butchered, even the fleeing survivors. He goes on to say (page 39), "These are stories that we might well hope have no basis in fact."

This, then, raises the question of whether accounts of Joshua killing innocent Canaanites and even innocent children of Israelites are really historical. Dever says that many scholars do dismiss Joshua "not (I regret to say) on moral grounds but on the ground that the work is of little historical value."

On page 47, Dever says that 'Ai was extensively excavated in 1933-1935. Evidence of a massively fortified Early Bronze Age city was found, but this was destroyed around 2200 BCE. After sparse reoccupation at the beginning of the second millennium, it was again abandoned around 1500 BCE. So there was no city for Joshua to conquer, no innocent, fleeing Canaanites to slaughter, and consequently no Achan or his innocent children to be executed needlessly. We need not wonder whether sin was transferred from Achan to his children or whether the children were somehow complicit in his sin.

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