There’s no doubt that there are some quite troubling sections in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. [i]We can either just skip “those” bits or we can dig a little deeper, research history and culture, and discover the truth.
One such problem is the warning that God punishes children for their parents’ sins, something that is repeated several times in the context of the Ten Commandments. [ii]
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation ” (Exodus 34:6-7 ).
At first glance, these verses seem totally unfair and vindictive. Why should innocent children be punished for the sins of their parents? To interpret these verses in this way also contradicts other parts of the Bible. Consider Deuteronomy 24:16, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.”
So, what are we to make of these words in Exodus 34? The Hebrew word translated, “punishes” is paqad (phonetically paw-kad), and has various meanings depending on context. [iv] Until recently, most translations rendered this verse as, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers…” (not parents as in the modern translations). In the ancient world the father was the head of the household, the ruler or chief, and thus his character and behaviour, either good or bad, would have a significant impact on the rest of the family.
The verses in Exodus 34 focus on the iniquity (sin, perversity, moral evil and faults) of fathers, and the effect this behaviour had on their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Families in the ancient east often included three or four generations living together under one roof. Thus, what the patriarch of the family did would literally affect “the children and their children … to the third and fourth generation.”
Alan Nichols, a former Anglican Minister, wrote, “One of the worst features of the Yugoslavian civil war was the way grandfathers had taught their sons and grandsons how to continue to keep ethnic hatred between Serbs and Croats alive since the 1940s. I saw young soldiers say proudly, ‘My grandfather showed me why I should hate them.’” [v]
We still see the distress that bad parental behaviour has on children when they grow up to repeat their parents’ sins. The abused become the abuser, the child of an alcoholic parent sometimes grows up with a drinking problem and so on. On one of her programs many years ago, Oprah Winfrey interviewed a woman who traced child abuse back through five generations of her family. History kept repeating itself until someone made the decision that harmful behaviour would stop with them.
And so, when Scripture states that God “[visits] the iniquity of the fathers on the children and their children … to the third and fourth generation,” it is not making a vindictive, unjust threat, but is rather stating the reality that no parent can sin without their children, and others in the household, being affected. “Parenthood brings with it a solemn responsibility to live in such a way that our children benefit, not suffer. Our behaviour should bless them not curse them.” [vi]
Sadly, the people in Bible days often believed that God literally visited judgement on subsequent generations for the sins of their forbears. The people of Israel even developed a proverb about this, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2).
Hundreds of years later, the prophet Ezekiel questioned why this proverb was still being used considering that it was not true. He followed the question with a statement attributed to God, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent, as well as the child—both alike, belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:2).
But old habits (and false doctrines) die hard. One day Jesus’ followers saw a blind man and asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus responded that sin was not the cause of his blindness, once again correcting the same age-old error. I still hear Christian people bring condemnation on others by suggesting their suffering is a result of sin. Maybe it is (although it usually isn’t), but we should be careful not to be like Job’s miserable comforters who heaped more sorrow on an already distressed person.
Changing the Course
Finally, it’s worth noting the emphasis on the goodness of God in these Bible verses: “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.” “I, the Lord your God … showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:6).
Parents have an enormous responsibility to maintain and model their faith in God before their children and to live authentic lives that reflect compassion, justice, love, and grace to others. But, if this has not been your experience with your parent(s) or family, be encouraged that old patterns of behaviour can be broken. There is no reason for you to be limited by the trauma and troubles of the past. Seek help and accountability, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16), book in with a qualified counsellor or psychologist to help you relearn healthy habits and, most importantly, rely on the grace and power of God to redeem your past and give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).
[i] Old Testament
[ii] Deuteronomy 5:8-10; 7:9-11; Exodus 34:6-7
[iii] Exodus 34:6-7
[v] Barry Chant, Breaking the power of the past. New Day Magazine, March 1992
[viii] Ezekiel 18:3. I encourage you to read the rest of the chapter as all of Ezekiel 18 deals with this topic. It finishes with, “I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offences; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit.”