By Paul Baxter
The idea of God “punishing the children for the fathers’ iniquity to the third and fourth generations” seems utterly unfair and certainly unchristian, but we find these words not only in Exodus 20:5 but also Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, and Deuteronomy 5:9. When we read Exodus 34:6-7a we have a clear and very Christian-like picture of God who is “compassionate and gracious, … slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin;” however, then we have this dark and foreboding view of God who “will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” No wonder some Christians are aghast at such a prospect.
Our short answer is that God does not punish children for the sin of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, though the consequences of sin can and do reverberate through generations.
Deuteronomy 24:16 spells this out most succinctly: “Fathers are not to be put to death for their children, and children are not to be put to death for their fathers; each person will be put to death for his own sin.”
Let us elaborate a little by referring to Pentateuch and Haftorahs edited by J. H. Hertz which gives us a most authoritative explanation of these Hebrew texts:
The Torah (First Five Books of the Bible) does not teach here or elsewhere that the sins of the guilty fathers shall be visited upon their innocent children. “The soul that sinneth it shall die,” proclaims the Prophet Ezekiel… However, human experience all too plainly teaches the moral interdependence of parents and children. The bad example set by a father frequently corrupts those that come after him. His most dreadful bequest to his children is not a liability to punishment, but a liability to the commission of fresh offences. In every parent, therefore, the love of God, as a restraining power from evil actions, should be reinforced by love for his children; that they should not inherit the tendency to commit and suffer the consequences of, his transgressions (p. 296)
Whenever we encounter what at first glance may appear rather conflicting or confusing Scripture, we do well to read most carefully the
texts in question. Let us examine Exodus 20:5-6: “Do not bow in worship to them (pagan idols), and do not serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ iniquity, to the third and fourth generations (now, please note what follows) of those who hate me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commands.” Only those who choose to hate/disobey God are punished while those who choose to love/obey God experience God’s love for them through a thousand generations. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. explains: “Children who repeat the sins of their fathers evidence it in personally hating God; hence they too are punished like their fathers.
Let us also pause to examine God’s phrase, “I, the Lord, am a jealous God.” His “jealousy” is not to be confused with our “jealousy,” but in a very real sense the Hebrew word kanna needs to be understood as His
Righteous Guardianship of what is True and Holy. J. H. Hertz points out how God “hates cruelty and unrighteousness, and loathes impurity and vice; and, even as a mother is jealous of all evil influences that rule her children, He is jealous when instead of purity and righteousness, it is idolatry and unholiness that command their heart-allegiance.” He also further elaborates: “It is, of course, evident that terms like ‘jealousy’ or ‘zeal’ are applied to God in an anthropomorphic sense. It is also evident that this jealousy of God is of the very essence of His holiness” (p. 296).
Finally, we must keep in mind that in all the relevant texts there is first and foremost an extraordinary emphasis on God’s faithful love, being “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth.” It is well to remember and cherish that although God must and will judge people, He does so in a most compassionate and gracious way. I love what one scholar writes: “God remembers the sins of the fathers when about to punish the children (those who have chosen to hate/disobey God). He distinguishes between the moral responsibility which falls exclusively upon the sinful parents, and the natural consequences and predisposition to sin, inherited by the descendants. He takes into account the evil environment and influence. He therefore tempers justice with mercy, and He does so to the third and fourth generations” (p. 296). We are so reminded how God and God alone is able to judge fully and wisely!