A Just God and Generational Curses: An Examination of Exodus

 

Posted by Clark Bates
July 25, 2018

As Christian apologists we often find ourselves in the position of defending the character of God as is revealed in Scripture.  It may be worth mentioning that there are two pitfalls to even engaging in such a defense:

1.  We seek to defend God through philosophical means that actually depict God differently than He is revealed in His Word, or

2.  In an effort to appease, we minimize the words of God or seek to find a way around what is said, and ultimately, end up defending a god that is foreign to the God of the Bible.

That being said, even as Christians who simply desire to grow closer to the Lord in our study we should be willing to both acknowledge that there are difficult characterizations of God in the Old Testament and be willing to wrestle with these passages for a better understanding of the God we love.

A prime example of such a characterization is found in the book of Exodus.   At the giving of the ten commandments.  It reads,


“…I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

                                                                                                                                Exodus 20:5-6 ESV


Many Christians know this passage and probably even more have felt the difficulty of understanding it.  It seems incredibly unjust to our human sensibilities to think that a holy God would punish children for sins they did not commit.  Especially generations of children.  If your experience in the church is anything like mine, you were raised on sermons that taught that this passage really just meant that children tend to follow in their parents’ footsteps, for good or bad.  The example is often given of an alcoholic father or mother and the child prone to alcoholism.  The parents are then warned (rightly so in many ways) to seek and desire holiness for themselves so that their children don’t fall into a “generational curse”.

What Could This Verse Possibly Mean?

Allow me to explain why that is not what this verse is referring to, and then attempt to walk through the text and what it does suggest, both about the God of the Bible and the people to whom He’s addressing.  May I begin by suggesting that we not try to soften this text or avoid it?  The text presents itself as the words of Yahweh about Yahweh, therefore it is a self-description of God by God.  Because of this, we must allow it to stand in the way that it’s written without presuming that the author is mistaken.  Why the idea of “generational curses” doesn’t follow from this passage in the sense that it’s often used is found in the word translated as “visiting”.  The term can be used both positively and negatively, depending on its use, and is used in both ways in v.5 above.

“Visiting” is not a passive response of God.  The text does not, and cannot, say that if the parents sin, the children are likely to suffer the consequences of that sin, no matter how proverbially true this may be in life.  The Hebrew word in question is used, in this form, of a positive or active action on the part of God.  God is telling the people of Israel that whether it receives blessings or punishments, they will come from His active engagement with them.  Thus, the punishment of the third and fourth generation are not consequences but active judgment from God.

If we allow that to sit with us for some time, it will likely begin to bother our sensibilities somewhat.  How can a just God actively punish children for sins that they did not commit?  A point of clarification is in order regarding the use of the word “children”.  In the Old Testament, the use of this word is relational and not necessarily age specific; therefore, we need to avoid from picturing small children in our imagination as if this is what is being referred to.  It does not exclude them, but it is not as specific as this.  “children” is a generic term to denote those that carry on the generational line of any age.  This is important because the way we imagine a thing often creates how we understand it.

To understand the text of Exodus 20:5, it will be helpful to observe the second time this statement is made in the book of Exodus:


The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

                                                                                Exodus 34:6-7 ESV


If you look at this parallel passage, there is a slight change in what is said.  The chief difference is the phrase “who will by no means clear the guilty”.  This matches the phrase in chapter 20, “of those who hate me”.  In parallel they look this way:

 

“…I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20:5-6 ESV

 

 

 

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guiltyvisiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.

 

Exodus 34:6-7 ESV

 

There are some clear differences to the statements, but one of the most significant, in relation to understanding the passage, is in black.  If we remember the context of the Exodus from Egypt, there is a lex talionis (eye for an eye) element to this command.  God is not just delivering this statement to the Israelites.  This is a statement of His character.  As such, the Egyptians received this exact punishment during the final plague, where the angel of death killed the firstborn male of every home that was not protected by the blood of a lamb.  Who received the judgment?  The Egyptians.   What had the Egyptians been doing?  Abusing the Israelites for four generations and particularly killing their firstborn males.

Before making any further conclusions, let’s observe the context of each command.  In Exodus 20, Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving the law.  The command is in light of the sin idolatry and is a warning that God doesn’t take such a sin lightly.  An idolater demonstrates his hatred to the one true God by choosing something lesser to serve.  This is also characteristic of the Egyptians who believed in a pantheon of gods.  In Exodus 34, Moses is still on Mt. Sinai, however something else has just taken place, the Israelites had made a golden calf to worship (idolatry), and many were put to death as a result.  The idolaters are the ones who “hate God” and because of this sin are “guilty” before Him.  The immediate context of both statements is the sin of idolatry.

What About This is Just?

Understanding this, what does this do toward the implication that God is acting unjustly?  We still must deal with the punishment applying to several generations.  To begin, there is an assumed aspect of continuation here.  An idolatrous nation, like the Egyptians, and the Canaanites (who were also said to be given four generations to repent) teach idolatry to their descendants.  It’s an ongoing sin in which each generation is taking an active role.  Thus, the descendants continue to fall under the judgment of their ancestors because of the continued sin.  This is also the case for the nation of Israel, who faced judgment for generations, not because they were innocent and their ancestors were guilty, but because they were guilty of the continued sin of their ancestors: idolatry.

In this way, the justice of God demands payment for the sin of the guilty and He will receive it.  The punishment for idolatry in the Old Testament is seen in the visiting of God’s judgment on those nations.  This was the case for the Egyptians, the Babylonians, The Assyrians, and even the Israelites.  Their actions demonstrated that they were both guilty and “hated” God.  There is however another common denominator in this equation.  The “guilty” are those who are not under the grace and mercy of God.

How can I say this?  The Israelites killed 3,000 of their own after the incident with the golden calf, and it is unlikely that this was all those who were committing idolatry.  However, the reason the rest of the nation was spared is the intercession of Moses on their behalf.  By acting as their intercessor, Moses returned the nation to a position of favor.  As a result, the justice and punishment demanded by God was satisfied.  The statements of Exodus 20 and 34 are not applicable to those walking in the grace and mercy of God.  The children of God, revealed through their fidelity to the will of God, are not subject to the judgment of God.

What Does it Mean for Christians Today?

Aside from these passages creating difficulty for the apologist or the Christian in understanding the nature of God, there is another aspect of the verses that often gets misused.  This is the idea of “generational curses” mentioned at the opening.  I have sat in many congregations wherein a statement was made about children being punished for something their ancestors have done.  Recently, the social media sphere was ignited by statements from a prominent individual demanding modern Christians to repent for the “sins of their fathers”.  In defense of both of these positions, verses such as the ones above have been cited.  As has been discussed above, the Exodus statements are not an implication of generational curses, but the judgment of God on generational sins.  If more need be said in this regard, it can be found in the Law, the Prophets and the words of Jesus.

The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah are give the same word from the Lord.  They are told that under the new covenant the people will no longer utter the proverb, “The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth become numb.”  This proverb is not found in Scripture and was a common, but mistaken, worldview.  This view persisted even into the days of Jesus.  In John 9, the disciples come upon a man born blind.  The disciples ask the Lord, “who sinned, this man or his parent that he was born blind?” demonstrating that the belief in generational curses (a common Ancient Near Eastern belief) persisted.  Jesus’ response was that neither the man nor his parents had sinned, but that the man’s blindness was part of God’s plan.  Jesus does not affirm the idea of generational curses, nor would he, because this would be contrary to the Law of Moses.

How can I say that the proverb quoted in Ezekiel and Jeremiah was uttered in error and that the worldview of the disciples was a mistaken one, not found in the Law of Moses?  Becasue the Law is very clear on this point.  In Deuteronomy 24:16 it reads:


 “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”


Neither the Law of Moses and the revelation of Yahweh, nor the message of the Prophets and the words of our Lord affirm the concept of generational curses.

Conclusion

God is just, because the sins of the people will be met with the judgment that they deserve.  The guilty will be punished.  When properly understood, Exodus 20 and 34 do nothing to impugn the character of God, nor do they promote the idea that your children and grandchildren will face the judgment of God for your sins.  The character of God is perfect and holy and the message of Scripture remains the same, the individual will will pay the price for his own sin.


The children of God, revealed through their fidelity to the will of God, are not subject to the judgment of God.


 

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