This is the third post on the character of God based on God’s revelation of himself to Moses on Mount Sinai. The specific focus of these studies is the intergenerational punishment statement in Exodus 34:7, “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Each study in this series is based on arguments developed in previous posts. If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I encourage you to read them before you read the present post. See links below.
One issue in the Old Testament that bothers many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, is the problem of intergenerational punishment. Is the punishment for sins of an individual passed down to his descendants? Does God punish children for the iniquity of their parents to the third and the fourth generation? Many people find this statement disturbing because they do not believe they should be responsible for something that their parents did.
The problem of intergenerational punishment is mentioned in the notes of Jewish Study Bibles. Marc Zvi Brittler, writing the notes on the death of David’s son with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:14-18, wrote: “This is the clearest indication in the Hebrew Bible of the application of intergenerational punishment by God where the sin is perceived as property that may be inherited.”
The idea of intergenerational punishment was ingrained in the minds of many people who lived during Jesus’ ministry. Once, when his disciples saw a man born blind, they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). When asked by his disciples, “who sinned, this man or his parents,” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (John 9:3). Jesus’ answer to his disciples should force us to reconsider the issue of intergenerational punishment.
The Second Commandment
The disciples’ view about intergenerational punishment was based on the words of the second commandment found in Exodus 20:4-6, a commandment that forbids the worship of idols:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon 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 20:4-6 RSV).
Gregory Boyd, in his book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, makes reference to Exodus 20:5 only once. He wrote: “Ezekiel specifically taught that children are never punished for their parent’s sin (Ezekiel 18). This insight arguably corrects the earlier Israelite conception of Yahweh ‘punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation’ (Exod 20:5)” (2017: 838).
First, before I deal with the issue of intergenerational punishment, I need to make a few remarks about the Hebrew text of Exodus 20:4-6. English translations differ on how they translate Exodus 20:5. Below are a few examples:
New Revised Standard Version: “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.”
The Jewish Publication Society (TNK): “visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me.”
The NET Bible: “responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.”
The New Jerusalem Bible: “I punish a parent’s fault in the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren among those who hate me.”
The New Living Bible: “I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected– even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.
The Septuagint: “recompensing the sins of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation to them that hate me.”
Second, the word “generations” does not appear in the Hebrew text. All translations add the word “generations” based on the reading of Deuteronomy 7:9: “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” The only exception that I know that does not include the word “generations” is the New Jerusalem Bible: “I punish a parent’s fault in the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren among those who hate me.”
Most translations, as noted above, have problems with the Hebrew word פָּקַד (pāqad). The basic meaning of the word pāqad is disputed, but Gesenius and the English lexicon of BDB say that the basic meaning of the word is “to visit.” Most translations emphasize the idea of punishment; however, the word is better understood when the concept of “visiting the sins” is used.
According to André (2003: 51), the Hebrew word pāqad has several meanings, however, one basic meaning of the word is to “examine closely,” so that “the judgment or decision issuing from such examination is included.” André (2003: 57) also says that in a large number of texts, the word pāqad “refers to the activity of the divine judge, generally in reference to the judges’s decision.” For instance, in Exodus 32:34, the word pāqad is used to refer to the day when Yahweh visits to pronounce his judgment: “in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them.” The meaning of future visitation for the word pāqad is found in an oracle in Amos: “That in the day that I shall visit the transgressions of Israel upon him I will also visit the altars of Bethel: and the horns of the altar shall be cut off, and fall to the ground” (Amos 3:14 KJV). In a few texts, the word carries the idea of a punishment that is postponed to a distant future: “And there shall be no remnant of them: for I will bring evil upon the men of Anathoth, even the year of their visitation (Jeremiah 11:23 KJV, emphasis added). The same idea of postponed judgement is found in Jeremiah 8:12, “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them that fall; in the time of their visitation they shall be cast down, saith the LORD.”
Third, the visiting of the sins of the fathers comes upon the third and the fourth generation of those who reject God. These words clearly say that not all the descendants of an individual are punished for his sins. Thus, it is not the children and the grandchildren of an individual who are punished, but only those who reject God or those who reject the demands of the covenant. The expression “those who reject me” is not found in Exodus 34:6-7 and in Numbers 14:18. The reason for its presence in the second commandment is because the statement deals with the breach of the covenant, that is, the rejection of Yahweh to follow other gods. In an upcoming study of the statement about intergenerational punishment in Deuteronomy, I will deal with this addition in more detail.
Fourth, the word “hate” means to dislike someone. In the context of the second commandment, to hate God is to reject him or to reject the covenant. As William Moran has shown (1963: 77-87), the language of love and hate are words related to the covenant. The two words carry the idea of choosing and rejecting. One example of this use is found in Malachi: “I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau” (Malachi 1:2-3). This means that God made a covenant with Jacob, but he did not make a covenant with Esau. In Exodus 20:5, the verb for hate is a participle, reflecting the idea of a continuous action. The use of the participle indicates that the act of rejecting God is something that continues over a period of time.
Fifth, Yahweh is presented as a jealous God. The word “jealous” is related to the covenant and refers to Yahweh’s demands of exclusive allegiance from his people. According to Preuss, the jealousy of God refers to “YHWH’s desire for Israel to share his divine status with no one. Based on the special relationship that he has introduced historically to Israel, YHWH’s jealousy is directed against Israel’s apostasy to other gods. This jealousy is put in the form of a prohibition and the response of punishment. This evidence about YHWH’s jealousy is closely connected to the understandings of his holiness (‘jealous holiness’; cf. Josh. 24:19) and his love (cf. Deuteronomy). The discussion of divine jealousy is a further expression of the trend existing within Yahwistic faith toward the exclusive worship of YHWH. . . . Israel’s apostasy to foreign gods would have signified a conversion to nothingness, to powerless deities, or to idols” (1995: 241).
God’s Covenant with Israel
Sixth, the statement about intergenerational punishment is given to Israel within the context of the covenant. The covenant between God and Israel establishes Israel as a unique nation in the world, a nation set apart to carry out God’s mission in the world. Jan Assmann explains the nature of this distinction. He wrote:
With the covenant on Sinai, two new distinctions come into play, which likewise bear no relation to truth and falsehood. The first differentiates between outside and inside, belonging to the covenant and not belonging to it, exosphere and endosphere. God makes this covenant not with the world and the entire human race but with the children of Israel, whom he has chosen to be his people and led out of Egypt. Through the covenant and divine election, the world splits into Israel and the nations. It is important to emphasize that this distinction has nothing whatsoever to do with intolerance and violence. God cares for all peoples but he has something special in mind for Israel (2019: 80).
The second commandment has to do with idolatry; Israel is forbidden to make idols and they are not allowed to bow down to them or worship them (Exodus 20:4-5). In his article, “In Search of the Origins of Israelite Aniconism,” S. I. Kang (2018: 84) wrote, “For a long time, aniconism has been presented as one of the most distinctive characteristics of the religion of ancient Israel. Aniconism refers to the absence or repudiation of divine images. Such a tradition was inconceivable to Israel’s neighbours, where the care, feeding, and clothing of a deity, represented in the form of a divine statue, played a central role in national cults.”
No other religion in the Ancient Near East worshiped their gods without the aid of images; the aniconism of Israel was unique. This means that the intergenerational judgment applies only to Israel and not to the nations of the world because, as Assmann wrote, “God makes this covenant not with the world and the entire human race but with the children of Israel.” Thus, no one today should worry about intergenerational judgment because this is only applied to those who are bound to God by the covenant established on Mount Sinai. If intergenerational judgment applies only to Israel, then how was it enforced? My next post will show how the intergenerational judgment was enforced in Israel.
NEXT: “Greg Boyd and the Character of God – Part 4: The Intergenerational Punishment Statement.”
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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André, G. “pāqad,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Pages 50-63. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003.
Assmann, Jan. The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.
Brittler, Marc Zvi. “1 & 2 Samuel.” The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Boyd, Gregory A. Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. 2 Vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.
Kang, S. I. “In Search of the Origins of Israelite Aniconism.” Acta Theologica 38 (2018): 84-98.
Moran, William L. “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963): 77-87.
Preuss, Horst Dietrich. Old Testament Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.