This is the fourth 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, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series, I encourage you to read them before you read the present post.
This post is the continuation of the previous post. If you have not read Part 3 yet, I strongly recommend that you do so before reading the present post (see link below).
The Intergenerational Punishment Statement
The most difficult aspect in the proper understanding of intergenerational punishment is how to interpret the phrase “the children to the third and the fourth generation.” One way of understanding the idea of generations is by taking it literally. If one generation is about twenty-five years, then the third generation would be seventy-five years and the fourth generation one hundred years. God’s mercy lasts one thousand generations or twenty-five thousand years. Taking the phrase literally, the phrase means that God’s grace lasts longer than his anger, that divine mercy trumps divine justice (Fernandéz 1923: 420). Thus, the numbers should be understood as a hyperbole to indicate that God’s mercy lasts forever while his anger lasts only for a brief time.
Carol Meyers (2005: 172) believes that this hyperbolic language is used to emphasize obedience: “We can only wonder if this is the language of hyperbole, meant to emphasize the importance of obeying this stricture, rather than an expression of belief that the innocent descendents of someone who disobeyed would have to pay the consequences. . . . Blessings will come to the ‘thousandth generation’ (20:6) of those whose love for God means that they obey all God’s teachings. Such blessings will last, in a sense, forever.”
Some people interpret the statement on intergenerational punishment by taking the whole statement literally, that is, that the divine punishment on the father’s sins will last three or four successive generations. Thus, the sins of a father will affect his son (the second generation), his grandchildren (the third generation) and maybe even his great grandchildren (the fourth generation). In this case it probably means that the whole family is living together as an extended family. This is the way the New Jerusalem Bible interprets the statement: “I punish a parent’s fault in the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren among those who hate me.”
In his discussion of the punishment statement, Lindars (1965: 457) concluded that the punishment for idolatry will come in the lifetime of the offender: “For whereas no limit is set for Yahweh’s covenant-mercy, his wrath is restricted to the third and fourth generations. It means that the prolongation of divine punishment is limited to the generations who might be born within the lifetime of the offender.”
Another way of understanding the reason the punishment was extended to four generations would be to preserve the name of the father in Israel. If the whole family were to be killed together, then the name of the father would be eradicated from the memory of Israel (Deuteronomy 25:6). One good example of the need to preserve a name in Israel is the case of Absalom. In 2 Samuel 18:18 Absalom set up a pillar in the Valley of the Kings because he had no son to invoke his name after his death: “Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself a pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, ‘I have no son to keep my name in remembrance’; he called the pillar by his own name” (2 Samuel 18:18). The pillar was not a burial place; it was a visible memorial to keep his name alive in Israel since he had no son to invoke his name after his death (Schmitt 2009: 394).
The Golden Calf Incident
The statement on intergenerational punishment must be understood in light of the covenant God made with Israel. Most people who criticize the statement on intergenerational punishment do so because they do not understand the nature of covenants as they existed in the world where Israel lived. The covenant between God and Israel is a suzerainty covenant that followed the form of international treaties between a king and a vassal. Although scholars disagree whether God’s covenant with Israel follows a Hittite model or an Assyrian model, the result was the same, both parties were legally obligated to observe the demands of the covenant.
The covenant between Yahweh and Israel followed the deliverance of the people from the servitude in Egypt. The covenant was not with an individual but with the whole house of Israel. The corporate community, represented by the elders of Israel, agreed to keep the demands of the covenant as it was presented to them by Moses. The covenant was fully accepted by the people. They showed their willingness to abide by the demands of the covenant before and after the ratification of the covenant. By agreeing with the demands of the covenant, the people who came out of Egypt became the people of God and Yahweh became the God of Israel. The covenant was enforced with the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience as stated in Deuteronomy 27 and 28.
The first occasion when the statement on intergenerational punishment could be applied was at the time Israel built the golden calf. While Moses was on the mountain in the presence of Yahweh, the people believed that Moses was dead because of his long delay in returning to them. The people approached Aaron and demanded that he make them a god to go before them. Aaron yielded to their request and using the golden earrings that the women and children had brought from Egypt, he made an image of a young bull. The people proclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).
The making of the golden calf was a clear violation of the covenant. By making an idol in the form of a god, the people had violated the first and the second commandments and had rejected Yahweh. Because of this violation of the covenant, Yahweh would impose the punishment: he would visit the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who had rejected him (Exodus 20:5).
Yahweh said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them’” (Exodus 32:7-10).
“Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” The people had provoked Yahweh to wrath by making an image and by worshiping and sacrificing to it. “Let me alone and I will consume them.” These words alone could classify God as a violent God: “I will consume them.” But the people knew the consequences of idolatry and the Lord had the right to do what he promised he would do. By consuming the people in his wrath, the first, second, third, and even the fourth generation would perish in this divine judgment.
According to Freeman (1995: 9), the future of Israel revolves around the issue of divine justice and mercy, “what is to govern the relationship between a righteous God and a sinful people? How may the requirements of just law be reconciled with the claims of absolute love? How can the righteousness of God be vindicated, without denying his grace and mercy? Or, how can God demonstrate affection and forgiveness without undermining the moral structure of the whole universe? Certainly if the ‘love’ of God were not a central feature of the Old Testament these issues could not arise.”
The Unmasking of God
Because of its rejection of Yahweh, Israel deserved to be punished, but the judgment never came. When God told Moses, “leave me alone,” God was inviting Moses to intercede on behalf of the people. God expected him to do so. As God said to Ezekiel about the destruction of Jerusalem: “I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. Therefore, I have poured out my indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath; I have returned their conduct upon their heads” (Ezekiel 22:30-31).
The Lord told Ezekiel that he sought anyone to stand in the breach before him on behalf of the land, so that he would not destroy the land; but he found no one. So, Judah was invaded and as a result, thousands died, and thousands were taken into exile.
Now, because of the idolatry of Israel, the people were threatened with destruction. At the time when Israel deserved to be severely punished for its idolatry, for its violation of the covenant, and for its rejection of God, the punishment never came because the unforgiving, vindictive, immoral, diabolic violent warrior god removed the mask placed upon him, the “mask of ugliness,” and revealed the true nature of his character, that he is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Moses stood in the breach before Yahweh on behalf of the people and as a result, the people who sinned, their children and grandchildren were not destroyed. Prayer is the most effective way of controlling divine anger. And so is repentance. As I have shown in a previous article on the destruction of Nineveh (see the link below), Yahweh had threatened to totally destroy the city. When the leaders of the city heard Jonah’s message, they and all the people repented, and the destruction of the city was averted. When Jonah saw that Nineveh was not destroyed, he became angry. He explains his anger to God with these words: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2). God was gracious and merciful toward Nineveh, and the city of blood, full of lies and violence (Nahum 3:1) was spared.
The apostle Paul said, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The people of Israel sinned against God by breaking the covenant. They provoked Yahweh to anger by building an image of a strange god. As God had promised, he would punish the evil doers and their families. And God is faithful in fulfilling his promises. But God did not destroy the people who deserved to be punished because his mercy is greater than his anger. Even when the people deserved to be severely punished for their rebellion against God, God’s hesed, his faithful love, triumphed over his anger and the people lived who deserved to die.
This demonstration of mercy and love does not belong to a vindictive, violent God. God responds to prayer and he accepts the repentance of his people. Even though the people did not repent, God’s mercy triumphed over his wrath, as the psalmist correctly observed: “he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath” (Psalm 78:38 NIV). With these words the psalmist revealed the true nature and character of the God of the Old Testament.
Although many people are horrified by the statement on intergenerational punishment, because they perceive it to be cruel and unjust, the reality is that the statement says more about God’s mercy than God’s violence upon the innocent. As Duke puts it, “The contrast between judgement and mercy could hardly be more extreme. Whereas consequences of guilt could have an impact on one extended living family that breaks covenant with God, God’s mercy and love, in great contrast, extend to the thousandth generation for those who keep covenant. Again, we find that our texts are not about a wrath-bearing, vengeful God, but about one who demonstrates covenantal faithfulness to the extreme” (2015: 353).
NEXT POST: “Greg Boyd and the Character of God – Part 5: Exodus 34:6-7.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Previous Post on the Character of God
On the Repentance of Nineveh
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.
Duke Rodney K. “‘Visiting the Guilt of the Fathers on the Children: Is God Immoral? The Evangelical Quarterly 87 (2015): 347-365.
Fernandéz, Andrés. “El castigo de los hijos por los pecados de los padres.” Estudios Eclesiasticos 2 (1923):419-426
Freedman, David Noel, “God Compassionate and Gracious,” Western Watch 6 (1995): 6-24.
Lindars, Barnabas, “Ezekiel and Individual Responsibility.” Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965): 452-467.
Meyers, Carol. Exodus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Schmitt, Rüdiger, “‘And Jacob Set Up a Pillar at Her Grave . . .”: Material Memorial and the Landmarks in the Old Testament.” Pages 389-403. In The Land of Israel in Bible, History, and Theology: Studies in Honour of Ed Noort. Edited by J. van Ruiten and J. C. de Vos; VTSup 124. Leiden/Boston, MA: Brill, 2009.