This is the eighth 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 through Part 7 of this series, I encourage you to read them before you read the present post.
This post on Numbers 14 is the continuation of the previous post. If you have not read Part 7 yet, I strongly recommend that you do so before reading the present post (see the link below).
The Judgment of Israel
However, the forgiveness of the people came with one caveat. God told Moses, “nevertheless– as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD–none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it” (Numbers 14:20-23).
Twice Yahweh says that the people of Israel despised him (Numbers 14:11, 14:23). The Hebrew word for “despise,” is nāʼaṣ, a word that indicates an action or an attitude of a person who rejects something given to them. The word is used to refer to an individual who despises the law of God, to one who refuses to believe in God, and to one who rebels against God. Thus, when the people of Israel despised the Lord and expressed their desire to return to Egypt, they were rejecting their redemption, the Sinai covenant, and the special relationship they had established with Yahweh to become his people.
So egregious was the act of despising Yahweh that Sakenfeld (1975: 321) said that it was “an act which cannot go unpunished, in that some divine response is required in terms of God’s administration of worldly justice. The texts apparently assume that divine punishment is the inevitable consequence of ‘despising’ Yahweh. Once judgment is announced, there is no possibility of removing it.” The reason for this finality about God’s judgment upon the sinful people is because despising Yahweh is the kind of sin for which there is no expiation.
One issue that is raised by some people about the intergenerational punishment statement in Exodus 34:7 is whether God literally visits the sins of the fathers on the generations yet to be born. The punishment of the people in Numbers 14 provides important information about this question. Numbers 14 indicates that the answer is “no.” In Numbers 14, the whole community violated the covenant and for this reason, the whole community was held accountable for their rejection of God’s gift of the land.
The twelve men who were sent to spy the land died: “And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation complain against him by bringing a bad report about the land–the men who brought an unfavorable report about the land died by a plague before the LORD” (Numbers 14:36-37). They died because they sinned against God. They died because of their lack of faith that God would give them the land of Canaan. They sinned and they died because the wages of sin is death.
The adults who demanded that the people return to Egypt recognized their sin against God: “the people mourned greatly. They rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, we have sinned” (Numbers 14:39-40). Because of their sin, the adults were forbidden to enter the land of Canaan. Because of their rejection of Yahweh, they were condemned to die of natural causes in the wilderness. The people who died in the wilderness were parents and grandparents; they were the first, the second, and some of them were members of the third generation of some Israelite families.
The children under the age of twenty suffered because of the sins of their fathers: “And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:33). These children belonged to the second and third generations, but some of them probably were members of the fourth generation. These children suffered because of the faithlessness of their parents, but they did not die in the wilderness. They, Joshua, and Caleb survived the forty years wandering in the desert and entered the land of promise.
Concerning the judgment of the children, Fretheim (2004: 369) wrote, “One characteristic of communal judgment is that no clean distinction can be made between the righteous and the wicked. . . . Because life is so interrelated, the righteous and the innocent (e.g. children) are often caught up in the judgmental effects of other people’s sins. In other words, they will undergo the experience of judgment in ways that are often devastating to their life and health.”
When God visited the fathers and the second generation for their sin, the visitation was not by violence; their death was not by the sword, nor by the hands of their enemies, nor by the hand of God. Rather, they were visited with natural death, the lot of every individual in this world. The third and the fourth generations did not die in the wilderness, but by God’s mercy, they were allowed to live, even though they had to pay for the sins and for the unfaithfulness of their parents.
Applying the Statement of Intergenerational Punishment
The statement of intergenerational punishment is as follows: “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” (Exodus 34:7).
However, here is how the statement of intergenerational punishment works in the three passages studied so far. In the case of Exodus 20:5, the intergenerational punishment that appears in the Ten Commandments, introduces the judgment that will happen in the case of idolatry, but the people who worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32) were not killed because Moses interceded for them and they lived. The people who built and worshiped the golden calf, the guilty people died, but the visitation upon their children, the second, third, and fourth generations, was averted because of Moses’ prayer.
Although the statement on intergenerational punishment does not appear in the book of Jonah, God’s visitation upon Nineveh, upon the fathers and upon the second, third, and fourth generations of Ninevites, was averted because all the people of Nineveh repented.
In the case of the spies in Numbers 14, the guilty ones died because God does not clear the guilty, but the parents and grandparents, the first and the second generations died of natural causes in the wilderness. The second, third, and fourth generations, the children of the people who sinned, the children under the age of twenty survived, even though they had to live in the wilderness forty years because of the faithlessness of their parents.
In all three cases, there was no violence upon the children; no one died of violent death. In all three cases, only the guilty ones were punished. God did not act violently against the innocent; only the guilty ones were punished with some kind of punishment, because, as God said, God by no means clears the guilty (Exodus 34:7).
Most of the people who sinned against God survived because of Moses’ prayer. In all these cases, Yahweh showed himself to be “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
However, because God does not clear the guilty, since “the wages of sin is death,” some people died because they deliberately rejected Yahweh. But, when it comes to “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation,” the intergenerational punishment as stated in Exodus 20:5, Exodus 34:7, and Numbers 14:18, divine judgment did not happen. As Fretheim (2002: 13) puts it, “God’s anger, which threatens judgment, can be turned aside by human repentance (Joel 2:13) or intercession (Exod 32:9-14) or by God’s own independent decision (Exod 4:14; Hos 11:8-9).” The Deuteronomic writer emphasizes intergenerational punishment in the book of Kings, however, when properly understood, the kings did not die because of the sins of their fathers, each king died for his own sin, a truth that Ezekiel emphasized to the people in exile.
The violation of the covenant brought consequences upon the whole community; thus, when the community experienced war of conquests by the empires of the ancient Near East, the Arameans, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians punished the community without pity, killing men, women, and children, young and old.
In the case of the twelve spies, when the community violated the covenant, God allowed the present generation to live; their punishment was that they would die in the wilderness without being able to enter the land of promise. This pattern was repeated through the history of Israel. The people violated the covenant, God in his mercy allowed them to live and he kept his covenant with them in order to maintain the relationship. But as God said, when the day to settle accounts arrived, Yahweh did hold the people accountable for their sins. For the people in the Northern Kingdom, after 200 years of violating the covenant, the day to settle accounts arrived in 722 B.C., two hundred years after the division of the kingdom. When the day to settle accounts arrived, Yahweh held the people of Samaria accountable for their sins. For the people of Judah, after almost four hundred years of violating the covenant, the day to settle accounts arrived in 587 B.C. On that occasion, Yahweh held the people of Judah accountable for their sins.
When God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, God said that he was “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” But God also told Moses that he was a God who by no means cleared the guilty, but a God who visited the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7).
The spies who did not trust God and brought a false report to the community died because of their rebellion against Yahweh. The parents who sinned against God were forbidden to enter the land of Canaan and condemned to die of natural causes in the wilderness. Their children suffered because of the unfaithfulness of their parents and were required to live in the wilderness until their parents had died (Numbers 14:33).
But, in the punishment of Israel, we see how the mercy and grace of God prevailed against his wrath. When Israel violated the covenant, God did not break the promises he had made to Israel. When the people sinned against God, God did not punish the people immediately, but allowed them to live and to die of natural causes. They died according to their own wishes: “if only we might die in this wilderness” (Numbers 14:2). In addition, God allowed the innocent to live and to enter the land of Canaan as he had promised their forefathers.
This pattern of enforcing divine justice is seen throughout the Old Testament. Whenever Israel violated the covenant, Yahweh was slow to anger and remained faithful to the promises he had made to Israel. When the time came for Yahweh to execute judgement upon the rebellious people, the judgment was averted because of prayers or because of the repentance of the community. Divine judgment was never intended to put an end to the people of Israel. Rather, divine judgment was designed to reestablish Israel as a righteous community in order that Israel might carry out God’s mission in the world.
NEXT: Greg Boyd and the Character of God – Part 9 – The Deuteronomic Revision
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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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.
Fretheim, Terence E. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Fretheim, Terence E. “Theological Reflections on the Wrath of God in the Old Testament.” Horizons in Biblical Theology 24 (2002): 1-25.
Fretheim, Terence E. “‘I was only a little angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets.” Interpretation 58 (2004): 365-375.
Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Pressler, Carolyn. Numbers. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017.
Katharine D. Sakenfeld, “The Problem of Divine Forgiveness in Numbers 14.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 37 (1975): 317-30.
Scharbert, Josef, “Formgeschichte und Exegese von Ex 34,6f und seiner Parallelen,” Biblica 38 (1957): 130-150.