This is the ninth 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 posts 1-8, I encourage you to read them before you read the present post.
The intergenerational punishment statement appears in four texts in the Old Testament: Exodus 20:5; 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18-19; and Deuteronomy 5:9-10. In his book Boyd lists all four texts that mention the intergenerational punishment statement. However, he only discusses two of them. Boyd does not address the references to intergenerational punishment in Numbers 14:18-19 and in Deuteronomy 5:9-10. These two texts that Boyd failed to discuss in his book provide important insights for the proper understanding of intergenerational punishment in the Hebrew Bible.
The language of the intergenerational punishment statement in Deuteronomy 5:9-10 appears in the context of the prohibition against making images of Yahweh: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the place of slave-labour. You will have no gods other than me. You must not make yourselves any image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth; you must not bow down to these gods or serve them. For I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God and I punish the parents’ fault in the children, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren, among those who hate me; but I show faithful love to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments” (Deuteronomy 5:6-10 NJB).
The intergenerational punishment statement in Deuteronomy 5:9 is the same as in Exodus 20:5 because both statements appear in the context of God’s covenant with Israel established on Mount Sinai. However, the Deuteronomic writer did change the language of what God said about himself in Exodus 34:7. The version of the Decalogue that appears in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 differs from the version of the Decalogue that appears in Exodus 20:1-17. The Deuteronomic historian changed the language of the Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The Deuteronomic writer changed the reason why the people of Israel should rest on the seventh day. He changed the language of the Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) to emphasize the reasons children should honor father and mother. He also changed the language of the Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21) to declare that a man’s wife was not part of his property.
The Second Commandment forbids idolatry, the making of idols and the worship of idols. Worshiping other gods was a breach of the covenant and this violation would bring upon those who violated the demands of the covenant the curse included in the ratification of the commandment. In the case of idolatry, the punishment would be the visitation of Yahweh upon “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” The Deuteronomic writer reverses the order of the retribution language found in Exodus 34:7. In the Exodus 34:7 passage, the grace and mercy of Yahweh is stated first and then the language of retribution. In the Decalogue, both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy, the language of retribution comes first and then the language of grace and mercy.
The Deuteronomic Revision
This revision by the Deuteronomic writer, according to Tigay (1996: 437), is an effort “to mitigate the doctrine of cross-generational punishment by God.” This view is based on the Deuteronomist’s belief that God punishes only those who hate him: “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10 NIV).
Weinfeld (1991: 299) wrote that the Deuteronomic writer revised the concept of family solidarity. He wrote: “one must admit that Deut 7:9-10 opposes collective retribution. . . . This may explain the additional phrases in the Decalogue, “those who hate me” or “those who love me and keep my commandments,” which are missing in the parallels of Exod 34:6-7 and Num 14:18. These phrases look like explanatory glosses, which stress that God punishes only those of the sons who propagate the evil ways of their fathers.”
The judgment of Yahweh that came upon the Northern Kingdom and upon the Southern Kingdom was because the people had violated the demands of the covenant and had been involved in the cult of Baal and other gods. In the post-exilic period, when Nehemiah looked at the condition of the people in exile, he recognized that the ancestors had violated the covenant. He said: “You have been just in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly; our kings, our officials, our priests, and our ancestors have not kept your law or heeded the commandments and the warnings that you gave them” (Nehemiah 9:33-34).
The people who lived in the post-exilic community often reminded each other that they too had followed in the sins of the father. They recognized that God had acted justly because the reason for their suffering and for the exile in a foreign land was the violation of the covenant by the fathers. Ezra told the gathered community, “From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt; and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as at this day” (Ezra 9:70). In his prayer, Ezra recognized that their exile was not only their fathers’ iniquity, but it was also because of “our iniquities.” The same sentiment was expressed by Daniel, “because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people have become a byword among all who are round about us” (Daniel 9:16).
When fathers, kings, and priests violate the demands of the covenant they bring divine judgment upon themselves and this judgment affects children. Duke (2015: 357) wrote, “The failure of the community leader was the failure of the whole community. The community shared in the responsibility and the guilt. Cultures with such corporate identities understood that there were cases in which innocent individuals inescapably suffered along with the guilty. That certainly must have been the case in the Babylonian exile; children below the age of accountability suffered the consequences met by their parents.”
The author of Deuteronomy repeats the words of the Decalogue as it was found in the tradition of Israel. But, the writer tries to explain to the community of the seventh century who specifically receives the punishment for the sin of idolatry: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Deuteronomy 5:9). The same expression also appears in the Decalogue found in the book of Exodus: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5).
The expression “of those who hate me” does not appear in the list of attributes revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. In his revelation to Moses, Yahweh said: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). The expression “the ones hating me” is also not found in Numbers 14:18 at the time Moses prayed on behalf of Israel. Thus, the intergenerational punishment statement in Exodus 20:5 reflects a Deuteronomistic reinterpretation of the Decalogue to reflect the concerns of the seventh-century Judean community. This later development of the visiting formula indicates that the religious leaders of the Judean community of the seventh century were trying to explain that it is not the children who are visited for the sins of the father, but only the guilty person who is visited. This change in the Decalogue reflects a clear movement from collective responsibility to individual responsibility.
This reinterpretation of the words of the commandment is found in Deuteronomy 7:9-10: “Know that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps His gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commands. But He directly pays back and destroys those who hate Him. He will not hesitate to directly pay back the one who hates Him” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10 HCSB).
The Deuteronomic Theology of Punishment
The writer of Deuteronomy becomes specific about who receives the punishment. The Deuteronomic writer emphasizes that the punishment for the sin of idolatry is received only by “the one who hates Him.” In analyzing the words of the Deuteronomist, it is important to notice the change from those who hate Him to the one who hates Him. Thus, the writer is declaring that the transgenerational punishment is received only by those who specifically reject God. As Fishbane (1980: 353) puts it, “As the Decalogue now reads, only those who hate or love the commandments will be punished or rewarded. Individual responsibility is now stressed; divine judgment is enacted on a person by person basis: sons will be punished or rewarded like their fathers if they continue the ways of their fathers” (emphasis his). Fishbane (1980: 353) calls this theological stress on individual responsibility “a presumptive misquote.” He wrote, “With one stroke later tradition controverted the earlier revelation of divine attributes (Exod 34:7), authenticating its novel viewpoint by means of a presumptive misquote.”
This change begins a movement in the Judean community of the seventh century that goes from collective punishment to individual punishment. This change anticipates Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Because the transgenerational punishment comes when people fail to obey the demands of the covenant, the writer of Deuteronomy urges the people to be diligent in obeying the commandment: “Therefore, observe diligently the commandment–the statutes, and the ordinances–that I am commanding you” (Deuteronomy 7:11).
The writer of Deuteronomy is also specific about the “thousands.” While the Hebrew texts of Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9 have only “thousands” (English translations add the word “generations”), the writer of Deuteronomy speaks of “a thousand generations” in Deuteronomy 7:9. By using the expression “a thousand generations” instead of “thousands,” the writer is emphasizing God’s mercy, that God is a faithful God, a God “who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” According to the Deuteronomist, divine mercy prevails over divine justice.
The author of Deuteronomy, however, makes a difference between covenantal sins and criminal laws. Deuteronomy 24:16 says: “Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death” (Deuteronomy 24:16). Although the word for “crimes” in v. 16 is the same as the Hebrew word for “sin,” the context here implies that this law is part of the justice system of Israel. In criminal laws, a son could not be punished for the crimes of his father.
Lundbom emphasizes how this Deuteronomic law was designed to differentiate between covenantal sin and criminal sin. He wrote, “A distinction, nevertheless, has to be made between punishment meted out by God on the one hand and punishment by human judges on the other. God can and does carry out corporate and vicarious punishment, but human courts in Israel may not do likewise. The present law seeks then to limit the scope of punishment permissible in Israelite law courts: only the one who sins shall die.”
This principle is expressed in 2 Kings 14:5-6. After Amaziah became king of Judah and after his kingship was established, he put to death those who had assassinated his father, but “he did not put to death the children of the assassins, in accordance with what is written in the Book of the Teaching of Moses, where the LORD commanded, ‘Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents; a person shall be put to death only for his own crime’” (2 Kings 14:5-6 TNK). The Deuteronomic law decrees that only those who commit a crime should be punished. By sparing the children of the assassins, Amaziah was departing from the practice of blood revenge.
Unfortunately, the NIV, the HSCB, and the ESV, among other English translations, say that each person “is to die for his own sins” (2 Kings 14:6 NIV). This translation identifies the statement in Deuteronomy 24:16 with covenant law as it appears in the Second Commandment. The law in Deuteronomy 24:16 does not refer to violation of the Second Commandment. The law is part of the legal system of Israel dealing with punishment for civil crimes.
NEXT: “Greg Boyd and the Character of God – Part 10 – The Deuteronomic Revision – Part 2”
NOTE 1: The Bibliography for Part 1 will appear at the end of Part 2.
NOTE 2: Soon I will publish a post listing all the links dealing with my study of Boyd’s book.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on Gregory Boyd and the Character of God
NEXT: “Greg Boyd and the Character of God – Part 11 – Jeremiah’s Reinterpretation of the Intergenerational Punishment Statement.”
Other Posts on Gregory Boyd