This is the tenth 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.
Read Part 1:
The Problem of Idolatry
The author of Deuteronomy identifies the Ten Commandments with the covenant God established with Israel: “He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets” (Deuteronomy 4:13). The two tablets of stone on which the Decalogue was written, was also known as the tablets of the covenant: “At the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant” (Deuteronomy 9:11). In the book of Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments are known as the “Ten Words”: “He revealed his covenant to you and commanded you to observe it, the Ten Words which he inscribed on two tablets of stone” (Deuteronomy 4:13 NJB). The reference to the Ten Words in Deuteronomy 4:13 indicates that by the time the book of Deuteronomy was written, the Decalogue was already a fixed formula. According to von Rad (1962: 195), the Ten Commandments were never spoken as laws: “In the Old Testament the Ten Commandments are never spoken as law: they are called only ‘the Ten Words.’”
Deuteronomy warns about the consequence of sin for a man or a woman, or a family or a tribe, whose heart turns away from the LORD to serve other gods of the nations: “Yahweh will not pardon him. The wrath and jealousy of Yahweh will blaze against such a person” (Deuteronomy 29:19 NJB). Any Israelite who worships other gods and serves them rejects the covenant of Yahweh and will be visited by Yahweh in accordance with the stipulations written in the Second Commandment. This person is guilty of idolatry for rejecting Yahweh and for rejecting the covenant. Explaining the fate of this individual, Lundbom (2013: 810) wrote: “Yahweh is gracious and merciful, but will not clear the guilty (Exod 34:6-7; cf. Deut 5:8-10). The idolater will take the full measure of the divine anger.” Because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), on the day Yahweh will settle accounts, Yahweh will hold the guilty sinner accountable for his sin (Exodus 32:34).
The book of Deuteronomy has much to say about idolatry. The Deuteronomic writer warns the people not to forget the covenant that Yahweh made with them. He also warns them not to make for themselves an idol in the form of anything, since Yahweh has forbidden them to follow other gods (Deuteronomy 4:23). Deuteronomy also warns the people about the consequence of forgetting Yahweh to follow other gods: “If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19). The expression “other gods” occurs seventeen times in the book of Deuteronomy.
Patrick Miller (2009: 59) explains the reason every Israelite should keep the Second Commandment. He wrote: “The Second Commandment concludes with an extended motivational clause giving a powerful reason why persons should obey this commandment, a rationalizing of the divine command that occurs in the following three commandments as well. The heart of the matter is the jealousy of God.”
One reason the making of images and the worship of other gods were forbidden in Israel was because Yahweh is a jealous God: “for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). According to von Rad (1962: 208) , the statements about God being a jealous God in Exodus 20:5, does not refer to the commandment prohibiting images, but it refers to the first commandment which requires Israel to worship only one God. Thus, Yahweh’s jealousy, according to von Rad, “consists in the fact that he wills to be the only God for Israel, and that he is not disposed to share his claim for worship and love with any other divine power.”
The Day To Settle Accounts
It is for this reason that the Second Commandment plays an important role in the theological argument of the Deuteronomist. Idolatry was a violation of the covenant. For this reason, the book of Deuteronomy could be considered a polemic against idolatry. Throughout the book, the writer expresses his hostility toward the worship of other gods: “If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19).
The violation of the covenant brought consequences upon the whole community. For the community in the wilderness, after having put Yahweh to the test ten times (Numbers 14:22), the day to settle accounts had arrived: “on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin” (Exodus 32:34 HCSB). The community had violated the covenant by refusing to trust in God, so God held them accountable for their sin: God allowed that generation to live; their punishment was that they would die in the wilderness without being able to enter the land of promise (Numbers 14:28-30). As for the children, they suffered the consequences of their parents’ sins, “your children will wander in the wilderness forty years and suffer for your unfaithfulness” (Numbers 14:33 NET). However, God did not act violently against the innocent; only the guilty ones were punished with God’s punishment, because God does not clear the guilty (Exodus 34:7).
This pattern of divine visitation was repeated through the history of Israel. The people violated the covenant, God in his mercy allowed them to live and kept the covenant in order to maintain the relationship. But as God had said, “on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin” (Exodus 32:34 HCSB). Thus, when the community experienced wars of conquest, the Arameans, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians punished the community without pity, killing men, women, and children, young and old.
The Northern Kingdom went into exile because of their idolatry and their worship of false gods:
The people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places at all their towns . . . they set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree; they burned incense on all the high places, . . . they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger . . . they served idols . . . LORD warned Israel . . . Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes.
But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They despised his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers. . . they made for themselves molten images of two calves; and they made an Asherah, and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal . . . they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel” (2 Kings 17:9-18).
For the people of the Northern Kingdom, after 200 years of violating the covenant by serving other gods and by provoking Yahweh to anger, the day to settle accounts arrived in 722 BCE. After two centuries of being a patient and long-suffering God, Yahweh held the people accountable for their sins. And, as a result, the Assyrians came and took the people into exile.
For Judah, after almost 400 years of violating the covenant, the day to settle accounts also arrived and on that day, Yahweh held the people of Judah accountable for their sin. As a result, the people of the Southern Kingdom were taken into exile in Babylon in the midst of untold suffering caused by the long siege of Jerusalem.
Because of the fall of the Northern kingdom and because the religious life of Judah prior to the reforms of Josiah, the book of Deuteronomy was written to warn the people of the Southern Kingdom of the perils of idolatry. But, “Judah also did not keep the commandments of the LORD their God, but walked in the customs which Israel had introduced” (2 Kings 17:19). As a result, Judah also had to face the ignominy of exile. In the exile of Israel and in the exile of Judah, the words of Yahweh were proven to be true: “on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin” (Exodus 32:34 HCSB).
The Deuteronomic Interpretation
In his article, “The Reworking of the Principle of Transgenerational Punishment: Four Case Studies,” Bernard Levinson (2008: 60) calls the statement on the punishment for idolatry, “the injustice of the Decalogue’s doctrine.” The reason Levinson calls the Decalogue doctrine “unjust” is because he associates the intergenerational punishment statement with the idea of retribution. He wrote (2008: 62): “The repudiated proverb [in Ezekiel 18:1-4] and the Decalogue doctrine share not only the notion of retribution vicariously transmitted from one generation to the next but also common terminology: the resonant language of fathers and children.”
The problem, as I see it, is the way Levinson (2008: 58) translates Exodus 20:5: “visiting the punishment for the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons.” The problem is that the expression “the punishment for” is not in the Hebrew text. Most translations translate pōqēd ʽāwōn ʼbōt (Exodus 20:5) as “visiting the iniquity of the fathers” (Exodus 20:5 RSV) or as “visiting the guilt of the parents” (Exodus 20:5 TNK). Levinson, on the other hand, translates the word ʽāwōn, the word for iniquity, as “punishment for the iniquity.”
His translation is based on the view that the word pōqēd (Exodus 20:5) should be translated as “punishment” as found in the NRSV: “punishing children for the iniquity of parents” (Exodus 20:5 NRSV). The better translation for pōqēd is “to visit,” as found in the ESV: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers.” In his Theology of the Old Testament von Rad wrote (1962: 385), “retribution is not a new action which comes upon the person concerned from somewhere else; it is rather the last ripple of the act itself which attaches to its agent almost as something material. Hebrew in fact does not even have a word for punishment.”
The book of Deuteronomy provides the best way of understanding the transition from communal punishment to individual responsibility: “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and requites to their face those who hate him, by destroying them; he will not be slack with him who hates him, he will requite him to his face (Deuteronomy 7:9-10).
The expression, “and requites to their face those who hate him,” may offer a clue to the Deuteronomic interpretation of intergenerational punishment in Deuteronomy 5:10. The TNK translates, “but who instantly requites with destruction those who reject Him.” Two other usages of this expression in the Old Testament may clarify its meaning:
“Haran died in the lifetime [upon the face of] of his father Terah” (Genesis 11:28 TNK).
“Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of [upon the face of] their father Aaron” (Numbers 3:4 NRSV).
Thus, as Levinson (2008: 77) proposes, the punishment comes upon the lifetime of the sinner or as the NRSV translates, “in their own person” (Deuteronomy 7:10). Levinson concludes that by emphasizing that the sinner’s punishment comes in his lifetime, the author of Deuteronomy is declaring that transgenerational punishment does not cover several generations, but it applies only to the guilty person in his own time, or in his own lifetime.
This then, brings us to the statement about individual responsibility in Ezekiel. Levinson has proposed (2008: 63) that Ezekiel’s statement about individual responsibility in 18:1-4 was influenced by the law about individual liability in criminal and civil matters as presented in Deuteronomy 24:16. I will review Levinson’s proposal after I review Jeremiah’s reinterpretation of the intergenerational punishment statement.
NEXT: “Greg Boyd and the Character of God – Part 11 – Jeremiah’s Reinterpretation of the Intergenerational Punishment Statement.”
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.
Fishbane, Michael. “Revelation and Tradition: Aspects of Inner-Biblical Exegesis.” Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980): 343-361.
Levinson, Bernard M. “The Reworking of the Principle of Transgenerational Punishment: Four Case Studies.” In Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Lundbom, Jack R. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.
Miller, Patrick D. The Ten Commandments. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Tigay, Jeffrey H., Deuteronomy. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996.
von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology. Volume I. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962.
Weinfeld, Moshe, Deuteronomy 1-11. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1991.