By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: Please explain Exodus 20:1, 34:7,- Numbers 14:18 and Deuteronomy 5:9, 10 in which is found the clause: “visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon their children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation. . . . ” Do you understand it to mean that characteristics of my great great grandparents are passed on to me, but my little boy will not have them? What is the teaching, if it is not that?
Reply: The word “visiting” in the clause found in the above verses is a participle, translated from a primary root Hebrew word paqad, which means “to visit (with friendly or hostile intent)” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, p. 96). The word sometimes refers to the bestowing of God’s blessings (Gen. 50:24; Ruth 1:6; Jer. 29:10; etc.). In the verses of our inquiry, however, the word “visiting” refers to punishing. In this sense the word means: “to go to any one, in a hostile sense, to fall upon, to attack . . . chiefly used of God chastening the wicked” (Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the 0. T., Samuel P. Tregelles, p. 686). The Hebrew word paqad is so used in other passages in the Old Testament (see Ex. 32:34; Psa. 89:32; Isa. 23:17; Jer. 14:10; Lam. 4:22; Hos. 8:13; etc.).
The clause, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and fourth generation” does not teach hereditary traits (characteristics), nor does it teach hereditary depravity. There was a proverb in Israel: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31:29, 30; Ezek. 18:2-4). The Israelites had misused this proverb by applying it to the spiritual relationship, that the sins of the parents were transmitted to the children. While it is true that sometimes children suffer the consequences of sins committed by their ancestors, each individual is responsible for his own sins. This truth was stated in the law of Moses, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sins” (Deut. 24:16). This is confirmed in the verses following the proverb cited above. In the Jeremiah text, the proverb is followed by the words, “But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jer. 31:30). The misapplication of the proverb is also corrected and the truth stated following the proverb in the Ezekiel passage. “As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:3, 4). Also, we should observe that infants are not accountable for sin. Sin is the transgression of God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4). Infants have not transgressed the law, thus they are not sinners. Only the accountable who commit sin are guilty of sin. So, the children of the third and fourth generations who were to be punished by Jehovah were accountable offspring.
We should observe at this point that while children (including infants) may suffer consequences of sin, although not guilty of sin, all affliction is not necessarily due to sin. When Jesus saw a man blind from his birth, his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind? Jesus answered, Neither did this man sin, nor his parents” (Jn. 9:1-3).
Punishment was to be inflicted upon the third and fourth generations. The background for this pronouncement is based upon the idolatrous practice of the fathers. God does not tolerate idolatry. He declared in the second command of the decalogue, “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Ex. 20:4, 5). Then follows the clause: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the third and fourth generations of them that hate me.” The iniquity of the fathers was idolatry. Since God does not punish children for their fathers’ sins, the meaning of the clause is that God punishes the children who perpetuate the sins of their fathers. The punishment is restricted to the children who would continue in the sins of their fathers. The fathers would live to see the punishment of those of their children who would continue to commit sin. We are not to suppose that the punishment was only to extend through the fourth generation. The punishment would continue indefinitely, just as long as the children continued to sin. Men can live long enough to see their great great grandchildren. The fathers themselves would be punished, in part at least, by witnessing the punishment upon their offspring for continuing in the sin which they themselves had committed.
Although the context of the pronouncement is the sin of idolatry, the general principle holds true of whatever iniquities would be committed. The children would be punished for whatever sins they continued to commit. This idea is expressed in the Aramaic Version. Exodus 20:5 reads: “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the transgresiing children, unto the third and fourth generation, of those who hate me, when the children follow the iniquities of their fathers.” Interestingly also is the wording of this verse in the Targum Onkelos, the official version of Babylonian Jews on the Pentateuch. It was produced in the second or third century A.D. and authoritative no later than the fourth century A.D. It harmonizes with the Hebrew text of the verse until the last part where it inserts the phrase, “as long as the sons continue to sin after their fathers.” At least, this was the understanding of the verse by many of the Jews in the early centuries
The verse following should also be considered: “and showing loving-kindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6). Two words are contrasted: hate and love. God punishes the disobedient and he blesses the obedient. We do not believe, as some do, that this interpretation reduces the verses to a mere truism, namely that the guilty sons would be punished as well as the guilty fathers (see S. Clarke, The Bible Commentary, F. C. Cook, editor, Vol. 1, p. 332). That God only punished the descendants of fathers who continued in the wickedness of their fathers is illustrated by some Bible examples. Manasseh, for instance, was an evil king and God pronounced a sentence of destruction upon Jerusalem because of his sins (2 Kgs. 21:10-15). Please note, however, that Manasseh had also made Judah sin with his idols (vv. 11, also 22:16, 17). Judah was punished because she also sinned. But Manasseh’s grandson, Josiah, was a good king and he was not punished (2 Kgs. 22:18-20). Jehu was also a sinful king (2 Kgs. 10:29) and his great grandson (third generation) was slain because “he did that which was evil in the sight of Jehovah, as his fathers had done” (2 Kgs. 15:9).
A prominent lesson in this study is the two-sided nature of God. He is love (1 Jn. 4:8), and has no pleasure in his punitive actions. He desires that all men be saved (Ezek. 18:23; 1 Tim. 2:3; 2 Pet. 3:9; etc.) While we recognize that he punishes evildoers, let us ever be conscious of his love, grace and mercy. As we in America enjoy the rich heritage left to us by our forefathers who blazed the trails, sacrificed, toiled, fought, bled and died, may we also be mindful of the multitude of God’s rich spiritual blessings which he has bestowed upon us through the death of his dear precious Son, Jesus. May we think of the hope of eternal life afforded us through the shedding of Christ’s blood and our obedience of his will. Truly God has poured out a multitude of blessings upon the thousands who love him and keep his commandments. To love God is to keep his commandments (1 Jn. 5:3). He punishes those who hate him (Heb. 12:29). He shows loving kindness to the thousands who love him. “Behold then the goodness and the severity of God” (Rom. 11:22).
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 19, pp. 581-582
October 6, 1988