Punished for Your Parents’ Sin?

by Lois Tverberg

On Mt Sinai, God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and passes by in all his glory. He then makes this fundamental declaration about his nature:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34:6-7

Hands of 3 generations

This description of God, that He is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness…” is quoted nine times in the Old Testament. This description of God’s mercy comes up several times in the psalms (Psalm 86, 103, & 145 and others) and was probably part of many worship liturgies during Bible times.

Usually when this passage is quoted later in the Bible, the line about punishing children for the sins of the fathers is not included. This is satisfying to us, because we struggle with that line that seems quite unfair. There is actually a reason for it, if you look understand the culture and look closely at the text.

African TribeTribal peoples like the Israelites saw their primary identity as being a part of a family or clan rather than as an individual. They worked together in everything and prospered or suffered together.

It was assumed that the group was responsible for the conduct of all of its members. If one sinned, especially the leader, they would all bear guilt and suffer misfortune for it. They saw themselves as a tightly-knit team. If one player fumbles the football, the whole team gets the penalty, of course. God’s statement about his justice extending to the third generation made complete sense in that world.

A New Idea in Ezekiel’s Time

In Ezekiel’s time, God pushes back on communal thinking that was pervasive in the ancient world. In Ezekiel 18, the people were quoting a proverb reflecting this kind of thought: ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge (Ezekiel 18:2). Surprisingly, God tells them not to quote this proverb anymore because he strenuously disagrees with punishing children for the sins of their parents!

This chapter in Ezekiel is actually one long argument against the idea that children should be punished for their parent’s sin. It sounds like the prophet has a hard time getting people to agree with him that an individual should be judged on his own terms, not in terms of the actions of his ancestors.

If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. (Ezekiel 18:25-27)

Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30-32)

So, we see that God himself sees that each person himself is accountable before him, and that it is unjust to condemn people for sins committed before their time.

Children who Carry on in Sin

How do we interpret Exodus 34:6-7 in the light of this passage? The picture of several generations being condemned for a sin may be describing the generational pattern of sin that we see in families. A father who abuses his wife often has sons who abuse their wives. Families do teach and reinforce patterns of sins (or righteousness) to their members that go on for generations. This is especially true in cultures which don’t send children to school, where children learn only from their parents and close relatives. Could it be that the children aren’t being punished for their parent’s guilt, but that the children have carried on in the family sins themselves?

The answer from Ezekiel is that the consequences of sin only extend to the generations that keep on in the sin of the ancestors. There is always hope, if the children will just repent and change their ways. God doesn’t take pleasure in the judgment of anyone, but bids us all to repent and live!

Photo: hannahpirnie and William Warby

To learn more about the communal style of thinking in the Bible, see chapter 7, “Reading the Bible as a ‘We'” in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus (available in the En-Gedi Resource Center bookstore.)

A Good Day’s Pay

by Lois Tverberg

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard… When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius…When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, `These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he said, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? `So the last shall be first, and the first last.” – Matthew 20:1, 9-13, 16

Jesus often used parables to describe the character of God. He did not try to define or categorize him with theological abstractions, but he did paint a picture of God’s personality with colorful stories that grab our attention and sometimes surprise us.

Field Workers

This story is one example of Jesus’ way of showing God’s grace to his audiences. His picture is that of a farmer at harvest time when the grape crop is ripe and needs to be brought in. There was probably some urgency to get the crop in before the fruit spoiled or the weather changed, so that the farmer would keep hiring workers to have as much help as possible. While this may be the case, the reason that he hired the last workers was that they had not found work for the day, so that they would have nothing to bring home to their families. Day workers usually had only sporadic work and lived in poverty. Giving the last workers a full-day’s pay demonstrated his great compassion for them and desire to supply their needs.

The problem comes from the workers who began work at the beginning of the day. He had shown them the same grace by employing them as day-workers too, and they would have known the desperate needs of the other laborers. But instead of appreciating the owner’s compassion, they expected him to shower them with even greater gifts. If the man is generous, certainly he must be rich too, they assumed. His compassion made them greedy for more.

The lesson we should learn is that God is not a paymaster, and we shouldn’t serve him with the expectation of being entitled to his favor. God is just as likely to answer the prayers and bless those who have not “earned it.” And most of all, we should be careful to not resent the “latecomers” – those who may have lived terrible lives and only repent at the very end. By God’s mercy he gives grace to us all, and does not repay us according to what we deserve.

Photo: Vincent Van Gogh at Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Cain’s Crime, God’s Response

Cain Cries

by Lois Tverberg

“And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Gen. 4:8-9

When we read this story, it isn’t clear to us why God chooses to accept Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s. The text says that Abel brought some of the fat portions of the first born animals of his flock, and to an ancient Israelite, that would have meant the absolute best of the absolute most precious animals that he had.

Cain brought some of the produce of his field, but no mention is made of it being the first or best, suggesting that Abel offered his sacrifice with enthusiasm, but Cain offered it out of a sense of social obligation, with an eye toward what he would get in return, in comparison to his brother. It appears that God knew their hearts and responded accordingly, but in Cain’s eyes, it looked as if God had arbitrarily favored his brother over himself. God chooses whom he will bless, and sometimes that is a mystery to us. We sometime see God’s kindness toward others as favoritism and it makes us angry.

Cain CriesThis story has a great irony, however, because in punishment, God’s grace extends to Cain too. Cain has taken his brother’s life and certainly merits death for his actions. But not only does God spare Cain from the fate that he gave his brother, he promises to protect Cain from harm and repay anyone who tries to harm him. God is being amazingly merciful to a man who was forewarned about the evil that he was about to do, does it anyway, and then brazenly answers God’s question about his brother with, “Why should I care?”

The irony is that Abel appears to merit God’s favor, but because Cain had the slightest doubt of God’s choice of favoring him, he is angered. But Cain, who has no merit of all, receives even greater grace from God. How unfathomable is God’s kindness!

We should learn that while we all can compare how God has blessed others in comparison to ourselves, to do so only leads to jealousy and hatred. God sometimes chooses and we can’t see why. But we also know that God’s choosing extends to the most unworthy, and extends even to the one who merits least of all, which is often ourselves.

Photocred: Jastrow