Recently, I was asked a question by an Asia-Pacific missionary whom I met while lecturing for University of the Nations. Occasionally I get questions like this through missionary contacts who encounter ideas, notions, theologies and interpretations that seem suspect. In general, I am of the opinion that good theology is also practical theology and not merely ivory tower. This is one of those occasions, and the question concerned a teaching based on Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18 and Deuteronomy 5:9, loosely called “generational curses”. The idea is that since God “punishes the iniquity of the fathers to the third and fourth generation”, the sins of a person carry with it a curse that extends to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Such curses must be broken through repentance for the past sin and the power of prayer—almost to the level of exorcism—before a person can escape the penalty of punishment for something done by one's ancestors. In societies that already are rife with superstition, such a theology can play into an unhealthy worldview that already embraces various levels of magic in the collision between the unseen world with the visible world.
My response to this question is that I'm not on the side of the generational curse interpretation of these passages. I think it may be a classic misinterpretation of a Hebrew idiom. Here's why I think so. In the first place, Hebrew idioms often use numbers in non-mathematical ways (e.g., "for three sins, even for four" and "six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination" and "there are three things too wonderful for me, yes, four which I don't know", etc.). The passages cited may very well also be non-mathematical comparative idioms, which is to say, they intend to show the vast difference between God's punishment of sin and his great mercy toward faltering humans. The "punishing sin to the third and fourth generation" stands in contrast to the "showing mercy to thousands of generations". In other words, these are statements about God's character, and his character is such that his capacity for mercy far outweighs his punishment for sin. Expressed differently, but with the same essential intent, are the words of the Psalmists, "His anger lasts only a moment", but "his mercy endures forever." Hence, I doubt that these passages intend to teach that punishment for sin is passed down mathematically and generationally. At least one thing seems clear: there is no clear and unambiguous teaching in the Bible about such a thing as a generational curse. Certainly the apostles never voiced anything resembling such a thing, and so far as I am aware, it is entirely absent in the post-apostolic church and the Ante-Nicene fathers.
What for me is the clincher is the fact that the Israelites around the time of the exile had also taken these ancient statements in the Torah to refer literal, mathematical formulae. Hence, they had coined a proverb, "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Eze. 18:2; Je. 31:29). By this proverb, they intended to respond to Jeremiah's and Ezekiel's predictions of exile by saying, "It's not our fault. It's our parents' fault or our ancestors' fault if something happens, not ours." Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel say that this idea is fundamentally wrong. Jeremiah says, "Everyone shall die for his own sin," and Ezekiel says plainly that no one will die because of his ancestors' sins. Rather, if a person dies, it will be because of his own sins. If a parent sins, but the child turns away from the parents' sins, he will not suffer punishment for someone else's guilt.
In principle, then, the teaching of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it seems to me, precludes the idea of the generational curse, at least as it was rehearsed by my missionary friend. Now, I will readily concede that some sins have implications that may extend to succeeding family members. For instance, a pregnant mother who uses cocaine will endanger her child. An alcoholic father's abuse of his children will leave scars that are deep and visceral. Both need healing. Nonetheless, these are not generational curses, at least as some of the faith-healers describe it. They are simply the consequences of reckless judgments that have affected others.
In the end, I do not subscribe to the generational curse theory, and my assessment is not very positive of healing ministries that are based on this notion. I'm sure many of the so-called healers are sincere, but I think they are sincerely mistaken.