Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Idioms and Generational Curses

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.


  1. As you have shown, the "sins of the fathers" passages continue to trouble Jews and Christians alike with the threat of generational divine retribution. The concept is really expressed only twice in the book of Exodus (and reiterated in parallel passages that are clearly quoted from or based on the Exodus passages).

    First, Exodus 20:4-6 is paralleled in Deuteronomy 5:8-10. (The Ten Commandments)

    You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
    Exodus 20:4-6 NIV

    You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
    Deuteronomy 5:8-10 NIV

    And second, Exodus 34:6-7 is paralleled in Numbers 14:17-18.

    And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 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 parents to the third and fourth generation."
    Exodus 34:6-7 NIV

    Now may the Lord's strength be displayed, just as you have declared: 'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.'
    Numbers 14:17-18 NIV

    The clear point in all of these passages is that God's mercy overwhelms any sense of punishment or divine retribution - but with a CAVEAT. God still takes sin very seriously - for those that persist in hating him, for those who do not embrace his abundant love and forgiveness, the consequences of sin are far reaching, even impacting future generations. But God's will is clearly mercy and forgiveness, not retribution.

    To obsess on punishment is to miss the point of God's mercy in these passages. God desires to forgive and only active and continued sinful resistance prevents this application of mercy.

    The statement about the generational impact of sin is a mere statement of fact than a threat of divine retribution. Sin - as Elton Trueblood once said - carries the seed of its own destruction. God is not doing anything special when sin shows its lasting effects. That is just the nature of sin - it impacts not only the sinner, but also those around him.

    In the Hebrew Bible, sin clearly has a social as well as an individual dimension. And since social relations extend to future generations, so does the long-term effects of sinfulness.

    [NOTE: There are other Old Testament passages that speak of the sins of the fathers, but these seem to focus on statements of folk wisdom (Job 21:19 and Lamentations 5:7) or announcements of final, absolute destruction of pagan nations (Isaiah 14:21). These passages shed no light on the meaning of Exodus 20 and 34.]

  2. You wisely stressed Jeremiah's and Ezekiel's statements about the popular proverb - "the father eats sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge (crooked)" - as a correction to the exilic community's attempt to blame their fate on a previous generation's sinfulness.

    But there is another voice in the biblical witness that is seldom heard concerning the "sins of the fathers" passages. The Chronicler offers a theology of immediate and individual retribution that disallows any generational blame for God's judgment. Sara Japhet, in her unrivaled commentary on the Chronicles in the "Old Testament Library" series offers these insights:

    "The Chronicler's well known theory of 'reward and punishment', which has been designated in various ways in the history of scholarship (cf. for instance, Dillard, 76-81), is in fact his way of portraying history as a concrete manifestation of divine justice. It is characterized by several features. Reward is mandatory, immediate and individual. Every generation is requited for its own deeds, both good and evil, with no postponement of recompense; there is no accumulated sin and no accumulated merit. The 'ultimate cause' of man's fortunes lies in man's free choice: God reacts to his behaviour, granting him what he deserves. Attending this free choice are two major factors: warning and repentance. Warning before punishment is regarded in Chronicles not merely as an option, but as a mandatory element in the judicial procedure. Man is always offered a chance to repent, and God does not fail to react to repentance; the gate remains open for man to return. This status of man as the master of his fate may lead to a certain limitation of God's free and sovereign acting; the Chronicler guards these essential divine attributes through the concepts of 'trial' and compassion applied to the human-divine relationship."

    The Chronicler's theology reinterprets and personalizes the Deuteronomic calculus of "obedience = keeping the land" and "disobedience = losing the land." The shift from corporate guilt and punishment often in future terms (Day of Yahweh) - that is so prominent in the Deuteronomic histories and the pre-exilic and exilic prophets - to a more individualized and immediate sense of responsibility (both reward and punishment) is part of the post-exilic move toward individual "Torah piety" (described so well in Rainer Albertz's "A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period").

    Also - in just a passing note - it seems like the Hebrew peoples were more likely to use the "sins of the fathers" passages to place blame on previous generations for their contemporary state of affairs than to interpret these passages as threats of future divine retribution. Our modern worries about the passing of generational guilt as future divine retribution does not seem to have been a major concern in biblical times.

  3. Thanks, Joe, for calling attention to the Chronicler's theology. That's helpful! And, it also anticipates what Paul would say in the NT, that since the wicked "suppress the truth" and "refuse to acknowledge God or glorify him as God" he "gave them over" to the consequences of their own sins.