Welcome back, ye brave souls!
In the last post, I scared many people by laying out a large swath of biblical texts used to (supposedly) support the idea of generational curses. I arranged those texts in six distinct categories, with each category being texts marshaled around a specific point of generational curse theology. Today, I’m only going to deal with the texts in Category 1. Seeing that these are the most widely used texts to establish generational curse theology, I’m going to spend the most amount of time here.
This will be a bit of an undertaking, but I’m confident you can stomach it!
Category 1: God directly visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children: Ex. 20:5-6, 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9-10, 7:9; Jer. 32:18.
Ex. 20:5-6 – This is one of the main texts that generational curse defenders rally to their defense. Here’s the passage with its surrounding context:
4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. – Exodus 20:4-6
Let’s make a few observations:
a. Verse 4 is specifically addressing idolatry, and not some sort of “idolatry of the heart.” That would be addressed in the previous command of vs. 3: “You shall have no other gods before me.” This is clearly talking about using physical objects, made by human hands, as some sort of recipient of worship, devotion or service…even if they’re claimed to be representative of Yahweh himself. That’s kinda made clear with the exceedingly broad language of vs. 4 (“anything that is in heaven above…earth beneath…the water under the earth”). God responds aggressively against the crafting and worship of physical idols.
The scope and reason for this command is given in verses 5 and 6.
b. The importance is the contrast between verses 5-6, not the amount of generations. The scope of the command in vs. 4 is made clear in the first clause: “you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” The reason for this command is given in the rest of verses 5-6. The reason is that God is an exceedingly jealous God. That’s not saying that he’s some petty teenager who pouts when someone doesn’t pay attention to him. Rather, its to say that God’s honor is violated when people wrongly ascribe the blessings he provides to someone else. He is the source of all the blessings that people receive, and he rightly deserves the credit for those vast and innumerable blessings.
Now, let’s look at the specific contrast.
The idea in 20:5 isn’t that God causes great-grandchildren to receive punishment for their great-grandparents’ sins (especially due to some sort of demons that are passed down “genetically” or “genealogically” or something idiotically pagan like that). That seems obvious because the following 20:6 says “but showing steadfast love to thousands” with “thousands” being shorthand for “thousands of generations”…and if that’s true, can you think of any Christian parents who have kids have abandoned the Lord?
“Thousands” of generations are a lot of generations…like a lot. Like enough to take us back to Adam and Eve.
It that’s the case and 20:5 is a promise regarding the inevitability of punishment for the grandchildren of sinners, 20:6 is an obvious lie because it’s an equally clear promise for smooth sailing…for “thousands” of generations flowing from any faithful believer. 20:6 would seem to teach, rather plainly, that anyone who’s ever been faithful in all of history would inescapably produce a long line of saints…right?
Neither verse is a guarantee of anything of the sort, and if anyone wants to make the point that “nobody ever could love God or keep his commandments”, I’d point them to Ps. 119:47-48. That’s a passage where David claims (in inspired scripture) that he does, and look what happened to his family line?
So what is Ex. 20:5-6 saying then? Exodus 20:5 is teaching that God passionately responds against sin, yes. He responds to wickedness with a severity that affects one’s progeny, sure. The Old Testament is full of dead bodies that can testify to that reality. But, that’s not the point at all. Not only does Yahweh respond aggressively against sin, but he’s over and exceedingly more passionate in his blessing of righteousness.
The “those who hate me” in 20:5 is paralleled with “those who keep my commandments” in 20:6. Because of God’s exceedingly abundant blessing available to “those who keep my commandments”, he’s the one who Israel should worship. He’s an absolute fountain of blessing, and all the deities of the pagan nations that surrounded Israel simple falsely claim his blessings as coming from them.
Remember, 20:5-6 is the reason that Israel shouldn’t commit idolatry, as defined in 20:4 and the first clause of 20:5. 20:5-6 is the logical reason undercutting Israel’s desire to commit idolatry. If you want blessings (i.e. kids or crops), you attempt to honor the one who made the trees (Yahweh), rather than the one who is made from trees (the Ba’als, Asherah, Chemosh, Molech, Tammuz, Dagon, etc.). It seems like something that doesn’t need to be said, but sinful people tend to need warnings against doing things that are clearly stupid.
c. Hypothetically speaking, even if the generational curse proponents were correct, one needs to pay attention to the active agent of cursing and blessing. In Ex. 20:5-6, who’s the one doing the cursing?
Who’s the one doing the blessing?
So…the people who hold to generational curse theology are so blatantly twisting scripture that they don’t even pay attention to the surface reading of the very verses they cite repeatedly.
I mean really. If God Almighty has brought a curse on someone, who’s going to make him stop? Oh, I know what the generational curse proponents say. Only God can make it stop since God brought it, and he does that by the means he’s outlined in Scripture: calling out and confessing the sins of one’s ancestors.
We’ll have to wait a little while to show why this idea is in serious error, but we’ll get there when we address the texts in category 3, 4 and 5.
Ex. 34:6-7 – This is one of the other main texts that generational curse defenders rally to their defense. Here’s the passage with its surrounding context:
6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”- Exodus 34:6-7
Let’s make a few observations:
a. The concept of visiting iniquity of the fathers on the children is still there, but this passages is clearly focusing on the aspect of blessings. God proclaims his own glory and opens with what he wants to emphasize: he talks about how he’s a God of mercy, grace, patience, steadfast love, faithfulness, forgiveness, but also serious justice. Just for the record, he’s 6-to-1 on the positive attributes and 250-to-1 on the amount of time he radiates the positive stuff forth. The idea is not so much the math as it is the vast gap of the comparison.
Yahweh is a veritable tsunami of blessing. He is an unending fountain of mercy, grace, patience, steadfast love, faithfulness and forgiveness…but not an blind or naive one. If you make him your enemy, you’ll discover that he’s not someone to be trifled with.
b. Num. 14:13-24 (and Num. 14:18 is another one of the common supporting texts) is actually Moses’ and God’s own commentary on his understanding of what God said in Ex. 34:6-7 (and Ex. 20:4-6). Moses understood that God was known as a forgiving God, hence in Num. 14:17 Moses asked God to show forth the power (and character) he claimed to have in Ex. 34:6-7. In Num. 14:19 Moses asks God to do the thing that sets him apart from all his competitors: forgive the sins of this intransigent people “according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”
Deut. 5:9-10, 7:9; Jer. 32:18 – Considering that these are all various texts simply restating what was said in Exodus, I’d say that the previously stated refutations apply here. Just to be sure, here are all three passages (set within a little context):
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. – Deuteronomy 5:8-10
Deuteronomy 5:10 is a verbatim quote of Exodus 20:6, which makes sense seeing that it’s a restatement of the same law. Then, two chapters over comes Deuteronomy 7:9.
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 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, 10 and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. – Deuteronomy 7:7-10
Deut. 7:9 seems to be a loose restatement of Ex. 34:6-7. It’s very interesting how Deut. 7:10 says that God “repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them.” That’s Deuteronomy’s parallel to “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children.” It seems that the thrust of Deuteronomy is one of “repaying him to his face” since it’s said twice in one verse. There’s a shift of focus in Deuteronomy’s restatement of the principle, but it is a shift that actually points away from generational curse ideas. God doesn’t repay the enemies of his children; he repays his enemies to their face.
The last passages is Jer. 32:18. I’ll place the verse within the greater passage since it’s quite informative.
17 ‘Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. 18 You show steadfast love to thousands, but you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord of hosts, 19 great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the children of man, rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds. 20 You have shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day. 21 You brought your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs and wonders, with a strong hand and outstretched arm, and with great terror. 22 And you gave them this land, which you swore to their fathers to give them, a land flowing with milk and honey. 23 And they entered and took possession of it. But they did not obey your voice or walk in your law. They did nothing of all you commanded them to do. Therefore you have made all this disaster come upon them. – Jeremiah 32:17-23
Let’s make some observations again:
a. The contrast in vs. 18 is highly important. As in many of the previous passages, God’s steadfast love is contrasted with his repayment of guilt, but the point made in the passage is found in the vast gap between the two. God shows “steadfast love to thousands”, and in the context the term “thousands” is shorthand for “thousands of generations.” Only after that is the statement made about repaying “the guilt of fathers to their children after them.”
As I said before, Yahweh is a veritable tsunami of blessing, but not an endless or naive one. Those who oppose or rebel against him suffer horribly.
b. If Jer. 32:18 is taken as teaching a generational curse, the verse that immediately follows blatantly shows the error of that understanding. If a person ignored the refutation of all the preceding misinterpreted passages and hung on Jer. 32:18 alone, they would think that they had a clear passage teaching a generational curse. After all, 32:18 says “you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them.” That sounds like children being repaid for the actions of their fathers, right?
Not so fast. Jer. 32:19 immediately derails that idea when it describes Yahweh as he “whose eyes are open to all the ways of the children of man, rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds.” That’s also a clear statement, and unless one’s willing to suggest that Jeremiah contradicted himself in the following verse, a person should refrain from taking 32:18 as a straightforward statement about generational punishment. There’s a hermeneutical principle that applies here: It’s always best to assume that the Biblical writers were smarter than your average sheriff from an 80’s sitcom.
c. Jer. 32:20-23 explains the statements of 32:18-19 . God has indeed blessed Israel, giving them the land that he had swore to give to their forefathers (32:19-22), but they “did nothing of all you commanded them to do. Therefore you have made all this disaster come upon them” (32:23). God has indeed seen what Israel has done and has judged their actions accordingly. The children suffered for the sins of their fathers in the sense of having to endure the punishment of their fathers, certainly, but the children weren’t directly punished for the sins of their fathers.
So there you have it; those are some of the most frequent texts used to support the idea of generational curses. I hope I’ve given a little help to you, my readers, in understanding and articulating why those texts teach nothing of the sort. That should be sufficient for now, and in the interest of keeping this post from becoming too long, I’ll stop here. In the next post, I’ll deal with the texts in the second category. Possible second and third.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “Panda slapper” Unger