This page is also available in: Español
Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
According to Exodus 34:7, God punishes children for the sins of their parents. Does not this bring into question God’s justice?
We find in the Old Testament what has been called collective, or transgenerational, retribution. This is a complex subject about which I can say only a few things that I hope will be helpful. Some of the biblical evidence may provide an interpretational grid with which you are welcome to disagree.
1. Limited Evidence for Collective Retribution: According to Exodus 34:7 (NIV), God “punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” This principle is found in only two other passages (Num. 14:18 and Jer. 32:17-19). The emphasis in those verses is on the goodness and mercy of God, not on the punitive aspect. This suggests that the negative element functions as a deterrent by calling attention to the impact of one’s actions on the group. The context of those passages also indicates that there is such a thing as transgenerational benefit, or blessing. This was the case with Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3).
Surprisingly, transgenerational retribution is not the prevailing view of God’s distributive justice. The constant emphasis is on individual responsibility, that is to say, God punishes those who sin (e.g., Joel 2:12, 13; Ps. 86:15; 103:8, 9, 17; 145:8, 9). Moses wrote: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him” (Deut. 7:9, 10, NIV). Collective and individual responsibility appears to have coexisted in the Israelites’ understanding of God’s justice.
2. Not Allowed in the Israelite Legal System: The Lord made it clear to the Israelites that “fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16; cf. Eze. 18:20). This legal restriction points to the limits of human knowledge and justice. Transgenerational retribution could and would be abused in any human legal system. The Lord is the only one who can enforce it because He has perfect knowledge. This clearly suggests that when collective retribution is enforced by God, it is based on knowledge that justifies its enforcement and may not be apparent to the outside observer.
3. Collective Retribution Based on Individual Retribution: According to some passages, collective retribution is the result of children identifying themselves with the sins of their parents, thus participating in the punishment of their parents. This has been called by some “compound punishment.” The principle is well enunciated in a description of the results of the breaking of the covenant: “Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their fathers’ sins they will waste away” (Lev. 26:39, NIV; also Isa. 65:6, 7; Jer. 14:20). This is also addressed in the second commandment in Exodus 20:5, through the use of the phrase “punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (NIV; cf. Deut. 5:10).
It would appear that transgenerational retribution operates on the basis of the perpetuation of the sins of the parents in the conduct of the children. This explains the opposition to collective retribution found in some places in the Old Testament. Before the exile some Israelites protested, “Our fathers sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment” (Lam. 5:7, NIV), or “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Eze. 18:2, NIV). To which God answered that He will judge them according to their works, and that would be more than enough to condemn them (verses 29, 30, NIV).
Transgenerational retribution is based on a strong sense of social solidarity, in which the actions of individuals have an impact on others, either positive or negative. This is part of the social order God established to be a constant blessing. It is good for us—parents, children, spouses, church members, etc.—to act in such a way that our transgenerational impact will not bring pain to others, but be a perpetual flow of blessings to many.