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“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. 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.—Exodus 20:4-6 (ESV)

The text refers to the "third and fourth generation" of people who hate God. Where does the counting begin? I assume that the God-haters are the first generation. The third generation would be their grandchildren. Is this correct?

Also, it seems like the "first generation" isn't punished. But that seems like a divergence from the rest of the Torah law which mandates punishment for the person who sins.

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Related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/3962/208 –  Gone Quiet Jun 19 '13 at 3:19
    
Somewhere in the Scripture God lifts the curse. Where is it? –  user3300 Jan 14 at 2:54

3 Answers 3

Rashi, the major medieval compiler of rabbinic interpretation, wrote:

of those who hate Me: As the Targum [Onkelos paraphrases: when the sons continue to sin following their fathers, i.e.], when they cling to their fathers’ deeds. — [from Sanh. 27b]

I can't read Aramaic so can't verify how Targum Onkelos renders this, but if he's reporting that incorrectly I would have expected someone to point it out in the last 900 years.

According to this, it's not that God capriciously punishes children and grandchildren for their ancestors' sins but, rather, that children are likely to follow in the ways of their parents. So the fathers in the verse (who are also punished according to the law) impart their sin on their children and grandchildren by teaching them bad behavior.

As for how many generations, that the torah says "third or fourth" instead of just giving a number suggests that there is some case-by-case variation.

The passage Rashi cites in the Babylonian talmud, Sanhedrin 27b, is (from the Soncino translation):

Are not children then to be put to death for the sins committed by their parents? Is it not written, Visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children? — There the reference is to children who follow their parents’ footsteps (literally ‘who hold in their hands the deeds of their parents’). As it has been taught: And also in the iniquities of their parents shall they pine away with them (Lev 26:39) [i.e.,] if they hold fast to the evil doings of their fathers. Thou sayest thus: Yet perhaps it is not so, but true even if they do not hold fast to their [evil] doings? When Scripture states, Every man shall be put to death for his own sin (Deut 24:16) [it must refer to those who do not hold fast to their fathers’ ways. Then how shall we interpret, And also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away with them?] (Lev 26:39) — As referring to those who continue in the ways of their fathers. But do they [really] not [suffer for the sins committed by others]? Is it not written, And they shall stumble one upon another (Lev 26:37), meaning, One [will stumble] through the sin of the other, which teaches that all are held responsible for one another? — There the reference is to such as had the power to restrain [their fellowmen from evil] but did not.

The fathers and children identified in the text are individuals, not the nation (though, obviously, a nation is made of individuals and individuals often follow each others' leads, leading to group action and group consequences).


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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I agree much with Mike, but I think there can be another possible explanation: during the Moses's law and a few hundred years later - in the Moses's law context - the society was organized on "houses". That "house" in general was formed of grandparents, parents, grandsons and sometimes grand-grandsons. When Achan was punished in Joshua 7:24-26, you can see that there was punished his "tent" also, that means everyone that lives with him under the same roof (I think that's the meaning of "tent" in this context).

v. 24

And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them unto the valley of Achor.

As a derivation from that rule - in the case of innocent descendents - you can see the example of Korah's children:

Numbers 26:11

Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not.

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Related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/1646/208 –  Gone Quiet Feb 18 '13 at 14:11

Possibly an interpretation of this phrase 'punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me' will remove the questions you have. I am not sure whether you are questioning 'Why the children would be punished?' or 'Why parents would possibly go unpunished?' In either case this explanation will address both questions.

The context is the Old Testament under the Law of Moses. God through Moses saved Israel as slaves in Egypt and wants to take them to a land flowing with milk and honey to worship Him and be God's people. Worshiping idols would break that covenant, and He will spit them out from the land if they persist in that behaviour. (Leviticus Chapter 26 spells out the rules of this covenant very clearly). God will not allow them to stay in the land He was giving them if they practiced idolatry.

In Leviticus 26 God warns them that if under generation, after generation they still continued to break the covenant, then:

If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over...Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it. (Leviticus 26:27-8;34-5)

Now the practice of idolatry and God throwing them out of the land during the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities are integral in making context of this phrase.

In the light of that context, we see that Israel practiced idolatry but God did not throw them out of the land for some generations later. I would not take the 'three generations' as being too strict for God might show mercy and extend the time of his judgments until later. This does not mean that the first generation that practiced idolatry would be without any punishment at all, it just means that as a nation, under national sins, God would not punish them immediately.

Second, it does not mean that God would punish the innocent, for if a generation would stop the practice, God would restore them and forgive them. The phrase implies 'persistence in sin' for 'generations'.

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. (NIV Exodus 20:5-6)

So what we are really talking about is this:

'Even though I will withhold deserved national punishment for those who truly hate me, eventually possibly, three or four hundred years later, I will still punish those persistent idolaters. Don't think while generation follow generation in great wickedness that I will not eventually lay down the hammer in a crushing blow!' (paraphrase)

Of course even in this scenario, for national judgments the innocent are involved along with the wicked. Even prophets were dragged off into exile for the sins of the previous generations.

If one is only trying to tally where does the generations begin and end, I think its a moot question, as this God can decide and alter as He wishes. The number of generations is not to be taken so literally from the context as explained.

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I agree that the text is less concerned with which generations will be punished and more concerned with letting Israel know that taking up idolatry will be costly to decedents. We see exactly that in the books of Kings and Chronicles. But I don't agree with your paraphrase that the punishment will be handed down hundreds of years later. That seems like the opposite of what the text says. –  Jon Ericson Jun 29 '12 at 19:51
    
@JonEricson - Yes I see what you are saying. Yet I think judgment for every sin, punishment happens immediately (at least internally) - but the ‘external judgment’ may be postponed. I am taking then ‘visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children’ to mean ‘not externally visited on the father’. For example, the kingdom of God was divided as a ‘national judgment’ for Solomon’s sin, yet Solomon lived in the greatest luxury without any national trouble at all!? (1 Kings 11:9-13). --- I usually use NIV and got your nudge, will try to remember to include that - Cheers. –  Mike Jun 30 '12 at 5:46
    
Thanks, Jon & Mike. The "national context" is the key here. –  Robert Koops Jul 3 '12 at 3:23

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