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The following two passages from Deuteronomy seem to lend themselves to opposing conclusions about the morality of punishing someone for a crime committed by their father:

8“‘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. 9You 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, 10but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. Deuteronomy 5 ESV

16“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin. Deuteronomy 24 ESV

Bearing in mind the differing contexts of the two verses, how can they be interpreted without contradiction?

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The upper passage is about how God acts, whose ways and acts are always moral by definition since He is the Creator of everything. The lower passage is the standard of morality set up for humans by God that they should follow in dealing with each other. The upper passage is about how Creator deals with His creatures (humans). The lower passage is about how creatures should deal with each other. Creator does have the right to end His creation at any time, in any manner, without any explanation. Creature, however, does not have the right to do so to another creature. –  brilliant Jun 22 '13 at 22:52
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4 Answers

It isn't necessarily a contradiction; perhaps "visiting the iniquities of the fathers on the children" doesn't mean punishing the children for parental sins. The text doesn't say "punish", after all. This was explained to me by analogy with alcoholism: the children of alcoholics are more likely than average to become alcoholics themselves, so in a sense the errors of their parents have been visited on them through no fault of their own. We are influenced by our parents, for the good and for the bad. That's not punishment; that's just how human society works.

On the other statement of this command, Exodus 20:5, Rashi writes:

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]

So it appears that the targum, translating the passage into Aramaic, understood this as talking about tendencies, not punishment.

The talmudic passage Rashi cites, Sanhedrin 27b, says (Soncino translation):

Is it not written, Visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children? — There the reference is to children who follow their parents’ footsteps. As it has been taught: And also in the iniquities of their parents shall they pine away with them, [i.e.,] if they hold fast to the evil doings of their fathers.

This same section of talmud, by the way, also understands Deut 24:16 as meaning that fathers and children cannot testify against each other -- not being punished because of the other means on the testimony of. But one doesn't have to accept that to read Deut 5:9 as not referring to punishment.

(For more on Rashi's interpretation, see this answer to a related question.)

What about punishment?

Other answers (and, apparently, at least one translation) suggest that "visiting the iniquities" is about punishment -- according to them we are punished for our parents' and grandparents' sins, and Christians believe that this goes all the way back to Adam. However, such a concept would be completely unnecessary: we are already punished and held accountable for our own sins, and everybody sins. So there would be no reason for God to punish us for sins of our ancestors when He is already punishing us for the sins we actually did. What does this add? Why would God make a completely-redundant statement like this? This is why it is valuable to look for other interpretations.


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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There is no contradiction between Dt 5:9 and 24:16. As with so many things, the answer to your question is not an "either/or" but a "both/and."

I also agree with this answer that "visiting" is not exactly the same as "punishing," even though the NIV uses the word "punishing."

Sin is an insidious thing. Since no man or woman is an island, our sinful choices have negative effects inter-generationally. Both sin, as in idol worship, and good deeds, as in loving God and obeying His commandments, bear fruit. We all reap what we sow, individually and corporately (Ez 18:4,20; Ga 6:7,8). Interestingly, while some sins, as Paul points out, are evident in this life and in that sense precede us into judgment, some sins are not so evident--"hidden"--in this life, but they do follow us, individually and inter-generationally, into judgment (I Ti 5:24,25). (The word follow carries with it, I suggest, the hint of the progenitor-to-progeny succession of sin.)

Is there reason for hope that this intergenerational "curse" can be broken? Yes! God shows His steadfast love to those who repent and begin--and continue--to love God and keep His commandments.

Notice, too, the chiastic contrast between the "third and fourth generation of those who hate Me" and "a thousand generations of those who love Me . . .." (De 5:9 NIV). In analogous form you have: visit/punish the children of three or four generations is to those who hate Me, as those who love and obey me is to showing love to a thousand generations.

Culling from what little I know of Hebrew (next to nothing!), Hebrew might express this analogy even be more succinctly (and please correct me if I am wrong):

"LORD visits [a] few hating-generations; loves many loving-/obeying [generations]."

God's love in so many ways is so much greater than sin! Amen?

If, on the other hand, the progeny who refuse to repent of their father's idolatry also choose to hate God by following in their father's footsteps, there will be inevitably and inexorably an unpleasant "visitation" by God. Each child is accountable for his or her own sin, however, and un-repented-of sin bears the fruit of spiritual death in every generation, both in time and eternity.

Thank God He still graciously encourages us sinners to repent, and His doing so offers us a way to break the chain of intergenerational sin, for perhaps thousands of generations!

In conclusion, while it is true that each progenitor's descendant starts out with a "dirty slate," since we are all, like David, "brought forth in iniquity . . . and [conceived in sin]" (Ps 51:5), it is not inevitable in some fatalistic way that he or she continue in sin as a way of life; we all have a choice, as Joshua indicated in Jos 24:14,15:

"Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."

I apologize in advance for my prolix answer. If you think it can benefit from some judicious editing, please help yourself.

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Thank you for this answer. Since we are all rather more than 3 or 4 generations from Adam, then even if you hold by "original sin" (which not all of us do) it would have expired by now. I think your argument would be stronger if you left that part out; the rest of your analysis is solid and you bring out the point that loving God is more durable, carrying through more generations. –  Gone Quiet Jun 19 '13 at 17:40
    
You're welcome. In a way, I guess you could say that the "sin" question is moot. Whether you believe in "original" sin or not, the fact remains that "all have sinned." Frankly, I do not see any way around it. Commit one sin or a million sins. Pick your poison. The soul that sins shall die. Period. Whether we "inherit" the sin nature from Adam ("in Adam, all die") or we start out life with a "clean slate" and sin later in life, the fact remains we all commit that FIRST sin which effectively separates us from the life of an infinitely holy God. The miracle is: He still loves us! –  rhetorician Jun 20 '13 at 3:57
    
BTW, that's not what Ps 51:5 says. It says "my sin is before me", but any translation that says "born into sin" is departing rather far from the Hebrew. More broadly, since we're all responsible for our own sins and all have sinned, what do the sins of fathers and grandfathers add? This is why I question a "punishment" interpretation; punishment is already covered. (Also, how does loving God, which is good for a thousand generations, factor in?) –  Gone Quiet Jun 20 '13 at 14:19
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The punishment of one persons sin upon their children is pertaining to national judgments. It means our sin does not only effect us but as it enters society, if it goes unrepentant of, it is like a cancer invading the whole body. Eventually a whole nation can suffer the eventual downfall and judgment as a result of the sins of a forefather hundreds of years later.

God's management of peoples and nations and their unavoidable interaction and community, sharing both the blessings and judgments of God, does not contradict his dealings with each individual as accountable for their sin on it own ground. Neither does he want men to suppose they can be gods and seek vengeance on the innocent for another man's sin.

I think the best way to understand it is in how we actually see God in his dealings with the world and especially Israel. With Israel God predicted Israel's future failure at the very commencement of the Law. It was predicted that they would not retain the land they would enter on account of idolatry and other sins. Furthermore he warned them of this through Moses with specific results in various places, for example:

I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. 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. (Leviticus 26:33-34, NIV)

When we actually trace the sins that eventual leads to this 'visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children' generations later, we see it takes time and the fathers who sinned almost seem to get away with it and only the children suffer. For example we might say idolatry started with Solomon but while he lived in the greatest luxury, his children following his example and continuing in his sin, eventually paid the price. In fact just as many of our children suffer divorce starting long before they feel it, during the time a man decides to look at another woman with lust in his heart with a premeditated commitment of pursuing it into a kind of grave, Solomon's many foreign wives and his love for them made him less opposed to idolatry.

However although God is patient and slow to bring about his judgments, the judgment actually happens instantly from an internal death, and loss of true enjoyment of God, or at least a diminished measure of it. This loss of an inward enjoyment of God is in many ways a greater loss and judgment, even in prosperity, than the eventual physical manifestations of a leaders sins affecting a nation only outwardly. One is personal the other national. In fact God can gives life to his people while they suffer national calamities, so inwardly they are blessed while appearing to suffer judgment. We highly underestimate this 'fruit of sin', the inward loss of joy, because we know little of God's glory to begin with. We do not even notice it depart! What should be our primary motive for obedience is dismissed as irrelevant.

In any event, God's just hand pursues sin from its source and chases it along generations not letting it go unaccounted for. However as we are individually judged upon our own deserts and none other, than even our undeserved blessings or curses that we enjoy or suffer due to our station in life, will be included in God's measuring of our own selves before him. in any case we must, in our own civil laws, ensure a criminal is never punished for the crimes of another as God hates injustice.

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Well, how you reconcile contradictions in the Bible depends largely on your orientation to reading and interpreting the Bible. :)

My own belief is that the Bible speaks with multiple voices, and so it is essentially disingenuous to pretend that "the Bible says" one thing about a particular topic. Different parts of the Bible express different perspectives and facets, and my job as someone who tries to take the Bible's guidance seriously is to decide which texts speak louder than other texts... That's just where I'm coming from.

So for the topic at hand, what my Biblical professor calls "vicarious intergenerational punishment", there are a number of differing ideas - not just here, but Ex. 34, Ezek. 18, and elsewhere. Prof. Moshe Greenberg (in his classic essay "Postulates on Biblical Law") argues that in the milieu of the ancient Near East, vicarious punishment was common, and the innovation of Biblical law was to make vicarious punishment the prerogative of G!d alone. People are expressly forbidden from punishing children for the sins of their parents. Even G!d, although capable of enforcing the attribute of Divine justice, declares that vicarious punishment is not the Divine will, e.g. in Ezek. 18. This issue brings up the whole question of Divine punishment in general, which is a much larger theological and moral question that can be discussed here.

If you want to read more on this topic by scholars more knowledgeable and eloquent than I, here are a few examples (or even a simple GoogleBook search for "vicarious intergenerational punishment" should bring things up):

My professor, Marc Brettler, on "Biblical Authority" and resolving this 'contradiction'

Rachel Muers on ethical development and intergenerational relationships

James Kugel on theodicy, human sinfulness, and Divine punishment

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