From the Decalogue, Exodus 20:5 (ESV):

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,

Although "visiting the iniquity" seems to me like a stretch in English, I think most people would agree that pqd here at least involves the idea of punishment.

Ezekiel 18:20 (ESV):

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

(See also, the entire chapter.) Did Ezekiel intend this to contradict the idea in Exodus, or it's actually about something different*, or these aren't in conflict (?), or Ezekiel wasn't familiar with the teaching of Exodus?

*Admittedly, the Exodus text has "of those who hate me”, and Ezekiel specifically discusses the case of the righteous son of a wicked father. I think that "of those who hate me" (לְשֹׂנְאָֽי, lit. "to my haters") necessarily goes with "children" (i.e. refers to hatred by the fathers) rather than "generation" (a word only implied in the Hebrew), but I could be wrong.

  • A major part in being able to answer this question involves when the Ten Commandments were written. There are exodus traditions before Ezekiel's time, but was the book of Exodus written after that? – user2910 Dec 19 '15 at 22:00
  • Yeah, that crossed my mind. I suppose that would fall under the last option. – Susan Dec 19 '15 at 22:09
  • Certain conflicts span generations. The Pentateuch is followed by the Books of Joshua and the Judges, laying the groundwork for the battles fought between Israel and the pagan nations inhabiting the Promised Land, which territorial disputes, most likely, were not settled within a single generation. As such, the fact that the passage from Exodus nowhere mentions visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the innocent children is by no means a trivial omission. – Lucian Jun 11 '18 at 12:52

In one way, Ezekiel is not intentionally contradicting Exodus 20 (or the equivalent but possibly earlier Deuteronomy 5:9), but rather drawing a parallel to Deuteronomy 24:16:

Deuteronomy 24:16: The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

In another way he is being cautious to avoid overtly contradicting Exodus 20/Deuteronomy 5. There is a subtle difference between Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 24:16, in that the Exodus verse states what God will do, whereas Deuteronomy 24:16 is a commandment. Ezekiel does want to redefine what God will do and his reliance on Deuteronomy 24 means his own verse is to be ambiguous. Daniel I. Block (The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1–24) says [2. Disputing the Justice of God (18:1-32)] the individualism reflected in this chapter is evident in texts much earlier than Ezekiel, in which case Ezekiel was following an already well-trodden path.

Writing at a time when Babylon was swallowing up Judaism, Ezekiel was aware of the despair and fatalistic loss of hope felt by his compatriots. As long as they believed that they were being punished for the sins of their forebears, the Jews had no reason for hope or (importantly for Ezekiel) for following him in the worship of Yahweh. Block says [(b) The Answer (18:19-20)] his rejection of any deterministic notion of intergenerational accountability was a response to this. By declaring that a person’s righteousness and wickedness will be credited to that person’s account only, Ezekiel slams the door on the old fatalistic illusion.

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Complementary Truths

No. There is no contradiction between Ezekiel and Moses. Although the two passages may initially sound contradictory, a closer look reveals they are not. In fact, I suggest the two passages provide us with complementary truths.

Truth Number One

On the one hand, the Exodus passage follows on the heels of the most important of the Ten Commandments,

You shall have no other gods before Me.

God, being a jealous God, will brook no competition for our love. God rightly demands absolute fealty from his children, and any time we allow anything to come between us and him, we commit spiritual adultery, a theme which other prophets address in detail (e.g., Jeremiah, chapter 3).

Does the spiritual adultery of one generation automatically pass from one generation to the next, up to three or four generations? Yes and no. Yes, it does, if the individuals of the second, third, and fourth generations of the same family choose to reject God (NET translation) or hate God (ESV translation) by turning away from him.

No, it does not, however, if the children of a God-rejecting earthly father choose to make the LORD, their lord and determine to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). In other words, repentance is always an option for the children of families trapped in the sin of spiritual adultery, regardless of the form it may take.

Heart-felt repentance is something God expects from every person, regardless of the example set by parents, be it good or bad. That is why repentance can pave the way for God to display his "covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations" (Exodus 20:6), provided each generation chooses to love God and keep his commandments (ibid.).

Three or four generations versus a thousand generations. How gracious and merciful God is!

Truth Number Two

On the other hand, Ezekiel deals with a complementary truth; namely, that each person in each generation bears the burden for his (or her) own sin. Each of us is accountable to God individually. Ultimately, God does not judge families, but each individual within each family.

A preacher I know likes to iterate the saying, "God has no grandchildren," and I agree with him fully. Whether you are or are not a child of God through faith in him, God judges us individually. Whoever commits a sin will suffer for it, since the soul that sins shall die (i.e., experience either separation from God or broken fellowship with God).

By the same token, however, whoever commits an act of righteousness will be rewarded for it. The undergirding truth is that no one is forced to sin, just as no one is forced to perform righteous acts.

Whether we sin or whether we live righteously, future generations will neither be judged for our sin nor rewarded for our righteousness. Each individual within each generation has the freedom to decide whom to serve: either the one true God, or the god of self and self-autonomy. This is not to say that one who chooses God will never commit sin; it is to say that the tenor of one's life is largely determined by the choice one makes either to serve God or not to serve God.

The Truths, Together

In conclusion, while sin can have devastating consequences inter-generationally for several generations in a row, righteousness can also prove to be a blessing inter-generationally for a thousand generations. And while neither our sin nor our righteousness will add one iota to the ultimate guilt or innocence of our progeny when they stand before God, who is the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25), God's covenant faithfulness will ultimately win out, so to speak, for the millions of individuals down through the millennia who like Joshua say with full assurance of faith, "We will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:15b).

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According to the MacArthur Bible Commentary Exodus 20:5,6 means that children “would feel the impact of breaches of God’s law by their parents as a natural consequence of its disobedience, it’s hatred of God. Children reared in such an environment would imbibe and, then, practice similar idolatry, thus themselves expressing hateful disobedience. The difference in consequence served as both a warning and a motivation. The effect of a disobedient generation was to plant wickedness so deeply that it took several generations to reverse.”

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