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Exodus 20:5b (WLC | ESV) :

כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֺ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל־בָּנִ֛ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָֽ֑י

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

In another question I have a footnote giving my impression that "of those who hate me" belongs with "children". This entails that it is the fathers' God-hating that is being cited.

My ESV Study Bible and the NET notes both take pains to point out that this phrase qualifies the scope of the descendants whom God will punish -- it's only those who, in a way, follow in their fathers' footsteps. This is probably the most natural reading of the English.

My trouble is that I can't get the Hebrew to work that way. The lamed preposition is often glossed "to", but it's not unusual with בן (son, ESV child), making a periphrastic genitive I suppose, effectively possessive ("son of [lit. 'to'] X"). The translation "...of those who hate me" makes sense, but this seems to me to introduce an ambiguity, the possibility of "[generations [of those who...]]". It's not clear to me that this is an option in Hebrew, where the word generations is implied from the numbers, and the lamed preposition doesn't have a clear (to me) meaning in this context.

Is "those who hate me" here intended as a qualification of the inter-generational punishment, limiting its scope to sons guilty of this God-hating, or is it a further specification of the nature/extent of the fathers' iniquity?

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"My trouble is that I can't get the Hebrew to work that way."

That's because you are in fact reading the Hebrew correctly. Your representation of the ESV Study Bible and the NET indicates that they are interpreting rather than translating, possibly following rabbinic tradition, because this verse sounds so politically incorrect to the modern western ear when read correctly.

There is little room for saying that the verse is ambiguous or can be read two ways. If you want to say that the verse means that the third and fourth generations are punished only if they follow in their father's ways, then do the fifth and sixth generations get off scot-free if they continue to hate God? If not, then what is the point of saying "to the third and fourth generation"?

Compare this with Deuteronomy 23:7-8 (or 8-9 in MT) (NIV)

Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the Lord.

and to Deuteronomy 23:2 (NIV)

No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.

So there is no grammatical escape route from the theological problem that this verse presents. The literal meaning is that the descendants of those who hate God are culpable for their parent's hate even if they have repented. The question then becomes, what made this verse necessary?

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I think that the simple reading of the verse is that "to those who hate me" is referring to the third and fourth generations. The lamed often means "to" even when dealing with children, e.g. לְיַעֲקֹ֖ב בֵּ֥ן or בֵּן לְּיַעֲקֹֽב in Genesis 30.

However, multiple traditional Jewish sources explain, as I think the ESV and NET you cite mean to say, that the verse to has both meanings. Where the parents hate God, God is merciful (the word פֹּ֠קֵד can mean to "hold in trust") and waits to see if future generations change from the ways of their fathers. Only when they are children of the God-haters AND God-haters themselves does God punish them. See Nachmanides to Exodus 20:5; Rashbam to Genesis 15:16.

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  • Thanks! The examples you’re adducing from Gen. 30 (son of = -בן ל) are the sort of thing I was thinking supported that לשנאי goes with בנים, which, to state it unambiguously in English, would be: "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on [the sons of (ל) those who hate me] unto the third and fourth generation” -- but that seems to make the hatred that of the fathers. Does עַל־שִׁלֵשִׁ֥ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָֽי makes sense as a phrase on its own? The only way I can think of it is if ל is acting like another על, but it’s a weird place to switch, and the lack of waw also seems odd. – Susan Dec 22 '15 at 1:15
  • Sorry, I missed your point initially. But I don't understand why the lamed can't be going on the third and fourth generation. In English: "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on those of the third and fourth generations who hate me." Put differently how would you write the above sentence in Hebrew without using multiple additional clarifying words, other than the way it written in the text? – conceptualinertia Dec 22 '15 at 17:58
  • Hm....I suppose with a -ה relative (rather than ל) on the participle שנאי (i.e., “third and fourth [generations] who [are] hating me”). I think the ל isn’t being construed on the third and fourth generations (that’s על), but on the participle that supposedly modifies that phrase -- “....third and fourth [generations] to the ones hating me” -- which doesn’t make sense to me. The “of” in English that makes it seem to work with “generations” means something like “consisting of” or “characterized by”, which I don’t think ל generally means (though I may be wrong). – Susan Dec 22 '15 at 18:21
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Is it possible the verse should read:

"Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God. [PERIOD] Observe (count, review) the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." - Exodus 20:5

https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H6485&t=KJV

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