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Exodus 34:7 (NIV) says that God "punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation".

The NLT translation says "I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected — even children in the third and fourth generations".

The NIV is very explicit that God punishes the grandchildren, while the NLT is much weaker in this respect.

I've always thought that the punishment of the grandchildren was simply an effect of the original transgression.

For instance, if a crack-addict has a child, that child is going to suffer physically and socially as a result of the mother's actions. And when that child has her own children, they too will often still be paying the price. This isn't a direct punishment from God, it is the predictable result of doing something wrong.

Does the original Hebrew word require that the punishment be a direct intervention by God, or is it reasonable to say that God is simply warning that the consequences of one's actions can last for generations?

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    @NigelJ, my question is strictly about the Hebrew language, not about how to apply the message. I want to know whether the original Hebrew wording requires that it mean a deliberate punishment on the grandchildren, or allows it to mean a warning about the likely effects of the sin on the grandchildren. For instance if I ambiguously tell my son "don't climb the tree or you'll get hurt", am I warning him that he might fall or am I threatening that I'll spank him? Does the Hebrew allow this verse to be a warning rather than a threat? Mar 24 '19 at 21:33
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The Biblehub Interlinear indicates that the verb behind 'visiting/punishing' is paqad Strong 6485 and is used in Exodus 34:7 in its Qal form whose primary meaning is given by BDB (again, on the Biblehub page) as 'observe' but also with secondary meanings of 'attend to' and 'look about for'.

The verb is in the masculine, singular participle form (again, from Biblehub).

The KJV and Green's Literal both have 'visiting' in this place. Robert Young has 'charging'.

Given the Qal meanings suggested by BDB, I would say that 'punish' is too strong. There is a definite promise of observing and attending to anything that requires action.

Unless there are strong arguments against it (and I wait to see if any are proposed) I am left with the impression that this is a warning to the following generations to 'watch their step' as they are 'being monitored'.

But, in addition, (edit added), I have the impression that what is being expressed is that, in the mind of God, the iniquity of the first generation is held in memory, the deed or the state is still 'observed', still in view. It is not easily forgotten. It persists . . .

. . . for three or four generations.

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  • I like your answer. Is it possible the typical interpretation misstates the full scope of the Law? IOW if a parent sins, innocent children are affected, not to be punished for the sins but they are "tainted" by those sins. The innocent need "special attention" or "visiting" to overcome the punishment and consequences due the sinner which stains the family until enough time has passed and a person can be accepted on their own without any influence of a sordid family history. Mar 27 '19 at 17:14
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In the biblical worldview, a sin leaves a stain on one's soul/spirit. In order to remove it one must either bring atonement or get the adequate punishment that will remove the stain that was left on one's soul (see Psalm 51:2-10; Jeremiah 33:8; Gen. 4:7). However, sometimes the stain left by the sin cannot be entirely removed by punishing the sinner alone (e.g., when the sin is too big to be atoned merely by the sinner's death); in such a case, God will punish the children and grandchildren of the sinner for the sins of their fathers in order to completely remove the stain that was left on their record.

It is important to know that in the biblical worldview, the sin of one person affects the entire nation and not the sinner alone. Thus in Gen. 15:6 the sin of the Amorites as a whole is compared to a liquid that fills up a cup. God brings retribution upon the entire nation when the cup has filled up. Sin is remembered, written down and reserved for future generations.

This is the meaning of "visits the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren, upon the third and fourth generation." The iniquity has not been entirely wiped away even after the sinner has died, God must visit the iniquity upon the offspring, and they must suffer for the sin of their ancestors. Similarly, after the sin of golden calf when Moses entreats God to spare the nation, God tells Moses that he will not completely destroy the nation of Israel but will slowly recompense for this great sin upon the subsequent generations, "But when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins." This follows the same logic.

So to answer your question, if it is a direct punishment from god or just a natural consequence of one's sins I would say it is the former. In the biblical worldview, the punishment of the grandchildren is not perceived as a natural consequence of the original sin. Rather God atones for the leftover sin by punishing the grandchildren thereby completely removing the stain that was left on the record.

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