Exodus 20:6 declares God's mercy to "thousands" or to "the thousandth generation" -- see Bible Gateway for a list of the various translations. From what I can see, early versions of the NIV used "thousands" but later changed to "the thousandth generation". The RSV used "thousands" but NRSV has "the thousandth generation".

In another post here, people have pointed out that the phrase is hyperbolic. But my question here is what motivates the different translations? There is no mention of "generations" in the Hebrew, so what indicates to translators that it should be there?

  • The Biblehub Interlinear shows quite clearly that 'mercy to thousands who love me' is the original wording. KJV : And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me YLT: and doing kindness to thousands, of those loving Me.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 3:35

2 Answers 2


The versions inserting the "generations" (or similar) after the word "thousands" (אֶלֶף) are providing an interpretive translation. These include: NIV, NLT, BSB, CSB, CEV, GNT, HCSB, ISV, GWT, etc.

The word, generation" (or equivalent) is not in the Hebrew text. However, there is clearly a need to supply some noun to make sense of the "thousands of ... what?" If nothing is inserted in the text, one might mentally insert "people", or, "families", or, "generations", etc; but without anything, the sentence makes little sense to some.

Therefore, many versions supply something, and the most popular choice is "generations", making the statement quintessentially hyperbolic. The main justification for this is the parallel passage that includes "generations" in Deut 7:9.

Other more literal versions leave this blank such as; ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, ASV, DRB, WBT, YLT, etc.

My personal view is that, when read correctly, the intent is perfectly clear: the thing that multiplied by thousands is simple - God's mercy to those that love God and keep His commandments. It is this very idea that appears to be the precedent for John 14:15, 15:10, 1 John 5:2, 3, 2 John 6, Rev 12:17, etc. But that is another discussion.

  • Does your personal view take into account the immediately preceding verse ?
    – Lucian
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 19:21
  • @Lucian - the previous verse is discussing the iniquity to the third and fourth generations and V6 is showing loving kindness to thousands of those that love me.
    – Dottard
    Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 21:12
  • I think what @Lucian is alluding to is the grammatical parallelism that might suggest that "thousands" in v6 balances the phrase "third and fourth" in v5, in which case both should be seen as adjectival clauses linked to the noun "generations".
    – MattClarke
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 5:23
  • @Dottard Thanks for pointing to Deut 7:9. Perhaps "to thousands of generations" was such a common phrase that one could leave off the word "generations" and people would easily fill it in.
    – MattClarke
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 5:27
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    @MattClarke - I think both are possibly correct but still at least bit conjectural. In any case, the sense is clear - God's judgement of iniquity is much less that His favor and mercy.
    – Dottard
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 7:21

It is important that we consider the importance of “generations” ie: the humans who are our descendants. God rewards Abraham for his faith by letting him know that his descendants will be innumerable by mankind (as the stars). These days we begin to comprehend that (some of) our genes are passed on to descendants through the process of a combination of egg and sperm. Thus, biologically, we do, in part, genetically speaking, live on here on earth for as long as descendants are still present who have genes from us.

This may seem trite, but it might not be trite at all. Why would Abraham even care what happens on earth to any of the genetic earthly remainder of his own biology? Why would his descendants and the number of them be a blessing to him? Why would Abraham or God consider descendants a blessing?

Perhaps it is in our genes: that portion of a single human that remains viable on earth by reproduction.

Maybe we need to stop seeing God’s work as something only from the past that we try to comprehend today without consideration of what we humans have been allowed by God to discover.

Here on earth, Abraham still lives biologically speaking, through his genes. (And so, indeed, does his wife and her maid who bore a son of Abraham.)

No doubt, there is much more to genes than we know now. But genetic memory (at least in salmon spawning, bird, and butterfly migration patterns) is real. Do we receive information/on which way to choose from our ancestors who are absolutely part of us, here, today?

My answer is full of questions for your consideration in attempting to understand the importance of “one thousand generations.” And how we might be blessed by an ancestor’s faith or cursed by an ancestor’s hatred of God if the “way we choose” might be genetically directed or influenced?

The word “generations” cannot be defined as 30-36 years. This is because the standard “marriage/mating” age of people has varied so much over time. When 13 is the age for a girl to become a wife, as it was in some early cultures, 30 years is at least likely double for her first girlchild’s first child, yet might be correct enough for her 7th son. When our current USA generation waits until “after college age” for the most part, say 24 or so, 30 years might be much closer to correct for most USA humans born beyond today, but certainly not all! In truth, a “generation” is very changeable.

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  • @Karen Welcome to BH. Could you can edit in some Bible references ie chapters and verses regarding the significance of offspring?
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Apr 8 at 12:00

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