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 Aug 31 at 3:35

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.

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  • Does your personal view take into account the immediately preceding verse ? – Lucian Aug 31 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 Aug 31 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 Sep 1 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 Sep 1 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 Sep 1 at 7:21

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