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God had given instructions to Moses that he will visit the sins of the fathers onto the children

Exodus 20:5 NIV

5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,

We actually see the judgements carried out on children after the pronouncement of Moses at mount Sinai

Numbers 14:33 NIV

33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness.

Joshua 7:

Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them.

But later in Jeremiah God actually says that everyone shall die for his own sins

Jeremiah 31:29-30 NIV

29 “In those days people will no longer say,

‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

30 Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.

Did God change his mind?

2 Answers 2

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Actually, both sets of texts are correct. The important thing to keep in mind is the distinction between consequences and responsibility.

Consequences

In various ways, we all suffer the consequences of other's sins and mistakes, eg:

  • We inherit sinful tendencies (Ps 51:3-6, Rom 3:10-18)
  • We suffer because of other's sinful acts and criminal activity - thieves rob us, careless people infect us with germs, etc.
  • We learn bad habits from our parents and friends that get us into trouble

This is essentially what Ex 20:5 is discussing.

The fact that we suffer the consequences of other's sins, even within a family, does not mean that we are responsible for other's behavior; this brings us to the other side of this question.

Responsibility

The fact that I suffer the consequences of sinful actions of other people does not mean that I bear the responsibility for those actions. That is, I will be punished or rewarded for my own actions and not others.

This is the important distinction that is being made in both Jer 31:29-30 and all of Eze 18. Responsibility and the consequences of their own actions is what Numbers 14:33 and Josh 7 is also discussing.

Eze 18:20 says this:

The soul who sins is the one who will die. A son will not bear the iniquity of his father, and a father will not bear the iniquity of his son. The righteousness of the righteous man will fall upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked man will fall upon him.

Conclusion

We suffer the consequences for the action of others, but we take responsibility for our own actions (and not others'.)

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The generation curse in Exodus 20:5, also appears subsequently in Exo 34:7; Num 14:18; and Deu 5:9. Num 14:18 should be well noted.

18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ (NIV)

While the Lord is mercy and forgiveness, He is also a justice God, that He does not leave the guilty unpunished. He is slow to anger to make time for the sinners to repent, allow His mercy and forgiveness to be given.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)

His justice may not be seen in the 1st generation, nor the next. But when the 3rd and the 4th generation continue to be wicked, the punishment will come. An example was seen in the account of Jehu;

30 The Lord said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab all I had in mind to do, your descendants will sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation.”

31 Yet Jehu was not careful to keep the law of the Lord, the God of Israel, with all his heart. He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam, which he had caused Israel to commit.

Breaking of the Generation curse

However, Jeremiah 31:30 is an enlightenment that the generation curse may be broken if the next generation do good in the eye of the Lord, which is the meaning of 'Everyone will die for their own sin'.

In fact, it is worth to note that the love of God is far greater than his punishment, for His love to those who love Him, His love will last for a thousand generation, means forever. It is seen from the Davidic covenant that His word is fulfilled.

but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exo 20:6; Deu 5:10; 7:9 NIV)

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