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According to the King James Version:

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

— Exodus 34:7

Many other translations also indicate that God has an active role in punishing the sinner's descendants:

  • NLT: I lay the sins of the parents upon their children
  • NIV: he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents
  • CSB: bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children
  • NASB20: inflicting the punishment of fathers on the children
  • YLT: charging iniquity of fathers on children
  • GNB: I will not fail to punish children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the sins of their parents

Yet, according to an answer to Does Exodus 34:7 necessarily mean that God directly punishes the grandchildren?

[…] 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 […] as 'observe' but also with secondary meanings of 'attend to' and 'look about for'.

And Ezekiel 18:17 quite explicitly says:

The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

Ezekiel would certainly have been familiar with Exodus 34:7, so he obviously understood that "paqad" meant that God observes the effects of sin on the sinner's family, not that God directly inflicts punishment on the children.

So, what were the reasons that so many of the translators choose to interpret Exodus 34:7 as meaning exactly that?

Note:

This question is not asking about the correct meaning of this verse.
It is asking why the translators made the choice they did.

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    Indeed intersting question. Indeed as Hebrew speaker I can say, translation of visiting, is very close to paqad/pakad. The jewish tradition explains that only when the sons holds the same inquities as their fathers, then their punishment will come soon, because, he should learn the lesson, but he didn't. But the righteous son will not receive the punishment of his father.
    – Kapandaria
    Oct 26, 2022 at 19:40
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    Btw, "remembers" is also a good translation
    – Kapandaria
    Oct 26, 2022 at 20:13
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    Perhaps the motivation of the translators to use punishment was driven by their own belief that the only way to keep people in line is by fear of punishment. Fear is used a lot to control people. "God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” Exodus 20:20"
    – Sherrie
    Oct 29, 2022 at 23:31

3 Answers 3

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I would argue that "punishes" is an unfortunate and inappropriate translation of the verb פְקַד in 34:7. The sense of the word here is more about the consequences of sin having their baleful effects on others. many versions attempt to capture this idea:

  • ESV: visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children
  • BSB: will visit the iniquity of the fathers on their children
  • NKJV: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children,
  • CSB: bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children

Indeed, Strong's lexicon aptly summarizes the meaning of פְקַד (paqad) as: "to attend to, visit, muster, appoint".

Further, if Moses had wanted to imply the direct use of "punish/punishment" or "penalty", he had other more appropriate words such as:

  • יָסַר (yasar), eg, Lev 26:18, 23, 28, Deut 4:36, 8:5, 21:18, 22:18, 1 Kings 12:11, etc.
  • עָנַשׁ (anash), eg, Ex 21;22, Deut 22:19, Prov 17:26, 21:11, 22:3, 27:12, Amos 2:8.
  • עָוֹן (avon), eg, Gen 4:13, 15:16, 19:15, Lev 5:17, 18:25, 22;16, etc.

General, everyday experience teaches the same thing that sinful parents creates much disadvantage for children and grandchildren:

  • drug addicted parents have a much higher chance of having criminal children
  • criminal parents tend to beget further criminal children
  • parents who make a lifelong habit of cheating and embezzlement will train their children to live such a life.

With this understanding, Ex 34:7 simply states a sociological fact - bad/sinful parents tend to perpetuate their sinfulness in their progeny; and there is no conflict with Eze 18. Indeed, God explicitly tells parents to teach the law and righteousness to children:

Deut 6:6-9, 24 - These words I am commanding you today are to be upon your hearts. And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as reminders on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.

And the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes and to fear the LORD our God, that we may always be prosperous and preserved, as we are to this day.

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The Hebrew word in question is a difficult one to translate into English. In order to answer your question, every single translator who commented on why they translated as they did would need to be quoted. Not all of them have so commented. But I will - by way of giving examples - quote from two translators who did give explanations on this verse.

"34.7b - That will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

"by no means clear the guilty" - Not even Christ, when our sins were imputed to him: therefore, all now in Him are "cleared", Fig. Polyptoton (Ap. 6). Heb. "clearing will not clear", emphasis on "by no means", unto the third and to the fourth generation. This refrain recurs in whole or in part in Ex.20.5. Cp. also Num.14.18, Deut.5.9, Nah.1.3. The visiting spread over in mercy, not extended in wrath." The Companion Bible, p.121, E.H. Bullinger,'Being the Authorized Version of 1611 with Structures and Critical and Explanatory Notes', Zondervan 1974 reprint

"34:7b - 'Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.'

He does not leave the guilty unpunished - NEB 'and not sweeping the guilty clean away' is defensible, but NIV is to be preferred. There is some ambiguity about the meaning of the Hebrew verb in question." The International Bible Commentary with the New International Version p.184, Marshall Pickering/Zondervan, 1986 edition

Further to your reference to an answer to a previous question you asked on this same verse, I would quote part of the answer you chose as accepted:

"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." Does Exodus 34:7 necessarily mean that God directly punishes the grandchildren?

I add that last quote for completeness, and because it may be jumping to a wrong conclusion to say many translators were implying that punishment was deliberately inflicted by God. Some of them might have had that idea in mind, but unless they wrote an explanatory comment to that effect, we could equally suppose that they had a raft of other scriptures in mind that would mitigate their choice of words. Indeed, the Bullinger quote shows belief in the visiting of punishment being "spread over in mercy, not in wrath" which is noteworthy.

Only the translators of Exodus 34:7 can answer your question. Those of us who compare various translations and who have access to anything the translators said by way of explanation for that particular verse can offer a limited answer by quoting them, which is what I have done.

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The question is important, because the teaching of Ezekiel seems to contradict Ex. 34:7 as usually translated. On the other hand, translators would not be performing their task well if they chose a word that harmonizes with a concept from a different biblical book in order to avoid the appearance of contradiction.

We should also consider that Exodus' teaching was given prior to the Exile and a time when the Israelites needed to be strictly warned about the consequences of sin. Ezekiel was written in order to give hope to the Exiles that it was only their own sins - not those of their ancestors - that would be punished.

The previous verse in Exodus emphasizes God's mercy, while vs. 7 contrasts this side of God's character with strict justice, so the traditional translations are appropriate. Moreover, similar formulations are found elsewhere in the Torah and even in a later prophet such as Jeremiah:

Nothing is too hard for thee, who showest steadfast love to thousands, but dost requite the guilt of fathers to their children after them. (32:17-18)

It does create something of a paradox to think that a merciful God would also punish children for their fathers' sins; but this is a result of text itself IMO, not how translators render it.

The Bible leaves room for readers to resolve possible contradictions on their own. It is not up to translators to resolve these questions for us. Otherwise we end up with a translated text that does not do justice to the original. In this case, a footnote indicating possible other meanings, and cross-referencing Ezekiel 18, would be a better solution than to move away from the traditional meaning. Translators are simply interpreting the text according to its most likely sense without reference to teachings of other texts.

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  • In Jeremiah 32:18, the word is "šālam": (Piel) "to complete, finish", "to make safe", "to make whole or good, restore, make compensation", "to make good, pay", or "to requite, recompense, reward". It's root is the word meaning "peace". This RSV translation seems to be another instance of the same misrepresentation. Oct 26, 2022 at 16:05
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    I'm not prepared to argue individual word choices per se, although salam is often properly translated as "requite" IMO ... My point is that translators should not choose how to deal one one text on the basis of another text. As I said, it's an important issue in this case and I do not mean to dismiss it lightly. Oct 26, 2022 at 17:39

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