God Punishes upto the 3rd & 4th Generation? 

4 minutes

In yesterday’s post we talked about generational accountability based on this verse. “God does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation, (Exodus 34:7b).” At first glance, it looks like God will punish innocent children for their parents’ sins. But reading the text more carefully shows a different picture. When we zoom out to see the context, we realize that the rest of this chapter describes God’s character, emphasizing that of loyal love. The context involves Moses ascending up to the mountain to finalize God’s covenant with his chosen one, and they, deciding that Moses has tarried too long, make a golden calf from their jewelry and call it their god that brought them out of Egypt. What a betrayal. It is in this backdrop that God speaks, pronounces himself merciful and longsuffering, and continues to work through the children of Israel, despite their betrayal. 

6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations”, Exodus 34:6-7. God is telling his chosen people that each generation will be held accountable if they are guilty of the sins of the previous generation by repeating them. From this verse, we can see that God, fair in all his ways, will only visit curses on those subsequent generations that do not reform their ways to live righteously. 

At this point, God has been dealing with mankind’s betrayal for a while. “And the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”, Genesis 6:5. With this background, he expected to be betrayed by every new generation in keeping with the previous generations’ pattern. In order to protect the integrity of his covenant with man through character traits such as love and justice, he has to draw a line in the sand on how these will be exercised, and on whom love will be poured out on, and who will have justice meted out on them. 

Jeremiah echoes this sentiment when the Israelites go into exile for their many sins, using similar language. “You show steadfast love to thousands, but you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the children of man, rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds”, (Jeremiah 32:16-19).

Why upto the third and fourth generation, isn’t that kind of random? Well, according to a Hebrew idiom, third and fourth means ‘for whatever number it takes.” God is love, he doesn’t relish punishing people, more so without cause! Don’t forget that in comparison, God’s loyal love lasts for thousands of generation. “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments”, Deut 7:9. But God is obliged to hold those who don’t learn from their parents’ and previous generations’ mistakes  accountable. It is every generation’s responsibility to learn and acknowledge the sins the previous generation committed so as not to repeat them.  

As far as application, we too can observe some brokenness in our families, oftentimes touching generations past. If we continue in these mistakes, we too will experience curses. As such, we must choose a different path that will allow God’s redemptive plan for mankind to work in our lives. We must acknowledge the ‘seasons of exile’ we’ve observed in our own lives and from past generations, then choose to turn our backs on that and instead align our lives to God’s ways so we can experience his love. He is merciful like that. Remember what he told King Asa in 2 Chronicles 16:9 “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” 

He says again in Lamentations 3:22-33 “The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. 28 Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. 29 Let him bury his face in the dust— there may yet be hope. 30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. 31 For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. 32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. 33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” If we sit alone in silence, if we consider our ways and repent, he will show is compassion because of his great unfailing love. 

God will deliver us when we realize we are headed down the wrong path and change directions to follow him instead. He is a God of deliverance, a God that works with a remnant, generation after generation. A God of restoration. A God of deliverance. A merciful God. He weaves all these into our stories if we allow him by turning to him. Those of us who say, “this is how I’ve seen it done so this is all I know to do”, it will do us well to see how God says to do it and his word and adjust accordingly so we can escape negative generational accountability. Let us determine to love God with all our might, to learn about his ways and commit to them so he can bless us upto thousands of generations. 


1 Comment

  1. Frank Spinella
    December 11, 2021 / 8:25 AM

    Thanks for this post, which I just came across randomly. And I think you asked the right question: “Why up to the third and fourth generation, isn’t that kind of random?” But I think your answer to it — referencing a Hebrew idiom that, frankly, didn’t yet exist when Ex. 34:7, Num. 14:18 and Deut. 5:9 were first penned — is wide of the mark. Here’s my take:

    Let’s call four generations of a hypothetical Israelite family Abe, Ike, Jake and Joe. Abe commits idolatry (or some such offense), and God decides that all four will be punished as a result. Ike, Jake and Joe (the latter perhaps unborn at the time) need not commit any separate offense themselves; they are to be punished for Abe’s idolatry even if they are not themselves idolators. Joe’s kids (or grandkids if it is to be a four- rather than a three-generation penalty), however, are off the hook. We need to ask the question: Why stop with Joe (or his kids)?

    The reason is rather obvious: it’s to ensure that Abe never lives long enough to see a descendant who is not paying for Abe’s sins! This is ABE’s punishment. And three or four generations of his descendants are made to suffer in order to punish HIM, just so that he will wail every day of his potentially long life at the visible consequences of his sin. (Aquinas saw this. “The text adds, ‘to the third and fourth generation,’ because men are wont to live long enough to see the third and fourth generation.” Summa Theologica Part II Q. 87 Art. 8.) So, three-or-four generations is not random at all. The framework of three or four generations is specifically picked so that the perpetrator would not live to see an unpunished descendant.

    A pretty cruel punishment, to be sure. But presumably Abe deserved it. His descendants did not. At least, not as humans reckon desert. God is punishing the descendants not for their own iniquity, but simply to punish their (great) great-grandfather’s. In other words, the descendants’ individual actions are not God’s only standard for the imposition of punishment.

    (There can be little doubt that this was the prevailing Jewish view even in Jesus’ time. John 9:2 recounts “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” The question would never have occurred to the disciples if punishment for parental sin were not a common presumption of the time.)

    Most of us would find God’s punishment of subsequent generations for an ancestor’s sins unjust. Ezek. 18:20 is much more in line with our conception of justice. We want God’s behavior to be consistent with our own conception of justice, whose linchpin is individual responsibility for one’s own actions. (If I am as wicked as Grandpa was, then punish me for MY wickedness. Not for his. And leave my newborn infant out of it.) But apparently God doesn’t always work that way. So be it. He doesn’t have to play by our rules; we have to play by His. We need to accept this — and not make up convenient explanations for what we see in the text in an effort to square His notions with ours.

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