Bible & Theology History

A Warning About Generational Drift

Judges is one of the most disturbing books of the Bible. At one time “the people served the Lord” (2:7) and at another, the tribe of Benjamin was nearly annihilated after the gang rape, murder, and grisly dismemberment of a Levite’s concubine resulted in Israel’s first civil war. Israel was left disillusioned and wondering, “How did we get here?”

Faithfulness By A Thread

After Israel entered the land, they failed to obey God’s command to drive out the idol-worshipping, child-sacrificing Canaanites. While Israel conquered most of the people groups and exploited others for slave labor, their obedience was not total. Anything less than total obedience is dangerous disobedience, and God confronts it squarely:

I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you. (Judges 2:1-3)

One might expect Israel’s story to be downhill from here. But the people’s response is estimable: they shed tears of repentance, sacrifice to the Lord, call the place Bochim—which means “weepers”—and go on to serve the Lord. What is preventing Israel’s total apostasy? Since we know how the story ends, we might wonder, what will be the catalyst for their abandonment of the Lord?

The Elders Pass Off the Scene

After the repentance at Bochim, the author of Judges—presumably Samuel—writes that “the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel” (Judges 2:7, emphasis added). Israel’s leaders were witnesses to God’s signs and wonders; they had crossed the Jordan on dry land and stood in amazement as Jericho’s fortress walls came tumbling down. When they went to their inheritance to take possession of the land (Judges 2:6), they understood the magnitude of the victories that God had won on their behalf. By living and leading in the fear of the Lord, they helped to prevent Israel’s total apostasy.

But then, Joshua died.

“And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).

When people have not seen what their forefathers have seen, they are prone to stop serving the God that their forefathers served.

When we read Judges 2:10, we instinctively know what is coming next. The author is more than foreshadowing. He is practically telling us, “And there arose another generation after them who was set up for failure.” When people have not seen what their forefathers have seen, they are prone to stop serving the God that their forefathers served.

Next sentence: “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals” (2:11). How predictable.

Preventing Generational Drift

At this point, we can blame the next generation—and they do deserve some of the blame—but perhaps pointing the finger at the rebellious  “young people” is not telling the whole story. We must stop to ask, why didn’t the next generation know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel? The text seems to indicate that they were ignorant about the past.

In Deuteronomy, God through Moses goes to great lengths to prevent generational drift. He warns:

  • “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 5:15, cf. 7:18, 16:12)
  • “That all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt” (Deut. 16:3, cf. 15:15, 16:12, 24:18).
  • Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way as you came out of Egypt” (Deut. 24:9).
  • “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness” (Deut. 8:2, cf. 9:7).
  • “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:18).

In other words, Israel’s obedience to God’s Word would largely depend on their remembrance of God’s activity in history. If they were not intentional about remembering, they would surely forget:

  • “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you” (Deut. 4:23).
  • “Take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 6:12, cf. 8:14).
  • “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today” (Deut. 8:11, cf. 8:19).
  • “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness” (Deut. 9:7).

The key to faithfulness is remembering and not forgetting. But who is responsible to make sure the next generation has something to remember? Deuteronomy 4:9-10 provides the answer:

Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children how on the day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, the Lord said to me, “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.” (emphasis added)

The only way to prevent generational drift is to teach God’s Word and works to the next generation.

The Shema is the cornerstone passage for training the next generation. It instructs us about the place that God’s Word should have in the home:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deut. 6:4-7)

Teach God’s Word diligently to your children. Why? So they will remember and not forget! Veres 20-25 make this clear:

When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.” (Deuteronomy 6:20-25)

The only way to prevent generational drift is to teach God’s Word and works to the next generation before it is too late.

Informed and Emboldened or Nostalgic and Fearful?

In light of the danger of generational drift, here are three suggestions moving forward:

REMEMBER THE PAST

“Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). While elders are responsible to pass on the stories of God’s hand in history, the next generation also has a responsibility to ask. Every Christan should be a student of history and allow its triumphs and tragedies to inform their faith.

  1. Remembering the past starts by studying the history in the Bible. Paul gives warnings from Israel’s history, and observes that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
  2. Remembering the past includes the history of the catholic church—all Christians in all times and places. From the early church fathers to the reformers to the Edwards and Wesleys of each generation, God’s people throughout the ages are our people.
  3. Remembering the past includes the history of each person’s unique context. Our family, church, and denominational heritage are also vital for shaping our understanding of the past and how it informs the present and future.

LEARN FROM THE PAST—BUT DON’T LIVE THERE

The success of our fathers was their devotion to God and His Word. They believed the Lord, and He did great works on their behalf. The key is not to do everything that they did it, use the methods that they used, sing the songs that they sung, wear the clothes that they wore, or read the Bible translation that they read. Those things might be appropriate—even right—but they are not the key. The key is for our study of history to ignite the same fire that dwelled in our forefathers so that we will have courage to shake the present age with the timeless gospel of Jesus Christ. The faith that dwelled in our forefathers must be alive in us (2 Timothy 1:5).

It is dangerous to unthinkingly throw off the traditions of the fathers, but it is also dangerous to be stalemated by fear.

Unfortunately, those who are most aware of the dangers of generational drift are often the most prone to dig in their heels and stall progress. Tozer writes, “We need to seek deliverance from our vain and weakening wish to go back and recover the past.” Vain nostalgia is marked by an inflexible devotion to tradition and an unwillingness to think critically about or admit the imbalances of the past. The “old paths” (Jeremiah 6:16) is not the way of tradition—although tradition has a place—but rather the way of serious attention to God’s Word (Jeremiah 6:19).

MOVE FORWARD AS FEARLESS FOLLOWERS OF THE SON OF GOD

It is dangerous to unthinkingly throw off the traditions of the fathers, but it is also dangerous to be stalemated by fear. Every failure to align with the past is not actual drift. Before we cast a suspicious glance towards the one who is moving slightly to the right or slightly to the left, we should stop and ask ourselves, “Are we moving at all?” God’s call is onward and upward for the Kingdom!

The Pharisees entered preservation mode and were rebuked for neglecting a careful study of God’s Word in favor of their historical applications (Mark 7:8). God’s people are called to be fearless followers of the Son of God, and that means thinking deeply about the challenges faced by each new generation and finding careful but creative ways to apply God’s Word to meet those challenges. We must look to God and His Word as our source of wisdom for navigating today’s complex issues. A backward look should always lead to an upward look, for “The LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear” (Isaiah 59:1).

Gracious Heavenly Father, save us from generational drift. Help us to teach our children and grandchildren about your works in history, so that they may know that you are the Lord. Grant us a sanctified curiosity about the faith and sacrifice of our forefathers. Humble and embolden us in the face of our great cloud of witnesses. Teach us from their example and inflame our hearts with the same zealous passion for your glory and holiness. Save us from canonizing the past so that in all of our study we depend on the only perfect source of wisdom. We pledge allegiance to the principles of your Word and ask for wisdom to apply them afresh and anew in the present age.