Four Old Testament texts discuss the sins of fathers and their impact on the third and fourth generations: Exodus 20:5 and 34:7; Numbers 14:8; and Deuteronomy 5:9. In each of these texts, God says that He “visits” the iniquity of the fathers upon the third and the fourth generations.
The verb translated “visits” when followed by the preposition “upon” and the word “iniquity” consistently means “to punish” (Isa. 13:11; 26:21; Jer. 25:12; 36:31; Lam. 4:22; Amos 3:2). In other words, God seems to say that He punishes the sins of the father on the third and fourth generation.
But does God really punish people for what their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did? The answer is yes and no. First the “No.” God explicitly commands that children are not to be put to death for the sins of their fathers (Deut. 24:16). God reiterates this principle in Ezekiel 18:20: “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”
So, no, God does not punish innocent descendants for their forefather’s sins.
Now for the “Yes.” The key to understanding what God means is found in the last phrase of Exod. 20:5 and Deut. 5:9— “of those who hate me.” The phrase “of those who hate me” modifies not just the fathers, but the second, third, and fourth generations.
For example, imagine a sinner whose children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren choose to follow in his sinful footsteps. That would make four generations of people who hate God, i.e., who do not love and obey Him but commit iniquity (Deut. 7:9-10; 2 Chron. 19:2).
God punishes each person for his own sin, but when a generational pattern of hating God develops, God also punishes later generations for former generations’ sins as well. The principle seems to be that by choosing the sinful path of previous generations, they were essentially participating in that same sin and thus become partakers with them in their punishment as well.
God punishes each person for his own sin, but when a generational pattern of hating God develops, God also punishes later generations for former generations’ sins as well.
But, don’t miss the positive side of these verses! The righteous choices of fathers, if shared by their descendants, result in God’s lovingkindness being poured out in an unlimited generational cascade—to “a thousand generations.”
What does this mean for adoption? First, it isn’t true that the children of sinners will necessarily share the punishment of their parent’s sins. Thus, it also isn’t true that the adoptive parents of the children of unbelievers are destined to share in such punishment. Rather, adoptive Christian parents have a great opportunity to help their children break the chain of sinful choices and begin a new line of choices that reap God’s favor and blessing.
What about sinful tendencies being inherited from parents? Parents’ sins are not planted in their children in such a way that they cannot avoid committing the same sins. In fact, Ezekiel explicitly states that a child of a wicked person can observe a parent’s sin and choose not to follow in those footsteps (Ezek. 18:14-17).
Nonetheless, it is a common observation that there are often remarkable similarities in character between parents and children, even in orphans or adoptive children despite a lack of social interaction with their parents. The reasons for this are not clear.
However, each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own choices (Ezek. 18:20). The fact that God offers forgiveness for sin, iniquity, and transgression (Exod. 34:7) means that no one is fated to repeat their parents’ sins. We can all, by God’s grace, return to love and obey God and thus avoid sharing in and being punished for our parents’ sins.
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.