Q&A: Intergenerational Guilt

Exod 20:5-6; Deut 5:9-10

A reader and long-time friend emailed me this week with a question concerning the statement in the Decalog that God “visits the iniquities of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate [God]” (Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9; my translation; cf. also Exod 34:6-7; Deut 7:9-10; Jer 32:18; and Ps 105:8=1 Chron 16:15).  On its face, this assertion seems to violate any standard of individual responsibility.  Is it an example of the Old Testament’s depiction of God as a reflection of ancient Israel’s tribal justice?  Since this text often occasions questions from my students and others, it merits attention.  Since I am busily trying to finish a seminary semester (papers to grade!) and am pressed for time, I am taking the liberty to excerpt (pp. 120-121) from my book, Missing the Mark:  Sin and Its Consequences in Biblical Theology (Nashville:  Abingdon, 2005) to address the question.  I will return “live” next week.


The Hebrew Bible’s attitude toward ancestral guilt borne by subsequent generations, an attitude that moderns often regard as primitive…can best be understood as an expression of the underlying notion of [guilt/iniquity] as embracing sin and its consequences as a continuum.  In brief, ancient Israel was convinced that sin creates a perverted condition that, left alone, can only twist the perceptions and decisions of subsequent generations so that, by their own choice, they too perpetuate their ancestors’ sin.  That is, ancestral guilt is not a debt left for later generations to pay, but a heritage in which subsequent generations participate, a tradition that they continue.

…[M]odern readers of the Bible commonly balk at any notion of corporate guilt or responsibility.  Post-Enlightenment ideals highlight the individual.  Individuals act independently and bear sole responsibility for their actions.  Western ideas of fairness require that a mother cannot be held responsible for her daughter’s actions.  In fact, post-Enlightenment interpreters of Scripture often think that they have found evidence of an evolution away from corporate thought to individualism within Scripture itself.  The parade example of this supposed evolution, Jer 31:31-34, notwithstanding (see below), it is simplistic to think of the evolution of Israelite thought from primitive collectivism to enlightened individualism for [several] reasons:  First, the idea of the afterlife of sin in subsequent generations occurs in texts not only from Israel’s early period but also in the very latest documents (i.e. Ezra 9:6-7; Neh 9:2)…Third, and most important, the idea is much more sophisticated than the contention that God (unfairly) exacts from innocent children the penalties owed by their ancestors.  Furthermore, it is simplistic to think that modern romanticism regarding the absolute autonomy of the individual accurately describes conditions in the real world.  In truth, no one is an island.  The sins of the father do, indeed, impact the lives of the children, creating conditions that negatively affect the possibilities open to them, that predispose them to certain choices, and that contribute destructively to their identities.  In short, rather than reflecting the primitive tribalism of an ancient society, now debunked by enlightened views of human society, the biblical view, in many ways, represents a more accurate analysis of the workings of human families and communities.

A key to the Israelite conception of the intergenerational transmission of [guilt/iniquity] is the credo, often repeated in the Hebrew Bible and often troubling to modern readers convinced of the strict individualism of responsibility, that God holds children accountable for their parents’ [guilt/iniquity] “for three and four generations of those who (continue to) hate me” (Exod 20:5; 34:7; Num 14:18; Deut 5:9-10; Jer 32:18; etc.)  Grammatically, the participle “those who hate me” refers to the third and fourth generation of “haters.”  In other words, the credo assumes that the behaviors of the ancestors will be perpetuated in subsequent generations and implies that God will hold these generations accountable, not arbitrarily or unfairly for their ancestors’ sins, but for their solidarity with their ancestors.  [Guilt/iniquity] can be inherited, not in the form of legal guilt, but in the tendency to perpetuate parental behaviors.  Jeremiah 36:31 makes this solidarity clear by referring to the cumulative [guilt/iniquity] of King Jehoiakim, his offspring, and his servants, as does God’s warning in Isa 65:6-7 “I will repay your [guilt/iniquities] and your ancestors’ [guilt/iniquities] together” (cf. also Jer 14:20; Ezra 9:6-7; Neh 9:2).

Interpreters often appeal to texts such as Jer 31:29-30 (“In those days it will no longer be said, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’  But all shall die for their own sins”; cf. Ezek 18 and contrast Jer 32:18) to support the notion that an advanced state of Israelite religion recognized the inequity involved in primitive collectivism and rejected it.  Such an approach, however, overlooks the rhetorical function of statements such as Jer 31:29-30 in the context of the discussion surrounding, in this case, the Babylonian crisis.  Jeremiah 31 seems to respond to excuses such as Lam 5:7 (“Our fathers sinned and are no more, and we bear their iniquities”), in which the generation that experienced the exile attempts to displace responsibility for its fate onto its ancestors.  Such statements imply a qualitative difference in the behaviors of parents and children:  “We have not continued in our parents’ footsteps.”  Yet the argument of the book of Jeremiah depends on precisely the opposite contention, namely, that the children have, indeed, perpetuated their parents’ error:  “They have returned to the [guilt/iniquities/ of their ancestors” (Jer 11:10; cf. 7:26; 9:13; 16:1—12; 17:2; 19:4; 23:7; 34:13-18; 44:9-10, 21-23).  The objection that they are being unfairly punished is specious.


Seen in this light, the statement in the Decalog emphasizes the idea that God will attempt to discipline “haters” for generations before considering them to have exited the covenant relationship.  Indeed, the central theme of the Former Prophets/Deuteronomistic History (Josh, Judg, 1 & 2 Sam, 1 & 2 Kings) asserts that God struggled with Israel in a cycle of apostasy, chastisement, and forgiveness, not just for three or four generations, but from its entry into the land until the coming of the Babylonians.  As found in the parallel statement in Exod 34:6-7, this assertion highlights God’s patience (“slow to anger,” literally “long of nose”) rather than God’s vengeance.


Note:  In the excerpt above, [guilt/iniquity] and [guilt/iniquities] substitute for forms of the Hebrew term `awon employed in the original.