Who Does God Punish?

“Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”

Isaiah 30:18

I think we call it the Fall of Humankind because the first humans were at the pinnacle of human experience, where everything was good, their relationships were healthy and filled with love, their work was satisfying and productive, their resources were ample, the world was their oyster, and their spiritual communion with God and each other was full.

Then, in a moment it seems, darkness fell from the serpent and the tree and the fruit, straight into their souls. Then, they fell, too. They fell from life to death, from glory to condemnation, joy to sorrow, harmony to conflict, satisfaction to suffering.

Here we are today, in this mess. Untold millennia later, we are still in that mess God described in Genesis 3. They fell from their great height, and it seems, ever since, their generations, inculding you and me, have been born down here in the rubble of their broken lives.

Genesis 2 and 3 is written with something of the sense of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories, in that, at least on one level, it explains why things are the way they are today.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do see inspiration as the Holy Spirit active within the person writing. Still, the person can only write from what they otherwise know. A Stone Age author cannot speak of iron utensils, though the Spirit may give a vision of such. The best the Stone Age person might be able to do is use images and metaphors from their culture to try to describe the strange thing revealed to them.

That does make us wonder, though, about the accuracy of representation, as it is limited by current culture and language.

So, inspired, believing, but…let’s be careful about what we mean by accurate.

For instance, take a look at these two passages from the Bible, laid side-by-side.

I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

From our 21st Century, Western Hemisphere, Hellenized culture and education, linear thinking, fact-based logical standpoint, there seems to be an inherent fallacy here. Either God does, or does not, punish the children for the parent’s sins. Can’t have it both ways.

I do accept the dilemma as distressing. It does seem to point to inaccuracy, and even seems to be contradictory, lending some strength to the biographical, subjectively written view of scripture.

But, what if we spread out a little bit, into the context of the passages? Can we retain a more autobiographical view of scripture? What if we read back a few verses, let’s say, in Exodus 20?

Then, we discover God is talking about something very specific: the worship and reverencing of God, over and above anything/one else. If we read forward one more verse, to verse 6? We find something strange, a promise to show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love God and keep His commandments.

Trying to parse this out in a real family becomes challenging! If I love God, and follow His commandments, then He promises to show steadfast love to a thousand of my generations. But, what if my children do not love God, nor follow His commandments? Which vow will God now keep? The vow of verse 5? Or the vow of verse 6? So, there must be more going on here than contractual clauses in a covenant, even with an Biographical view.

To begin with, let’s lay the groundwork of the context.

Idols

A probable reading of this passage views idolatry as the central dysfunction of a humanist worldview. That would include, I’ll posit, anything we turn to give our lives meaning and purpose, joy and satisfaction, or even escape, that edges God out from the center. If paired with Paul’s explanation in Romans 1, then worshiping any other god than God results in futile thinking and senseless, darkened minds, claiming to be wise, but becoming fools. What kind of person would that be like? What would their home and family be like?

Jealous God

The word is qanna’ and when used of God means God’s protective love of His people.

Punishing children for the iniquity of parents

This phrase is a bit trickier. What is actually being said here is that God will “visit” the “iniquity” of the “fathers” upon the “children.” That is a little different than what “punishing” might convey.

Iniquity: The word is `avon [from Strong’s], perversity, depravity, iniquity, guilt, or punishment or consequence of/for iniquity

Fathers: The word is ‘ab [from Strong’s], father of an individual, of God as father of his people, head or founder of a household, group, family, or clan, ancestor, grandfather, forefathers — of person of people, originator or patron of a class, profession, or art, of producer, generator (fig.), of benevolence and protection (fig.), term of respect and honour, ruler or chief (spec.)

Children: The word is ben [from Strong’s], a son (as a builder of the family name), in the widest sense (of literal and figurative relationship, including grandson, subject, nation, quality or condition, etc., (like father or brother), etc.)

the thousandth generation

Again, this one is a bit tricky. The word is ‘eleph and it means a thousand as a numeral (to thousands), or as a company, such as a company of soldiers under one leader. It’s nice symmetry to say “third and fourth generation” and then to say “the thousandth generation,” but it might not mean exactly that.

I’ve underlined the meanings I have long held are intended for this text, and put together, I hear God saying,

  1. “Do not look to anything else for your sense of meaning and purpose, for your sense of belonging, for your source of wisdom, truth, love, joy, satisfaction, or to meet your (felt and true) needs. This is idolatry, a dysfunction so profound that I will cause the consequences of it to be experienced in your whole household, every generation living there.”

To a head of household, this meant the corrupting not just of their own natures, but that of their lineage, from child to grandchild to great grandchild, all living within their compound, and under their leadership.

  1. “If you look to Me for your source for all these things, I will amply supply through my steadfast love to all in your company, however many are in your household. (A thousand being a symbolically large number.)

To a head of household, this meant the experience of God’s steadfast love to every person, even beyond the family, to the servants and others coming within the breadth and reach of their household.

You and I experience to this day the consequences of our parents’ decisions. Addictions, alcoholism, financial decisions, where to live, what schools were chosen, family traditions, a sense of right and wrong, the list goes on and on. Those have a generational affect, for good or ill. I can well imagine how the saying God took issue with through Ezekiel came into being!

Because, it seems an untruth had seeped into the truth of what God unveiled in Exodus 20. The untruth, apparently, extrapolated God’s statement to mean that children had to pay for what their parents did, perhaps even with their lives. God cleared this up by stating in the strongest and most exhaustive terms that each person will be judged on their own merits alone, not on the merits of their parents (or anyone else).

The way I see it, there is no contradiction between these passages. Both accurately and consistently reflect the heart of God while at the same time illustrate how easy it is to misunderstand scripture, or take it to places it was never meant to go.

[Crying Girl, Pixabay]

Published by Joanne Guarnieri Hagemeyer

Bible Teacher and partner with Ancient Voices, Sacred Stories

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