Punishing Children for the Sins of their Parents
Introduction: Overturning Moses
The Babylonian Talmud towards the end of tractate Makkot (24a) makes the surprising claim that in four cases the prophets overturned a decree Moses makes in the Torah. I want to focus on the third overturned decree, i.e., the question of whether God punishes children for the sins of the parents.
אמר ר’ יוסי בר חנינא: ארבע גזירות גזר משה רבינו על ישראל, באו ארבעה נביאים וביטלום…
Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina said: “Moses made four decrees upon [the people of] Israel which four prophets came and canceled…
משה אמר (שמות לד): 'פוקד עון אבות על בנים',
Moses said (Exod 34:7): ‘He visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children.’
בא יחזקאל וביטלה (יחזקאל לד): 'הנפש החוטאת היא תמות.'
Ezekiel came and canceled this (Ezek 18:4): ‘The one who sins will die.’
Torah: God visits the Iniquity of Parents upon Children
The verse Rabbi Yossi ben Chanina quotes appears after the sin of the golden calf, when Moses attempts to mollify God and convince God not to destroy the Israelites for their sin. The text is most familiar to us as being part of the selichot service.
After constructing a new set of tablets at God’s instruction, God comes down in a cloud of glory and Moses (or God, the verse is unclear) declares that God is too merciful to simply destroy the Israelites for this sin (Exod 34):
ווַיַּעֲבֹ֨ר יְ-הֹוָ֥ה׀ עַל פָּנָיו֘ וַיִּקְרָא֒ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה׀ יְ-הֹוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת:זנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד׀ עֲוֹ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל בָּנִים֙ וְעַל בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל רִבֵּעִֽים:
6 Yhwh passed before him and he (God or Moses?) proclaimed: “Yhwh! Yhwh! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, 7 extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet he does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
This text claims that although God is merciful, God does not simply wipe the slate clean when begged for forgiveness. Rather God inflicts punishment on the sinner and/or his descendants for four generations.
Three Additional Torah Verses that Describe Intergenerational Punishment
Moses uses this same description of God’s mercy-plus-caveat to great effect in the story of the scouts. After Israel refuses to enter the land, and God determines to destroy the people altogether, Moses intercedes to calm God’s wrath. As part of this intercession, Moses makes use of this description of God’s attributes (Num 14):
יד:יז וְעַתָּ֕ה יִגְדַּל נָ֖א כֹּ֣חַ אֲדֹנָ֑י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ לֵאמֹֽר: יד:יח יְ-הֹוָ֗ה אֶ֤רֶךְ אַפַּ֙יִם֙ וְרַב חֶ֔סֶד נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֖ן וָפָ֑שַׁע וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֞ד עֲוֹ֤ן אָבוֹת֙ עַל בָּנִ֔ים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל רִבֵּעִֽים: יד:יט סְלַֽח נָ֗א לַעֲוֹ֛ן הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה כְּגֹ֣דֶל חַסְדֶּ֑ךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֙אתָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם וְעַד הֵֽנָּה:
14:17 Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying, 14:18 ‘Yhwh! slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.’14:19 Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.”
Again, although God is merciful, Moses admits that God does not actually remit all punishment, and that the sinner and/or his descendants will receive some punishment.
This claim appears in the Decalogue as well:
כ:ה לֹֽא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֣֥ה לָהֶ֖ם֘ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָֽנֹכִ֞י יְ-הֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֹ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל בָּנִ֛ים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָ֑י:
20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I Yhwh your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me,
ה:ט לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֣֥ה לָהֶ֖ם֘ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒ כִּ֣י אָנֹכִ֞י יְ-הֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֵ֣ל קַנָּ֔א פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֹ֨ן אָב֧וֹת עַל בָּנִ֛ים וְעַל שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָ֑י:
5:9 You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I Yhwh your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me.
This part of the Decalogue is presented as the direct word of God in the first person. Thus, the Torah makes a clear and strong claim that in at least one case—worshipping other gods or idols—God punishes the descendants of the sinner until the fourth generation.
Ezekiel’s Polemic: A Child Shall not Suffer for the Iniquity of a Parent
The prophet Ezekiel, who was exiled to Babylon in 597, offers a torrent of arguments and rhetoric against the concept of punishing children for the sins of the parents. He does not frame it as an argument against the Torah—it is unclear what Torah text if any he would have recognized in this period—but rather he frames it as a response to a popular notion (Ezek 18).
א וַיְהִ֥י דְבַר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֵלַ֥י לֵאמֹֽר: במַה לָּכֶ֗ם אַתֶּם֙ מֹֽשְׁלִים֙ אֶת הַמָּשָׁ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה עַל אַדְמַ֥ת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר אָבוֹת֙ יֹ֣אכְלוּ בֹ֔סֶר וְשִׁנֵּ֥י הַבָּנִ֖ים תִקְהֶֽינָה: ג חַי אָ֕נִי נְאֻ֖ם אֲדֹנָ֣י יְ-הֹוִ֑ה אִם יִֽהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם ע֗וֹד מְשֹׁ֛ל הַמָּשָׁ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ד הֵ֤ן כָּל הַנְּפָשׁוֹת֙ לִ֣י הֵ֔נָּה כְּנֶ֧פֶשׁ הָאָ֛ב וּכְנֶ֥פֶשׁ הַבֵּ֖ן לִי הֵ֑נָּה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַחֹטֵ֖את הִ֥יא תָמֽוּת:
1 The word of Yhwh came to me: 2 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 blunted”? 3 As I live, says the Lord Yhwh, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 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.
Ezekiel’s philosophy of punishment is individualist. He believes that since parents and children are separate entities, by definition God cannot punish a child for a parent’s behavior or vice versa.
Vicarious Human Punishment: ANE vs Deuteronomy Punishment
Although this notion may be Ezekiel’s unique contribution to biblical theology, aspects of his claim already exist in Deuteronomy. For instance, when recounting to the Israelites how God chose them as his people, Moses underlines the positive and negative consequences of following God’s rules (Deut 7:9-10).
ז:ט וְיָ֣דַעְתָּ֔ כִּֽי י-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ ה֣וּא הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים הָאֵל֙ הַֽנֶּאֱמָ֔ן שֹׁמֵ֧ר הַבְּרִ֣ית וְהַחֶ֗סֶד לְאֹהֲבָ֛יו וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י (מצותו) מִצְוֹתָ֖יו לְאֶ֥לֶף דּֽוֹר: ז:י וּמְשַׁלֵּ֧ם לְשֹׂנְאָ֛יו אֶל פָּנָ֖יו לְהַאֲבִיד֑וֹ לֹ֤א יְאַחֵר֙ לְשֹׂ֣נְא֔וֹ אֶל פָּנָ֖יו יְשַׁלֶּם לֽוֹ:
7:9 Know, therefore, that only Yhwh your God is God, the steadfast God who keeps His covenant faithfully to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments, 7:10 but who instantly requites with destruction those who reject Him—never slow with those who reject Him, but requiting them instantly.
Another principle found in Deuteronomy, and one that is very similar to Ezekiel’s principle of fairness in punishment, is that of fairness in court (i.e., human) punishments. More similar in phrasing to Ezekiel’s claim about fairness are some ancient near eastern law collections, providing examples of vicarious court punishment. For example,
If a citizen strikes the wife of another citizen… if the woman dies, they shall execute that man’s daughter (Hammurabi, 209-210).
If a man forcibly seizes and rapes a maiden, who is residing in her father’s house… the father of the maiden shall take the wife of the fornicator of the maiden and hand her over to be raped… (Middle Assyrian Laws, 55)
The book of Deuteronomy declares such vicarious court punishments to be invalid:
כד:טז לֹֽא יוּמְת֤וּ אָבוֹת֙ עַל בָּנִ֔ים וּבָנִ֖ים לֹא יוּמְת֣וּ עַל אָב֑וֹת אִ֥ישׁ בְּחֶטְא֖וֹ יוּמָֽתוּ:
24:16 Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.
Ezekiel appears to be extending the concept of just punishment from the human court to the realm of the divine.
The Long Parable of Three Generations
Each prophet has his own style; Ezekiel is a storyteller. His prophecies are anything but terse. In Chapter 18, he paints a portrait in detail of three generations: a righteous grandfather, a wicked father, and a righteous grandson:
First generation (grandfather) – Righteous
Annotation: A pious man does only good, never violates God’s laws and never hurts his fellow. Should he not be rewarded? Of course he should.
ה וְאִ֖ישׁ כִּי יִהְיֶ֣ה צַדִּ֑יק וְעָשָׂ֥ה מִשְׁפָּ֖ט וּצְדָקָֽה: ו אֶל הֶֽהָרִים֙ לֹ֣א אָכָ֔ל וְעֵינָיו֙ לֹ֣א נָשָׂ֔א אֶל גִּלּוּלֵ֖י בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְאֶת אֵ֤שֶׁת רֵעֵ֙הוּ֙ לֹ֣א טִמֵּ֔א וְאֶל אִשָּׁ֥ה נִדָּ֖ה לֹ֥א יִקְרָֽב: ז וְאִישׁ֙ לֹ֣א יוֹנֶ֔ה חֲבֹלָת֥וֹ חוֹב֙ יָשִׁ֔יב גְּזֵלָ֖ה לֹ֣א יִגְזֹ֑ל לַחְמוֹ֙ לְרָעֵ֣ב יִתֵּ֔ן וְעֵירֹ֖ם יְכַסֶּה בָּֽגֶד: ח בַּנֶּ֣שֶׁךְ לֹֽא יִתֵּ֗ן וְתַרְבִּית֙ לֹ֣א יִקָּ֔ח מֵעָ֖וֶל יָשִׁ֣יב יָד֑וֹ מִשְׁפַּ֤ט אֱמֶת֙ יַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה בֵּ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ לְאִֽישׁ: טבְּחֻקּוֹתַ֧י יְהַלֵּ֛ךְ וּמִשְׁפָּטַ֥י שָׁמַ֖ר לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אֱמֶ֑ת צַדִּ֥יק הוּא֙ חָיֹ֣ה יִֽחְיֶ֔ה נְאֻ֖ם אֲדֹנָ֥י יְ-הֹוִֽה:
5 If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right—6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, 9 follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully–such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord Yhwh.
Second generation (father) – Wicked
Annotation: That righteous man has a son, opposite of him in every way. Should that wicked son live? Ezekiel declaims a resounding no.
יוְהוֹלִ֥יד בֵּן פָּרִ֖יץ שֹׁפֵ֣ךְ דָּ֑ם וְעָ֣שָׂה אָ֔ח מֵאַחַ֖ד מֵאֵֽלֶּה: יאוְה֕וּא אֶת כָּל אֵ֖לֶּה לֹ֣א עָשָׂ֑ה כִּ֣י גַ֤ם אֶל הֶֽהָרִים֙ אָכַ֔ל וְאֶת אֵ֥שֶׁת רֵעֵ֖הוּ טִמֵּֽא: יב עָנִ֤י וְאֶבְיוֹן֙ הוֹנָ֔ה גְּזֵל֣וֹת גָּזָ֔ל חֲבֹ֖ל לֹ֣א יָשִׁ֑יב וְאֶל הַגִּלּוּלִים֙ נָשָׂ֣א עֵינָ֔יו תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה עָשָֽׂה: יג בַּנֶּ֧שֶׁךְ נָתַ֛ן וְתַרְבִּ֥ית לָקַ֖ח וָחָ֑י לֹ֣א יִֽחְיֶ֗ה אֵ֣ת כָּל הַתּוֹעֵב֤וֹת הָאֵ֙לֶּה֙ עָשָׂ֔ה מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֔ת דָּמָ֖יו בּ֥וֹ יִהְיֶֽה:
10 If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, 11 who does any of these things (though his father does none of them), who eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
Third generation (grandson) – Righteous
Annotation: Now, the wicked man has a righteous son, Should that righteous son dies for the sins of his father? Ezekiel answers again with an emphatic no.
יד וְהִנֵּה֙ הוֹלִ֣יד בֵּ֔ן וַיַּ֕רְא אֶת כָּל חַטֹּ֥את אָבִ֖יו אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּרְאֶ֕ה וְלֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה כָּהֵֽן: טועַל הֶֽהָרִים֙ לֹ֣א אָכָ֔ל וְעֵינָיו֙ לֹ֣א נָשָׂ֔א אֶל גִּלּוּלֵ֖י בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֶת אֵ֥שֶׁת רֵעֵ֖הוּ לֹ֥א טִמֵּֽא: טז וְאִישׁ֙ לֹ֣א הוֹנָ֔ה חֲבֹל֙ לֹ֣א חָבָ֔ל וּגְזֵלָ֖ה לֹ֣א גָזָ֑ל לַחְמוֹ֙ לְרָעֵ֣ב נָתָ֔ן וְעֵר֖וֹם כִּסָּה בָֽגֶד:יז מֵעָנִ֞י הֵשִׁ֣יב יָד֗וֹ נֶ֤שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית֙ לֹ֣א לָקָ֔ח מִשְׁפָּטַ֣י עָשָׂ֔ה בְּחֻקּוֹתַ֖י הָלָ֑ךְ ה֗וּא לֹ֥א יָמ֛וּת בַּעֲוֹ֥ן אָבִ֖יו חָיֹ֥ה יִחְיֶֽה: יח אָבִ֞יו כִּֽי עָ֣שַׁק עֹ֗שֶׁק גָּזַל֙ גֵּ֣זֶל אָ֔ח וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא ט֛וֹב עָשָׂ֖ה בְּת֣וֹךְ עַמָּ֑יו וְהִנֵּה מֵ֖ת בַּעֲוֹנֽוֹ:
14 But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, 15 who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.
After the parable is finished, Ezekiel returns to debate mode once again (ch. 18):
יט וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֕ם מַדֻּ֛עַ לֹא נָשָׂ֥א הַבֵּ֖ן בַּעֲוֹ֣ן הָאָ֑ב וְהַבֵּ֞ן מִשְׁפָּ֧ט וּצְדָקָ֣ה עָשָׂ֗ה אֵ֣ת כָּל חֻקּוֹתַ֥י שָׁמַ֛ר וַיַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֖ם חָיֹ֥ה יִחְיֶֽה: כהַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַחֹטֵ֖את הִ֣יא תָמ֑וּת בֵּ֞ן לֹא יִשָּׂ֣א׀ בַּעֲוֹ֣ן הָאָ֗ב וְאָב֙ לֹ֤א יִשָּׂא֙ בַּעֲוֹ֣ן הַבֵּ֔ן צִדְקַ֤ת הַצַּדִּיק֙ עָלָ֣יו תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה וְרִשְׁעַ֥ת (רשע) הָרָשָׁ֖ע עָלָ֥יו תִּֽהְיֶֽה: ס
19 Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.
Ezekiel is not speaking about a vision of how God will work in the future. Instead, he is stating what he considers to be a solid, current, theological fact. God does not punish or reward vicariously: every individual gets what he or she deserves and no other factors enter into God’s calculations.
The Torah vs. Sour-Grapes Theology: Balancing and Limiting Intergenerational Punishment
At first glance, it appears that the Torah position on intergenerational punishment and the “sour grapes” theology are one of the same, and that Ezekiel—as Rabbi Yossi ben Chanina claims (in the Talmud, see Part 1)—is responding to Moses. A closer look, however, suggests that the Torah, in the form that we have it, is responding to the debate between Ezekiel and the sour-grapers.
Sour Grapes Theology
The sour grapes theology paints the punishment of descendants as a harsh but necessary way of God dispensing justice. Full punishment of a sinner may include the punishment of his family. The proverb quoted by Ezekiel does not mention how far down this goes, whether it ends after four generations or continues, but some other biblical accounts, which express the same theology, seem to believe that the punishment can continue forever.
For example, Eli the priest is punished for allowing his sons Hophni and Pinchas to behave wickedly, and is cursed forever (1Sam 3), i.e. for all future generations.
יא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה אֶל שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל… יבבַּיּ֤וֹם הַהוּא֙ אָקִ֣ים אֶל עֵלִ֔י אֵ֛ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי אֶל בֵּית֑וֹ הָחֵ֖ל וְכַלֵּֽה: יגוְהִגַּ֣דְתִּי ל֔וֹ כִּֽי שֹׁפֵ֥ט אֲנִ֛י אֶת בֵּית֖וֹ עַד עוֹלָ֑ם בַּעֲוֹ֣ן אֲשֶׁר יָדַ֗ע כִּֽי מְקַֽלְלִ֤ים לָהֶם֙ בָּנָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א כִהָ֖ה בָּֽם: יד וְלָכֵ֥ן נִשְׁבַּ֖עְתִּי לְבֵ֣ית עֵלִ֑י אִֽם יִתְכַּפֵּ֞ר עֲוֹ֧ן בֵּית עֵלִ֛י בְּזֶ֥בַח וּבְמִנְחָ֖ה עַד עוֹלָֽם:
11 Yhwh said to Samuel: “…12 In that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I spoke concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 And I declare to him that I sentence his house toendless punishment for the iniquity he knew about— how his sons committed sacrilege at will— and he did not rebuke them. 14 Assuredly, I swear concerning the house of Eli that the iniquity of the house of Eli will never be expiated by sacrifice or offering.”
That Eli’s family is doomed forever, without any consideration of whether the future individuals are righteous or wicked, underlies the sour grapes theology; God’s intergenerational punishment is inevitable. This is the view of divine providence that strikes Ezekiel as unfair.
The Torah’s More Moderate View(s) of Intergenerational Punishment
The harsh concept expressed in the sour-grapes theology, however, is not the meaning of the phrase פקד עון אבות in YHWH’s revelation (Exod 24) or Moses’ plea (Num 14), nor does it seem to be the meaning of the phrase in the Decalogue (at least in its current form).
1. פקד עון אבות in the Golden Calf and Scouts Stories: Spreading Punishments out as a Kindness
The Golden Calf and Scouts texts describe God’s intergenerational punishment as a kindness. It appears as part of the list of God’s attributes, in the midst of Moses’ bargaining with God for Israel’s forgiveness. Amos Hacham, in his Daat Mikra commentary on Exodus (34:7), refers to this as “the attribute of justice tempered by mercy (מדת דין מערבת ברחמים).”
2. Limiting the Application of Intergenerational Providence
The phrasing in the Decalogue seems to offer an alternative compromise. The context of the statement in the Decalogue is that of punishment, nevertheless, if we compare the way the attributes of God are described in the Decalogue with the way they are described in the Scout and Golden Calf stories, we can see that the Decalogue contains two moderating features.
Scouts (Num 14)
פֹּקֵ֞ד עֲוֹ֤ן אָבוֹת֙ עַל בָּנִ֔ים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל רִבֵּעִֽים:
[He] visits the guilt of parents upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations.
Decalogue (Exod 20 and Deut 5)
פֹּ֠קֵד עֲוֹ֨ן אָבֹ֧ת עַל בָּנִ֛ים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁ֥ים וְעַל רִבֵּעִ֖ים לְשֹׂנְאָ֑י: וְעֹ֥֤שֶׂה חֶ֖֨סֶד֙ לַאֲלָפִ֑֔ים לְאֹהֲבַ֖י וּלְשֹׁמְרֵ֥י מִצְוֹתָֽי:
[I] visit the guilt of parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me,but I show kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
- The first extra feature, “to those who reject me (לשנאי),” implies that God only visits the sin of the parents on the children when those children continue in their parents’ iniquity and sin, thus providing children with a way of averting the “inherited” punishment of their parents.
- The second extra feature, “kindness to the thousandth generation, etc.,” emphasizes that God is two humdred and fifty times more kind to the continuing righteous than God is tough on sinners.
These features of the Decalogue effectively soften the harsh claim that God punishes children for the sins of their parents.
Updating the Talmud’s Claim
And thus, perhaps Rabbi Yossi ben Chanina’s claim needs to be supplemented to reflect a more multi-layered theological process uncovered by historical-critical methods:
- The people of Judah in Ezekiel’s time believed, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth rot.” Children pay for the sins of their parents, and the timing for this punishment is open ended.
- Ezekiel came and annulled it, as he said: “Each individual will die for his or her own sins.”
- Came Moses in the stories of the Scouts and the Golden Calf and offered a compromise: “God punish the children up to the fourth generation, but only to spread out the suffering and avoid crushing the parents.”
- Came the Decalogue and offered another compromise: “God only punishes four generations of children if they continue their parents’ wickedness. But if righteous children continue the ways of their righteous parents, the rewards could last forever."
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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