Today’s thoughts are from the Questions Answered section of the devotionals at Bible Gateway. Simply go to Devotionals and then select from a variety of devotional formats. Note that in most categories, a new article is posted only every 4-5 days. This one appeared several weeks ago, but it’s a popular topic.
Numbers 14:18 (NIV)18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’
God punishes people for their own, personal sin. Nowhere in the Bible do righteous believers pay eternally for their parents’ sins. God clearly states that a son who acts righteously, even though he has a sinful father, “will not die for his father’s sin” (Eze 18:14–20). The law states, ”Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (Dt 24:16).
This is not to say, however, that nothing is passed on through the family tree. Sinful patterns of behavior are often passed on to family members. For example, an environment of alcoholism, sexual abuse or violence can scar children for life. But the children will answer to God for their own lives, not for those of their parents.
There are instances in the Bible where children experience the tragic consequences of their parents’ sins. For example, David’s affair with Bathsheba resulted in the death of the son from that union (see 2Sa 12:14,18). Today “crack babies” suffer for their mothers’ behavior of using crack cocaine. Until the addictive cycle is broken, generation after generation will be trapped by sin.
The good news of the gospel is that the cycle can be broken through obedience by faith. Hezekiah, the son of the wicked King Ahaz, broke the cycle when he turned to God. So did Josiah, the son of the tyrant Amon. When children break the pattern set by sinful parents, they can receive God’s blessing. The gospel of Jesus Christ offers power to break sin’s grip on families.
I think the verse in Numbers has to be tempered with the reference to Ezekiel given, not to mention a few other iterations of it in Ezekiel. But I also think that we need to see the second part of this verse in the context of the first part.
This is a verse that exposes the nature of God; this picture of his “abounding in love” is actually a very New Testament image, and this verse is worth presenting to people who say the OT God and the NT God are simply too different to be the same.
But the verses that follow continue Moses appeal to God — and it’s important to note that the key verse in this is Moses speaking — and then God’s reply. Specifically, he is dealing with why the generation present at that time would not see the promised land.
We dealt with the topic of generational curses here last February. (I encourage you to read both that post and the first comment.) At that time our key verse was different, but the passage also contained the juxtaposition of God’s judgment with his great love:
Exodus 20:5-6 ~ You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The writer there also noted that at no point does the term ‘curse’ appear in the text. I think the passage has to be seen as referring to consequences. If you’ve ever watched a science fiction movie that has any reference to time travel, there is always the place where the time traveler has to be careful not to alter anything in the past or it has ripple effects which totally alter the future he or she must return to.
That is how I interpret these passages, however, I do allow that there are circumstances and situations where it does appear that very much un-blessing is passed down through generations. But where sin abounds, grace abounds more; the point at which lives are surrendered to God breaks the curse of sin and guilt.