How does it make sense to carry the sins of our fathers?

The Bible has many interesting warnings. One warning that makes me feel uneasy is the one in Exodus 20:5b “punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” And then again in Exodus 34:7, “Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” But then later in Ezekiel 18:20, there appears to be a change of heart God says, “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” How do we reconcile these verses? I would argue that Hope is an inbuilt system in God’s world. In the Bible, a warning is often coupled with the possibility of forgiveness and hope.  

With recent developments in DNA studies, this is not too difficult to imagine. In “Genomics: how genome sequencing will change our lives” Rachael Pells explains that our lifestyle choices can adversely affect our DNA. Apparently, we are able to see marks that indicate smoking even if you smoked for a short while 30 years ago. It is possible that you may have been handed down good genes, but they are not permanent. Our choices can impact our DNA and it will not only affect us but also our future generations – including people you may never meet. There appears to be a case for interpreting God’s warning as an act of love toward his people. 

However, even scientists have found a way out of this predicament by limiting the spread of a bad gene to the next generation by using Crispr which can remove or edit natural epigenetic marks. Hope appears to be inbuilt into the human system as well. Man, after all, created in the image of God is always looking for hope in hopeless situations. Just as we have one verse that says, God will punish children for their father’s sins and then later he offers them hope through his forgiveness, humans too are finding solutions to the problems that we often create for ourselves. 

God’s laws are really only meant to help us stay on course – to prevent us from getting into emotional, spiritual, and maybe even physical harm. He hates that we hate ourselves. But then even he offers hope – as Jeremiah explains in chapter 31, in the Old Covenant God appears to be leading his people like a parent who first begins with simple rules with the hope that the child will eventually imbibe and appropriate them for themselves,  

“When that time comes, people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth have grown numb.’ Rather, each person will die for his own sins. The teeth of the person who eats the sour grapes will themselves grow numb. “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God, and they will be my people. “People will no longer need to teach their neighbours and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the Lord. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.”

And ultimately, Jesus brings this longing to a close with his resurrection. What begins with a stern warning in scene one (Ex. 20:5) leads to scene two (Jer. 31:29-34), where God says, there is hope. And then ultimately in scene three, which is the climax of God’s revelation, Jesus’ resurrection is the curtain call bringing the entire thing to an exciting end, but with a, “to be continued” tag which leads us to the next season of life in the here and now. With the Spirit of God in us (John 14:16-18), the promise – I will put my law within them –  is fulfilled!


Daniel Thejus (Bobby)

Dr Daniel Thejus (Bobby) is an Adjunct Speaker with Life Focus Society. After completing his undergraduate course in Economics, Politics and Sociology, heeding the advice of a Jesuit novice, he completed his Masters in Philosophy earning a gold medal from Madras Christian College. His passion to understand the times led him to do a Ph.D. from Madras University where his research focused on Amartya Sen’s idea of Justice, Identity and Democracy. His interest in Theology peaked with an MLitt in Analytic and Exegetical Theology from St. Andrews University, Scotland. Apart from his research interests, he is interested in speaking about the interaction between eastern philosophies and theology. Bobby enjoys interacting with people in any setting. His interests range from popular culture, human flourishing, justice to philosophy. Bobby is married to Ruhamah, and they currently live with their two young children in Scotland.

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