Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Sin of the Fathers

This is one of my quirky interpretations that I thought of ages ago, but don't think I've put on here before. It's about the whole question of "punishing children for the sin of the fathers".

The Second Commandment is a famous example:

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 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.

Exodus 20:4-6, NIV

And here's a famous counter-example:

Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.

Deuteronomy 24:16, NIV

The questions then are "What does it mean for children to be punished for the sin of their parents?", "How is that fair?" and "How come the Bible says both that God does it and that he doesn't do it?"

My take on it is, as I said, a little quirky, but seems to deal with all the problems, so I like it.

Let's take the example of child abuse. Child abuse is wrong. All the evidence says that children who have been abused are much more likely to go on to abuse. That in no way exculpates the abuser who was themself abused as a child. They should be punished. And when they are, they will, in a sense be punished because of their parent's sin.

We take after our parents. My dad supports Liverpool. I support Liverpool, even though I've spent much more of my life in Manchester. It happens in sin as well. If my dad stole things (he doesn't, as far as I know), I'd be much more likely to steal things. If my dad worshiped idols, I'd be more likely to worship idols. Hinduism seems to run in families.

I reckon that children are punished for the sins of their fathers when and because they share in those sins by copying their parents.

So on one level, we should recognise that our sin has consequences for others as well. If I am an idolater, my children are more likely to be idolaters and to be punished for it. Children are punished for the sins of their parents. (when they commit them themselves)

On another level, we shouldn't punish other people just because we don't like their parents. Children have quite enough sin of their own, and they should be punished for that rather than for the sins of their parents.

On a third level, what I do is my responsibility. We shouldn't blame our parents for our own failings. We are not punished for the sins of our parents - it's our own responsibility and our own fault. We are punished for our own sin.


Anonymous said...

This has always been my understanding, too.

John said...

That makes me feel better about having what sometimes seems to be an odd interpretation - thanks!

Daniel Hill said...

I don't think God's punishing the children for the sin of the fathers can be reduced to the fact that children 'take after' their parents. That won't do for explaining why we are punished for Adam's sin, nor will it do for explaining why Achan's children are put to death for his sin (Joshua 7:24-25).

Incidentally, Deuteronomy 24:16 doesn't say that God doesn't punish children for the sins of the parents; it's a command to us.

John said...

I think Adam is a special case, and can easily be dealt with using the standard recapitulation / corporate headship idea.

In Achan's case, it seems that his kids were complicit (unlike in Korah's case, where the children are spared).

Ezekiel 18 says that God will not punish children for the sin of the fathers. I was deliberately going for something which was often cited as evidence for a late date for Deuteronomy.