To the Third and Fourth Generation
Posted June 17, 2011on:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)
I used to think passage evoked the worst image of a vengeful God. Not the fact that God is jealous and possessive, demanding our absolute faithfulness–that seems a reasonable request for relationship given God’s devotion to us. But a God who would visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” seems to know nothing of forgiveness and grace.
This promise that a father’s (or mother’s) sins would bear out in punishment upon their grandchildren and great-grandchildren is repeated as often as the commandment, also appearing in Numbers 14:8, Exodus 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9. In good biblical fashion, it is also directly contradicted in several other places. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” This standard of justice, which accords far more with our own understandings, is reaffirmed in the Hebrew Bible in Ezekiel 18:19-20, and in the Gospels in John 9, the story of the man born blind.
Yet the commandment stands: the sins of the father will haunt the lives of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The more I come to understand human relationships, the less I believe this is the sign of a vengeful God, and the more I come to know that this is simply the truth of human relationships and earthly life. Our actions, especially our sins, have consequences that last for generations. The things we do in this world, in this lifetime, will shape the lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for good or for ill.
The evidence is most dramatic in families with a legacy of sexual abuse or addiction. One parent who acts as an abuser will distort the sexual lives of his children, whose brokenness is repeated in their children, who pass it along to their children. An alcoholic family member warps the interactions of the rest of the family members. Even those children who do not follow the pattern of addiction live with shriveled expectations and wilted relationships, unable to teach trust and intimacy to third and fourth generation. To consider it even more broadly, in this consumerist, energy-hog world, our pollution, decomposing trash and environmental catastrophes will haunt our future children for hundreds of years.
The pattern persists even with less cruel and dramatic patterns of sin and brokenness. Every generation of mothers and fathers tries to do better than their parents did. My grandparents talk about the ways they tried to raise their children to be stronger and more compassionate than their parents. My parents still carried wounds and longings from their childhoods, which they tried valiantly to fight off as they raised my sister and I. They did their best, and yet the same wounds and longings that they carried are still alive inside of me. As I start to raise my son, I can already see what I cannot give him. I will try to do a better job than my parents, just like they did for me, but B will still carry my inherited brokenness forward. As a family, even across generations, we have not the knowledge or power to break out of the damaged patterns, even if we try.
They may not have called it family systems theory, but the writers of the Torah understood the pattern of human relationships. We are locked in systems of relationships where we live out circular roles and behaviors again and again. We can alter our actions to try to change the system, but one generation is not sufficient to break its hold on us. We pass on our human failings to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the same way we pass along our genes for curly hair, or freckles, or nearsightedness.
As I come to appraise this reality, the message of that commandment seems less vengeful and more hopeful. “Follow me,” says God, “and your brokenness will not last forever.” There is no curse applied to the thousandth generation—only three or four. While we cannot fully escape the bitterness and behavior of our parents and grandparents, nor can we avoid passing our own lack and longing on to our children and grandchildren, nothing will last for all time. If we follow God’s command to serve and follow the Holy, these curses will not go on and on. Each generation can take a step to leave behind the problems of their predecessors. Our false idols of ourselves, of what is good, of what is bad, of who we are and what we can become—these will fade away, albeit slowly, if we keep trying to orient ourselves toward God. By the fifth generation, perhaps they will be gone altogether. It may take generations, but grace prevails.