You know the story.
The Jews are waiting down at the base of Mt. Sinai for Moshe to bring down the tablets. The people become anxious - seemingly losing faith in Moshe’s promise to return - and build a golden calf. When Moshe finally descends he becomes furious, smashing the tablets, but then pivots quickly coming to the defense of Israel.
God wants to destroy the Jewish people and start over with a new nation. Moshe protests and eventually wins - creating the ultimate paradigm of repentance - a phrase, the beginning of which, we repeat ad nauseam during the high holidays:
The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, 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 unto the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)
But hold up one second. What was that last line? Will God really punish children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren for the sins of their fathers?
One of the more interesting debates within the pages of the Hebrew Bible revolves around this idea of God punishing children for the sins of their ancestors. As we will soon see, different biblical authors and thinkers had a multiplicity of views on this ancient debate, one which I feel is still relevant within today’s political sphere.
The first source for this idea actually appears in the Ten Commandments. In both occurrences of the decalogue, when elucidating the punishment for idol worship, the Torah writes:
You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD 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. (Exodus 20:5)
This exact same statement appears in the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments. (Deuteronomy 5:8)
This idea must have been commonplace in the early biblical period. The idea that ancestral action can affect descendants is an idea seen cross culturally in a multiplicity of ancient societies - yet clearly internalized by the early biblical thinkers. However, like many early biblical ideas, this would soon be challenged by later Jewish prophets. (For another example of a biblical idea challenged by later prophets click here
Ezekiel was perhaps the first prophet to rally against this law. In chapter 18 of the book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel gives an example of a wicked man who happens to have a righteous son. If this righteous son:
“does not wrong anyone... observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live.“ (Ezekiel 18:16-17)
Ezekiel then goes on to counter the potential argument of those who disagree:
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 18:19-20)
Finally, this idea makes it back into the book of Deuteronomy (thought to have been finalized around the time of Ezekiel’s life). Without going through all of the back and forth as in the book of Ezekiel, Deuteronomy simply says:
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. (Deuteronomy 24:16)
This shift in thinking was so explicit that even the Talmud - in a statement that would certainly be heretical if not actually in the Talmud - notes the abrupt changing of the law:
Rabbi Yosei bar Ḥanina says: Moses our teacher issued four decrees upon the Jewish people, and four prophets came and revoked them...Moses said: “He visits the transgression of the fathers upon the sons” (Exodus 34:7). Ezekiel came and revoked it: “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4), and not the children of that soul. (Tractate Makot 24a)
So the early biblical writers pushed the idea that God punishes children for the sins of their ancestors, subsequent prophets pushed back implicitly claiming that this idea is unethical, and later biblical writers changed it. Of course, given the way that biblical exegesis works, elements of both sides of this debate have made it into the realm of modern Jewish thought.
However, it is the contemporary application of this debate that I find more fascinating than the history. There is an array of cases in the political sphere where people, whether explicitly or implicitly, place blame or want to actively punish a community for the actions of their ancestors. In fact, this is such a relevant topic that I will devote another full article to a discussion of this applied idea within today’s public conversation.
For now, this is yet another example of the nuance and multiplicity of opinion evident within the pages of the Hebrew Bible. The fact that our holy book is riddled with difference of opinion sets up Judaism to be the discussion and debate based tradition that we all love and enjoy.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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