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The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. (Ezekiel 18:2)
This is not about Aesop’s famous fable of the fox that couldn’t reach the grapes and went away claiming that they were sour anyway. That illustrates a different kind of excuse-making. The Jewish proverb quoted above is also an excuse: but of a far more subtle kind…
It has its roots in a statement made by God himself:
“Yahweh! Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, on the third and on the fourth generation.” (Exo 34:6-7)
We all like the bits that speak about God’s love and forgiveness. But we worry when God then says that he will not clear the guilty. What if we are guilty? Does that mean we cannot be forgiven? But it’s the last bit that really gets to us. What’s this about God punishing the children for what their parents have done?
Let’s start with the easiest bit. The expression ‘by no means clear the guilty’ is an attempt to translate a Hebrew idiom which literally reads, “not naqah naqah,” where naqah means ‘to be (or make) clean.’* The doubling of the word carries the sense of making utterly clean. There is no actual use of the word ‘guilt’ or ‘guilty:’ but that is implied by the need for cleaning. However, the negative indicates that, in spite of God’s readiness to forgive, there is something that forgiveness cannot do. God does not undo the past and make it as if those things had never happened. God’s forgiveness can restore us to such a close relationship with him that it is just as if we had never sinned. But our past actions still have consequences; and we will have to face them.
Which brings us to the final part of the statement. How does God ‘visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children,’ and why? The Hebrew word translated ‘visit’ is paqad. It’s primary meaning is, quite literally, ‘to visit (with friendly or hostile intent).’ By analogy it can mean ‘to oversee, muster, charge, care for, miss, deposit, etc.’* Notice particularly that the word does not specify whether the intention is friendly or hostile: but it does tell us that God is taking a personal interest in a process by which the wrongdoings of the fathers are having an ongoing effect upon the lives of the children.
It would be convenient at this point to simply claim that God is just a detached observer of the consequences brought upon the children by the fathers; and that he himself carries no responsibility for them. But that would be a serious over-simplification. In this passage, God openly acknowledges his involvement in this process. And there are even a few cases in the Old Testament where God’s involvement meant that children died because of a father’s actions. For example, when 3 men incited a rebellion against Moses they, and all their families, died in an earthquake (Numbers 16:1-33). And when David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the first child of that union died (2 Samuel 12:14-23). So why was this?
The Legacy Problem
The society of those days was predominantly patriarchal. Belief in an afterlife was by no means universal; so men sought their ultimate meaning and purpose in life from their possessions and, particularly, their descendants. A man’s children were his guarantee of an enduring reputation. And as there were no state pension schemes, his children, and possibly his grandchildren and great-grandchildren (the third and fourth generations) were also his security in old age. In such societies family loyalties were very strong. If a family member (especially an elder) were slighted or harmed the other members of the family felt honour-bound to avenge them. Even today, in societies of this type, blood feuds can last for generations.
Men would go to great lengths, including murder, to secure their family line and reputation. With widely varying moral and religious standards and ‘might is right’ often being the dominant principle, harsh penalties were often the only way of imposing order. And in such a society, death was often not seen as the ultimate punishment: rather it was that a man’s name and legacy should be blotted out by having no surviving heirs.
When the men revolted against Moses, had they alone been punished the revolt would have simmered on through their children. So Moses called on God to finish the matter by removing their entire families. Note, however, that this does not mean that the wives and children were condemned to hell. (The passage describes them going down alive into ‘the pit’: but this is the Hebrew word ‘Sheol,’ which denotes the place where the dead wait for God’s judgement). Neither is there any indication that God harboured any hatred towards David’s illegitimate child. The problem was that David’s example would have set a dangerous precedent and given a great excuse to the enemies of God. But when Solomon was born after David’s marriage to Bathsheba, God gave him a special name – ‘Jedidiah,’ (‘loved by God’) – as an affirmation that he did not hold David’s former wrongs against the child.
The Blame Game
Attempting to shift the blame for our own misdeeds is as old as the human race. Adam: ‘It wasn’t me – it was the woman You gave me.’ Eve: ‘It was the serpent.’ Theologians and sceptics: ‘Why were the serpent and the tree in the garden in the first place?’
We have seen that God does not duck his personal responsibility in these matters. Plainly, if God is all-knowing, he must have foreseen what would happen. But God’s goal is a society of love and interdependence; and this is not possible unless people are free to choose whether they will live for their own selfish ends or for the good of others. If we choose well, we are all blessed. If we choose badly, others will suffer and so, ultimately, will we.
We should never let the blame game distract us from the prime culprit – the one who knowingly makes a self-centered choice in any given situation. Which brings us back to the sour grapes.
The Israelites of Ezekiel’s day were playing the blame game. They had reason to complain. A succession of bad kings had brought the nation to the brink of ruin and they were suffering the consequences of their father’s sins. So they were seizing on the idea that God was personally ‘visiting the sins of the fathers on the children,’ venting his anger for the sins of their dead ancestors. It wasn’t their fault; there was nothing they could do about it; and it wasn’t fair!
But that wasn’t true.
Restoration – the heartbeat of God
God was not angry with the Israelites because of their father’s sins: but because they were perpetuating them (and adding variants of their own). This is the vicious cycle that so often follows from a bad parental example. The children become victims, then go on to become victimizers, all the while excusing themselves on the grounds that this is what their parents did to them.
Yes, they were suffering the natural consequences of their father’s sins: and the path to restoration would not be easy. But God’s heart towards us is that, no matter how low we have sunk, he wants to raise us up again. And so he repudiates the ‘sour grapes’ proverb and spells out this message in Ezekiel, chapter 18.
A man who does what is just and right is righteous; and will surely live. (Ez 18:4-9)
If he has a violent and wicked son, that son will die for the evil he has done. It will be the son’s own fault. But if he in turn has a son who, realising the evil of his father’s actions, chooses rather to go God’s way then that son will surely live. (Ez 18:10-17)
The one who sins dies. The son does not share the guilt of the father, nor the father that of the child. The righteousness of the righteous is credited to them, and the evil of the wicked is charged against them. (Ez 18:20)
But if a wicked person turns from their evil ways and instead goes God’s way, they will not die. Their past offenses will not be held against them. They will live because of their righteous conduct. God declares that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked: but, rather, is pleased that they repent and live. But if a person abandons their former righteous behaviour for a life of evil, their previous good deeds no longer count for anything. They will die for the evil they are now doing. (Ez 18:21-24)
So God pleads, “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ez 18:31-32 NIV)
Even as the Israelites are being carried into captivity for their own and their father’s sins, God is still watching over (visiting) them, and brings them a message of comfort and hope:
‘Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children. You must increase in numbers and not decrease. Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.
‘When Babylonia’s seventy years are over, I will show my concern for you and keep my promise to bring you back home. I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for. Then you will call to me. You will come and pray to me, and I will answer you. You will seek me, and you will find me because you will seek me with all your heart. Yes, I say, you will find me, and I will restore you to your land. I will gather you from every country and from every place to which I have scattered you, and I will bring you back to the land from which I had sent you away into exile. I, the LORD, have spoken.’ (Jer 29:5-7,10-14. GNB)
So, yes, we do suffer the consequences of our parents’ wrongs. But this is not what will define us or determine our destiny. It is our personal response to God, who is always longing to bless you and restore you to a love relationship with himself, to help you prosper and give you fresh hope for the future.
* Strong’s Analytical Concordance.
Page creation by Kevin King
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