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Essay donated by Gerald Ostroot

Transferring sin: Exodus 20:5I interpreted
 from an Evangelical Christian viewpoint

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From the King James Version of the Bible:

Exodus 20:5: Tthou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I, the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; (KJV) (also Ex. 34:7 – Nu. 14:18 – Deut. 5:9)

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This bible verse is almost always taken out of context and read simply as God’s statement that He will punish the children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren for the sin of the fathers. The popular NIV translation includes that wording. Paraphrased Bibles tend to include the theme of punishment. The Jewish Holy Scriptures, The Tanakh, says that God will visit the guilt of the parents upon the children. It is being taught in that abbreviated form. Then we accuse the Bible of being inconsistent or contradictory when confronted by a later verse in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 24:16: The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (KJV)

The entire 18th chapter of Ezekiel repeats this same statement that only the guilty shall be punished. It is a clear announcement by God of His policy on sin. Is God contradicting Himself? No, He is not. The chapter in Ezekiel makes it clear that the Jews have misinterpreted His statement in Exodus and have made it into a proverb that says,

Ezekiel. 18:2: …. ‘the fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’. (KJV)

The NIV translators, faithful to their principles of translation, have rendered the Exodus passage as the Jewish author perceived it—as an idiom that meant the children would be punished for the father’s sin. This was the Jewish experience. The nation of Israel was repeatedly punished for their transgressions. This included innocent children. Now God is saying that their perception of the Exodus passage was wrong and they must no longer use that proverb. What’s happening?

The above is typical of the confusion that arises when biblical passages are taken out of context and then applied in a general way. This incident is particularly confusing because it involves both the context in which it occurs and the context of the biblical precedents. We need to go back and examine the context for this verse.

This Exodus verse occurs in a very special setting. Here, it is specifically linked to the proclamation of the second commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image!" It is tied to a specific sin—that of idolatry and rejection. It is the only commandment that includes a consequence for those that disobey. Verse 5 proclaims the effect on the children of "them that hate me". The Ten Commandments are the heart of The Law. Jesus proclaimed that they apply to all nations for all time. We need to recognize this verse as applicable to those of us today that reject God or practice idolatry. Therefore, we should not interpret it as a Jewish idiom. Rather, we should interpret it literally. God’s declaration about "visiting the iniquity" means that He will go and "see the sin" practiced by the fathers, being learned and practiced by their descendants. They will be punished for their own sin, learned from their fathers. But for those who love the Lord, He will have mercy and love. We learn in the New Testament that His mercy and love will also come through a new and better covenant offered by His son, Jesus. It is a covenant made with individuals and promises personal salvation in return for the life dedicated to Jesus. These verses all speak of individual sin. When read literally, Exodus 20:5 does not contradict God’s statement that only the guilty will be punished.

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However, the nation of Israel is still under the old, Mosaic covenant. That covenant was not made with individuals. It was made with the whole nation of Israel and promised to preserve, protect and honor the nation in return for their promise to honor, obey and glorify Him. It was up to all the individuals within that nation to fulfill that promise. Individual sin was very important and could result in individual punishment. But it also contributed to the overall sins of the nation and would contribute to punishment for the entire nation when it became too widespread. That is the condition that Israel accepted. That is why some innocent people suffered along with the guilty majority. Only God could know when that line of national punishment was to be crossed. We see that same type of decision in the flood and in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, both of which must have also included innocent children. In Exodus 20:5 God says that these innocent children will learn idolatry at the knee of their fathers and will also reject Him. The fathers will bear the responsibility for their own sin of idolatry and also for teaching that sin to their children. God has saved them from a very bleak future. He also promised mercy (KJV) and love (NIV) to those who love Him. He does not punish the innocent for the individual sins committed by others. He does punish the nation of Israel for breaking their covenant.

There was a reason for that old covenant. God chose the Jews for a very special purpose. They were to bring His name, the God of a small band of slaves, into recognition as THE greatest God among all the nations. That purpose is stated in several Old Testament verses. David stated it in his victory over Goliath.

1 Samuel 17:46: ….: that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. (KJV)

(See also Exodus 8:3,10; Exodus 9:14,16; Malachi 1:11)

David achieved greatness in Israel—God became recognized in all the earth. Even though the Jewish nation failed to become a nation of priests (Ex. 19:6) and to set an example for all nations, God’s purpose was achieved. That achievement was necessary before He could introduce a Savior for all people into our world. It was through His covenant with the nation of Israel that He demonstrated His greatness to the world and made our salvation possible.

I want to leave you with two questions to ponder. God had a covenant with the nation of Israel and punished that nation for straying too far from Him. Today, America has no formal covenant with God as a nation. But this nation was established as a nation "under God" and we feel that He has blessed this nation in the past. Does that amount to a de facto covenant with Him that also exposes us to punishment as a nation when we stray too far from Him? Are we, as a nation, also disobeying that first commandment against idolatry in a more subtle way? If so, it is time to be concerned about where that line of national punishment might be drawn!

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Originally posted: 2007-NOV-11
Latest update: 2007-NOV-11
Gerald Ostroot, at: [email protected]

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