Friday, May 27, 2011

Sins of the Father

The Old Testament is far too often ignored by the body of Christ in New Testament times. At best, the main old stories are kept cherished, along with the psalms and possibly the proverbs. However, in general, most people do not really have any idea what the Old Testament is about. They tend to anachronistically interpret OT events, stories, and prophecies solely in terms of what it means to the Church. This is unfortunate as they are robbing themselves of a wonderful resource. However, some interpretive problems remain.

For instance, consider the issue of family punishment in the OT. If one committed a sin, his family often bore the punishment. Deuteronomy 5:9 states in part, “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.” As another example, consider Joshua 7:19-26, where Achan and his family are stoned, and then burned with fire. 2 Samuel 21:9 also details David’s giving over of seven sons of Saul to be killed.

By way of contrast consider Ezekiel 18: the entire chapter is about personal responsibility for sin regardless of what your father has done. It is explicitly in contrast to the passage in the Torah (Ezekiel ). What are we to make of these situations theologically and morally? First, one must understand Jewish cultural thought. In the ancient near east in general and Judaism in particular, the solidarity of the family unit was central. If the father (the head of the house) acted in a certain way it was as though his descendants acted in that way (cf. Hebrews 7:9, where Levi was said to pay tithes in Abraham to Melchizedek).

There are two ways to interpret what I will call “generational responsibility” (GR). Both of them may be embraced. First, GR means the proclivity or propensity for that particular sin would be passed on to the third and fourth generation. We see this both in the biblical record and from modern-day life experience. The same sins parents fall into are more readily done by the sons. However, this does not quite fully capture the concept in Deuteronomy 5:9. Second, GR means the consequences of the father’s sin are visited upon the third and fourth generation. I do not believe this principle alone captures sufficiently the idea of Deuteronomy 5 either. Why not?

The narrative of Achan compared with instructions in the Torah will help us here. Please recall that Achan’s entire family, including his children, were put to death.[1] However, Deuteronomy 24:16 clearly states, “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.” This verse comes on the heels of the command to pay the hired servant exactly what he has earned. The point is that the consequences and punishment cannot lawfully always be applied to the sons (death), so that it must be some combination of the two views above which adequately explains this principle. Hence, Achan’s family must have been witting accomplices (that only makes sense: how could they have avoided knowing he took the loot and buried it in their tent?).

Next, we must consider the context of Ezekiel 18. Culturally, this came during the exile of Israel. In exilic times, the idea of Ezekiel is one of hope in some places (especially with regards to Israel’s future). However, Ezekiel also presents to them the idea of personal responsibility. As already discussed, this idea was not necessarily foreign. But the point was. For instance, the idea of the book of Kings (1 and 2 Kings for us) is that the consequences of generation after generation of willful rebellion were exile (it is also worth noting we think nothing morally amiss with punishment for the corporate nation with the idea of GR here). Like Chronicles, the idea of Ezekiel in chapter 18 is that every man bears his own responsibility. If his father was righteous and he was wicked, he is punished. If his father was wicked yet he was righteous, he was rewarded. If he had been a transgressor but repented, he was rewarded. If he had been righteous but transgressed, he would be punished. This is a message of hope to those in exile. “You have had punishment,” Ezekiel is saying, “but you may have God’s favor on your very life!”

Yet this idea is not really new. God both punished and rewarded individuals before (think of David, who is a perfect microcosm of this). We also do not see, in these examples, punishment of innocents. That is, we have reason to believe from the text itself that those who receive punishment are those who transgress. Consequences of sin may manifest themselves in the next generation (such as unfortunate transmission of disease contracted by the parent in an act of sin), but true GR only occurs in tandem with the next generation’s actually performing that sin.

God is righteous, and we know that sin has consequences that go beyond even ourselves. This principle does not offend our moral sensibilities. Yet we know God does not transmit the sin itself, though there is something to be said for everyone’s having a sin nature. In much the same way as man’s having original sin, GR means that while a particular iniquity is avoidable, it nevertheless will not be avoided by that person (in general). However, Ezekiel 18 teaches if he or she does avoid it, he has God’s blessing!

The particular case of David and the seven sons of Saul will be dealt with in a separate blog post. Feel free to comment below!

                [1] There is always the answer that Joshua and Israel simply went overkill, misunderstanding what they were to do in killing the entire family. However, not only is the record silent on this, but it seems the Lord even approved of the action.

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  1. Thanks a bunch for this Randy. This really helps. This is similar to the way I thought of this when reading the OT. But some commentators that I have read recently have argued (in the context of defending corporate responsibility in the Bible as part of defending the idea of imputation in penal substitution) that in these cases God simply holds the familiy members guilty as well for the father's sin. I found this idea plain repulsive, but I had to force myself to not reject their interpretation on merely emotional grounds. Nevertheless, what you said here really makes more sense out of these issues.

    Also, some of these commentators have argued that because Ezekiel 18 is put in the context of the exile, Ezekiel isn't really adressing individual responsibility, but rather corporate responsibility of generations as compared to each other. Thus, when it says that the children won't be punished for the sins of the father, they argue that Ezekiel means that the corporate body of this generation won't be punished for the previous corporate generation. However, on their view, it would still stand on the basis of other texts that certain individuals in that corporate body could be held responsible for others in that body. I simply can't get this from the passage because all of the singular pronouns that Ezekiel uses; I can't read it without thinking it is about individual responsibility. Is this a similar way that you would respond to their argument against Ezekiel 18 adressing individual responsibility, or would you take another route? Thanks.


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  3. Sorry Kief for not getting back to you. I have had major problems with blogger all day, and just now got it to work!


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