(Ex. 20:5) Is it fair for God to punish someone for their father’s sins?

CLAIM: It is wrong to hold someone morally responsible for something that their parents did wrong. And yet, God states, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Ex. 20:5). Why would God punish people who did not directly sin against him?

RESPONSE: To begin, our moral intuition is correct: The clear teaching of Scripture is that we are judged for our own deeds—not those of our parents. The overarching teaching of the Bible is that God will judge each person according to their own deeds (Mt. 16:27; Lk. 12:47-48; Jn. 5:29: Dan. 12:2; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 20:12; Ezek. 18:19-20; Eph. 2:3).

Other OT passages clearly speak against the concept of intergenerational culpability. That is, God will not hold a person morally responsible for something immoral that his ancestors did:

(Ezek. 18:19-20) As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was not good among his people, behold, he will die for his iniquity. 19 Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.

(Deut. 24:16) Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.

(2 Kin. 14:6) The sons of the slayers [King Amaziah] did not put to death, according to what is written in the book of the Law of Moses, as the LORD commanded, saying, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the sons, nor the sons be put to death for the fathers; but each shall be put to death for his own sin.”

How do we harmonize these passages with Exodus 20:5? Two options are noteworthy:

OPTION #1. This passage refers to God’s passive wrath—not his active wrath. The Hebrews often didn’t clearly distinguish between what God causes and what God permits. Walter Kaiser observes, “Scriptural language frequently attributes directly to God what he merely permits.”[1] Thus, this text could refer to the consequences of sin. If a man abuses his children, the effects can persist for several generations. In other words, sin has a sociological and interpersonal effect on others. Consider one example in 2 Kings where we read, “While these nations feared the Lord, they also served their idols; their children likewise and their grandchildren, as their fathers did, so they do to this day” (2 Kin. 17:41). As Cole writes, “What we call ‘natural results’ are just an expression of God’s law in operation.”[2]

OPTION #2. The “iniquity of the fathers” (NASB) or the “sin of the parents” (NIV) refers to the children who continue to sin like the parents. Stuart[3] argues that the text is saying that God will punish successive generations who persist in the sins of their ancestors. In other words, subsequent generations are not excused for choosing to sin simply because they learned it from their parents. Rather, God will judge them. Thus, the “sin of the parents” refers to the children performing the same sins as their parents. This perspective takes into account the active language of the text (“punishing the children”).

[1] Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 196-197.

[2] R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 2, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 164.

[3] Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, vol. 2, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 454.