“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. ‘You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Dt.5:8-10)
While attempting to have a good academic approach to a text, we must be careful that we do not lose the significance in our academic exercise or our theological balancing act. Without unpacking that thought in a hair-splitting, maniacal manner, I suggest there are a number of things to mention before focusing on the relational connection between human beings and the way the iniquity of a father can potentially and all too often does affect his children.
First, the opening quote is found within, what we call, the ten commandments. This is a very concentrated statement about God’s moral and behavioral expectations for human beings. It is a statement of tremendous importance from which we can gain meaningful insight.
Furthermore, it is alarming to realize that the alternatives presented in the passage under consideration are “hate Me” or “love Me.” These are two rather clear-cut and distinct categories. This is important to keep in mind. In reference to “love Me,” let’s understand that He did not say, “like me,” “sort of like Me,” “use Me,” “acknowledge Me,” “believe in Me,” “believe I exist,” or any number of other similar possibilities – He said, “LOVE ME.”
Next, there is the issue of “visiting the iniquity” (NAS) verses “punishing the children for the sin of the parents” (NIV). More on this shortly.
So as not to get carried away with the “number of things to mention,” I will mention only one more. The passage uses the word “iniquity” when referring to the unacceptable behavior of “the fathers.” Without presenting a massive grammatical study, I will suggest a distinction between iniquity and other forms of moral evil referred to as sin, transgression and trespass.
Visiting or Punishing
Some translations deal with the idea developed in this passage as though it means that God punishes children for their parent’s sin. Though one can find certain grammatical support for proposing this, I would suggest that it is neither a good translation nor consistent with the point of this important text. For the sake of brevity, I refer the reader to Ezekiel 18.
“What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children’s teeth are set on edge’”? (Eze.18:2)
“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.” (Eze.18:20)
Instead of referring to punishment, the word translated “visiting” conveys something similar to our English word with a deeper sense of identifying and acknowledging the inner realities of what is being visited, viewed, attended to or observed (which happens to be “the iniquity of the fathers”).
My study has led to the conclusion that “iniquity” refers to a broad range of departures from proper behavior. In other words, not all wrong behavior is a direct act of willful rebellion, intentionally, consciously and maliciously chosen. Though much wrong behavior is, some is emotional reaction, acts of ignorance and stupidity, learned behavior due to cultural training, what we generally call mistakes, etc. It is wrong, nonetheless, and produces negative consequences as a departure from God’s design for right behavior and healthy relationships. Iniquity is the full range of willful sin and sins of ignorance.
Regarding this passage, a father does not have to devise and knowingly sin (or violate his son), but even when he, possibly with good intention, does what is wrong (according to God’s standard), it produces a negative influence upon the soul, character and life of the young person in his formative years.
A very, very important clarification must be offered (and hopefully received) at this point. The behavior, lifestyle and choice (good or bad) of the father (or any other person or relationship, for that matter) is an influence upon the son, not the cause of the son’s choices, behavior or character. This is a distinction to be guarded carefully even though philosophers often use the phrase “causal influence.” The son, as a developing moral agent, must produce a response to the father’s influence. The challenge is in realizing that a young, developing moral agent rarely responds with contemplative, intellectual reflection, evaluating the situation with analytical maturity and expertise. It is too often the case that the response in the formative stages is emotionally based. If a father calls his son a “worthless idiot,” an emotional torrent is set in motion, which can produce a wide variety of potential reactions – anything from a defeatist mentality and lack of self-worth to an over-achiever who is constantly attempting to prove his value and worth. I would suggest it is important to keep this in mind when dealing with people. From my experience and observation, of myself and others, I have come to understand that human beings are a bunch of disturbed beings, flailing at life through a vast number of uniquely combined inner disturbances. I am convinced that God is the only one who has any idea of what we could have been in comparison to what we actually are. This is why His reaction, recorded in Genesis 6:5-7, was so vehement and extreme. I am also convinced that He is the only one who can sort out this mess and lead us back into a healthy life as human beings. He does not simply cause us to change, however. He leads and guides and provides as we, hopefully, follow, cooperate and obey. As we experience this glorious deliverance and transformation, we find ourselves “joyously giving thanks to the Father” (see Col.1:9-14).
(TO BE CONTINUED – check back to consider the significance of this statement of powerful relational responsibility, influence and consequence)