The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
It’s not hard to understand why this passage in Exodus is the most referenced Scripture throughout the Hebrew Bible — who doesn’t want to be reminded of some of the most beautiful aspects of God’s character? It’s wonderful, gracious, and encouraging.
It makes the next words in the passage all the more challenging (and potentially shocking).
[God] does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth [generation]. (Exodus 34:7b)
So does God hold us accountable for the mistakes our parents make? These verses in Exodus seem to say so. And this seems a little harsh, right? It’s one thing to say we are shaped by our parents — we all know that. We inherit things like physical features, health issues, mannerisms, and ways of viewing the world from them. It is clear that who our parents are, and even the choices they make, affect us greatly. But will we really be punished for something our parents did?
In this text, we’re confronted with the intimidating concept of generational accountability. But if we dig a little deeper, we’ll see that God isn’t saying he’ll bring his wrath upon totally innocent children for their parents’ actions. God is warning his people that each generation will be held accountable if they repeat the sins of the previous generation.
God’s Justice is About a Covenant of Love
First, let’s look at the context. Like any challenging biblical claim, this verse doesn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, it’s set against the backdrop of an extremely important description of God’s character.
Exodus 34 finds Moses at the top of Mount Sinai, formalizing Israel’s covenant relationship with God while everyone else stays below. God has just rescued the Israelites from slavery and oppression in Egypt, and the covenant relationship he’s forging with Israel will display his loving character to the nations. God is investing heavily in this group of people, and he is requiring that they, in turn, live a certain way.
But this is actually Moses’ second time atop Mount Sinai, formalizing Israel’s covenant with God. He had already spent 40 days and 40 nights atop the mountain with God (Exodus 24-32), and during his absence, the Israelites got impatient and scared. Could they really trust God would provide for them? Why was Moses taking so long?
Before Moses even made it back down the mountain, the Israelites took matters into their own hands.
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:1-4)
Israel created an idol to take the place of God while God was forming an eternal covenant relationship with them. Talk about insulting! This is like the bride kissing a groomsman during her wedding ceremony. God is understandably angry.
Astonishingly, God decides to continue his partnership with Israel — not because of their merit but because of his grace, compassion, and loyal love.
But he wants Israel to know his patience is not an excuse to continue in this type of betrayal. God’s words on generational accountability are part of a larger statement he makes to Moses about his character, when Moses goes back up the mountain.
Yahweh, Yahweh — A God compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger, Abounding in loyal love and faithfulness. He maintains loyal love for thousands, Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sins. But he won’t declare innocent the guilty. He will bring the iniquities of the fathers upon the third and the fourth. (Exodus 34:6-7)
With this context in mind, we can understand why God is thinking about the future of Israel and the likelihood that they will continue to violate the terms of the covenant. God is in this relationship with Israel for the long haul. He knows that each new generation is going to betray him like the last, and he is making clear that future generations will still be held accountable to his covenant terms.
The bottom line is that God’s love wouldn’t be truly loving without God’s justice. So this passage, which at first appears harsh, is really about God preserving his covenant of love with humanity.
So Who’s Responsible for What?
Why does God say he will hold each generation accountable to “the third and the fourth?” What does this even mean? Is the fifth generation off the hook?
“Third and fourth” is a Hebrew idiom that means “for whatever number it takes.”
God (of course) was right about the trajectory of the Israelites. Generations after this first proclamation of generational accountability in Exodus 34, Israel betrays their covenant so many times that they find themselves in exile. The prophet Jeremiah reflects on their exile with language from God’s statement in Exodus.
I prayed to the Lord, saying: “Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to thousands, but you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the children of man, rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jeremiah 32:16-19)
Jeremiah reflects on God’s statement in Exodus, “you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them,” but then he continues to make clear what this really means. God will reward each person according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds.
In other words, Israel finds themselves in exile because the current generation repeated the sins of their fathers: the betrayal of the covenant.
God’s heart isn’t about punishing people. This verse makes clear that God does not punish children for their parents’ sins. God does not punish a new generation for the sins of a former generation. But God does hold children who don’t learn from their parents’ mistakes accountable. It is the responsibility of every generation to not repeat the mistakes of those that came before them.
And don’t miss the contrast God makes in these verses. Generational accountability lasts through the “third and fourth” generation, but God’s loyal love lasts for “thousands” of generations.
Remembering the Past Helps Us Not Repeat It
The children of Israel discovered firsthand what we have all seen in our own lives. We may not be responsible for our parents’ mistakes, but we still have to deal with the consequences of their choices.
This reality should be both sobering and hopeful.
For example, those with addiction or abuse in their family trees have already had to deal with the consequences of the mistakes of their parents or grandparents. It is not easy, but when people with this kind of family background put in the remarkable effort to live their lives differently, the redemptive work of God shines all the brighter. When we observe brokenness within our families and choose a different path, one that aligns with God’s redemptive plan for humanity, we can see clearly the loyal love of God.
Hundreds of times throughout Scripture God gives his people the commandment to remember ─ remember where they came from, remember slavery and exile, remember God’s work of deliverance and his promises for the future.
For Israel (and for us too), remembering the sins of our parents is the key to doing things differently. Denying that something bad happened in the past is a dangerous step toward prolonging harmful patterns and cycles within our families and communities. And when we choose denial, we don’t leave room for celebrating God’s redemptive work. Remembering, and sometimes grieving, the seasons of “exile” in our lives and the sins of our pasts is the first step towards celebrating the deliverance God has woven into our stories.
When we rightly remember past wrongs, we open ourselves up to the opportunity to do things differently in our own lives and in the lives of future generations, and we create space to celebrate God’s miraculous, loyal love.