As I was preparing this article, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. I got to know of people who lost incomes or jobs; others (or family members) were infected with the virus; some were depressed and fearful to the point of panic and irrationality. In the midst of this time of trial and testing, people asked if the reason we are going through such a terrible time is the sins or unbelief of the generations before us that have brought God’s punishment upon us. People asked for prayers for this curse to be broken.
It is perhaps a poignant time to look at Scripture verses like Deuteronomy 5:9, Exodus 20:4–6, or even Exodus 34:7 to understand if these verses support the idea of a generational curse.
Deuteronomy 5:9 says: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” This is linked to Deuteronomy 27:15a:
“Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.”
At first glance, these verses do seem to support the idea of a generational curse. Children will be punished for their parents’ sin. Is this not a blatant miscarriage of justice? It surely looks really unfair for God to take out their parents’ sin on the innocent. Would it not make more sense for the people committing the sin to bear the consequences of their actions? If pushed a bit further, it seems like a judge sentencing a murderer to death by hanging and extending the sentence to the murderer’s children and grandchildren.
That is what these passages seem to allude to. This kind of justice seems totally unfair and uncharacteristic of the gracious God that we know.
Perhaps the kind of justice described in Deuteronomy 7:9–10 seems more justifiable: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face.”
How do we reconcile what seem to be conflicting and confusing warnings? What is God really saying in these passages?
The word “curse” is generally defined as a prayer or invocation for harm, evil, misfortune or injury to come upon someone as a retribution. Sometimes, it is known as an “imprecation”. In the Bible, the word “curse” is often used in contrast to “blessing”. Usually, when a curse is pronounced against any person, it is the penalty for breaking a promise or oath.
In the verses we are exploring, God defined the expectations for a relationship to Him. We know them as the Ten Commandments given at Sinai. God emphasises undivided loyalty and states the fundamental principles for living in right relationship with Him, together with a warning of the consequences if that relationship is broken.
God showers mercy on those who love Him and keep His commandments. God also warns that if the people do not follow the commandments and turn away, there will be the danger of false forms of worship which will have profound consequences for future generations—their children and grandchildren will not be properly instructed regarding the covenant relationship with God and with one another. This is essential to their life and well-being. It is important to understand that God’s justice is part and parcel of His mercy and grace.
We cannot take Deuteronomy 5:9 by itself. We must look also at verse 10 (which is crucial): “You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Taking these two verses together, we see something very clearly—God does not desire to curse us. Rather, it is a warning that sin has its consequences and God will punish sin. More than that, these verses show that God is more willing to bless than to curse.
When God says He will punish, it is only to the third and fourth generations. But His mercy and grace will be shown to thousands (ESV) or to the thousandth generation (NRSV). The contrast is obvious! It shows God’s emphasis on His divine love and forgiveness.
God’s desire is to deal graciously and lovingly with His people. He limits His judgment to the third and fourth generation. He shows the abundance of His grace and mercy to the thousandth generation. God’s love and mercy are the dominant characteristics of the covenant relationship.
The purpose of these passages is meant to be sobering, to bring home a very important point—that our worship and actions have great impact on our nearest and dearest. Our actions have influence and repercussions on them for better or for worse. Our sins have great repercussions on our future generations. As parents, we must seriously consider this—what sort of examples are we for our children?
“Children see, children do” is what these passages warn of. When children see adults abusing their spouses, they might learn to abuse their spouse in future. When children see adults gambling, they might pick up gambling. When children see adults smoking, the chance of their becoming smokers is greater.
This is the so-called “generational curse” about which these Scripture passages are warning us.
While negative actions will have great impact on our younger generations, the opposite is also true. When children see adults praying, they will grow up to value prayer. When children see adults giving of their time and money to help the less fortunate, they will learn to be generous to those who have less.
We might think that we can sidestep the consequences of our actions, but in truth, we cannot. Sin has its consequences. Obedience has its rewards. The wages of sin is death. That is the curse—eternal death. Are we all therefore doomed? No! We are not without hope. It is not the end for us. We can see from the Bible that God will not abandon His children.
For example, even when He drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, God took the time and tenderness to make clothes and help dress them. The Bible is filled with examples of the grace of God. God’s mercy accompanies people even in their wickedness. And God’s grace culminates in the cross of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians tells us that: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” (Gal 3:13a)
But it does not mean that we can continue to sin. Just because God is gracious and kind does not mean He will not punish. We must remember the vivid warning that we will bear the consequences of our sins. Ezekiel 18:19–20 makes it clear: “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
In fact, the whole of Ezekiel 18 is very clear about the consequences of sin and verses 30–32 emphasises repentance: “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
We must see the commandment for what it really was meant to be—not a curse but a warning to guard our conduct because of the implications of our actions for our children. God holds us responsible for the welfare of our children. There is no such thing as eternal security based on past good deeds to ensure our future well-being. Moreover, people need not despair over past evil that prevents them from enjoying life. We have personal freedom to determine at any time our own conduct. The encouragement is for us to turn away from evil.
The warnings given to us are clear. We are not doomed. There is a way out if we repent of our sins and find life in Him. Even though the sins of God’s people would have bad consequences throughout generations, there is grace and mercy given to everyone on the basis of their personal repentance. Repentance involves a fundamental change of direction—turning away from sin and committing oneself to the will of God.
The views expressed in this article are personal and might not necessarily reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for brevity. The full article can be found at http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/index.php/resources/bible-matters?layout=edit&id=261
The Rev Daniel C Tan started his pastoral ministry after graduating from Trinity Theological College in 2003. He is currently appointed to Fairfield Methodist Church as Pastor-in-Charge.