There are four passages in the OT that speak of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers unto the third and fourth generations of those who hate God”: Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9. Deuteronomy 5:9 is probably the most familiar:
You shall not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: 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.
Many interpret these passages to teach “generational curses”: curses on the children resulting from their fathers’ sins. There are whole ministries dedicated to helping people break free from these generational curses over their lives, many of which they may have no knowledge of. Is this the point of the passage? Does it really mean to convey the idea that God punishes the children for the sins of their fathers? There are three good reasons to think not.
First, it would contradict other passages of Scripture that teach God does not punish children for their parents’ sins:
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. (Deuteronomy 24:16)
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3 As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die. … 20 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. 21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezekiel 18:1-5, 20-23)
In light of such clear teaching concerning personal responsibility for sin, any interpretation of Deuteronomy 5:9 et al that yields a contrary notion needs to reconsidered.
Secondly, we do not see this happening in the lives of the kings. King Hezekiah was Judah’s most righteous king next to David (2 Kings 18:4), so his children should have been blessed for 1000 generations. Instead, his son Manasseh was extremely evil and opposed by God. According to the generational curses doctrine, Manasseh’s children should have been cursed by God for at least three generations. Instead, Manasseh’s grandson Josiah was a righteous king who brought a revival of Yahwism to the land and was blessed by God!
Thirdly, the context of Deuteronomy 5:9 makes it clear that the generational curses interpretation is incorrect.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 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, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Deuteronomy 5:8-10)
The first thing to notice is that God, not Satan, is the active agent of both the blessing and the cursing. If God is responsible for the curse, how could any human possibly break it? They would be found fighting against God. Good luck with that! If God is responsible for the curse, only He can remove it. And if He promised to curse descendants up to the fourth generation, then He obviously wants them to be cursed.
The second thing to notice is that the curse is on those who hate God. It is not for those who love God but have made some mistakes in life. One might argue, however, that it was their father or grandfather who hated God and caused the curse. But if the curse extends for three or four generations regardless of whether those in those generations love God or not, then the same would be true of the blessing. If anyone loves God, then God will bless them for thousands of generations. Isn’t it more likely that there was someone in the previous 1,000 generations of your family line who loved God (which would cover at least 20,000 years into the past)? Of course! That would mean that God would be obligated to bless you, even if you personally hate Him. The likelihood that one is being cursed by God would be so statistically small as to be virtually irrelevant in the lives of almost all human beings.
The third thing to notice is the contrast between the number of blessed and cursed generations: 1000s versus 3-4. The point isn’t to define the number of generations who’ll be blessed versus the number who’ll be cursed, but to communicate the truth that God’s mercy far exceeds His wrath. Ironically we use the passage to stress the severity of God’s wrath over His mercy!
“But!,” one will object, “we know that children offer suffer from the same patterns of sin their parents and grandparents suffered from.” This is a valid sociological observation. Indeed, negative behavior patterns like uncontrolled anger, spousal abuse, molestation, and alcoholism tend to be repeated from one generation to the next. The question, however, is why they do so. Is it because God has cursed them, or is it merely because, as social beings, we learn how to behave by those closest to us? We learn how to express our anger by observing how our parents express their anger. We learn how to cope with life’s difficulties by observing how our parents cope. If they turn to alcohol, we are likely to do the same. Explaining this kind of social phenomena does not require a spiritual interpretation, nor the doctrine of divine generational curses. While the observation that children tend to repeat the behavior pattern of their parents is true, that is not what is being taught in Deuteronomy 5:8.
We recognize that the bad behaviors we learned from our fathers should not be repeated, and indeed need not be repeated. That’s why we try to help people change them. This task is only possible, however, if the psychological-sociological interpretation of these passages is the wrong interpretation. Ministries that help people break free from the “generational curses” of bad behavior patterns is the best evidence that bad behavior patterns are not the curse Scripture is speaking of. Ironically, then, the very success of these curse-breaking ministries serves to invalidate their entire theological basis!
For those who remain unconvinced, however, consider Christ. Jesus bore our curses by being made a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). If any such thing as a generational curse does exist, that curse over our life would have been broken by Christ. In Christ we receive the mercy of God, not a curse. We have the victory in Christ Jesus.
In conclusion, Deuteronomy 5:9 et al is not about time limits on God’s mercies and curses, but about the greatness of God’s mercy over against His judgment.
Keep it in context….