Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Questioning the Old Testament: The Children Punished for the Parents' Sin

This past Sunday we had our fourth Deeper event at Life Bible Fellowship Church. This one revolved around the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The two key questions were
(1) Is the God of the Old Testament the same God that Jesus revealed?
(2) Is the path to God revealed in the Old Testament the same path that is revealed in the New Testament.
We finished with a Question/Answer time, and I was not able to get to all the questions. For the next few posts, I will be answering some of the remaining questions.
Here is the question for this post:
In reference to Exodus 34:6-7, why would God punish someone for someone else's sin?
Here is the text for Exodus 34:6-7: And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he 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."

There are multiple instances in the Old Testament of a person's sins having consequences for other people. Whole families or nations are punished because of the actions of a father or a king or a small group of people. This seems unjust to us. Shouldn't people simply be punished for their own sins? Why should someone else's sin impact me?
There are a few factors that can help us to understand this reality.
1. No man is an island. Throughout both the Old and the New Testaments is the idea that people's actions impact others, for better or for worse. There is not only guilt for individuals, but guilt for nations, guilt for families, and guilt for clans. This is often called corporate guilt.
The fact is that we all know that our actions have an impact on others. This is especially true for those who are in authority. If parents make poor decisions, whether financial or legal or moral, this brings consequences on children. If military leaders make poor decisions, this has a significant (and even fatal) impact on the soldiers under their charge. If kings or presidents make poor decisions, this can have a crippling impact on an entire nation (or multiple nations).
While this might not give us a final answer on why God would enforce consequences on the descendants of those who sin, and why he told Israelites to wipe out entire nations, including non-combatants like women and children, it can help us to understand that corporate guilt and consequences are a normal way of life in a world in which we are all connected to one another.
2. No one is innocent. Often we will talk about the immorality of innocent people being punished for the sins of the guilty. We need to be careful when we say this. We are not as innocent as we think we are. And, often, the people being punished for the sins of others are not innocent at all. Often the nations that are punished have partaken in the sins the bring guilt of their kings. Often the children that are punished have taken part in the sins of their parents. We need to be careful not to assume that the punished group is innocent, just because they are being punished for the sin of their representative.
This, of course, does not solve the problem of a future generation being punished for the sins of their ancestors. Clearly, the future generation is not yet guilty of the sin for which they will suffer consequences. But a wider context for Exodus 34:6-7 might help us with this. God says something similar in Exodus 20:5-6 when the Ten Commandments are given. Here God says: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to the thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
It is not too big a stretch to wonder if this context speaks into Exodus 34:6-7. Is it reasonable to think that perhaps the "of those who hate me" can be read into the third and fourth generation? After all, this is what he says earlier in the same book.
Whatever the case, though, we must always be careful when we talk about people being innocent. Every person has guilt before God. As much as we may see certain people as relatively innocent, but Scripture continues to point to our guilt. We must be willing to adjust our perspective to that of God.

3. Many punishments have far-reaching effect. If I robbed a bank and went to jail, I would be experiencing a punishment. But so would my wife and children. Without any special punishment from the state, they would experience natural consequences. My financial contribution to the family would stop. My presence as a husband and father would be compromised. There might be public shame that they would experience. The point is that my family might complain, "You are punishing us!" And, in a certain sense, they would be right. My actions would not only impact my children, but also my children's children. Sometimes our consequences necessarily impact people who were not a part of our crime.
It is worth considering the fact that the punishment given by God to these original sinners might simply be a punishment that, by definition, has an impact on future generations. If the punishment was loss of land or poverty or military loss, then this punishment might still be impacting people generations later. Sometimes a nation will lose a war and have the pay reparations. Or they may lose some land. Or they may simply be crushed by the loss of life. Sometimes our actions have natural consequences on our descendants.
4. Representations, for better or worse, is a key part of the gospel. It seems unfair to many of us that one person would be punished because of someone else's sin. But this not only happens occasionally in the Old Testament, this is what has happened to all humanity. Romans 5 teaches that we all are counted guilty because of Adam's sin. We were all in Adam, he was humanity's representative, and when he fell into guilt, we all fell into guilt. If we don't like this, then we need to be careful. After all, Paul goes on to say in Romans 5 that we all gain life through a different representative: Christ. We find ourselves guilty for the sin of a representative (although each of us has sinned enough to earn our own guilt), and we find ourselves justified for the obedience of a representative (even though we had no righteousness of our own). This is core to the gospel. What we see in the Old Testament is consistent with it.

I find the above four points to be really helpful. That said, I recognize that this does not eliminate the fact that this question is tough for us. I don't assume that these points fully resolve the issue. In addition to these thoughts, we must always show a willingness to trust God. Sometimes his actions will make perfect sense to us. Other times they won't. But through his gift of his Son, we have embraced that he is good, he is gracious, and he is trustworthy. This doesn't mean that we don't look for answers, but it does mean that we do so with the backdrop of trust.

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