The Cursed Doctrine of "Generational Curses"
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? I think not. The context makes this abundantly clear. Let's look at Deuteronomy 5:9-10 as a case in point:
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. 10 And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
Whereas God's wrath would be visited to the third and fourth generations for those who hate God, His mercy would be visited on thousands of generations for those who love God. Notice the contrast. The point of this passage is not to communicate the number of generations who will be blessed versus the number who will be cursed, but rather to communicate that God's mercy far exceeds His wrath. Ironically we have used these passages to stress the severity of God's wrath over His mercy!
I do not suggest that this observation alone clears up the difficulty of this verse, for the point still seems to stand that the innocent could be punished for their fathers' sins. I would, therefore, like to make a few more observations that serve to more adequately address this notion, as well as the application of "generational curses" as it is often taught today.
First, notice that the curses are on those who hate God. It is not for those who love God, but make some mistakes in life. One might argue, however, that their father or grandfather might have hated God. This is irrelevant, but brings me to my next point.
Using a hyper-literalistic interpretation of this passage, if the Lord shows mercy for thousands of generations on the fathers who loved God, then all that would be necessary for us to be in the "mercy" rather than "cursed" category is to find one relative in the past thousand or so generations that loved and obeyed the Lord. Is it not probable that we have at least one distant relative in the last 1000 generations who loved the Lord and kept His commandments? The statistical probability is that we most certainly do. And if we do, then we are part of the 1000 generations the Lord promised to show mercy to, not curse.
The third point to consider is that God is the active agent behind these curses. This is in contradistinction to most interpretations of these passages in which it is assumed that God does not want us being cursed. Whereas the common interpretation assumes the origin of the curse is Satan, or even man himself, the text is clear that the origin of the curse is God. Why would God break the curse that He is responsible for giving? After all, He wouldn't have said He was going to curse the third and fourth generations if He did not want the sinner's third and fourth generations to be cursed. To invoke God's help in breaking His curse is to ask God to will something other than what He expressly wills. That is contradictory and absurd. This undermines all those ministries that attempt to break generational curses, for they are found to be fighting against God.
Fourthly, the empirical data contradicts the idea that children pay for their fathers' sins to the third and fourth generations, and that the children are destined to repeat the sins of their fathers. Consider David. David killed a man and committed adultery, but we don't read of Solomon doing the same. The outcome of their lives was quite different. Or consider the kings of Judah. King Hezekiah was Judah's most righteous king next to David (II Kings 18:4), but his son Manasseh was the most evil! Manasseh's grandson, Josiah, however, was a righteous king who brought a revival of Yahwism to the land! What happened to the mercies God promised to show on Hezekiah's progeny for thousands of generations? What happened to Manasseh's curse to the 3rd and 4th generation? They do not exist, which ought to clue us into the fact that 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.
The fifth point to consider is Jesus' statement in John 9:3. Upon seeing a man blind from birth the disciples asked Jesus, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus responded, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him." Contrary to the disciples' belief, he was not paying for his ancestors' sins. In fact, his infirmity was unrelated to sin. It was for the glory of God.
Finally, Ezekiel 18:1-5 counters the idea that God punishes the children for the fathers' sins:
The word of the LORD came to me again: 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, says 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 that sins shall die. 5 "If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right.
Ezekiel expands on this idea in the verses that follow in much more detail, pointedly declaring that if the son of an evil man does not repeat His father's sins (which contradicts the interpretation of the "generational curses" passages that the children are destined to repeat their fathers' sins) he will not be punished, but only the father. The same goes for the corollary in which a righteous man's son commits evil. The father will be blessed, but the son will be punished. Ezekiel summed up the matter by proclaiming:
The soul that 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 man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. (Ezek 18:20-21)
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.
Many understand these passages as referring to the cycle of psychologically and socially-influenced negative behavior patterns that tend to be repeated from one generation to the next (e.g. alcoholism, spousal abuse, uncontrolled anger). According to this interpretation one's upbringing, not God, is responsible for the curse.
But notice that this understanding of generational curses has nothing to do with God. While it is true that the human tendency is for children to repeat the sins of their parents, this is not due to the fact that God has cursed them so that they must repeat the same sins. There is nothing supernatural about it. It is a phenomenon of human nature. We learn from example and influence. We tend to do what we have learned to do by the example of others. We don't need a Bible verse to explain this social phenomenon. Scripture, however, claims the curse is supernatural in nature; it is attributed to the activity of God. If our understanding of "generational curses" does not depend on God, and yet whatever these texts are talking about depends on specific divine action, that ought to clue us into the fact that our understanding of "generational curses" has nothing to do with these passages, and therefore cannot serve as either an adequate interpretation or even application of these passages. While our observation that children tend to repeat the behavior pattern of their parents is true, that idea is not being taught in these specific passages (right idea, wrong Scriptural justification).
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, 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" (Gal 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.
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