Can the cycle of Exodus 20:5 be broken?

In this 1768 parchment, Jekuthiel Sofer emulat...

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Question: Exodus 20:5 says, “…punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation….” Is this inevitable or is there a way to prevent it? There is a situation with a friend, who I really believe to be a Christian, but who seems to have some addictive behavior that is not Christian. I don’t mean to be judgmental, but I am very concerned.

Answer: This is from the Ten Commandments and the passage reads in full,

You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Misrepresenting God in the form of an idol has devastating consequences for generations to come, whereas loving God as He commands brings blessing for many, many more generations to come. But how do we square this with Deuteronomy 24:16, which says, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin”? Exodus 20:5 cannot be contradicting this. It would also seem to contradict the scriptures to say that one person’s obedience and love results in their offspring for generations to come to have God’s salvation without believing on their own. All of this suggests that this warning in Exodus 20:5 is speaking more to the “natural” impact of a parent’s unbelief. It affects the overall health of the family which makes it less likely that individuals within the next generations will view God correctly.

If this is the case, then this passage is not meant to carry specific time lines (the phrase “third and fourth” is not intended literally but is a catch phrase used to mean “several,” just as Amos’s “for three sins…even for four” is not meant literally in 1:3 and others). So to answer your question, yes, there is always a way to break the cycle, by the grace of God. An individual within an unbelieving family can also affect the whole family (Exodus 20:6).

Randall Johnson


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