“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” (Exodus 20:5).
The principle is repeated in Deuteronomy 5:9 and appears again in the Book of Exodus with only slightly different wording: “… 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” (Exodus 34:7).
Yet other scriptures, which are equally clear, seem to contradict this principle of the punishment of children for their parents’ sins. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we find: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16). The prophet Ezekiel repeats this opposite approach: “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them” (Ezekiel 18:20).
In order to untangle this seeming contradiction, we must realize that the situations covered by these two sets of scriptures are different. First, notice that in the first set of verses (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Deuteronomy 5:9) nothing is said about death, whereas in the second set of verses (Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20) the death penalty is mentioned in each case.
Moses and Ezekiel both make it clear that under God’s law no one was to be punished for someone else’s crimes or sins. The context is a specifically legal one regarding punishments meted out under human justice. In the Second Commandment and parallel verses it is God who is being said to punish – in a general manner that does not apply to humanly applied punishments.
This is not because God somehow deals out “tougher” justice than he commands humans to do in specific situations, but because God has set in place spiritual laws (summarized in the Ten Commandments) that have an effect when they are broken. Just as we cannot act against the physical law of gravity by dropping an object on the ground without risking breaking it, or jumping from a height without risking hurting ourselves, we cannot break a spiritual law without hurting ourselves – and often others as well.
The scriptures that speak of the sins of parents affecting the individual’s children and other descendants are simply speaking of the unavoidable consequences that people bring upon themselves and others through breaking spiritual laws. Children who are born to drug-addicted mothers will unavoidably be affected by the parent’s addiction. Children who grow up in homes where parents routinely break spiritual laws almost always get hurt by the result of those behaviors. Unfortunately, those children often then pass on the negative results of such choices by following the same behavioral patterns themselves – so the problems suffered by those who reject God’s laws may indeed last till the “third and fourth generation.”
But these unavoidable ongoing effects of the behavior of individuals on their families and others are separate and different from situations where individuals are condemned and punished by society through specific laws for specific crimes. In such cases, God’s law stresses, children should never be punished for the behavior of their parents.