Does God Punish Children for Their Parents’ Sins?

In Exodus 20:5-6, the text says “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.” Many people mistakenly presume that these verses state that God punishes children for the sins of their parents, even if the children are innocent of those sins themselves. Is this right?

No, it clearly is not the right interpretation, as we are reminded in Deut 24:16 that “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.” So what does it mean?

According to biblical scholar Douglas Stuart in his Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary),

this oft-repeated theme speaks of God’s determination to punish successive generations for committing the same sins they learned from their parents. In other words, God will not say, ‘I won’t punish this generation for what they are doing to break my covenant because, after all, they merely learned it from their parents who did it too.’ Instead, God will indeed punish generation after generation (‘to the third and fourth generation’) if they keep doing the same sorts of sins that prior generations did. If the children continue to do the sins their parents did, they will receive the same punishments as their parents.

In fact, if we finish reading verse 6, we see that God’s real desire is for his people to love Him and keep his commands so that He can show His love to a thousand generations.

  • Andrew Ryan

    The first passage seems very unambiguous. The ‘interpretation’ you quote below it doesn’t seem like an interpretation at all as there’s no way the first passage can be read to get that alternative meaning. Rather than say the second bible passage shows that people are interpreting the first passage incorrectly, it seems more like a straightforward contradiction between two passages.

  • Both passages are in the same document (the Pentateuch) and were undoubtedly written by the same people who certainly had the whole document handy. It seems pretty incredible to me that they would miss this “straightforward contradiction” when they revered these as the very words of God. If this were a contradiction, then we have to believe that the authors are 1) stupid and/or 2) irreverent to a high degree.

    A better explanation is the one Douglas Stuart offered, as it makes sense of both passages while explaining the apparent contradiction.

  • Donny

    The Buddha On Belief

    Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

    Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by

    Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your
    religious books.

    Donot believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and

    Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

    Butafter observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees
    with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all,
    then accept it and live up to it. ”

    The Buddha (circa 500 BC)

  • Donny

    Bible or not…Punishing children? A jealous God? Certainly Not a God I’d honor.

  • Jeff

    I’m a father and I punish my children when they disobey because I love them and want to teach them right from wrong. Wrong choices can lead to miserable lives. I also don’t want my children to call anyone else father.
    Does that make me a bad parent?

  • Angell

    This is extremely helpful, thank you!

  • You’re welcome!

  • Emmanuel Roy

    What about ezekiel 18,a whole chapter,please read it

  • Elephant Man

    Then explain David’s son with Bathsheba. He was killed by God solely for the sins of his parents (cf. 2 Samuel)

  • God’s stated intent was to punish David by removing the child from earth and bringing him to heaven. David would have to wait until he died to be reunited with his child.