Sins of the Fathers in the Bible
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Deut. 5:9 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...
Deut. 24:16 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.

Do these verses reveal a major contradiction in the Bible? Does one teach individual responsibility for sin, while another teaches that one can be punished for the sin of another?

Do these contradict? There are a couple of answers to this one.

One is to say that Deuteronomy 24:16 refers to punishments meted out for crimes, as does a vese cited in Ezekiel. Verses cited in Isaiah, and others, in contrast, refer to punishments and sufferings that are the natural results of one persons' actions "rolling downhill" on another person. It may also be added that "four generations" in Deut. 5:9 and elsewhere refers to the normal lifespan of a human being, so that essentially, the verse means that punishment will be meted out over the lifetime a person alone.

There's a far more contextual answer, though, and we'll need to look at each verse in questio. We'll list them first, then examine each in turn. Starting with the "individual responsibility" side, there are three that are cited:

Dt. 24:16 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.
Jer. 31:29-31 "In those days people will no longer say, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes--his own teeth will be set on edge. "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah."
Ezekiel 18:20 The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.

Now, from what we might call the "other responsibility" side -- verses which are cited as teaching that one person can be punished for the sins of another:

Ex. 20:5//Deut. 5:9 (cf. Ex. 34:7) 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...
2 Sam. 12:14 "But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die."
Is. 14:21 Prepare a place to slaughter his sons for the sins of their forefathers; they are not to rise to inherit the land and cover the earth with their cities.
Rom. 5:19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

A few of these really don't fit the bill, and we need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Is. 14:21 comes from a song of vengeance that it is predicted will be sung by the Israelites; it isn't expressing doctrine at all.

Rom. 5:19 has to do with "original sin" -- not in the same category. (See link 1 below.) But the rest are good to go for our purposes, and are supposed to stand in contrast to the three "individual" verses above.

The answer comes in two parts, for there is one answer for the Deut. cite, and another for the two cites from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and both are found by considering social data.

Deuteronomy: Down With Pagan Justice

A key to understanding this business is a concept called vicarious punishment that is found in the law codes of the ANE. Greenberg [Chr.SPPS, 295] offers these examples:

A creditor who has maltreated the distrained sin of his debtor that he dies, must lose his own son. If a man struck the pregnant daughter of another so that she miscarried and died, his own daughter must be put to death. A seducer must deliver his wife to the seduced girl's father for prostitution. In another class are penalties which involve the substitution of a dependent for the offerer -- the Hittite laws compelling a slayer to deliver so many persons to the kinsmen of the slain, or prescribing that a man who has pushed another into a fire must give over his son...

Now it is precisely this kind of punishment, which was prescribed in every law code in the Near East, that Deut. 24:16 is intended to forbid. The verse is not a universal motto, but a time-specific law intended as a direct counter to the practices listed above. "The proper understanding of this requires...that it be recognized as a judicial provision, not a theological dictum." [Chr.SPPS, 296, 298]

It is of a different order than verses and situations like the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Deut. 5:9, Exod. 20:5, the destruction of the Canaanites, Achan's sin (Josh. 7), the son of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12) and the vengeance of the Gibeonites on Saul's sons (2 Sam. 21, where a national treaty was violated by God's chosen king), which all involve "direct affronts to the majesty of God." Such affronts were dealt with quite differently than internal human affairs, and therefore, there is no contradiction whatsoever between these kinds of verses and those that teach individual responsibility. They apply to two entirely different contexts.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel: Calls to Action

The issue of Dt. 24:16 is thereby explained, but what about the other two cites? Some call this an obvious "contradiction" which was maintained among the Jews for so long...and do not why, in spite of these verses, Jeremiah and Ezekiel elsewhere in their books affirm the concept of corporate punishment. Those who see some sort of developmental process here stand against scholarship familiar with the texts of the period, represented by von Rad [VR.Dt, 152; see also Wein.Dt111, 299], who writes:

A thorough study of early legal history, including that outside Israel, has shown that the conception of a general development from collective to individual liability is incorrect. The principle of personal responsibility was by no means unknown in the earlier times.

Nevertheless, there is a developmental process of a sort. Jeremiah and Ezekiel do "transfer this judicial provision to the theological realm" [Chr.SPPS, 296], for when they say what they do, it is not, as some suppose, as some kind of counter to the Mosaic ethic of collective punishment. Rather, it is a response to a saying then in currency among the exiled Jews who thought they, personally, were being punished unfairly for the sins of their ancestors). So we argue that they are indeed offering a bit of progressive revelation leading into individual charges for sin.

But there is more. Kaminsky [Kam.CHRB] explains that in the context of the Exile, these passages, acting as responses to the popular proverb among the people in which they complained that they were being punished for the sins of their fathers, is hardly to be read as a repudiation of corporate responsibility, for both Jeremiah (2:30, 3:25, 6:11-12, etc.) and Ezekiel (9:5-6, 21:8-9) elsewhere affirm that principle. No, what they wrote here was something quite different: And we say it served a twofold purpose -- the first revealed by Kaminsky:

  1. While in Exile, the people blamed their fathers for their situation, and regarded their situation as hopeless, themselves as thoroughly innocent victims suffering the punishment that their fathers deserved. But if this is how you think, how are you going to be able to get out of that mode of thinking and do something about your problem?

    The prophets, in reminding the people that they have their own sins to consider, which indeed deserve their own punishment, and placing this reminder in the context of future hope, thereby serve to give the people, to put it crudely, a swift kick in the behind and cease submitting to the attitude of "inevitable and uncontrollable determinism" [Bloc.Zk, 560] that had pervaded their thinking.

    One might paraphrase these warnings thusly: "Stop whining over spilled have your own sins that deserved punishment, and now you have work to do." Or as Block [ibid., 589] puts it:

    ...(C)hildren may not hide behind a theology of corporate solidarity and moral extension that absolves them of personal responsibility for their own destiny.

    Or, as Matties [Matt.Zk18, 158-9] describes it:

    Ezekiel understands that the concept of holiness demands complete purging, and so he articulates the corporate guilt and judgment. But he recognizes that the basis for experience of Yahweh's saving presence is the faithfulness of the individual Israelite. The focus of law, and here on the individual, is to begin the work of reconstituting a covenant community...

    Thus Ezekiel's goal -- and that of Jeremiah, to a lesser extent -- was "to shape the virtuous life, to establish responsibility for moral choice, and to motivate the transformation toward a new and cohesive social order." [ibid., 219] The purpose of these passages, then, is motivational and pastoral, and should be understood in that context -- and therefore, offer no contradiction to verses indicating corporate guilt and punishment.

  2. At the same time, the reminder is a pointer towards the new covenant to be established with the people: The one in Christ in which God relates to the people individually rather than corporately. Here, then, is the true "developmental" aspect. It is a matter of progressive revelation.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel's purpose, then, was not so much theological as it was pastoral. At the same time, they revealed that God's second covenant with the people would be on new terms. But this hardly served as a repudiation of corporate responsibility and judgment at all.

With the alleged contradiction refuted, Skeptics are left only with their standard "arguments by outrage": "Why should God be allowed to do what we can't and what He tells us not to do? Why do the innocent have to suffer because of the actions of the guilty?", referring to the standard as primitive, barbaric, etc. We can expect little else from those who have no view of eternal consequences, and who do not recognize the right of God to do with His creation as He pleases, but for the Christian, the matter is resolved with a single thought: If the innocent cannot die for the sake of or under the punishment of the guilty under God's justice, then the sacrifice of Christ could not be permitted either.

Objection: When you refer to "direct affronts to the majesty of God" you're saying that while vicarious punishment is forbidden to humans, God can indulge in it all he pleases.

Not at all. It is nowhere offered that situations like the Flood, etc. are cases of "vicarious punishment." This objection is reading the term from the first sentence of the explanation and incorrectly bringing it down as a descriptor of the incidents listed. It is not such a descriptor; the list was originally (many years ago) a direct response to an item in a Skeptical publication, which incorrectly saw the listed passages as violations of Deut. 24:16.

What these actually were, were cases of corporate punishment (though the setting and purpose of each was different and would have to be discussed individually). Let it be indicated that objections to such punishment are grounded in the mutation of individualism which is unique to modern, Western nations.The ancients as collectivists (see link 2 below) considered it neither immoral nor wrong that a family or a people as a whole would or could suffer collectively for the error of one who led the group, or that any "innocents" within their borders (young or old) would suffer collectively. Indeed they expected punishment to be corporate for sins committed by kings or by the group as a whole, or where a sin was committed that affronted the majesty of the group's deity, thereby requiring a public response that was visible to the group as a whole.

Of course, we do have a form of such punishment even today -- e.g., legal human versions of corporate responsibility: if you sue Ford Motor Company owing to the incompetence of its CEO, the whole company pays; and there are international applications (nation goes to war, and the peaceful farmer's field may be trod to lifeless muck or his son drafted and killed). The Nuremberg trials provide another sort of example. Many of the Germans accused of war crimes insisted that they were merely following orders. As individuals, they claimed to be doing the right thing despite whatever transgressions were laid at the feet of the German state. What law could they follow that was higher than German law?

The point is this: Judgments against the corporate entity must have consequences for whatever (or whomever) constitutes that entity. Corporate benefit is the other side of the coin, but few Skeptics seem to wish to concentrate on the fact that God dispenses grace to a far greater number of generations than the number of generations who suffer owing to the iniquities of their forefathers.

By the definition of justice, it is not fair to punish the innocent for something he or she did not do.

This is once again the modern mutation of individualism speaking; the ancients would staunchly disagree as collectivists. In this view, all who associate themselves with the corporate entity share in the responsibility of that entity. That is how 99% of the people who have lived throughout history have viewed matters, and we still view it that way in certain circumstances (though few protest when Ford Motor Co. gets harmed as a whole, because their emotional sympathies are against large corporations and with their individual pocketbooks).

Again: Modern individualism is a mutation. On the other hand, we may also add that in almost every case cited, any individual could have done something to either get out of the punishment, or else a figure in authority (like a parent) could have done something to keep the innocent from suffering, but didn't.

Finally, two points. First, in terms of any idea of sparing the "innocent" such as babies and children, we need to first consider that the ancient world was not full of tax-supported social services, nor with individualists who thought a marginal life better than death; see more at Link 3 below, which also offers more on the "sins of the fathers" subject.

Second, let us repeat what we once offered to another on the subject of David and Bathsheba, which can be applied in turn to other instances:

David was king, and set an example for his nation. A visible judgment was required to set against any idea that others could blithely follow in David's steps in sinning. We can hear the rising whine at once: "Who cares? Is God an egotist?" No, God is holy, and God is concerned that the greatest number of people will come to Him for their eternal salvation. Skeptics who tend to think only of the moment have no conception of the out working ripple effect of individual actions (or inaction).

If having no effect at all meant that thousands who otherwise would have come to God and found eternal life instead went to eternal condemnation, is that worth the physical (not eternal) life of one person? For Christians this is a simple matter: The death of one man paid for the salvation of billions. Visible judgment upon a very public offense as the means to accomplish the same, though to a lesser extent. Let the skeptics gnaw on their sound bite; they are time out of mind and thinking in two dimensions as usual.



  1. here
  2. here
  3. here


  • Bloc.Zk121 - Block, Daniel. Ezekiel Chaters 1-21. Eerdmans, 1997.
  • Chr.SPPS - Christensen, Duane L. A Song of Power and the Power of Song. Eisenbrauns, 1993.
  • Kam.CPHB - Kaminsky, Joel S. Corporate Punishment in the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.
  • Matt.Zk18 - Matties, Gordon H. Ezekiel 18 and the Rhetoric of Moral Discourse. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.
  • VR.Dt - von Rad, Gerhard. Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966.
  • Wein.Dt111 - Weinfeld, Moshe. Deuteronomy 1-11. Doubleday, 1991.