Will I be punished for my parents’ flaws?

Question of the week:

Hello, Rabbi. Thanks to you and Mrs. Lapin for your wonderful lessons. I am a Christian and although I read our Old Testament regularly, I always wonder about certain passages each time I come across them.

One that disturbs me are several that say the iniquity of the fathers shall be passed on to his children to the third and fourth generations. I’ve read this statement in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers and Jeremiah, and if I recall correctly nearly verbatim in each. Yet in Ezekiel 18:20 it seems to say the exact opposite…thank goodness, as I do not want to be held accountable for any sin of any ancestor.

Is there a reason these contradict? Am I misunderstanding these, or reading them wrong, or missing something?

Your insight would be most appreciated.


Karla E.

Dear Karla E.,

We find it fascinating that specific words of Scripture come to life at different times of history. Sentences that might have made less immediate sense to our grandparents have relevance to us, while other verses resonated more in their times. For example, the law in Deuteronomy says not to favor the rich or the poor in judgment. The idea that one might favor a poor man would have sounded incredibly alien in some times and places, yet in our times the rich are in disrepute so juries and judges being prejudiced against them presents a real danger.

What does this have to do with your question? As far as human courts are concerned, Ezekiel has it down pat. No one should be punished by a man-made legal system for something an ancestor or descendant does. We can only be held liable for our own actions.

The other references you cite refer to God’s system of justice, not human systems. For instance, Deuteronomy 5:9 emphasizes that only if the descendants hate God will they find their lives diminished by the negative actions of their grandparents. We’d like to approach that on two levels. On one level, these verses are referencing God’s patience—rather than punishing us immediately, He allows us to repent and our descendants have the opportunity to turn away from our bad actions. None of us have the whole picture that God does and His justice is, by definition, perfect even when human eyes and brains can’t understand it.

However, there is a level on which we can understand these verses and benefit greatly from them. In the real world, not only are children affected by the actions of their parents and vice-versa, but a healthy society recognizes that as a strong incentive to good behavior. In functioning cultures, not wanting to shame your parents or family and wanting the best for your children is a tremendous pull towards doing the right thing.

We can rail all we like against reality, but the truth is that generations do affect each other. Would you nonchalantly give a job in an investment firm to, shall we say, the son or grandson of the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone? However, if someone applies to your firm whose grandfather loaned your grandfather money to start your family business, would you make an extra effort to interview and find a place for him?

Compare two teenage girls, both of whom are seduced by the urge to shoplift. Who would have a harder struggle to get on a better path? The girl who was brought up in a loving and law-abiding home where she heard the message, “Do not steal,” or another girl who was never taught that stealing is wrong?

Our spiritual choices do reverberate down the generations, just as physical genetic traits do. Our children and grandchildren benefit from the wise and prudent things we do in our lifetimes and sadly in the other direction too. If we live lives of many serious mistakes, our children and even grandchildren will have lesser lives than they might otherwise have had. This is how God designed what we call reality. The more aware we are of this truth, the more likely we are to strive to better ourselves and give our descendants every advantage.

Hope this helps,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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Announcing the Release of Unit 2!

Our journey continues as Rabbi Daniel Lapin provides access to God’s deeper meaning in the Bible by exploring the letters and words of the Lord’s Language.

Join Rabbi Daniel Lapin as he guides you through your inspiring adventure in Genesis 2:4-24, decoding the original Hebrew text, verse-by-verse, through the scintillating lens of ancient Jewish wisdom.

Unit 2 of Scrolling through Scripture focuses on what appears to be a repetition of the Creation tale. It includes the following:

  • Why there seem to be two accounts of Creation.
  • How spelling “mistakes” in the Bible reveal coded material.
  • Why dismissing duplicate language like “eat, you shall eat” as poetic, misses the point.
  • The spiritual source of many of our physical problems.

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