Do the sons bear the sins of the fathers or not?

Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9 and Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20

  1. Yes, they do.
    1. (Exodus 20:5)--"You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,"
    2. (Deuteronomy 5:9)--"You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,"
    3. (Exodus 34:6-7)--"Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."
    4. (1 Cor. 15:22)--"For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive."
  2. No, they don't.
    1. (Deuteronomy 24:16)--"Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin."
    2. (Ezekiel 18:20)--"The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself."

Exodus 20:5 is, of course, among the ten commandments. The Ten Commandments are arranged in covenant form. The Suzerain-Vassal treaty pattern of the ancient near east is followed in the Ten Commandments. This arrangement included an introduction of who was making the covenant (Exodus 20:2), what the covenant maker had done (20:2), laws (20:3-17), rewards (20:6,12), and punishments (20:5, 7).

Covenantally, when a father misleads his family, the effects of that misleading are often felt for generations. This is because the father is being covenantally unfaithful, and God has stipulated that there are punishments to breaking the covenant with God. That is the case with these verses that deal with the sins visited upon the children. If a father rejects the covenant of God and takes his family into sin and rejects God, the children will suffer the consequences--often for several generations. Whether or not this is fair is not the issue. Sin is in the world; consequences of sin affected many generations.

On the other hand, Deuteronomy 24:16 is dealing with legal matters as the context 24:6-19 shows. Ezekiel 18:20 is merely recounting the Law of the Pentateuch. Therefore, the context of the second set of verses is dealing with the legality aspect within the Jewish court system. The previous set of verses deal with God visiting upon the descendants of the rebellious the consequences of the rebellious fathers' sins.

As a further note on this issue, there is a concept in the Bible called Federal Headship. This means that the male, the father, represents the family. We see this in the garden of Adam and Eve. She was the first one to eat of the fruit; she was the first one to sin. However, the Bible states that sin entered the world through Adam (Rom. 5)--not Eve. This is because Adam was the Federal Head of all mankind. Furthermore we see in the Hebrews 7:7-10 the following:

"But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. 8And in this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. 9And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, 10for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him."

In the verses in Hebrews we see that Levi, who was a descendant of Abraham, paid tithes to Melchizedek while still in the loins, "seed," of his father Abraham even though Levi was not yet alive. In other words, Abraham, the father, represented his descendants. As Abraham paid tithes, so also did Levi. Therefore, we can see the concept of Federal Headship represented in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. We can conclude that God will visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the descendants because the fathers have failed to be covenantally faithful. Yet, we see in the other verses a declaration of legality in dealing with people. There is no contradiction.

 

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CARM ison