There is a teaching prominent in religious circles based mostly on a shamefully ignorant view of a phrase found in Exodus 34:7 and repeated in Numbers 14:18. The phrase goes something like this: "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." The teaching is that some people are the victims of "generational curses" placed on them through no fault of their own, but by the wrong actions of preceding generations. These "curses" then predispose them to commit certain sins (the same ones committed by their predecessors). Hence, an alcoholic today can claim that he’s not responsible for his drunkenness; it’s simply a result of a curse put on him by his alcoholic father.
In reality this ridiculous teaching is nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual application of the world philosophy viewpoint that tries to convince people (against the clear teaching of the Word of God) that things like alcoholism, drug addiction, homosexuality, etc. are not clear behavioral choices; but, instead, are genetically pre-determined diseases. The world has no more evidence to support their view than the guy who teaches generational curses from a single phrase of scripture. The purpose of both views is the same: to allow people to avoid taking personal responsibility for their own choices. However, the Word of God is clear, and He will hold us all individually responsible for the decisions we make and the actions we take.
To fully understand the phrase quoted above, we’ll need to look at Exodus 34:5-9 in some detail. But first the context of this passage must be established. God had just given Moses the ten commandments; while Moses was up on the mountain with God the people were worshipping a golden calf; Moses got mad and smashed the tablets; God told him to hew two more out of stone and meet Him back on the mountain; this brings us to verse 5.
To fully understand what happens in verse 7 (the verse most likely used to promote the misconception of generational sins) take a close look at what happens in verses 5and 6. In verse 5 the Lord descends in a cloud and stands with Moses on the mountain and proclaims His name. In verse 6 we see what names He proclaims for Himself. They are "The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth."
This brings us to verse 7 where the Lord continues to describe Himself, "Keeping mercy for thousands". "Keeping" is natsar, meaning to guard, maintain or protect out of a sense of responsibility. "Mercy" is checed, meaning kindness or benevolence (coming to the aid of those in need). Checed always emphasizes the idea of covenant relationship. And when checed and natsar are used together it is always to illustrate the principle of covenant responsibility! This is God’s own description of His attitude towards His people - He has obligated Himself to be merciful (see Micah 7:18 which says that God "delights" in being merciful). He continues: "forgiving iniquity (avown - immorality) and transgression (pesha - rebellion) and sin"(chattah - habitual sin, committed over and over again).
Then comes the all-important phrase "and that will by no means clear the guilty". Notice "the guilty" is in italics in the King James Version, indicating that these words are not found in the original text (and indeed should not be). The translators added these supposedly to clarify the meaning. The word "clear" in this sentence is naqah, and means, "to be clear of an obligation or responsibility". By removing "the guilty" from the text, the meaning becomes evident: "God will by no means ever clear or release Himself from His covenant responsibility to maintain His mercy by continuing to forgive immorality, rebellion and habitual sins that are repeated over and over again!" This is one of the many verses in scripture that illustrate the principle regarding God’s mercy. The principle is this: God’s character demands that His mercy always outweigh His justice. In other words, God is always willing to give us what we need, instead of what we deserve. And I’m glad of that, because all we deserve is to die and go to hell.
Verse 7 continues, "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." The word "visiting" is paqad, meaning to visit, to look after, or to care for. Because the words "the guilty" were added to this text, it is assumed that paqad has a negative meaning; but, get this, it is actually intended to be a positive promise. Spiros Zodiates in his Lexicon of Old Testament words says of paqad, "it’s true meaning is an action taken on the part of God which produces a beneficial result for His people." Compare Ruth 1:6; I Samuel 2:21; and Jeremiah 29:10.
As for the phrase "children, and children’s children, unto the third to the fourth generation", this is an idiom or word picture used several times in scripture to illustrate how long a parent’s wrong example will affect the family. Here, God is actually promising to forgive iniquity in each succeeding generation. He knows that every generation is going to have problems with sin and His promise is that His mercy will be available for all generations (Luke 1:50).
To further confirm the fact that God was actually offering His mercy to Israel, look at Moses’ response in verses 8 and 9. In verse 8 he hurried to bow his head down towards the ground and worship the Lord in thanksgiving when he recognized the Lord’s heart of compassion. In verse 9 Moses responds to the Lord’s offer of mercy by saying: "since I have found favor and loving-kindness in Your sight, please Lord, be our God and dwell in the midst of us, even though we are a stubborn people: forgive us of our rebellion and iniquity and allow us to be Your possession forever."
It was established in the Law that children would not be punished for the sins of their father (Deuteronomy 24:16, comp. II Kings 14:6). The idea of generational sin does not come from a scriptural foundation, but from world viewpoint. Colossians 2:8 describes the process by which the world develops wrong ideas with these three terms: philosophy (a wrong idea that has no basis in truth), vain deceit (false reasoning to support the idea) and traditions of men (wide acceptance of the wrong idea and false reasoning to support it). This process has only one purpose: to take away personal responsibility, create bondage to sin and deceive people regarding the nature of God.
Here is an example of how it works: (1) call sin a disease; (2) establish (without reliable proof) that the so-called disease is hereditary; (3) conclude that those found with the so-called disease are not responsible for it; therefore, there is nothing they can do about it; therefore, they will be in bondage to it for the rest of their lives. This false line of reasoning has been applied to drunkenness (alcoholism), fornication (homosexuality), anxiety and guilt (mental illness) and a host of other things.
This same false line of reasoning has been spiritualized and there are those who would twist the scriptures to try to promote the idea of generational sins or curses. "My sin is not really my fault, it is the result of a curse put on me because of my father’s sin, there’s nothing I can do about it, I’m not responsible." But, there’s nothing new under the sun. Israel in Ezekiel’s day had accepted the same world viewpoint, which prompted God to deal with it in Ezekiel 18. When you read it, pay particular attention to verses 1-4, 20-24 and 30-32.
The time will come when we will all stand before a holy and righteous God and we will stand alone. God will not hold anyone else responsible for the decisions we may have made and we will not be responsible for the decisions made by others.