In Exodus, when the Lord gave Moses the Ten Commandments, God spoke the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4 NIV). Then, God said something intriguing.

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 parents 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 (emphasis added).

Exodus 20:5-6 (NIV)

Later, in Exodus 34, Moses, in declaring the character of God, says that God “Maintain(s) love to thousands, and [forgives] wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (emphasis added (Exodus 34:7 NIV)).

However, when giving other laws to Moses, God gives this assurance.

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.

Deuteronomy 24:16 (NIV)

The prophet, Ezekiel, echoes Deuteronomy 24:16 when asked,”‘ Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?'” (Ezekiel 18:19 NIV).

God gives Ezekiel this clarification.

The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.

Ezekiel 18:20 (NIV)

Since Deuteronomy comes after Exodus, we might wonder did God change his mind from what he said in Exodus 20:5? After all, Moses confirmed what God said in Exodus 20:5 and Exodus 34:7, but in Deuteronomy 24:16, the same Moses wrote something different. In one place, Moses wrote that God punishes the children for the parent’s sin, and then he wrote that each person dies for their own sin. Even the prophet Jeremiah confirmed what the Lord said in Exodus.

You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the parents’ sins into the laps of their children after them. Great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord Almighty.

Jeremiah 32:18 (NIV)

Or did he?

When we look at Deuteronomy, that children won’t be “put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin,” it seems like something different might be going on than what we read in Exodus. Jeremiah states that “the punishment for the parents’ sins [falls] into the laps of their children after them.” What is going on in these verses? Are we looking at something different? Did God change his mind or what?

When God gave the second commandment, he was talking about idolatry. Indeed, when Moses spoke of God’s character in Exodus 34:7, he was also referring to idolatry. The “clue” is that Moses refers to God as a jealous God. Just as God refers to himself in that way in Exodus 20:5, Moses is repeating what God has already said about himself.

Let’s consider idolatry. What is idolatry? It’s worshipping something that isn’t God. It’s following something that isn’t God. What’s something we know about children? Children are impressionable. They’re new to the world, and they pick up what they hear and see. When they pick it up, they’re likely to repeat it. As they grow older, children, if taught, will turn away from undesirable things they may have learned and to desirable things. Social etiquette falls into that category. So are political and religious beliefs and practices. This is why people hold onto verses like this one from Proverbs.

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

Proverbs 22:6 (KJV)

This verse captures the essence of the concept that children will follow what they learned when they were younger when they get older. What does this have to do with being punished for the parent’s sins?

We were talking about idolatry. If your parents were non-Christians, it’s unlikely you were raised with Christian beliefs. Therefore, you’re not likely to have learned to love your neighbor as yourself or anything about Christianity. Thus, you have learned to follow what you were taught and are more likely to live the way your parents did. The way that everyone who doesn’t know Christ does. As an unrepentant sinner on the way to hell. While you’re not being directly punished for the sins of your parents, you are suffering the consequences of a lifestyle mirroring the one you grew up in.

Another way of looking at this deals with other things like alcoholism, drug abuse, physical and mental abuse, etc., that might reside in a home. Children of alcoholic parents or family members are more likely to become alcoholics, while those abused might become abusers. Thus, as children, they suffered because of the sins of their parents, and they continue to suffer as adults. Christians might call this a “generational curse” or “generational sin.”

This is what God’s talking about in Exodus 20:5 and confirmed by Moses in Exodus 34:7. It’s also what Jeremiah was talking about in Jeremiah 32:18.

When we get to Ezekiel 18, we’re dealing with a complaint.

The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: “‘The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge'”?

Ezekiel 18:1-2 (NIV)

Instead of accepting responsibility for their sin, the people of Israel were saying they were suffering for the sins of their parents. While there are consequences of sin that carry on, like those we’ve discussed, each person is responsible for their sin and will be punished accordingly. Hence, Ezekiel 18:20.

In Christianity, some think they are victims of a generational curse or sin. As if there is a spot or blemish on them because of their family, and it cannot be removed. This is untrue and not Biblical. It’s also a cop-out. Indeed, as I’ve said, there are personal and corporate consequences of sinning. Look around. The world is broken because Adam sinned, and we suffer the consequences.

As I wrote the other day, we are not bound by genetics. Indeed, we are not bound by inherited spiritual bondage either. Yes, we might suffer the consequences and have to choose to turn away from the abuses we’ve suffered, but we are not beholden to repeat the mistakes of our parents. Believing anything less is believing a lie.

Do you know God? God knows you, and he loves you. He sees you as significant because you are. No one is insignificant to Him. He’s with you today, and he wants you to know him. Jesus died for your sins and mine so we could be free of guilt, freed from death, and live eternally with him. Eternal salvation is just a prayer away.

Pray this prayer with me to accept the gift of salvation:

Lord Jesus, forgive me for all my sins. I repent from my ways. Wash me in your blood and cleanse me from all unrighteousness. I believe that you died on the cross, were buried, and on the third day, God the Father raised you from the dead. Right now, Lord Jesus, I open the door to my heart and receive you into my heart as my Lord and personal Savior. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer, then congratulations! You are on the first step of a brand new life. Allow me to be the first to welcome you to my family, the family of God. There are abundant resources available online for new Christians. You can visit here for more information on what to do next. You can also leave me a comment, and I’ll do my best to help you on the next step of this incredible journey.