In Numbers 14:18 it states: “…he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Was this punishment just for the Israelites for their time period or was it continued on? If so, was this still the law or rule in Jesus’ time? Did Jesus’ new laws overrule this Old Testament law? I always believed that a son or daughter was not held accountable for the actions of the parents, that each of us was born free of guilt and sinned as we had minds of our own to know right from wrong, and chose the wrong, hence we are accountable and responsible for our own actions. Your thoughts will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
You are surely right in your understanding that each is responsible for his own action. Under the law of God, children are not responsible for the sins of their parents or parents for the sins of the children. Ezekiel 18 makes this point very plain (v. 20): “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” So does Proverbs 5:22, “His own iniquities entrap the wicked man, and he is caught in the cords of his sin.” God does not hold us responsible for anyone’s sins but our own.
Was this still the law or rule in Jesus’ time? The answer is yes. Jesus Himself said in His last message that He would be returning, “to give every one according to his work” (Rev. 22:12). And the apostle Paul, who was instructed by Jesus, said that God “will render to every one according to his deeds,” (Rom. 2:6), and in 2 Cor. 5:10 he is very specific that the judgment of Christ will result in each receiving for “the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether good or bad.” Each receives for his own deeds, good or bad.
Now what about the instance you cite from the time of the Israelites?
In Numbers 13 and 14 we have the account of Moses sending out the twelve spies to search the land of Canaan. Ten return with an evil report, two with a good report. The people, true to human nature, believe the worst, and rebel against Moses and Aaron. We are told, “the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron: and the whole congregation said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! And Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should become victims? Would it not better for us to return to Egypt?’ So they said one to another, ‘Let us make a leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:1-4). Were they not most rebellious?
Moses took the matter to the Lord, and in conversation with the Lord Moses quoted words that the Lord had spoken to him on a previous occasion: “He punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Num. 14:18, NIV).
Moses was quoting from the message he had from God when on the Mount Sinai, and in that message the exact words are used, along with an important qualifying term. The Lord said, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5). Notice that He is “visiting the iniquity…on the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” The 6th verse qualifies the statement even further: “but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me, and keep My commandments.” Here is the pattern of God’s justice, giving to each according to his just dues: mercy to those who love Him and keep His commandments, and judgment upon those who hate Him.
Why were the children punished? If we look at different incidents in the Bible, sometimes the children were punished, sometimes they were not. In the case of the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram and Korah (Num. 16) the children of Dathan and Abiram died with their parents, while the children of Korah “died not” (Num. 26:11).
There are two reasons:
- God, knowing the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:9-10), can know what individuals will do before they actually do it, hence can be fair and just (where we would not be able to know). He knows who will repent and who will persist in sin, and can act accordingly. He can know as easily with people as we might be able to know with animals. Very often, but not always, children follow the pattern of “like father, like son.” If, for example, we saw a nest of baby rattlesnakes, we would know that they would grow up to be just like their parents and that we did not want them living in our backyard. Just so, God can judge people, and can know in advance whether or not they deserve to live.
- Children may be punished not for the sins of their parents but because they sin like their parents or take part in the sin of their parents. This is the situation in Exodus 20, where God says He is inflicting the iniquity of one generation upon another “of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5). Both generations hate God.
A parallel description is found in Hosea 6:7 (NASB), where we read of those who “like Adam…have transgressed the covenant; there they have dealt treacherously against Me.” These people are condemned not because Adam sinned but because they transgressed like Adam.
A passage in the book of Psalms points up the same situation (78:56-57). Speaking of the Israelite nation we read: “Yet they tested and provoked the Most High God, and did not keep His testimonies, but turned back and acted unfaithfully like their fathers.” They, the children, would be punished only because “they acted unfaithfully like their fathers.” We even read of an instance in the time of Jeremiah when the children “did worse than their fathers” (Jer. 7:26).
Consider the children of Achan who died with their transgressing father (Joshua 7:24-25). Though we are not told directly, it is very likely that Achan’s family knew well enough what Achan had done, and having this knowledge they shared his guilt by covering for him and not speaking out at the command of Moses, hence were justly punished. Family ties often keep people from doing what they know is right. Here is a warning to all of us to stand for right no matter who we stand against. In the sight of God each is responsible for his own conduct.