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I have often scratched my head when reading Ezekiel asking why the people of Israel use this proverb, thinking to myself,"Well....because Moses says that's what God said!"

Yet.....I always liked Ezekiel's version much better.


Ezekiel's rhetorical stance is more congenial to the modern individualistic mindset. But it fails as a description of reality, and even of justice.

Jason A. Staples

I like where you're going with this, John.

I've always found it striking that the Decalogue avoids discussion of the second generation, only addressing the "third and fourth generations." A major Rabbinic interpretation of this was of course that the second generation always had a choice whether to continue the pattern of their forebears or not.

It's also important to note the language of trans-generational consequences—the language not of punishment, but visitation. I think that is often forgotten in modern readings of the Decalogue.

There can be no doubt that Ezekiel is riffing off the Decalogue in his statements, but I'm not sure he's fundamentally disagreeing with the statement. Rather, it seems he's putting the emphasis on the present generation as the responsible agents for what happens in the future.


"But it fails as a description of reality, and even of justice."

How so?

I see where one could say that is an incomplete description of reality and justice.....but how do you get from there to failure?


Hi Terri,

By "fails as a description" I meant an incomplete, and ultimately misleading description.

On the one hand, I believe Ezekiel was a master rhetorician, and I would not wish that a word of what he said, here and elsewhere, be changed.

On the other hand, I believe the teaching of the Ten Commandments to be primary. To this day, fathers and mothers will refrain from all kinds of evil for the sake of their children, precisely because they know, like it or not, that the evil they contemplate doing, or the selfishness they think about indulging in, would be visited on their children.

I hope that helps.

Alan Lenzi

I just lectured on Ezek and chapter 18's contribution to our modern understanding of justice, making the connection back to the Decalogue. I don't think Levinson's thesis is new, unless I'm missing something. It seems like Fishbane developed similar ideas or maybe Zimmerli. I don't recall. But I'm sure I've heard the idea before.


It's Fishbane - and maybe also Zimmerli. Plus, Tigay and Milgrom, in their commentaries on the Deuteronomy and Numbers in the JPSTC, cover the same topic in excursuses of great interest. Greenberg in his AB commentary takes another tack.



Isn't there room for both versions of responsibility and consequences? In fact, don't we need both versions?

I ask because it seems to me that Jesus very much individualizes one's relationship to God.....completing the arc from communal consequences and responsibility to individual consequences and responsibility.

I'm thinking particularly of his commands to "hate" our mothers and fathers, to let the dead bury their dead, his emphasis on eternal life or punishment for specific individuals with no mention of the consequences for their family members.

Help me out....I can't think of any examples of Jesus referring to communal punishment or reward. Are there any?

As far as parents and selfishness....I wish that what you said was true. As it is, I can speak from my own experiences and those of many people I know whose parents had little regard for the fallout of their own bad choices. Most people who think about the consequences of their actions and make better choices because of them for their children's sake are usually the same kind of people who have multiple reasons to make better choices.

I can assert the truth of consequences reaching the 3rd and 4th generation as a sort of natural truth, not necessarily an edict set in stone and mandated as punishment from I don't really deny that.

However, I don't think Ezekiel got this wrong.



I think we need both versions.

The New Testament does not differ from the Old Testament on these things. The cross-generational transfer of the consequences of human behavior comes out in any number of passages, in positive and negative. Within a single generation, positive and negative consequences are shared. Here are some examples:

Luke 1:47-55; Matthew 12:38-42; Mark 6:7-13; Acts 2:38-39; Luke 19:43-44.

But the Gospel in all this is clear: Luke 1:47-55; Acts 2:38-39. Repentance reverses things *before God* for the one who repents, but does not render the repenter immune from the consequences of the destructive actions of others.



I'm wondering whether a too-literal reading of Ex 20:5-6 simply deconstructs itself. For example: what happens when a wicked man's great-grandson fears God? Does God "visit the inquity of the father" on him, or does God "show lovingkindness" to him?

Perhaps the function of the statement is simply to affirm, in hyperbolic manner, that God both punishes and shows mercy, but is predisposed to showing mercy ("3-4 generations" vs. "thousands"?! Clearly non-proportional.).

And what about the difference between Exod 34:6-7 and 20:5-6? Does the (longer) form in 20:5-6 attempt to solve the problem of a too-literal reading by glossing the first group as "those who hate me" and the second as "those who love me and keep my commands"?

The same technique occurs in the Targum on Lev 26:39; children are only punished "when they sin in the same way."




Excellent comments and questions. I trust your teaching and writing is going well.

My sense is that Ex 20:5-6 was not designed to answer the question of what happens when a wicked man's great-grandson fears God. Even less was it designed to answer the question of what happens when someone has an abusive father but a rock-solid grandmother, how does that work out in the wash. It is not worded with those questions in mind, though the glosses you mention are possibly an attempt to take such questions into consideration.

The scope of the passage is restricted to an emphasis on the principle of God as the guarantor of cross-generational consequences, with the positive consequences of faithfulness by someone in the family tree potentially outweighing the negative consequences of dysfunctional parents or great grandparents. Taken as a whole, the passage nurtures hope but is also meant to dissuade an ill-intentioned person from acting to the disadvantage of his own posterity.

But within the Bible itself, in the Targumim, and beyond, the passage in question appears to have been read as if it were a mathematical axiom of some sort. At the point, as you also suggest, a sort of reductio ad absurdum comes into play. So rewrites with qualifications to the original statement are attested. None of the rewrites are really satisfactory.

Ezekiel's formulation, on the other hand, has its own integrity. Now we have two formulations, neither of which is designed to be a logical syllogism. Taken together, however, both cover an awful lot of bases - but not in syllogistic form.

Alan Lenzi

Despite all of our (good) emphasis on individual responsibility in our society today, there are certainly inter-generational and therefore now collective aspects of, e.g., social justice, that we must think about. Unfortunately, our individualism makes it hard for us to see these as justice issues. For example, I had a discussion recently with a guy about how he as a white male has benefited in many ways he can't even be aware of due to his status as a white male whereas many black women, e.g., have suffered exclusion or professional obstacles simply for being part of that fraction of our society. I told him certain labor laws (e.g. affirmative action) exist in some places that in essence try to "level the playing field." These may make some white males feel they are personally discriminated against. But the laws are intended to redress a historical collective problem that created prejudice for whole groups for generations. There's a tension, I told him, that needs to be addressed. It just so happens that the tension is getting attention while he and I are part of society. It's good, I think. But he still felt like it wasn't fair for him because "he didn't do anything" to deserve "reverse discrimination."

I know this is a very complex issue and charged with political heat. I just intend it to be an example of how there still is an inter-generational, collective vs. individual responsibility tension in our society despite our emphasis on individual responsibility.


Was it Justice O'Connor who suggested that "reverse-discrimination" needs to be in effect for 30 more years?

With respect to college and grad school admissions, it can be a matter of academic life and death, how the calculus works out, with inter-generational and collective consequences, positive and negative (e.g., legacy; residency; affirmative action) all playing a sometimes determinative role.

Alan Lenzi

I have felt the affects. A diversity officer at a university looked across her desk at a campus interview once and asked me, "so how can you contribute to the diversity of this campus?" Me, a hetero white male under the age of 50. I actually gave a really good answer, I think, about teaching experience in a variety of institutional settings, my journey across the religious spectrum, the diversity of the kinds of students I'd taught, and the varieties of places I've lived. But none of that is quantifiable in terms of the diversity they were interested in. I didn't get the job.


Thanks for addressing this topic, as it is another OT theme that needs more "air time," not least because of the almost superstitious manner it is applied in North American pop theology.


Yes, Matt, and then there are those who like to pretend that their selfish choices will have no serious negative effects on their children.

It's hard to get these things right. We are at the very heart of the contradictions that shape human lives and human destinies.

Dentist Lakeland

Ezekiel’s Vision has been explained as being spacecraft with wheels and wings and other fanciful objects. The Bible clearly identifies them as Cherubim. What does the vision mean? What lessons are there to be drawn from the vision?


That's a very interesting question, Dentist. You are right to discard the spacecraft explanation. The vision is a powerful representation of God's otherness. God is all-seeing in the vision, the sovereign principle of the universe seen and unseen. Not a warm fuzzy, not very cuddly, but who said God should be any of those things.

loraine areno

Hello sir..can I ask you to send me the correct writing of the commandment thou’ shall not kill written in Hebrew?..i really want this for my first tattoo and as I read your entries at your site I think you’re a reliable source to ask to.. and I really want to have an accurate writing of those words because it means so much to willing to wait for your reply..please send me the picture if possible..thank you very much..

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