Are the sins of the fathers visited on their children?

History doesn’t easily forget. His story is often my story, and my story becomes my children’s story, and down the generations. Much of  history is the history of sin. Whether “sins” be regarded as an offence against God or an offence only against man, in both instances the moral law is broken. There are several passages in the Tanakh (Old Testament) as well as in classical literature that express the view that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children. Here is one example from each – the Tanakh and classical literature:

The Tanakh:

Jeremiah 32:18 ‘You show steadfast love to thousands, but you repay the guilt of fathers to (into the bosom of)  their children after them

עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַֽאֲלָפִים וּמְשַׁלֵּם עֲוֹן אָבֹות אֶל־חֵיק בְּנֵיהֶם אַחֲרֵיהֶם

עֲוֹן – avon (consequences of) sin

oseh you show khesed steadfast love la-alofim to thousands umeshalaym but you repay avon iniquity avot of fathers el khayk into the bosom benayhem of their children akharayhem after them

avon עֲוֹן – (consequence of) iniquity/sin

avon avot” –  sin(s) of the fathers

Classical literature:

“For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer.” – Horace, “Odes,” III, 6, l. 1

There are other passages in the Tanakh that seem to contradict the Jeremiah passage above. These other passages state that the consequences of a parent’s sin do not fall on the children; for example, Ezekiel 18:19-20:

“When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

And Deuteronomy: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).

If you read the whole of Ezekiel 18 and other chapters in Ezekiel it becomes clear that the Tanakh is not vacillating between extreme corporate responsibility (“you” generally, if not totally, refers to the “House of Israel) and extreme “I did it my way” individualism. It’s very hard for those of us brought up on Western liberal values to grasp the corporate implications of sin. Verses such as the following evoke indigation in such a mindset: “Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him” (2 Kings 23:26).

Even if one doesn’t believe in divine revelation or in a personal God, individuals are responsible  to a degree – how much, God only knows – for their thoughts and actions. Herbert Butterfield says:

“The moral judgments that lie in the very nature of history are often long-term affairs, so that one gets the impression that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation; though on further analysis we may have to recognise that the later generations suffered rather for allowing the sins to go on uncorrected” (Christianity and history. 1949. Fontana).

Here is part of the conclusion to the great medieval Jewish poet, Judah Halevi’s “Kitab Al Khazari”

“… there remains some doubt whether an examination will disclose the majority of causes of the misfortune of the just and the prosperity of the wicked. That which we cannot discover may be confidently left to God’s omniscience and justice, and man must admit that he does not know the reasons, although they may lie on the surface, and still less can be known those which are really hidden.”

Judah’s great longing was to leave his home in Moorish Spain and go to the city of Judah; Jerusalem. It is believed that he was murdered on the day of arrival in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). The Jewish encylopedia relates:

“that as he came near Jerusalem, overpowered by the sight of the Holy City, he sang his most beautiful elegy, the celebrated “Zionide,” “Zion ha-lo Tish’ali.” At that instant he was ridden down and killed by an Arab, who dashed forth from a gate (Gedaliah ibn Yaḥya, “Shalshelet ha-Ḳabbalah,” ed. Venice, p. 40b).”

There is the Wandering Jew on the skull of a hill outside the city gates of Jerusalem, fleeing from the bloodied gaze of “King of the Jews”. And now there is another Wandering Jew who, overcome with unspeakable joy, arrives at that same hill outside the city gates – in sight of the Holy City, the holy place of the Holy One of Israel, not knowing the reason why the end of his wandering was to be the end of his life. Was it he or his father that sinned? Certainly both. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, andhis word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).

Is sin the reason why Judah died. Sin is the reason why we all die: “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12). Is sin the reason why he died this way? It is hidden.

“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” Deut. 24:16

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