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

A wandering, wondering, onedaringjew

(continued from previous post, Moral Dust.

Weizmann consigns the rabbis to the furnace. They are no use in a future Israeli state.  

Doré places a Jew, and obviously a devout Jew, in the same frame with  “that deceiver”, whose name a devout Jew finds difficult to utter. The Name that occasioned so much misery for Jews throughout the ages.

There are many who desire to live forever; they prefer a living death to the grave. “As long as there’s breath, I shall will to live. Don’t expect me to put my life on the line. Rather let me wander the earth forever, but just one  thing I ask: let me live.”

The Wandering Jew appears across classical literature. Besides medieval literature,  the Wandering Jew also appears in Percy Bysshe Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling and John Galsworthy. There is also a new European Opera called The Legend of the Wandering Jew. “Every fibre of my frame quivers, every drop of my blood curdles, as I still hear the echo of the anathema that sprang first from my furious lips on that night of woe, ” HIS BLOOD BE UPON US, AND UPON OUR CHILDREN ! “[1]

I have described the Wandering Jew. But what is a OneDaringJew the title of this book? I suppose chutzpa comes into it, but I think its more to do with Wondering. You can describe water as “drinking water” but then it is not the water that’s doing the the drinking. But when I describe a Jew as a “wondering Jew” it is the Jew doing the wondering. Wondering about what? Wondering what is true, whether I’m living my life the right way. Wondering about  when to take, when to give, when to  endure, when to rebuke, when to beg, when to believe a promise. There are many other ways of “wondering.” Here are some examples[2]:

I’m wondering whether readers will understand what I mean. I’m wondering whether I have gone about things in the right way. I’m wondering what people are going to think when I dare to tell them some of the bad things I have thought and done (usually saved for a novel than an autobiography).

I’m wondering why I was the only member of my family of ten children to finish school. I’m wondering what would have been if I had become a medical doctor ( a “real” doctor, which for many Jews means “well off”) instead of a tongue doctor; a linguistics doctor[3] If I had become a “real” doctor I would have probably sliced someone’s aorta and ended up in jail. That’s why I moved into cutting up tongues, especially my mother tongue. Words, for me,  are far more remarkable than the organs that generate them.

I’m wondering what it would’ve been like to be a cantor of a synagogue in Israel. I’d have certainly done a better job than the raspy cantor (chazan) of the Israeli army, said my brother Joe when I visited him in Israel.[4] Inwardly I agreed.  Which leads me awondering what I could have been if I’d stayed Jewish, what I could have had – in Joe’s eyes:  a big house, a nice car, respect and adulation. My phylacteries would be broader, the fringes on my talith longer. I’d have the place of honor at feasts and the best seat in the synagogue. I’d be greeted in the marketplaces and called Chazan by others (Matthew 23: 5-8).

For the majority of Jews, the chazan is a celebrated figure, but not as much as a doctor – a medical doctor: the medical doctor treats the body; the chazan the soul; the medical doctor relieves suffering and prolongs life; the chazan brings comfort to aching hearts. As I can never be a chazan in real life, and get the big house, nice car, respect and praise, I will dare to be a chazan in this b(i)ography.  This b(i)ography is not only about words, but also about the songs I love to sing and the music I love to play that bring peace to the soul. Words, music, nature, mind, spirit are all of a piece.

There remains another meaning of “wondering” as in “filled with wonder”. You don’t have to be a sensitive Jewish intellectual to have a sense of wonder; you just have to be sensitive;  sensitive not to how great you are, but how wonderful the world is, how wonderful God is. When something wonderful happens to you, there are two ways to look at it: you’re unsurprised because you deserve it; or, you’re surprised because you don’t deserve it. The first way is false.

Some wonder why bad things happen and others wonder why good  things happen. For much of my life, even after I became a follower of Jesus/Yeshua, I wondered why bad things happened. Christians who understand the Gospel shouldn’t ask why bad things happen, but why good things happen. St Paul (Rav Shaul)  saw himself as not only the least of all the apostles but as the least of all men. His wretched opinion of himself was not just “psychological”. It went much deeper. He had offended an infinite, holy, personal God and deserved infinite judgment. The only way Paul could be saved from the wrath of God was through the saving death of the Son of God, who suffered the punishment in Paul’s place. How many professing Christians feel differently?

Helmut Thielicke (and Philip Yancey, who quotes Thielicke approvingly in his “What is so amazing about Grace,” Zondervan, 1997, p. 175):

“When Jesus loved a guilt-laden person and helped him, he saw in him an erring child of God. He saw in him a human being whom his Father loved and grieved over because he was going wrong. He saw him as God originally designed and meant him to be, and therefore he saw through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath” (Helmut Thielicke, “Christ and the meaning of life,” Grand Rapids, Baker, 1975, p. 41).

Thielicke’s (and Yancey’s) Jesus and human being are not the Jesus  and human being described in the Bible. The Bible says the opposite: Jesus did not see “through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath,” because the real man underneath was not only superficially grimy, he was filthy. The “real man” of the Bible is depraved in his very nature. But for the restraining hand of God, man is not as depraved as he could be. Everything in the Bible glorifies God and abases man. God saves men and women not because deep down they are good, but in spite of the fact that deep down they are evil. He chooses to save them – for one reason only: because He wants to. The natural man despises such a God. Many professing Christians also do,  but that is the biblical truth. It’s all over the Bible for those whose eyes God opens. In his “Religious Affections,” Edwards says, “There are very many of the most important things declared in the gospel that are hid from the eyes of natural men.” …but…”as soon as ever the eyes are opened to behold the holy beauty and amiableness that is in divine things, a multitude of most important doctrines of the gospel, that depend on it (which all appear strange and dark to natural men), are at once seen to be true.” Edwards “Religious affections.”

I wonder why God singled me out for his mercy.  Why did I and not any of my siblings come to Christ? I told a friend of my youth, a theology professor and former Roman Catholic priest that I had become a Christian. Out of the abundance of his heart – before he could bite off his tongue – he shot: “YOU? But I was praying for Sammy.” (Sammy is my elder brother). Somebody else was praying for me. Why did God answer that person’s prayers for me and not the theology professor’s prayers for Sammy? “Because my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

There is one last reason why this bography is called the “OneDaringJew”: it’s a variation of the Wandering Jew and the Wondering Jew. If you suspect that this play on words is the main reason for the “OneDaringJew”, I will say this. It did start with play. Does it then follow that the bography of OneDaringJew should not be taken seriously? Only if you think that play –  and thus playing with words – is not a serious matter. Playing with words may be foolery, at worst, wit, at best. But it can also involve serious digging into the hidden sedimentations of language – and, by association, of thought. Consider this: playing is about enjoyment. Cut out joy and all you’re left with is a lifeless clutch of dangling particles. It’s  the play of joy and the joy of play that transforms the lifeless clutch into a living embrace.


[1] Salathiel: The Immortal by Rev George Croly LL.D. David Bryce. London  1856. (I acquired a yellowed copy of this book in a charity bookshop in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where I live. You can find an e-copy of the book on Googlebooks. It’s much nicer, though, to have the feel and smell of a ” real” book.

[2] The British National corpus of English usage is a 100 million collection of samples of English from a extensive range of sources. The corpus has more than 2300 samples with the word “wondering”.

[3] Latin lingua “tongue”.

[4] My last visit to Israel in 1997. We watched the cantor on Joe’s TV.

Old Jews: “Economic and Moral Dust” (Chaim Weizmann)

“These are a rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!'” (Isaiah 30: 9-11).

The messengers were maltreated, mocked, flogged, stoned, sawn in two, killed by the sword. They wandered in deserts and mountains and hid in caves (Hebrews 11:36-38). These were the wandering Jews of faith who did not receive what was promised.

There is another kind of wandering Jew who witnessed – unknowingly – the fulfilment of the promise. There is a legend that  a Jew taunted Yeshua as he passed on his way to Golgotha. Some say his name was Shalatiel (in Hebrew Shealtiel “I asked God”); others say his name was Malchus. The Son of God cursed him to wander the earth alone until the end of time. Blessed and cursed. “Malchus” is the Greek for the Hebrew Melech/Malluch king/counsellor. The king taunts the Messiah King. The Messiah King curses the king; and blesses him: with a living death. This mortal immortal king is the Wandering Jew.

Gustave Doré - The Wandering Jew

Gustave Doré – The Wandering Jew

In the foreground of Doré’s woodcut wanders the  archetypal Jew of Jewish history and Christian imagination. Under the shield of sudden darkness, he steals away like a thief from the piercing gaze of the dying Christ. This day he will not be in paradise.

Doré would have had no difficulty in finding a model for his figure of the wandering Jew. Here is a photo of 15 World War II rabbis: antizionist rabbis.

Moral Dust

Moral Dust

Pathetic disfigurements of humanity. Dust.  Many of these rabbis died in the concentration camps.  Chaim Weizmann, one of the key founders of Zionism, was asked before WWII: “Can you bring six million Jews to Palestine?” I replied, “No.” … From the depths of the tragedy I want to save … young people [for Palestine] “The old ones will pass. They will bear their fate or they will not. They are dust, economic and moral dust in a cruel world … Only the branch of the young shall survive. They have to accept it.” (Chaim Weizmann reporting to the Zionist Congress in 1937 on his testimony before the Peel Commission in London).

There’s at least one other wondering Jew. This “rootless cosmopolitan” shares my cosmic anxiety over the “intractable historical fact” of Zionism.

The original photo was smaller and clearer.  In this blow-up, the figures evaporate into a puff of dust: moral – and economic – dust.

“You will arise and have mercy on Zion; for the time to favour her, yes, the set time, has come. For Your servants take pleasure in her stones, and show pity to her dust” (Psalm 102:13-14).

Who or what is Zion? Is it the land, is it the people? Surely, in God’s eyes, it is the living stones of Israel. Not so for Weizmann:  “You are dust; the dust of the Land of Israel. (Chaim Weizmann reporting to the Zionist Congress in 1937 on his testimony before the Peel Commission in London).