What Does God Mean When He Says That He Is “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”? (Exodus 20:5-6)
For many people, the idea of jealousy is often classed as a kind of petty emotion, and therefore many newer translations of the Scripture have sought to translate this passage somewhat differently. I believe the traditional translation is good, however, because it calls to mind a frequent metaphor in the Bible: namely, that Israel is YHWH’s wife and that YHWH is Israel’s husband. Just as Israel’s worship of other gods is described as adultery, so YHWH’s jealousy is a holy, loving, and righteous insistence that she should belong to him and him alone.
This metaphor is immediately followed by the famous passage about generational punishment. This passage not only rattles our natural sense of justice, but it appears to be in conflict with other passages of Scripture that roundly assert each individual will be judged for his own sin (cf. Ezek. 18:1-4). If we take the passage in its immediate context, however, it becomes clear that we are not dealing with how God deals with sin in general, but with how he deals with the specific sin of idolatry, which is to say how he deals with those who desert his covenant. Viewed in that light, the passage begins to make more sense, for since individuals draw their earthly life from the covenant, it is impossible that their faithlessness should not have a generational impact. In one sense, therefore, this generational impact can be viewed as a natural consequence of their own behavior, but in another sense it can be viewed as a punishment from YHWH insofar as he is the initiator of the covenant. At the same time, it is easy to overlook the most important part of the passage, which is that while covenant faithlessness punishes to the third and fourth generation, covenant faithfulness blesses to the thousandth. In other words, God’s love outweighs his wrath.
Pastor Chad LewisOctober 1, 2013