Does God punish children for the sins of their parents? What about punishing parents for their children’s sins? There seems to be conflicting scripture on this but I believe there is a simple explanation.
In Exodus 34:6-7 (NLT) God says, “… I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations.” That seems at odds with Deut 24:16. Deut 24:16 says “Parents must not be put to death for the sins of their children, nor children for the sins of their parents. Those deserving to die must be put to death for their own crimes.” This law was put into practice in 2 Kings 14:5-6 by Amaziah who spared the children of those who assassinated his father Josiah. How do we resolve this?
Exodus 34:6 The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. 7 I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected— even children in the third and fourth generations.”
Notice God agrees to forgive sins and show compassion yet he will not exonerate the guilty. So there must be a difference between the guilty and those whose who are forgiven. A sacrifice is required to forgive sins, and this is done out of repentance, however, people that continue living in sin and never repentant remain guilty. Sin can be passed down because children repeat what their parents do, so family lines that continue in the same sin will also each get the same consequences. He is not promising to always punish people for their parent’s sins, however, the parent’s sin can be repeated for multiple generations. For example, if the parents worship idols or practice necromancy, the kids will copy it and continue the family tradition. Another aspect of this is that people’s sin can negatively affect their children. For example, if a woman uses alcohol while pregnant, the child will be born with issues (like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), or if a man commits a crime like stealing, even if he is forgiven, he will owe and even his family may be indebted. In the modern era, God can forgive someone for murder, but that person still has to go to prison according to the law, which will affect their children. The third aspect of this is that certain sin’s consequences can have a domino effect. For example, an adulterous woman can get pregnant by another man, and her child is treated with contempt because he is illegitimate and that child grows up with a broken childhood. If the child deal with the trauma, they may end up abusing or neglecting their children.
King David sinned by having sex with another man’s wife and killing the man to cover it up (2 Samuel ch. 11). In the next chapter the prophet, Nathan tells David that there will be consequences for his sin (2 Sam 12:10-12). He will have violence in his own house and another man will sleep with his wives, as he did with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. He said what David did in private would be done to him in public. Later on, David’s son Absalom over threw kingdom and slept with his concubines in a tent on the palace roof in front of everyone (2 Sam 16:21-22). Chapters 12 through 16 reveal a series of actions that David took that led to this. Amnon David’s firstborn from his first wife raped David’s daughter from his third wife Tamar, who was Absalom’s sister. David did nothing about it, there is no suggestion that he even made Amnon pay a bride price to take care of Tamar. Tamar asked Amnon to see their father about marrying her so that she would not be a non-virgin spinster but he hated her after raping her and he rejected her. In that culture, it was hard for a woman to remarry because most men preferred virgins. In addition, since Tamar was the king’s daughter she had some value for a treaty marriage with another country, but that value was gone now because she was no longer a virgin. Two years later Absalom had Amnon killed and fled to his grandfather’s kingdom (David’s third wife was the daughter of a foreign king). After three years in exile, Joab pressured David to reconcile and bring Absalom back and David did but he refused to talk to Absalom so at least four years later Absalom had been campaigning against him by bridging and favoring people, making allies for a coup. It’s possible that Amnon’s rape of Tamar makes David feel extra guilty because his firstborn son was following in his footsteps by committing sexual sin. Not only was this fornication but this was incestuous since Tamar was his half-sister (Lev 18:9, Lev 20:17), yet David gave him a pass and did nothing. This led to Absalom wanting revenge and killing his brother because his sister did not get justice. After hiding for three years he thought his father forgave him but David ignored him so he saw his father as unjust and decided to take the kingdom for himself. David’s actions with Bathsheba were forgiven when the child died in 2 Sam 12:13-14, but the corruption inside him cause him to make mistakes in his family that fulfilled Nathan’s prophecy. The child born in adultery between David and Bathsheba died rather than David. This wasn’t because the child was being punished for David’s sins, the death of the child itself was the punishment for David. God already promised David that the Messiah would come through his lineage (2 Sam 7), so he couldn’t kill David at the time. David had not had his son Nathan from Bathsheba which is his connection to Jesus (Luke 3:31-32).
Ezekiel 18:1-22 gives an elaborate example of a righteous man who as a wicked son, then has a righteous grandson. Only the wicked man between the righteous generations is put to death. Take a look at this:
Ezekiel 18:19 (NLT) “‘What?’ you ask. ‘Doesn’t the child pay for the parent’s sins?’ No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. 20 The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness. 21 But if wicked people turn away from all their sins and begin to obey my decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die. 22 All their past sins will be forgotten, and they will live because of the righteous things they have done.
The main rule is that when sin is punished by humans via stoning then humans are only allowed to punish the guilty (Deut 24:16). God doesn’t typically hold people accountable for their parent’s sin, and this topic is mostly about the effects of sin trickling down the generations. Based on everything that is said in Ezekiel 18 (including all the verses after 22), it is clear that God typically avoids that except under rare circumstances. God in his sovereignty can command the death of a whole family for a man’s violation of his laws like Achan in Joshua 7:16-26 who violated Deuteronomy 7:26 by taking some plunder from Jericho. Deuteronomy 7:26 says, “Do not bring any detestable objects into your home, for then you will be destroyed, just like them [the Canaanites]…” Achan had to be destroyed because by taking the Canaanite’s stuff, he participated in their sin and inherited their destruction. The city was to be wiped out meaning no survivors (unless they fled Canaan entirely), so Achan received the curse, which was the annihilation of his family and lineage just like the inhabitants of the city of Jericho. This rule applied to all of the Canaanites because God said to drive them out and destroy their culture (Deut 20:10-18). God already warned that breaking this law will lead to soon being destroyed “just like them (the Canaanites)”, so this is an exception, executed under certain conditions and only God operates in these exceptions. The rest of Ezekiel 18 can be summarized in verse 23 which says, “Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign Lord. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.”
One last thing to think about. In Numbers 14:18 Moses quotes what God says in Exodus 34:6-7 back to him when interceding for the Israelites. In Exodus 34 God was extending mercy to them after they sinned by making an idol (Exodus ch. 32). In Numbers 14 we a similar scenario where the Israelites sinned by wanting to revolt against Moses and God because they believe he failed them when they found out they would have to fight Canaanites in walled cities and giants to get the promised land. They didn’t trust God and wanted to kill Moses and go back to Egypt. God said since they don’t trust, only their children (the next generation) would enter the promised land (Num 14:26-35). The Exodus generation of Israelites died in the wilderness because of their sin but God didn’t punish the next generation, instead, he led the next generation with Joshua and Caleb into the promised Land. At the end of Numbers 14, he told that generation that they would stay in the wilderness for 40 years and that punishment was limited to one generation. So in actuality, God never punished them for three to four generations, he just punished one generation and used the next one to do what they failed to do. Therefore Exodus 34:6-7 is not a universal principle of punishment, it’s an expression revealing a framework about how sin can affect multiple generations.