Seidensticker Folly #17: “to the third and fourth generations”?

Seidensticker Folly #17: “to the third and fourth generations”? September 11, 2018

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18“I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?” He also made a general statement on 6-22-17“In this blog, I’ve responded to many Christian arguments . . . Christians’ arguments are easy to refute.” He added in the combox“If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.” I’m always one to oblige people’s wishes if I am able, so I decided to do a series of posts in reply.

It’s also been said, “be careful what you wish for.”  If Bob responds to this post, and makes me aware of it, his reply will be added to the end along with my counter-reply. If you don’t see that at the end, rest assured that he either hasn’t replied, or didn’t inform me that he did. But don’t hold your breath. On 8-24-18 Bob wrote (after having virtually begged to dialogue with me back in May) that my alleged “disinterest in the truth reflects poorly” on me. What are we to make, then, of his utter “disinterest” in defending his opinions against serious critique?

Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, word-search “Seidensticker” on my atheist page or in my sidebar search (near the top).


In his article: “The Irrelevant Wisdom of the Ten Commandments” (3-9-12; rev. 2-14-14), Bob writes:

[C]hapter 34 has this savage claim, “[God] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 34:7). And yet, three books later, we get this contradiction: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).

I’ve heard this rationalized this way: Deut. 24 is talking about what man must do. Man needs to treat people fairly and punish only the wrongdoers. Ex. 34 is talking about what God will do. God has a long memory and will hold a grudge against you to punish your descendants. It’s odd that Christians would imagine that God does something that is clearly immoral in our eyes. Anyway, God figures it out later: “The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4).

This passage and its erroneous interpretation are old chestnuts of anti-Christian polemics. But at least it is understandable that it would be a difficulty (at face value), because this is a somewhat complex concept to fully understand. Thus, this is a much more serious and worthy objection than the sheer nonsense I dealt with in my previous installment, about two supposed sets of Ten Commandments.

It so happens that I thoroughly dealt with this “problem” eight years ago, in my article, “God’s ‘Punishing’ of Descendants: Is it Unjust and Unfair?” The arguments there are involved and complex, so I urge readers interested in this topic to read the whole article. But I’ll highlight some of the major themes here (and add a few new things to “flesh out” the Christian argument even more).

Exodus 20:5-6 (RSV) you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, [6] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (cf. identical passage Deut 5:9-10)

John W. Haley, in his book, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Springdale, Pennsylvania: Whitaker House, n.d.; possibly 1992, originally published in 1874, pp. 86-87), provides perhaps the best short summary of this theme that I’ve seen:

[W]e may say that Jehovah “visits” the iniquity of the fathers upon their children, in that he permits the latter to suffer in consequence of the sins of the former. He has established such laws of matter and mind that the sins of parents result in the physical and mental disease and suffering of their offspring. . . . “injustice” is no less chargeable upon the author of “the laws of nature” than upon the Author of the Bible.
Even if the above text conveys the idea not only of suffering, but also of punishment, yet the language, “unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me,” indicates children who are sinful like their parents . . . Plainly children are intended to imitate and adopt the sinful habits and practices of their parents; hence, being morally, as well as physically, the representatives and heirs of their parents, they may be, in a certain sense, punished for the sins of those parents.
I think passages of this sort are (at least to some extent) of an anthropomorphic nature: they exaggerate God’s traits in a non-literal way in order to make Him more understandable to man. Another (I think, rather close) analogy would be the theme of “God hardening hearts”: which I have shown to be another way of saying that “God in His providence allowed Person X to harden his own heart.” All the relevant biblical texts along those lines, when considered as a whole, show this clearly. Bob made this argument and I refuted it in my earlier paper in this series: “Seidensticker Folly #3: Falsehoods About God & Free Will.”
As in that instance, the present one is a matter of precisely understanding the literary nature and intent of the “difficult” passages in conjunction with many other passages that clarify it as “not nearly as bad as it sounds at first.” Even Bob — albeit in his usual sneering way –, in a sense acknowledges that other passages “balance” the “hard sayings.”
He sees it, of course, as absurd contradiction (one motif is wicked and evil, the other good); we see it as the key to understanding the whole thing: the more obscure passages are explained and interpreted by many more clearer ones. Bob always looks for contradictions and absurdities in the Bible, and so (surprise!) he “finds” them. We assume (in our Christian belief in inspiration of Scripture, as God’s revelation) that passages can ultimately be harmonized, and so we usually conclude that this is in fact the case in particulars.
In my paper on this issue, I listed (in their entirety) twenty Bible passages that clearly teach that every man is judged for his own sin, not that of another. For example:

2 Kings 14:6 But he did not put to death the children of the murderers; according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses, where the LORD commanded, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, or the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall die for his own sin.” (cf. parallel passage 2 Chron 25:4)

Jeremiah 31:30 But every one shall die for his own sin . . .

2 Maccabees 7:32 For we are suffering because of our own sins.

1 Peter 1:17 . . . who judges each one impartially according to his deeds . . .

Moreover, by consulting all related passages, we find at least three in which both concepts are present together (inter-generational punishment and individual accountability):

Exodus 34:6-7 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Numbers 14:17-20 And now, I pray thee, let the power of the LORD be great as thou hast promised, saying, [18]`The LORD is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation.’ [19] Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray thee, according to the greatness of thy steadfast love, and according as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” [20] Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word;

Jeremiah 32:17-19 `Ah Lord GOD! It is thou who hast made the heavens and the earth by thy great power and by thy outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for thee, [18] who showest steadfast love to thousands, but dost requite the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the LORD of hosts, [19] great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of men, rewarding every man according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings; (cf. 31:30 above)

This suggests that such punishment “to the third and fourth generations” applies only to children who deliberately choose to follow the sinful ways of their parents, and is not stated in any absolute sense that would preclude individual pardon. Thus, the two strains are not ultimately contradictory, once one understands the sense of the passages. These three passages provide the interpretive key within themselves: God forgives repentant sinners, but punishes the individually guilty. Note that Exodus 34:6 provides a counter-balance of mercy to Exodus 34:7. Bob cites 34:7 while ignoring 34:6.

If we are to make much of God talking about punishment over three or four generations (setting aside how to interpret that, for a moment), then we ought to also notice three passages that strikingly highlight God’s extraordinary mercy:

Deuteronomy 7:9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations,

1 Chronicles 16:15 He is mindful of his covenant for ever, of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, (cf. identical Ps 105:8)

So the “good stuff” and the mercy is described as lasting for a thousand generations, and the “bad stuff” for only four. That’s 250 times longer for the good things, compared to the bad. The merciful motif is much more prominent (even in the Old Testament) than the judgmental / wrathful God motif. But if one read only atheists blasting God and the Old Testament, they would get the distinct impression that it is the other way around.

For much more on this issue, see the superb article, “Generational Curses: Biblical Answers to Questions Raised by the phrase ‘visit the inquities to the third and fourth generation’ “ (Bob DeWaay, Jan/Feb. 2002). That wonderful examination is an example of serious Bible study and exegesis. By strong contrast, Bob (like so many atheists) merely “toys with” the Bible in a superficial, non-serious, fallacious way.

He doesn’t get it, and he obviously refuses to be corrected (as he claimed in his words that I cite at the top). We’re now up to 16 papers of this series, and we have not heard one peep back from Bob.


Photo credit: God the Father, by Guercino (1591-1666) [public domain / Wikipedia]


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