Transgenerational Punishment

For my write-up today of Moshe Weinfeld’s Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, I will talk about Weinfeld’s discussion on pages 317-319 of divine retribution on individuals.

Deuteronomy 7:10 says that God destroys those who hate him “to his face”, which Weinfeld interprets to mean “instantly”.  According to Weinfeld, this means that, according to Deuteronomy, God does not visit the iniquity of fathers upon the children, for God is requiting the sinners instantly.

In Exodus 34:6-7 and Numbers 14:18, divine retribution upon the third and fourth generation is cited as one of the LORD’s regular activities.  But Weinfeld states that the Deuteronomic editor of the Decalogue—which appears in Deuteronomy 5 (and perhaps also in Exodus 20)—added “to the ones hating me” and “to the ones loving me and the observers of my commandments” to the Decalogue.  In effect, the Deuteronomic editor made the commandment against graven images say that God visits the iniquity of the third and the fourth—to those hating him.  Most take this to mean that God punishes the third and the fourth generation that are descended from the sinner, but that does not appear to be Weinfeld’s interpretation.  Rather, Weinfeld interprets it to mean that God punishes the third and the fourth generations that hate him—indicating that those generations can free themselves from divine punishment by not hating God.  And, for the Deuteronomic editor, God will reward the thousandth generation as long as it loves him.  By emphasizing moral agency, the Deuteronomic editor places the ball in the court of the generations (not their parents) in terms of how God will treat them.

I’d like to say that I once raised this point in a class a long time ago—or at least I came close to making this point—and my suggestion was basically pooh-poohed.  The teaching assistant was trying to say that Exodus 20:5-6 promoted transgenerational punishment, whereas Ezekiel 18 contradicts that notion.  But that didn’t entirely set well with me because Exodus 20:5-6 appeared to place a lot of emphasis on the moral agency of the individual.  I definitely could see transgenerational punishment in Exodus 20:5-6—that much is obvious.  In my eyes, the passage indeed said that God punished the third and fourth generation descended from those hating God, whereas it affirmed that God rewarded the thousandth generation descended from those who love and obey God.  Here’s what didn’t make sense to me: Suppose that a person is righteous, whereas his father was wicked—meaning that this righteous person is from the second generation.  Is God obligated to punish the righteous person, his children, and his children’s children—the third and the fourth generations—on account of the wicked father of the righteous person?  But doesn’t God say that he will reward the children of the righteous?  Do you see what I’m talking about?  There are things that are conflicting here.  God punishes transgenerationally in Exodus 20:5-6, but he also appears to value the moral choices of the individual, and to reward and punish those choices accordingly.

It looks like Weinfeld noticed the same sort of issue that I did, but he interpreted the generations differently: for Weinfeld, the generations in the formula are not punished or rewarded for what their ancestors did, but God judges them—the generations—over whether they themselves hate God or love God and obey God’s commandments.  Again, the ball is in the generations’ court.

Weinfeld states that the Deuteronomistic History reflects a belief in individual divine retribution.  In the pre-Deuteronomic story about Ahab and Naboth in I Kings 21, Ahab’s son is punished because Ahab (or, more accurately, Ahab’s wife) arranged for Naboth’s murder so that Ahab could get Naboth’s vineyard.  The punishment took place when Jehu killed Ahab’s son.  That’s not entirely acceptable to the Deuteronomist, who does not believe in transgenerational punishment.  Consequently, the Deuteronomist said that Ahab’s death in battle was God’s punishment of him for the murder of Naboth (cp. I Kings 22:38; 21:19).  While the death of Ahab’s son, Jehoram, is said to fulfill the prophecy about the end of Ahab’s dynasty, the Deuteronomist stresses that Jehoram was evil and continued the sins of his father.  The Deuteronomist wants to make clear that Jehoram is being punished for his own sins.

And, I might add, in the process, the Deuteronomist’s editing creates a narrative that conflicts with itself.  In I Kings 21, God says that he will not punish Ahab because God is impressed with Ahab’s repentance, but will instead punish Ahab’s son.  But, due to the Deuteronomist’s editing, God does punish Ahab for his sin concerning Naboth—as I Kings 22:38 shows.  But the whole narrative may hold together as far as the Deuteronomist is concerned, for the Deuteronomist may think that God retracted his decision not to punish Ahab because Ahab’s repentance was short-lived, and Ahab reverted back to his wickedness.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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