Good Morning, Musers,

Here’s a good question: does God punish the children for the sins of the father? I ask because the Bible comes down on both sides.

“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:16, NIV)

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” (Exodus 20:5, NIV)

Today’s questioner wants to know why this would not be a contradiction… and that’s a fair question.

When it comes to salvation we know the answer. “But as many as received him… (John 1:12)” points to individual responsibility. But there’s more in view than just salvation when it comes to sin. Just look at the statistics for how an absentee father hobbles his son. Statistically, that boy’s prospects are not the same as one from a two-parent home. Isn’t that the sin of the father affecting the son?

This explanation demonstrates why Scriptures that seem to say the opposite thing are not in contradiction. With this issue, sometimes the children will suffer because of their home and sometimes they will be judged as individuals. But when and why this might happen is totally context-dependent, and when that’s the case, there can be no contradiction between passages.

But we won’t get off that easily today… not emotionally anyway. Because sometimes children die at the hands of God or his agents. But even though our questioner had one of those stories in view, he was only interested in the contradiction... so I dodged the bullet of having to explain the death of children. But I still take an emotional hit when I deal with these passages.

Many people “force” a contradiction onto passages where none exists. I call these “surface” (or “apparent”) contradictions. What’s interesting is that people will give the world’s authors the benefit of the doubt knowing that their logical tensions will resolve as the story advances. Yet they hold God up to an unworkable standard in the same medium — writing… and I cry foul!

Two things keep me out of trouble dealing with ostensive contradictions and cruelties, and first is my hermeneutical stand on how the use of language affects biblical inerrancy: I believe that Scripture is the result of God using common men who wrote in the common idiom to communicate both common and uncommon things and that therefore, all the rules of common language apply to the Bible. None of its native “messiness” makes it errant.

Second, I presume God to be perfectly moral. When he or his agents do something, it may be uncomfortable… but it is never immoral. And when it is done purely by his agents, it is never sin.

We live in a world of shallow readers, though… and we are becoming more and more a world of video learners. But God’s word can satisfy on that level, too. Remember, God’s original method was the oral transmission of his word, and that still works well today. But no matter what the transmission method, we human beings were made for depth… and depth requires patience and maturity… and if you’re on this mailing list, I get that you get that.

To read the article referenced above, visit the link below.

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