Does God's agreeing to the slaying Saul's progeny contradict Deuteronomy 24:16?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: In 2 Samuel 21:1-14 we see God allowing the killing of several of Saul’s children and grandchildren (7 in all) by David because Saul broke an oath Joshua made to the Gibeonites. How can this be reconciled with Deuteronomy 24:16? How is this not a contradiction in Scripture?

“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)

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. It will be a pleasure to answer your question today... although these types of questions — the ones where people are being killed — are always “messy” ... and some messes are best cleaned up by the adults. So, let’s get at it.

First of all, I agree with your understanding of the facts of the case — the important one being that God was in agreement with David killing Saul’s progeny. But there were two events leading up to this one that God was not in agreement with: Joshua making a treaty with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9) and Saul breaking that treaty by slaying them (2 Samuel 21:2).

Note, however, that God did not step in at those two moments. He could have dealt with those sins quickly as he did with Achan (Joshua 7), but he deferred… just not forever. So, let’s look at that parallel account with Achan, because the same elements are in play in Achan’s story… it’s just that his is more contained. Achan disobeyed the Lord at Jericho, and here we see the result:

“Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them.” (Joshua 7:24–25, NIV)

Achan’s sons and daughters did not commit this sin with him — yet they too were killed… so, this is an even clearer example of a passage to be reconciled with Deuteronomy 24:16.

It’s natural to ask concerning Achan, did Joshua break the law with his response? … but he couldn’t have. It was God who called this sin out. Joshua and the people were just acting under God’s directions. Now, the finger of “cause” always points back at God. He is, after all, the Prime Mover. But in this story, he is also the immediate mover — a killer of children! What gives?

First things first: can God sin? If the answer is no (and the answer is no), then neither Joshua nor the people sinned since they acted as God’s agents in the stoning… but this still doesn’t reconcile with Deuteronomy 24:16. So, what else gives? The law itself gives.

“For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death.” (Exodus 31:15, NIV)

Since God established laws that carried the death penalty, you cannot say that God’s agents broke his law or acted contradictorily to his word when those agents obeyed that part of the law. What of Deuteronomy 24:16 then? It’s the weaker passage, so it remains true while subordinating itself to the law. But, you may ask, what use is truth that is not being applied? It’s not being applied here. That’s all… and that’s how these passages are not in contradiction.

A quick read of Deuteronomy 24:16 shows that it is not a commandment. It doesn’t have the power of a law. But it does show us God’s attitude toward cascading punishment… but only under certain circumstances. How do we know this for sure? Because God’s word also says the opposite:

“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)

“maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:7, NIV)

“But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.
(2 Samuel 12:14, NIV)

Let’s add a few more verses that support Deuteronomy 24:16 to even things up:

“In those days people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge. “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.” (Jeremiah 31:29–31, NIV)

“The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.” (Ezekiel 18:20, NIV)

On the surface, these two groupings of passages seem to be teaching different things. But the contexts are different. So, we see God’s attitude toward the cascading effect of sin under different circumstances… which should be different under differing circumstances. These are not unqualified statements like “You shall have no other gods before you” … which is an absolute statement that is binding under all circumstances.

So, Deuteronomy 24:16 (et al) leaves the door open for us to reconcile it with other parts of God’s word because it is not a declaration of binding truth; it’s an attitude… but it’s one that God will subordinate when he addresses more important things — like his honor and the nation’s honor. These were in play with the Gibeonites.

Deuteronomy 24:16 is not a contradiction. True contradictions are rarer than many people suppose. People are quick to match up surface contradictions and say, “There! I told you!” — forcing a contradiction upon passages where none exists. But contradiction does not work like that. We must give God — as we give every other author in the world — the benefit of the doubt. If there is any reasonable way that the verses will not be in contradiction, then we do not force their meanings to become contradictory… and we should especially be leery of false contradiction when the Bible has multiple stories that plainly teach the opposite… which is our case today.

Take Korah for example. God did not have the people kill him (and his family and his belongings). God did that personally… and let’s not shrink back from the fact that Korah’s children were innocents in that story. God caused David and Bathsheba’s son to die, yet he was innocent of his father’s sins. Then in Canaan, God used his people to put Achan’s whole family to death … and we add these to 2 Samuel 21.

It is very plain in these accounts that children did indeed die because of their fathers’ sins. But because of who God is, these activities are never wrong… and done purely, they are never sin… and they will always reconcile with other portions of his word. Our job is to see how this is true… which you have done!

God bless you.

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