Why did God tell Israel to confess ancestral sins they did not commit?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: In Leviticus 26:40, God tells the Israelites they will be rewarded if they confess their sins — and the sins of their ancestors! Why did they have to confess sins that they weren't personally responsible for? ... or does this verse say that they were personally responsible for those sins? I’m confused.

“‘But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 26:40–42, NIV)

Answer: It’s hard enough for us to deal with our own sins! So the idea that we might be responsible for the sins of those who have gone before us can be unsettling — especially since there’s nothing we can do about them!

I wish I could say categorically that people are off the hook for the sins of their ancestors, but the Bible says just the opposite in Leviticus 26:40. The problem is that this doesn’t jive with an evangelical understanding of how sin works, so what gives?

I notice that your question stopped with the Jews… asking if this verse implied that they were personally responsible for their ancestors’ sins. You did not ask that if this were true, would it mean that we Christians are also personally responsible for our ancestor's sins. I’ll look at that too, but for now, back to the Jews.

If we look at Leviticus 26:40 as an isolated verse, that question does seem to hang there... like a tennis ball on a tether, ready to be whacked! But don’t take the bait. You must read and engage with the entire chapter to understand what is not being said in this verse. God is speaking to the nation here — not to individual Jews. He’s telling the collective body what their nation can expect from collective obedience or collective disobedience; verse 40 is from that disobedience section.

The Matthew Henry Concise Commentary makes this exact point:

Among the Israelites, persons were not always prosperous or afflicted according to their obedience or disobedience. But national prosperity was the effect of national obedience, and national judgments were brought on by national wickedness. Israel was under a peculiar covenant. National wickedness will end in the ruin of any people, especially where the word of God and the light of the gospel are enjoyed. Sooner or later, sin will be the ruin, as well as the reproach, of every people. Oh that, being humbled for our sins, we might avert the rising storm before it bursts upon us! God grant that we may, in this our day, consider the things which belong to our eternal peace. (Leviticus 26:40-46, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary) https://biblehub.com/commentaries/leviticus/26-40.htm

So, even though the nation Israel is comprised of individual Jews — and even though the individual Jews are the only entities that can act upon God’s advice and warnings — the advice and warnings in Leviticus 26 were addressed to the nation… and that’s where the “ancestor” issue comes in. An individual Jew could certainly repent of his personal sin and move on. But a big part of being a Jew involved “owning” Jewish history... a history that was not pretty even at the relatively early date of the Leviticus writings — one that God understood would be even uglier later. (See also Luke 11:47-51.)

But whatever else was going on, the type of repentance spoken about in Leviticus 26:40 was not repentance unto salvation — or even repentance over ongoing sin. It was identifying with the collective body of the Jews so that they might repent of sin categorically… and this meant past sins, present sins, future sins and the nation’s sins! Each individual understood in his heart that if he had been present in Israel’s history that he would have sinned too, so he had to reach that “we have sinned” place of repentance to be the Jew God wanted him to be in the here and now.

We have a New Testament analog to Israel in the Church — the Body of Christ — which is (obviously) a collective term. Peter — the Apostle to the Jews, no less — called us “a chosen people.... a holy nation” (2 Peter 2:9). He saw our dynamic as the same as Israel’s, and in my opinion, we too have to “own” the failings of the Church to repent of sin categorically. This is different than repenting of our sins for salvation or lifestyle sanctification. When we are genuinely sorrowful for all the sins done “in Jesus’ name” over the years, then we will be in a better position to be blessed as a Body.

Let me close with an example that will show the difference between a personal and national sin.

I am a white male who lives in the USA. My country had a dreadful period of sin where it enslaved African people. Even though I wasn’t born until nearly 100 years after slavery was abolished, I am ashamed of that part of our history… and I understand that America is reaping the whirlwind with the riots and protests that have followed the death of George Floyd — a man of African descent — at the hands of white policemen.

Now, there is nothing I can do to change the USA’s history. But there is one thing I can do: I can “own” it — and I seem to do this more genuinely than is typical of people in my demographic. I personally cringe at how we treated our slaves. I am personally sorry for it — and wish I could personally go back and undo it! But I can’t… and even if I could, that would not satisfy the requirements of Leviticus 26:40.

You see, our nation — as a collection of individuals — is sometimes less than the sum of its parts. This was especially true during slavery. Now, God deals with the USA — as he does with all nations —  as a collective. So there is a difference between my personal spiritual hygiene, where I go to the Lord to confess my own sins and ask his forgiveness, and doing so on the behalf of my nation. Repentance requires some knowledge of the facts of sin, so I must “own” the sins of my ancestors — which I do — even though these did not occur at my hand or on my watch.

Every nation — including ancient Israel — is a collection of the acts of its individuals throughout all of its history. God dealt with Israel as a nation primarily. As such, the individuals who were petitioning God for the good of the commonwealth could not do so without addressing the sins of the commonwealth… whether they were the ones who committed them or not. Leviticus 26:40 reminds us that they had to acknowledge (own) the sins of the ancestors if they were to be blessed as a nation under God.

I pray that these observations helped you today. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20200914 Can a commonwealth be a common curse?).

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