Exodus 20:5 states that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation.” How, asks a gracEmail subscriber in the Philippines, does that conform to the idea that each individual has a personal relationship with God?
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This troubling statement concerning national judgments, which appears also in Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18 and Deuteronomy 5:9, reflects the ancient Near Eastern concept of family solidarity which viewed as one unit not only parents and children but also grandparents and grandchildren. By stating this phrase in question, God actually imposed a “statute of limitations” on himself for radical evil performed by a specific individual. We need to read the statement of punishment “to the third and fourth generation” against a background of blood feuds and family animosities which often continued for centuries.
Three of these texts also stress that, while God’s temporal punishment of evil is limited to three or four generations, his lovingkindness extends “to thousands.” Whether that means thousands of generations or thousands of individuals, the contrast screams to be heard. As the Apostle Paul later wrote, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).
Finally — to answer your fundamental question — Scripture nowhere indicates that any person, at any time, in any place, who sought God with a heart of repentance and faith, has ever been refused spiritual life and fellowship because of his or her ancestors or family tree.