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Punishing children for their parents' sins

In the Old Testament it is stated more than once that children of sinners will be punished because of their parents sins.

An ancient form of the decalogue contains this threat:

“I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God. I punish a parent's fault on the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who hate me.” Exodus 20,5

Is God really like that? Does God so callously punish innocent people?

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First Observation

In olden times the Israelites were firmly convinced that every disaster should be explained somehow or other as a punishment by God for a specific crime.

We read, for instance, that a famine occurred during David’s reign. A divine oracle was consulted, which stated:

“The Lord said: 'Saul and his family are guilty of murder because Saul put the people of Gibeon to death'.” -- 2 Samuel 21,1

David made further enquiries and found that King Saul, some 10 years previously, had executed some Gibeonites. David then approached the Gibeonites and asked them what they wanted him to do to make reparation.

“Hand over seven of his male descendants, and we will hang them before the Lord at Gibeah, the hometown of Saul, the Lord’s chosen king.” -- 2 Samuel 21,6

David agreed. He arrested seven of Saul’s sons and handed them over. The Gibeonites hanged them and left their corpses to rot in front of the sanctuary at Gibeah. After a few months the bodies were taken down and buried.

“And after that, God answered their prayers for the country.” -- 2 Samuel 21:14

When we read a passage like this, we should be extremely careful in interpreting it. It looks as if it was God who wanted the sin of Saul avenged: “The Lord said, ‘Saul and his family are guilty of murder” (2 Samuel 21:1), and finally, “After that, God answered their prayers.” But we know from other scripture texts (see below) that it would be a mistake to think thus. What we find in episodes such as these is not straightforward revelation but a record of what the people at the time were thinking about God. It was a rationalisation on their part which it would be a mistake for us to consider inspired!

Second Observation

The early Hebrews were convinced that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. But this notion was corrected in later centuries.

In the example of the famine under King David mentioned above, they thought God wanted to punish Saul’s children for their father’s crime. This happened in the 9th century before Christ.

But, in the course of time, God corrected this notion very clearly and specifically.

The prophet Ezekiel (580 BC) declared at length that people will be punishedfor their own sins or rewardedfor their own virtue. Regarding the sins of parents the prophet does not mince his words. Speaking on God's behalf he states:

“You ask: ‘Why shouldn’t the son suffer for his father’s sins?’ The answer is that the son did what was right and good. He kept my laws and followed them carefully and so he will certainly live. It is the one who sins who will die. A son is not to suffer because of his father’s sins, nor a father because of the sins of his son. A good man will be rewarded for doing good, and an evil man will suffer for the evil he does." Ezekiel 18:19-20

The same principle was also laid down as a general rule in the Law:

“Parents are not to be put to death for crimes committed by their children, and children are not to be put to death for crimes committed by their parents; a person is to be put to death only for a crime he or she has committed personally.” Deuteronomy 24,16

This gives us plenty to think about!

When the innocent sons of Saul were put to death because of their father’s crime, this was not what God was asking for. It was what the Israelites thought God wanted. It was their rationalization. And, don’t forget, to this imagined wish of God they ascribed the famine. They thought: This famine must be due to some crime someone has committed, for why would God otherwise punish us? Ah, it must be Saul’s injustice towards Gibeon. If we punish Saul’s sons, God will be satisfied and will take the punishment away. The whole chain of thought was simply a rationalization!

We know now that all this thinking was wrong. The famine was not a punishment on God’s part. He was not happy about the killing of Saul’s sons. The only thing we can say is that God tolerated this kind of thinking until he found the right moment to correct it once and for all. But notice: we find the rationalizations squarely in Scripture!

Third Observation

Rationalizations often grow as they are handed on from one generation to another.

In the second book of Samuel an epidemic of pesitlence is ascribed to punishment by God because David had taken a census of the people. 2 Samuel 24,10-25

“I have committed a terrible sin in doing this! Please, forgive me,” David prays. 2 Samuel 24,10

God eventually forgives David, but only after having killed 70,000 people through the pestilence and after David had erected an altar on a hill outside Jerusalem.

Ascribing the epidemic to God was clearly a rationalization.

The first book of Chronicles also narrates the same episode in David's life. But in the narration of the same event in 1 Chronicles, it is not God butSatan who is blamed.

“Satan wanted to bring trouble on the people of Israel, so he made David decide to take a census.” 1 Chronicles 21,1

Again we find the same process of rationalization and ascribing causes. When an epidemic occurred, the people looked around for the culprit. It was decided it had to be David’s taking the census. Later, they became convinced that Satan must have had a hand in it! But taking a census surely was not a sin. In the priestly account of Israel’s journey through the desert, which was written down centuries later, the census of the people is prescribed as a duty.

[The Lord said to Moses:] “You and Aaron are to take a census of the people of Israel by clans and families. List the names of all the men twenty years old or older who are fit for military service.” Numbers 1,2-3

The Lord said to Moses and Eleazar son of Aaron, “Take a census by families of the whole community of Israel, of all men twenty years old and older who are fit for military service.” Numbers 26,1-2

Again we come to the same conclusion: In spite of what David’s contemporaries thought, the epidemic was not due to a punishment by God for David’s taking the census. Their rationalizations were not correct.

Fourth Observation

Jesus clearly rejects the rationalizations of interpreting physical ills as punishments inflicted by God.

When Jesus and his disciples walked outside the Temple of Jerusalem, a similar case occurred. The apostles saw a man known to have been blind from birth - an interesting topic of discussion for the Jews. For, thinking that a defect of this kind must be a punishment for sin, they did not know to whom to ascribe it. The apostles refer the matter to Jesus:

“Teacher, whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents’ sin?” Jesus answered, “His blindness has nothing to do with his sins or his parents’ sins. He is blind so that God’s power might be seen at work in him” (John 9,2-3).

The blindness was not due to anyone’s sins. Thousands of people are born with defective eyesight or with some other handicap. This is not due to sin. We would be wrong to look for some supernatural explanation. It is due to a mishap of nature. Yet the blindness of the man sitting outside the Temple served a purpose.

“So that God’s power might be seen at work in him.”

© John Wijngaards


The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.

Correct Interpretation. Principle 1 Correct Interpretation. Principle 2 Correct Interpretation. Principle 3 Correct Interpretation. Principle 4 Correct Interpretation. Principle 5
Correct Interpretation. Principle 6

Correct Interpretation. Principle 7   Correct Interpretation. Principle 8   Correct Interpretation. Principle 9   Correct Interpretation. Principle 10