Sometimes people contact me with biblical or theological questions. Recently I was asked about the teaching of “generational curses” since someone they knew thought they might be under a generational curse because of ongoing bad circumstances in their life. I can understand that if someone experiences a series of setbacks that they could begin to feel cursed by God.
This idea comes from Exodus 34/Numbers 14. It says that God punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the 3rd and 4th generations. This is the Old Testament, and caution is needed about lifting out an OT statement and directly applying it now. Rather, it should be viewed through the lens of Jesus and the New Testament. (An example would be that we no longer sacrifice animals, as Jesus completed and fulfilled that system.) But instead of taking my answer in that direction, I decided to more carefully look at the Old Testament passage in question.
Simply taking a closer look at the OT passage itself (Exodus 34:5-8) sheds light. The passage also emphasizes that God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, and forgiving of sin. Then it mentions the punishment of children to the 3rd and 4th generation. These things can initially seem like a contradiction to each other. It does not sound compassionate and gracious to punish the children for several generations! But I’ve always thought of it this way:
When a parent commits certain types of sin (say alcoholism or abuse) this affects the children. They are different as a result, and there can be consequences. Not a curse, but the sin affected them and it may be felt for several generations. Certain sin can affect an entire family and not just the individual person who committed the sin. God can redeem and forgive, but certain consequences of sin can remain. I see it as a warning that even though God is loving and gracious, sin should not be taken lightly and consequences can reverberate.
Elsewhere in the OT, Ezekiel 18:20 states: “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.” – This brings clarity that God is just, and does not punish the innocent for the guilty.
This was my brief answer to the question, and I realize it could be greatly expanded. Perhaps the broader question is why do bad things happen to us in life? Here is an old post that may also interest you: A closer look at the “causes” of suffering. Divine retribution?
UPDATE, April 2019:
Regarding the generational punishment statement, this is a helpful article: The Intergenerational Punishment Statement. Read it! Some highlights:
♦ It may be the use of hyperbole to indicate that God’s mercy lasts forever while his anger lasts only for a brief time. The hyperbole may also be emphasizing obedience.
♦ It also discusses that nature of covenants in Old Testament times. “The statement on intergenerational punishment must be understood in light of the covenant God made with Israel. Most people who criticize the statement on intergenerational punishment do so because they do not understand the nature of covenants as they existed in the world where Israel lived…”
♦ Finally, I appreciated this quote in the conclusion: “Whereas consequences of guilt could have an impact on one extended living family that breaks covenant with God, God’s mercy and love, in great contrast, extend to the thousandth generation for those who keep covenant. Again, we find that our texts are not about a wrath-bearing, vengeful God, but about one who demonstrates covenantal faithfulness to the extreme.”