Punishment to the Tenth Generation

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. Here’s a recent entry.]

The Bible contains ideas about guilt and punishment that many of us would find extremely peculiar today. For example, Deuteronomy 23:2 says that “No bastard shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”

What? God punishes people for the sins of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents who had a baby out of wedlock? That’s around two centuries of punishment. This passage reflects extreme confusion about who deserves blame and shame. A supreme creative intelligence would not sponsor such nonsense.

Some explain this verse by noting that the natural consequences of sin may harm one’s descendants. Deuteronomy is just warning us of that uncomfortable fact. But that’s not what Deuteronomy says. It’s not: “Watch out that you don’t harm your grandkids.” It’s that the grandchildren must be punished for the grandparent’s sin.

Rather than being written by a single divine author, the Bible includes many voices. These often contradict each other, as people struggle with moral and practical issues. For example, the prophet Ezekiel explicitly rejects the idea of inherited guilt. “The word of the Lord came to me again: ‘What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel…. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.’” (Ezekiel 18:1-3, 20) Deuteronomy 24:16 and Jeremiah 31:29 express similar sentiments.

Roger Christan Schriner

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One thought on “Punishment to the Tenth Generation

  1. Bad but strictly speaking ‘bastard’ (mamzer) in the Hebrew Bible was a subset of what ‘bastard’ is in English. A mamzer is a child whose parents not only weren’t married but couldn’t marry either because they were too closely related (incest) or because the mother was married or engaged to another man. It is one of the reasons that many Jewish women feel it is vitally important to be given a ‘get’ or religious divorce by their former husbands after a civil divorce. Without it any subsequent children she has by a new husband are ‘mamzer’. He on the other hand can refuse her a ‘get’ and have a civil marriage with another woman without his subsequent children being labeled ‘mamzer’ (men having only one wife at a time is not part of the Torah).

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