I’ve always been sort of fascinated by the mystery behind Exodus 34:7: “I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected–even children in the third and fourth generations.”
It’s not hard to understand the general idea here: Our choices reverberate through generations. Our sins have consequences, and those consequences affect others–especially the others who live with us and under our care. We’ve all seen (and we all live with) the reality of this.
But there is something here that’s hard to understand: what exactly does God mean by “lay the sins of the parents upon their children”? Just a glance at this verse in a variety of translations (which you can easily do on Bible Gateway) makes it obvious that the concept is not entirely straightforward and clearly understood by translators. For example…
The King James Version speaks of “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.”
The New International Version says, “He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents.”
The New English Translation describes it as “punishing the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children.”
A look at the original language reveals at least 25 different ways this terminology can be translated into English, including everything from “to pay attention to” to “to be called to account” and “to appoint, assign, deposit.” The suggestion is that something is happening–not just an unfolding of natural consequences, but an active divine response to rebellion.
So what has God promised to do here? Is this a visitation of punishment for sins committed by those who came before? Or a fancy way of saying that the sins prevalent in the environment we’re raised in stick to us and tend to be repeated? Or is there something more here–an actual repetition of the sins themselves? Because the wording seems to suggest that those sins come back to us with a new generation.
I’ve been reading about some breakthrough scientific study that has changed the way I read this verse. Scientists have discovered that we can change our DNA through our lifestyle choices and our responses to what we experience. We can make both positive and negative changes, and as a result, the DNA we are born with is not necessarily the DNA we will pass on to our descendants. It turns out that our habits–exercise, diet, self-care, emotional expressions–change our genetic makeup (and determine how our DNA unfolds in our own lifetime) and legacy (determining what our children will have to work with).
Perhaps this scientific discovery unravels part of the mystery in this verse. Yes, our ancestors’ actual sins do come back to us because their choices and experiences reshaped their genetic material. They passed on to us not only physical characteristics and family tendencies; they passed on their choices and their responses to the circumstances they found themselves in. No wonder cases of lifestyle-based disease and mental illness are rising among us; no wonder problems like alcoholism and other addictions run in families. We are all living with the proclivities, habits, behaviors, traumas, and joys of those who came before us.
Yet we are not mere products of DNA. We are not only outcomes of other people’s outcomes. We are flush with choices big and small. We are dizzy with the power (although often unrecognized) of self-determination. In some ways our lives are strings of choices–some very, very hard but viable nonetheless. And even if we do not have the power to change our circumstances, our response is in our own hands.
This means we have a grave responsibility to those who will come after us–not only our children, but those we will never meet. Our choices matter not only to us, not only to those we raise, but to everyone who will inherit the genetic material we steward.
Sins and the consequences of other people’s sins are not the only things we pass on. Things like faithfulness, healing, hard work, physical and mental health, good habits, and generosity reshape us as well. By doing the work of living well, we can change our genetic makeup for the better. And in doing so, we change the impact we have on the world. If our own choices reshape our world now, imagine the impact they will have over generations. It’s another reason to care about the choices we make–they’re never just about us.
© 2014 Amy Simpson.