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by Jacob Ninan
The doctrine or teaching about generational or ancestral curses affecting families is comparatively new, perhaps dating back to 30 or 40 years ago following the coming of the charismatic movement. Some big names among preachers picked this up, and because of the vigour with it was preached and the difficulty people generally have in explaining certain calamities that seem to run in some families, it spread fast and now a lot of people take it for granted that it is true. Preachers ask people to approach them to break these curses with confessing of ancestral sins and a special prayer asking for forgiveness. But when we see that this is not taught in the New Testament--neither has Jesus mentioned it in all His teachings, nor have the apostles addressed it in all their letters to different churches--shouldn't we put a big question mark over it?
What is the teaching?
In Deuteronomy chapter 28, there are two lists, one of blessings that will come upon people who keep the commandments of God and one of curses that will come upon people who disobey them. That was how the old covenant operated. The teaching says that if we find in our life any of the things mentioned in the list of curses, we need to check whether it is the result of God's curse on our life. They they quote Exodus 20:5, "I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me." So, they teach, if any of our ancestors up to the four generations back has come under the curse of God for disobeying His commandments, we would be suffering from the curse also. If so, then we need to break the chain of the curse by confessing the sins of the ancestors and asking for forgiveness.
What is 'visiting the iniquity'?
Unfortunately, the NIV Bible has translated this as 'punishing the children for the sin of the parents', possibly in an attempt to make it simple. But this is wrong, as we shall see. But this is the meaning that the teachers of generational curses give to this passage. If you read the explanations given by many Hebrew scholars on this passage, you will come to the conclusion that nobody is clear about what this means, even though many people give their opinions.
When we have a difficult passage like this in the Bible, the best way to try and understand it is to see if other passages in the Bible can make it clear. In this case, we have good clarity from two other passages. "Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deut.24:16). This is plainly and simply saying that Exodus 20:5 cannot be interpreted as mentioned above. Look at one more passage, "The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself" (Ezek.18:20). God will not contradict Himself; it's against His nature. So, whatever Exodus 20:5 may be saying, it is certainly not that God will punish children up to four generations for their ancestor's sin! The teaching on generational curses is wrong. Our understanding of God as being just and righteous also agrees with the fact that He will not punish innocent children for their father's sins.
Christians and God's curses
The curses in Deut.28 are 'the curse of the Law', not only because they are part of the operation of the Law given through Moses, but also because no one can escape it because no one can manage to keep the whole Law all the time. But when Jesus came and died on the cross He paid with His blood for the punishment of our sins; that's why we can be forgiven. But He also took away this curse from us because He became a curse for us. "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" (Gal.3:13). So, we are not under any curse from God. On the contrary, He has also moved us into His blessings, "in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (v.14). All our past sins have been forgiven, and if we fall into sin now, we can get forgiveness by confessing it to God (1Jn.1:9). God has put away His anger from us, "For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1Thess.5:9). So Christians do not come under any curse from God.
Non-Christians and God's curses
Of course, they are under God's curse. Even if they don't suffer here on the earth, certainly there is an eternal hell they will end up in. But even in this case, it is still true that God will not punish the children for their father's sins.
So what is 'visiting the iniquity'?
Once we realise that it doesn't mean 'punishing the sin' we can look for other explanations. I suggest that it means the natural consequences of the father's sins affecting the children and their effect staying on for generations. In this way, the father's sins 'visit' their children. Imagine a drunkard who beats his wife every day and whose children hide from him. This will affect the children's life in many ways--their psychological, social and spiritual development may get distorted. If the father has no money to feed or clothe the children or to send them to school, they get badly affected that way too. Once these children get married, some of this dysfunction can be expected to affect their marriage and their children too.
Another way a father's sin affects the children is by the fact that children learn from their parents in their childhood and imitate them even after they grow up. A father's anger, for example, be taken up by the children as a part of their own behaviour. Teachers of 'generational curses' talk about such things coming down as curses down the family line. These are learned or acquired behaviours, and not curses coming down the family line.
Vulnerability to some sicknesses does pass down the generations. But this is a natural process that happens because we are living in this sin-corrupted world where there is pollution and even adulteration of food stuffs. This is due to sin in a general sense and cannot be attributed to any particular ancestor's sin.
Even if we can't understand some of the things we observe around us, let's not attribute them to generational curses. We need to find other explanations, including operation of evil spirits (see FAQ on spiritual warfare).
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