Transgenerational Curses: When Biblical Authors Rewrote Commands

I must admit, for the longest time I was a Bible reader who was wholly uncomfortable with the notion of there being "contradictions" in the Bible. Actually, I am still that way. In fact, I still do not believe there are "contradictions" per se, but I do, however, believe that there is "tension". As I have said on this site before, because of the way I "image" the Bible, that is, as a "conversation", the idea of tension doesn't bother me. It is now clear to me that persons like Josh McDowell have simply overstated their cases for "biblical unity". To act as if there is no tension in the Bible is to act naively!

I want to give one example of what I am talking about and hopefully, I can write some more on this soon. If we admit that the Bible, like a conversation between persons, is fluid and oriented towards discussion, we also can admit things like the fact that the author of Deuteronomy had different views than say, the prophet Jeremiah or even Ezekiel. Take for instance, Exodus 20.5 (part of the 10 Commandments) which says, "...for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, 'but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.'"

In that passage, it is clear that transgenerational sin seems like a given, a certain reality! However, it appears that when we read the words of Jeremiah, some tension arises. Jeremiah 31.30 says: "They shall no longer say, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge." Similarly, Ezekiel says the same thing and elaborates in chapter 18, "As surely as I live declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel...The one who sins is the one who will die."

Clearly, there is tension between the passage in Dt. and those found in Jer. and Ezek. In fact, in the prophetic texts, the authors even go as far as having God snub what He supposedly said years before. Without a doubt, there is some kind of change, modification and innovation going on here! Why it was changed and why there was tension between the texts is something I want to deal with soon. But in the meantime, I raise a couple of questions for you: 1) How do you deal with this tension and how would you help others deal with it, especially new Christians, and 2) What does this tension suggest about the relationship between canon & exegesis as well as theories of inspiration & authority?


  1. Michael,

    Maybe my theology forces me to interpret it with different lenses. As we read both Eze and Jer we must understand that the covenant that they were under was both national and familial. Today we are under no such covenant, as under the Old Covenant there was a command to circumcise today we say that a parent who coerces there child to receive the grace of Christ is actually disobeying God.

    I can go on but I think you know where I am headed. With the Old Covenant came many instructions and commands that we as New Covenant believers are to abstain from. Today God writes the law on each individual believers heart under the old it was to be written on the door and to be recitied. Under the Old the family was covenantal under the New Jesus says "I come to bring a sword". So even in the same household one can reject the New Covenant while the other holds firmly to it (husband/wife, parents/children, children/parents, sibling). So it can be house divided while under the Old Covenant to reject it was synonymous with suicide!

    My thoughts brother. Also it seems that Jeremiah is beginning to talk a great deal about the New Covenant especially Jer 31 in which the writer of Hebrews quotes extensively.

  2. I am unclear as to what a "dialogue" would mean in an inspired text. Do you view these texts as largely if not wholly human creations? More importantly, what distinguishes a contradiction and a tension? Is it intension? Genre? Would Jeremiah and Ezekial know they were having a conversation?

    I think I would like to see you flesh this out some more.

  3. Scott - I think a good example is Proverbs 26:4-5:

    "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit."

    There is a dialogue / tension between these two verses. The fact is that life doesn't always have simplistic answers, and therefore the Bible doesn't always provide them either. Think of the gospels - each one has their own "spin" on the gospel. That's actually part of the gospel - it is big enough not to be a single story told from one viewpoint - you need 4 viewpoints to understand the fullness and nuance of the gospel. There are parts that are in tension with each other - and that's okay - because it matches up quite well with how life works.

    It is true that many of the people who talk about a "dialogue" and "tension" between different parts of the Bible are coming at it from the perspective that the Bible is a completely human book. But I view the dialogue and tension of the Bible resulting from God giving us a wider complement of understandings so we don't get too locked into a single way of looking at things.

  4. Lionel,
    I'm not sure I would go the same route as you on this as it seems to lead to a "whatever God wrote on my heart (aka: whatever I feel)" is what I'm going to follow. I wonder if you're making too much of God writing things on people's hearts. This was not just a NT idea, it is explicitly stated in the OT too. I think there are a number of authorities, with experience being one of those. But that said, that doesn't mean its the greatest or even most reliable! The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is good for this type of discussion.

  5. Scott,
    I guess we need, or I need to, at least, define what I mean when I say "inspired" or "inspiration". In my view, inspiration means that the text is true in all that it teaches. This is not the same thing as saying it is always a singular unity, always a stickler for details, etc. Inspiration means it is true in what it teaches. Also, my view of inspiration focuses more on the inspired communities that shaped and used these texts more than one individual that might have helped write them! It certainly doesn't mean God forced the things that are written to be written. Therefore, given all of these things, when I say dialoge, in lieu of an inspired text, I am suggesting that the writers often argued, conversed, agreed, disagreed, etc. Sadly, I don't think this has been recognized enough by bible readers.

  6. jonathan,
    good thoughts! i'm not sure i go as far as you on the last point but it is something to ponder, nonetheless! thanks for sharing friend.

  7. One's view of the inspiration of Scripture would definitely fund most of the argument one could make. Without delving into those issues, you could look at the way Torah evolved over time and as it was reconsidered in other contexts.

    For instance examine the fourth commandment in Exodus and the verb used "zacor" (remember)compared with its retelling in Deut and the verb used "shamor" (guard, defend). The language of the Torah seems to evolve as it is likely a product of its environment.

    Furthermore, if one examines literature from Qumran (e.g. The Temple Scroll), Torah even becomes rewritten and even uses God's first-person speech as an avenue of proclamation.

  8. The Michael,

    I never said anythign about feeling. Where did you get that from? I am dealing with Covenental Israel vs. the New Covenental church.

    Maybe I am confused on what you are saying.

  9. Lionel,
    sorry about the confusion, perhaps i read too much into your comments. when you were conjecturing about living w/differences that's what i read into it.

    i think i see more clearly what you are saying now, although, i would like to hear more of your thoughts on both the post and the ensuing discussion.

    blessings friend, sorry again for the confusion,

  10. levi,
    dude, i'd love for you to say more about this. your examples are great. btw, have you read ?Brueggemann's "The Creative Word"? He fleshes out this same kind of idea in a most fascinating way!