God the Punisher?

So after reading Exodus 34 I’ve been rethinking this whole notion of God as punisher of those who do evil – which is a common Christian outlook. Exodus 34:3-7 recounts Moses acquisition of the second set of the “ten commandments”, and lists some of Gods attributes. I want to focus on just one of these – punishment/retribution. Like many things in the Bible there are two sides to this and neither is what it seems on the surface.

Verses 6 & 7 read,

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord! the Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” [JPS translation]

First the good news. The good attributes such as “slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness…” covers a thousand generations. It goes on and on. So-called punishment is only for up to 4 generations.

First I want to question the word “punishment” – which is a common translation. And I’ve always questioned this notion of God punishing children for their parents misdeeds. But if we read it literally that is what it seems to talk about. Let’s think about this. Punishment is something unpleasant imposed by authority on someone or some group for wrong action. In other words punishment is a consequence of wrong action. So let’s get away from the notion of punishment as a whip, hanging, or imprisonment. Lets think about consequence.

Now let’s think about what this consequence is in these verses. We learn that God does not bring the consequences himself. The consequences of wrong actions by parents and society are passed on to their children and even their children’s children [i.e. future generations]…. Now I know you’re probably tempted to say, “but wait” and revisit my previous comment about God punishing children for parents mistakes – BUT STOP!

We are talking about consequences. Cause and effect. Let’s think of the bigger picture here. I’ve always loved the Native American quote from the Iroquois Nation. To paraphrase their Great Law,

“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”

We have become a very temporal minded society, living for the moment and not thinking ahead to the consequences of our actions for our children and future generations. Another consequence of our temporal society is that we’ve become more reactive than proactive. Me must find a way to think about this. Parents must consider how they teach & discipline, their children. Parents must consider how children learn from their beliefs and behaviors (emotional and physical action). As a society we must consider how our actions in environmental issues, urban planning, government etc will impact future generations. Because our wrong or right actions now WILL HAVE CONSEQUENCES on our children and children’s children for at least the next 3 or 4 generations (according to the Bible). God doesn’t punish our children for our mistakes – we do. If you don’t want your children to suffer from your wrong actions – carefully consider your actions to begin with; in every situation.

Does this mean we don’t or won’t make mistakes? No, we will still make mistakes but if we are mindful and aware, considering our actions we will be able to correct the mistake much sooner. There will still be strong debate over what constitutes right actions in a larger public arena.