Are Children Punished for Parents' Sins?


Vexing Moral Issues

Two famous passages from the Decalogue1 and the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy2 use virtually identical language to describe Hashem's methods of administering justice:3

עשרת הדברות (שמות כ':ה'-ו') שלוש עשרה מידות (שמות ל"ד:ו'-ז')
לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם כִּי אָנֹכִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֵ-ל קַנָּא פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי. וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָי. וַיַּעֲבֹר ה' עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא ה' ה' אֵ-ל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים.
Decalogue (Shemot 20:5-6) 13 Attributes of Mercy (Shemot 34:6-7)
You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Hashem, your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of parents on children, on third generations, and on fourth generations, of those who hate Me, but doing kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. And Hashem passed over before his face, and called: 'Hashem, Hashem, the God of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and truth, maintaining kindness to thousands, forgiving iniquity, and wickedness, and sin, yet not acquitting entirely, visiting the iniquity of parents on children, and on grandchildren, on third generations, and on fourth generations.'

Both of these verses describe how the sin of parents is ultimately followed by the punishment of their descendants. As they give no explicit indication that the children sinned4 or that the parents receive any punishment,5 these texts ostensibly lead one to the conclusion that Hashem defers the dispensation of justice and punishes innocent generations of the sinner's descendants in place of the sinner himself. This understanding, while supported by various other Biblical passages,6 raises several troubling theological questions:7

  • Familial collective punishment – Do these verses advocate a form of collective punishment in which innocent children suffer for sins which they didn't commit?8
  • Intergenerational collective punishment – While collective punishment generally expands the scope of the punishment horizontally to include others alive at the time of the infraction,9 these passages extend it vertically to subsequent generations. But why should later generations pay the price for crimes that they might not have even been alive to witness?10
  • Vicarious punishment – Even collective punishment only widens the circle of those punished, but does not absolve the sinner. Yet, in the above verses the Torah seems to imply that the sinner himself will escape personal harm11 and will be punished only vicariously through his descendants. How does this manifest Divine justice?

Contradictory Texts

The principles of deferred, collective, and vicarious punishment implied by the above passages appear to place them in direct conflict with several other Biblical texts:

  • Devarim 7:10 states that Hashem immediately metes out justice to the sinner himself.12
  • Devarim 24:16 commands that children are not to be put to death for the sins of parents, but rather each person should be held responsible for their own actions.13
  • Yirmeyahu 31:28-29 prophesies how when Hashem redeems the Children of Israel, it will no longer be said that children are penalized for the sins of parents.
  • Yechezkel 18 describes in unequivocal terms the system of Divine justice, according to which only the sinner is punished, and no son is held liable for the wickedness of his father.14

What is the relationship between the two texts from Shemot15 and these four other Biblical texts? Can all of these passages be harmonized? Must any of them be reinterpreted? Does Hashem employ contrasting principles of justice in different situations? Is there a distinction between the Divine and human judicial systems? Is it possible that Hashem's doctrine of justice changed at some point in history, and if so, why?

The Historical Record

There are many cases in Tanakh which reflect the fulfillment of various facets of the principle of "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים":

One of the challenges is to explain why the principle is implemented in so many different ways. When is the punishment delayed and when is it exacted immediately? Why in some cases is just the sinner himself penalized, in others only his descendants pay the price, and in additional ones both the sinner and his offspring are punished? And what determines whether the punishment will be visited upon the second generation, the fourth generation, or upon all future generations for eternity?