Does the Bible teach generational curses?

Church bulletin:

Exodus 20:4-5, You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; (5) you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me.”

Passages such as this one and others (Ex 34:7, Num 14:18, Deut 5:9) raise questions and fears over generational guilt / curses. Does God punish people for sins committed long ago by their forebears? It is certainly the case that sin can produce far-reaching consequences. Let’s say a man has multiple children with multiple women. Those children grow up without having a single father figure and are not raised in an environment of love, stability, discipline, and guidance. Their education, emotional development, and relationships suffer. The baggage they accumulate is then carried into adulthood and they produce children in the same carefree and careless manner as their parents. Sinful consequences are passed on like family heirlooms.

To answer the question – are we held to account for what our forebears did; will posterity be held to account for what we do? The answer is no. If I discovered that my great grandfather murdered a man and I met the murdered man’s great grandchildren, I do not owe them an apology. It may be fitting to express regret that such a crime took place, but I am not accountable for the sins of another person. God does not impute to anyone the guilt of other people. What about the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his descendants? It is true that we bear the consequences of Adam’s fall, but ultimately, we stand guilty before God on the basis of our own actual sins. Each one will be judged according to the deeds done in the body (2 Cor 5:10). If we didn’t deserve Adam as our representative, neither do we deserve Christ.

Exodus 20 and similar passages make the point that when sin becomes ingrained in a family or a society, the next generation invariably continues on in the same fashion – as per the example of irresponsible breeding. Like begets like begets like until the cycle is broken. Sin is natural to us all and it is also something we learn and replicate from those around us. The Aristotelian maxim ‘give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, is not a universal law without exception, but it does carry much weight.

The meaning of Exodus 20:4-5 is that God gives the next generation over to sin because it too has rejected the ways of God. It has learned to hate God just as the generation did before it. The lesson is this – we must address sin in our lives lest we encourage others to follow suit. If we want godly children, we must be godly. It is not enough to lay down the law; they must see godliness in action. Young people growing up in church need to see a godly older generation – people who have walked the walk over many years and not just talked the talk.

If you have picked up bad habits due to the examples around you, don’t make excuses for yourself as though their sin legitimizes yours. Learn from their errors, take responsibility for your life, repent of the sins you commit. Do this not only for your own sake, but for the sake of those whom you may influence. Break the cycle.

Let us leave a legacy worth emulating and not one to be ashamed of.