I've been pondering the material in this post for some weeks now, and think I'm ready to present my thoughts to you. However, I regard this as 'work in progress', particularly the end I think could be strengthened. Would be very pleased to hear any thoughts on the subject matter, either through comment box or private email. Thank you for reading!
My starting point for these reflections is1 Kings 11: 29-39. The situation is that King Solomon is coming to the end of his reign, having become fabulously rich with 600 wives and 300 concubines. Having started off his reign in a God-fearing manner, asking for wisdom when God offered him anything he wanted, he has drifted away from his relationship with God, worshipping other gods instead.
So, Solomon is to be punished. How? By having his kingdom taken away from him. So far so good, this makes sense to me: the king has done wrong so he is to be punished. But it carries on. In verse 32 we read that the House of David will continue to rule over Judah, one of the tribes, because of the faithfulness of David, Solomon’s father. That’s OK, I’m still hanging in there.
But I start struggling at verses 34 and 35:
But I will not take the whole kingdom out of Solomon’s hand; I have made him ruler all the days of his life for the sake of David my servant, whom I chose and who obeyed my commands and decrees. I will take the kingdom from his son’s hands and give you 10 tribes.
So, Solomon has messed up and is to be punished. But the punishment does not take effect until after he’s dead because of his father’s faithfulness, his father already having been dead for some years by this time. Crumbs, this takes a bit of unpacking!
I’ll return to this passage at the end of this piece. What I want to do is try to build an understanding of inter-generational culpability starting with aspects which do, I think, make sense, before returning to this and other difficult issues as we look, in all humility, to understand the character of God better as revealed in the Bible.
The consequences of freedom of action
Some years ago now a friend of mine – albeit that we’d not be in touch for some time beforehand – was killed in a head on collision. He was in his late 30s with a wife and two young sons, all three of whom were in the car with him at the time. He had an already established track record of Christian ministry as a musician and preacher, with every reason to believe that he had considerably more to contribute in his 40s and beyond. As far as I can make out from the associated press coverage, the collision was entirely the fault of the other driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Do I wish that God had supernaturally intervened to prevent this collision taking place? Yes, absolutely I do, that would have been brilliant. A woman would have her husband, two boys would have their father, the Christian world would have the services of a leader for many years still to come. And to take more extreme examples, wouldn’t it have been fantastic had God intervened to prevent the wickedness perpetrated by Hitler, Mussolini, Fred West, Pol Pot and Harold Shipman to name but a few?
But let me start again from a different viewpoint. I am acutely aware that over the years I have said and done things which have caused pain and upset to other people. Would I prefer it if God stopped me from doing these things? In one sense, yes, absolutely, that would be great. But where does this stop? Would this not mean that I effectively become a puppet on a string, with no responsibility for my own actions? If I’m free to do good things but not to do bad, am I really free at all? And if I’m to be free to do harm to a small number of people, where is the line to be drawn if God is supposed to be preventing people doing harm on a large scale?
God created us in His image with freedom over our own actions. And those actions have consequences – positive and negative – for other people. The privileges which come with freedom to act as we see fit come with responsibilities. So, if a woman smokes, drinks alcohol and takes harmful drugs whilst pregnant, the unborn child will suffer, quite possibly right through his or her (shortened) lifetime. If a man is the main breadwinner for his family, commits a crime and gets sent to prison, there are all kinds of potential consequences for the rest of the family, poverty and humiliation being but two.
If one generate releases poisonous gases into the air then future generations, who had no say in the decision for the release, will bear the consequences.
My former colleague Dr Martin Parsons is an historian with particular expertise in war-time evacuee children. In this transcript of a 2006 lecture he gave, he concludes, based on an analysis of a large number of case studies, that the consequences of children being uprooted from the family and sent away continue for three generations. This has some remarkable similarities to Deuteronomy 5:9:
Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me,
So, a starting point for understanding the principle that sins of the fathers are visited on future generations is that this is the consequences necessarily follow from the responsibilities we have for our own actions which arise from being made in God’s image with freedom and all that brings with it.
David looking after Saul’s descendants
Whilst still looking at aspects of inter-generational issues which are relatively easy to understand, I did want to mention David who, having become king, goes out of his way to help the descendants of King Saul. Whilst they had a bitter feud, David was always aware of Saul’s status as God’s anointed King, even after the anointing was withdrawn, and Jonathan, of course, was his friend. So, in 2 Samuel 9:1, having tracked down Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth, David asks Mephibosheth:
“Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”
This is very straightforward, I think, I could certainly imagine the circumstances whereby I would want to help people for the sake of their forebears. Which only serves to make the next section more difficult to understand.
David allows Saul’s enemies to put to death Saul’s descendants.
In Deuteronomy 24:16 we read:
The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
This is quoted in 2 Kings 14:6, when Amaziah became King of Judah after his father King Joash was murdered, when Amaziah put to death only those directly responsible for his father’s murder, not also other family members as would have been deemed to be normal at the time.
But in 2 Samuel 21 this appears to be contradicted. The starting point is a famine which God tells David is the result of Saul having put the Gibeonites to death. David summons the remnant of the Gibeonites and asks them what they would like him (David) to do. The Gibeonites asks for 7 descendants of Saul to be handed over to them that they might be killed and their bodies exposed on the hillside. And David agrees.
What is going on here? There seem to me to be a number of possible explanations. It is the nature of much Biblical narrative that we are told what happens but without any interpretation. So other examples would include the fleece Gideon laid out to discern God’s will, and the disciples taking lots to determine Judah Iscariot’s successor after his death. A possible interpretation, which doesn’t really fit the original framing of the story, is that David was wrong to agree to the Gibeonite’s request, he should have made some other form of reparation – land, maybe.
Another interpretation is that those killed were involved in the Gibeonite atrocity, so did bear individual responsibility. But the Bible does not tell us this is the case. Still another is that David felt obliged, in the circumstances, to act in accordance with the Gibeonites’ customs and laws rather than his own, and that in context this vindicated his decision. We could also go down the line that these were very particular circumstances, the right thing was done in this case but we are not to draw any general conclusions from this incident.
Are there other explanations here? I’d be interested to know what you think. In any case it’s not an easy story, is it?
A New Testament perspective
It is, of course, the case that the New Testament covers a much shorter historical period than the Old, so it’s not surprising that inter-generational matters do not come up in the same way. The one story I can think of which may be of some relevance here is told in Acts 16:25-34. Paul and Silas are miraculously released from jail in Philippia, and when the jailer asks what he must do to be saved, the response (verse 31) is:
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.”
Later we read that the whole household was baptized – an incident which is used, curiously, by people arguing both for and against infant baptism.
It’s not clear from the story as told in the Bible the extent to which the other members of the household came to believe in Jesus along with the jailer himself. But this story does point to the importance of families and communities operating together in mutual support, rather than simply individuals operating by themselves.
Back to the starting point: Solomon’s sins visited on his sons
So, does any of the discussion above help us make sense of the story which got me thinking about these inter-generational issues in the first place, Solomon’s sins resulting in the splitting of the Kingdom, but not until after his death because of the faithfulness of his father David who had already been dead for some years before this?
One way of understanding this story is to consider that the prospect of a future splitting of the Kingdom was more of a punishment for Solomon than seeing it himself, in much the same way that it is more difficult for parents to see pain inflicted on their children than it is to have pain inflicted on themselves. From Solomon’s perspective as a king, with responsibility for his kingdom as well as himself, he may well have taken a long term strategic view going way past his own life time, so again, from that point of view, the punishment may have hurt him more than things happening right there and then. More generally, we need to see the whole story from a bigger perspective in terms of God’s eternal plan, what is recorded both tells us what happens but is also there for the instruction of future generations including, of couse, ourselves.
But the crucial point which emerges is that actions have consequences, both positive and negative, for ourselves and other people. Both David’s and Solomon’s actions had profound repercussions on themselves, those they loved, and future generations. As we look to make sense of this story, let us repent of the hurt we have caused, make reparation where possible, and look to commit, with our Almighty God’s help, to live in love and peace with all, with our thoughts and actions committed to building God’s kingdom today and always.