“The parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Biblical scholars think this proverb was a complaint by the exiles in Babylon. They were not responsible for their suffering but were in exile because their ancestors had sinned. Victims of history.
It’s against this mindset that Ezekiel writes. He counters the exiles’ proverb with a word from the Lord. Quit using the past as an excuse for your discouragement. God treats all people equally. Each generation will be judged on its own merits.
But isn’t it true that actions of one generation affect the fate of oncoming generations? Family characteristics are passed from generation to generation. I find my Amish great-grandfather’s mechanical genius crops up in my teenage grandson’s ability to assemble a computer. How much of my need to be right stems from my maternal grandfather’s austere “my way or the highway” faith structure?
If this generation despoils the environment, will not oncoming generations suffer? If it amasses great debt, will not descendants pay the price? If parents are industrious and thrifty, will not their children prosper? If parents live moral lives, will not their children escape addiction?
Yes and no.
The matter is complicated. Other Old Testament texts give the message that God will “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” but show “steadfast love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5; see also Num. 14:18).
These words emphasize God’s mercy as greater than his judgment, but even so they affirm generational consequences. The character and actions of one generation affect the descendants.
This involves several issues: inheritance, influence and responsibility. Some characteristics and consequences pass from generation to generation. Musically gifted parents often produce musically gifted children. Inheritance is a varied phenomenon. It doesn’t involve choice; it just happens. We play the hand we are dealt. There is no prophetic word to be applied in this regard.
We also know a family’s influence is important. Values and faith commitments can be passed from one generation to another. Good choices and moral living have an influence, but the process is not infallible.
The Old Testament provides multiple examples of good kings whose sons went awry and bad kings whose sons instituted moral reform. We all know outstanding parents whose children lost their way and seemingly irresponsible parents whose children turned out better than expected. It’s not possible to determine how patterns ensue or to predict results.
But the Old Testament emphasizes the responsibility of influencing children: “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children” (Deut. 6:6-7).
In terms of responsibility, Ezekiel says, each generation stands equally before God. “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel.” Stop passing the buck. God does not condemn one generation for another’s sins. Ezekiel even argues that in God’s plan those who have erred get a chance for a new start: “If the wicked turn from all their sins . . . and do what is right, they shall surely live and not die.” God seeks changed conduct and offers life. “Turn then, and live.”
The prophetic word from Ezekiel is that God offers hope to each generation. God, through Ezekiel, tells us to quit blaming our historical circumstances. No more sour-grapes, edgy-teeth theology. We must take responsibility and live out of God’s grace. God honors changed living. Each generation makes its choices, and God deals with them on the basis of what they do.
John M. Miller, of Leola, Pa., served with his wife, Doris, as a missionary in Mexico and taught missions and social ethics in seminaries. He is a member of Stumptown Mennonite Church.