@san Great question! If we examine the relevant Biblical texts, we notice a few interesting facts.
- God shows love to thousands of generations, but is only said to punish or 3 or 4 generations
- Ezekiel makes it clear that God does not punish children for their parent’s sin
- God always forgives anyone who comes to Him in true repentance or with a desire to know Him even in the Old Testament - Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, Ruth the Moabite, Namaan the Aramean - no matter their ancestry or what they had done in the past
- God waited 4 generations to allow Israel to bring judgment on the land of the Amorites / Canaanites for its sin - in other words, 3 or 4 generations may be referring to God’s judgment on nations - not His judgment on individuals. This explanation makes sense when we consider that God is addressing Israel as a nation in Exodus 20 and 34.
Based upon these observations, I think possible explanations are as follows:
- 3 or 4 generations refers to national judgment - when a nation continues in wickedness for a number of generations, God visits judgment upon them - it is not referring to individuals
- when a father sins, his children are more likely to be caught up in that same sin - whether it is idolatry or drunkenness - and sin has its own consequences. As the article I linked below says - consequences, not curses, are passed down to future generations
- God always forgives anyone who comes - no matter their background
Hope that is helpful May Jesus give you wisdom as you speak with your friends and open their eyes / hearts to His love and grace.
Genesis 15:16 - In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.
Exodus 20:4-6 - “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Exodus 34:5-7 - Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 18:20 - The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
First, Scripture clearly communicates that consequences—not curses—are passed on through the generations. In this sense, the Bible says that children are punished for the sins of their fathers “to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5). The children of alcoholic fathers frequently suffer neglect and abuse as a direct consequence of their father’s sinful behavior. Moreover, the descendants of those who hate God are likely to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers.
Furthermore, Scripture explicitly tells us that “the son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). Indeed, when ancient Israel quoted the proverb, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2), God responded in no uncertain terms: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel . . . The soul who sins is the one who will die” (vv. 3–4, emphasis added). Consequences—not curses—are passed on through the generations.