March 11

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Matthew 22:15-22; Romans 6:1-11; Psalm 61; Numbers 11-14

This section in Numbers begins with an unusual expression that literally means ‘the people became as complainers of evil’ (11:1). No specific complaint is given, suggesting that this phrase introduces a series of episodes about ungrateful complaining. Several instances reveal a God who provides for their needs, but also punishes the ungrateful complainers. Finally, the people are shown the land promised by God, but decide it would be too difficult to take possession of it. They start complaining that their women and children will be taken as plunder if they attack the land (Numbers 14:3). For the sake of their children they claim they would be better off going back to Egypt.

God reacts by declaring he will destroy the people and start a new nation with Moses (Numbers 14:12). Moses appeals for mercy based on God’s own description of himself in Exodus 34:6-7. He is loving and forgiving, yet Moses also brings up that God cannot leave the guilty unpunished. Grace and justice often seem to be at loggerheads. Then Moses brings up the very difficult expression that God will punish the children for the sin of their parents to the third and fourth generation (Numbers 14:18). This seems completely wrong, if not abhorrent. How could a loving God do that?

This phrase is a common Semitic expression that denotes continuity. The Hebrew word translated punishment also means the physical consequences of sin. In the immediate context, having refused to enter the promised land, God punishes the adults by saying they will never enter the land but will die wandering in the wilderness. God notes that their children will bear the consequences of their parents’ sin (Numbers 14:31-33). The children will now spend forty years herding flocks in the wilderness until all their rebellious parents have died. Likewise, some of our sinful behaviours have consequences that impact our children and future generations.

Such observations led to a proverb in Israel: ‘The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezekiel 18:2; Jeremiah 31:29-30). The idea had gone beyond children suffering consequences to the belief that children were guilty of their parents’ sins. Ezekiel 18 is an extensive denial of this. Each person is responsible for the guilt of his or her own sin. God made it clear that in punishment for sin, individual responsibility applies (Deuteronomy 24:16). ‘The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father’ (Ezekiel 18:20). Jesus likewise affirmed that God does not punish children for their parents’ sin (John 9:3).

Ezekiel brings this issue back to God’s character. In verse 23, God asks, ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?’ He declares that he is just, but desires that all would come to him and live. This brings us back to the more complete idiom about the sins of parents. The expression in Numbers 14 (and Exodus 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9) is a condensed version of that in Exodus 20:5-6. The troubling aspect is only half the idiom. The consequences of sin for those who hate God go on for four generations, but his kindness to those who love him extends for a thousand generations. God’s grace and mercy are vastly more extensive than the consequences of sin. Rebellion and sin must be judged, but God’s love is greater and he wants to give us a new heart and a new soul (Ezekiel 18:31).

The Israelites in Numbers 14 claimed were seeking the best for their children by going back to Egypt. They forgot that the Egyptians had been killing their sons, working their men to death, and leaving their women and children highly vulnerable. Going back to Egypt would not have been good for them or their children. The best way to protect our children is to walk with the Lord and live within his will. That gives God the opportunity to show love for a thousand generations (Exodus 20:6).

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