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Our friend @bryangstephens wrote a fine post on Saturday criticizing a recent essay by David French, at the Dispatch, about structural racism and reparations. Some of the comments cited a responsive essay by Michael Anton, ridiculing French for making “the conservative case for hereditary bloodguilt.”
I write separately because both Bryan and Anton did not address French’s Biblical argument in any detail. I realize that this may be of little interest to unbelievers, but I think that it is important to both Christians and Jews, who accept the Old Testament authorities on which French relies as Scripture.
French specifically relies on a story out of 2 Samuel 21, about Saul and the Gibeonites, which I’ll get to shortly. All of my Biblical citations are to the English Standard Version (ESV), except when otherwise indicated.
I. My Initial Proposition: Children are not punished for the sins of their parents or other ancestors
I begin with the proposition that God does not punish children for the sins of their fathers (or other ancestors). I base this on several passages.
Deuteronomy 24:16 says: “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”
Ezekiel 18:1-4 says: “The word of the LORD came to me: ‘What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
Ezekiel 18:20 says: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Chapter 18 of Ezekiel gives many more specific examples of this principle.
Jeremiah 31:29-30 says: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.
Notice that both Ezekiel and Jeremiah quote this “proverb” about the fathers eating sour grapes. As far as I can tell, it is not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture. My impression is that this is an erroneous “proverb,” not from God, but rather a principle that was incorrectly believed by the Israelites of the time.
From these verses, I deduce that children are not punished for the sins of their parents, or more distant ancestors. I will analyze French’s argument on the basis of this principle of divine justice.
There are some contrary verses in the Torah, which I will address later.
II. French’s Argument
The pertinent part of David French’s argument, addressing the story of Saul and the Gibeonites, is:
To understand the flaw in their argument, let’s first turn to biblical text. A pastor friend of mine recently reminded me of an intriguing and sobering story from 2 Samuel 21. During the reign of King David, Israel was afflicted with three years of famine. When David “sought the face of the Lord” regarding the crisis, God said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house.” (Saul had conducted a violent campaign against the Gibeonites, in violation of a covenant made with the Israelites many centuries before.)
Saul was king before David, and God was punishing Israel years after Saul’s regime because of Saul’s sin. It was the next king, David’s, responsibility to make things right. And so David turned to the remaining Gibeonites and said, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?”
The Gibeonites’ request was harsh—to hand over seven of Saul’s descendants for execution. David fulfilled their request, and “God responded to the plea for the land.”
Note the underlying conception of justice here: Israel remained responsible for its former leader’s sins, and they were required to make amends. This is a consistent theme throughout scripture.
Well, it’s not consistent with the Scripture that I quoted in Section I. I also think that it is a poor interpretation of 2 Samuel 21, which I’ll address in the next section.
This is the principal Biblical story that French cites, though he does reference some other examples of Israelites, including kings like David and Josiah, confessing or mourning the sins of prior generations. These other examples do not include either punishment or atonement for the sins of prior generations. French argues that the story of Saul and the Gibeonites provides a Biblical basis for imposing such punishment, atonement, or reparations.
III. 2 Samuel 21
A bit of background may be in order, before looking closely at the story of Saul, David, and the Gibeonites.
Under Joshua’s leadership, the Israelites conquered the Promised Land around 1400 BC. Their instructions from the Lord were harsh. They were generally commanded to kill, or drive out, all of the inhabitants of the land. A group of people called the Gibeonites deceived the Israelites, pretending to be from very far away, outside the Promised Land, and entering into a treaty of peace. A few days later, the Israelites discovered the deception, but held themselves bound to their treaty. They did make the Gibeonites something like servants or semi-slaves, requiring them to be “cutters of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation.” This is reported in Joshua 9.
About 400 years later, Saul became the first king of Israel, ruling over all 12 tribes. He disobeyed the Lord, so the kingdom was taken away from his descendants and given to David (eventually). Saul was not killed for his disobedience, but lived a long life and eventually killed himself after losing a battle with the Philistines. This is a very brief summary of the book of 1 Samuel. Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites is not reported in 1 Samuel, but is only referenced in the passage in 2 Samuel that French cited, during the reign of David and after Saul’s death.
I’m going to go through the passage from 2 Samuel 21, with a special focus on the first six verses, which are the most relevant. I’ll quote these verses, with some commentary.
1Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the LORD. And the LORD said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
Other translations differ a bit, but all put the blame for the slaughter of the Gibeonites on both Saul and “his house.” The NIV says: “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.” The NLT says: “The famine has come because Saul and his family are guilty of murdering the Gibeonites.”
So there is an implication that both Saul and other members of his family (or “house”) were guilty of this crime, but the specific guilty parties are not identified, other than Saul himself.
2So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. 3And David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the LORD?” 4The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.”
This is interesting, in light of French’s use of this passage to justify communal or national responsibility, and reparations (apparently). Notice that the Gibeonites did not demand reparations — payment — from the nation of Israel as a whole. They did not even demand reparations from Saul’s house. They demanded vengeance. But they did not demand vengeance on the nation of Israel as a whole, and specifically stated that they did not want this (“neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel”).
This seems quite inconsistent with French’s interpretation.
And he said, “What do you say that I shall do for you?” 5They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, 6let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the LORD at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD.” And the king said, “I will give them.”
So the Gibeonites demanded vengeance solely from Saul’s house, specifically demanding seven of Saul’s “sons.” “Sons” often means descendants in this context, and this is made clear by the men selected, who are more specifically identified in verses 7-9. They are two of Saul’s sons (identified by name), and five of Saul’s grandsons (identified by the name of their mother, a daughter of Saul, and their father).
There is no indication, one way or the other, about whether these particular seven men of Saul’s house were individually guilty of the murder of the Gibeonites. But why would we assume that they were not?
The Bible is unclear as to the length of Saul’s life and reign. There’s an ambiguous reference in 1 Samuel 13:1. Acts 13:21 says that Saul ruled for 40 years. There is a clear reference, in 2 Samuel 4:4, to a grandson of Saul being 5 years old at the time of Saul’s death, so he was certainly old enough to have grandchildren. There is nothing to indicate that this was Saul’s oldest grandchild, so he may have had others who were older.
Thus, it is quite feasible for the two sons of Saul and the five grandsons of Saul who were killed by the Gibeonites, to avenge the prior murder of the Gibeonites, had individually participated in that crime. This is consistent with the principle set forth in Section I, God does not punish children for the sins of their parents or ancestors.
So I submit that in addition to any other errors, as detailed by Bryan and Michael Anton, French’s argument is based on a dubious interpretation of the Bible.
IV. Verses Contrary to the Principle of Section I
In Section I, I quoted one passage from the Torah (Deuteronomy), and two from the major prophets (Ezekiel and Jeremiah) as establishing the principle that God does not punish children for the sins of their parents. There are some contrary verses in the Torah.
Exodus 20:5-6, in the Second Commandment itself, states: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands (or to the thousandth generation) of those who love me and keep my commandments.” The parenthetical about the “thousandth generation” is in the notes to the ESV translation.
Exodus 34:7-8 states: “The Lord passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands (or to the thousandth generation), forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” This appears to be a repetition of the statement in Exodus 20, as this chapter deals with God’s instruction to Moses to cut two new tablets of the Ten Commandments, to replace the ones that Moses broke (righteously, at the episode of the Golden Calf). Again, the parenthetical about the “thousandth generation” is in the notes to the ESV.
Numbers 14:18 says almost the same thing: “‘The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” This is a quote from Moses interceding for the people, after they refused to enter the Promised Land the first time, and God threatened to strike them with pestilence, disinherit them, and raise up a new nation from Moses himself. It appears to be a partial quote of the two that we’ve already seen in Exodus.
The same thing is repeated in Deuteronomy 5:9-10, in the chapter in which Moses repeats the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. “You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands (or to the thousandth generation) of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
An unbeliever might throw up his hands, finding an irreconcilable contradiction between these verses and those that I quoted in Section I. As a believer, I seek to harmonize these verses, and I find three ways to do so.
One way to harmonize these verses is to notice the contrast, in three of these four quotations, between the promise of vengeance to the “third or fourth generation” and the promise of steadfast love to the “thousandth generation.” There may be hyperbole here, with God demonstrating the extraordinary extent of His love by exaggerating the scope of His vengeance, and then making it clear that His love is incomparably greater. Further, the passage from Numbers that does not include this contrast appears to be a partial quotation of the same text previously reported in Exodus, and later repeated again in Deuteronomy.
A second way to harmonize these verses is to interpret these harsh passages as dealing not with direct divine punishment of children, but with the inevitable intergenerational effects of a parent’s sin.
A third way to harmonize these passages — though not one that I favor — is to interpret the harsh passages as referring to punishment by God Himself, while the other passages from Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah make it clear that the Israelites are not to impose intergenerational punishment.
Any of these interpretations undermine the argument in French’s article.
V. A Relevant Essay by C.S. Lewis
French’s argument also brings to mind an essay that C.S. Lewis wrote in 1940, called The Dangers of National Repentance. I consider Lewis to be a great Christian apologist and one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th Century, though his views are, of course, not Scripture. Here is part of Lewis’s article, which I find very much more convincing than French’s view. My emphasis added:
The idea of national repentance seems at first sight to provide such an edifying contrast to that national self-righteousness of which England is so often accused and with which she entered (or is said to have entered) the last war, that a Christian naturally turns to it with hope. Young Christians especially—last year undergraduates and first-year curates— are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England. What that share is, I do not find it easy to determine. Most of these young men were children, and none of them had a vote or the experience which would enable them to use a vote wisely, when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?
If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happening) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society. When we speak of England’s actions we mean the actions of the British government. The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a foreign secretary or a cabinet minister is certainly a neighbor. And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity.
Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the government not “they” but “we.” And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a government which is called “we” is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, “Let us repent our national sins”; what they mean is, “Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.”
You can read Lewis’s entire essay here (it starts on page 95 of the pdf).
I actually think that Lewis’s essay is the best response that I’ve seen to David French, though Lewis wrote it more than 80 years before French penned this latest bit of what I, at least, consider to be erroneous and dangerous nonsense. Uncharitable nonsense, actually, made less attractive by its deceptive cloak of apparent self-righteousness.
Wokeism delenda est.Published in