In Numbers, it goes like this: “The Lord is slow to anger, and
abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and
transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the
iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the
fourth generation.”3
It is the very last phrase that causes discomfort. Those
who know Hebrew or Greek say that English often doesn’t
give justice to many biblical words. The meanings are often
richer, more nuanced, than our language can convey. Iniquity
is sometimes translated as sin or transgression, visiting as
punishing, and on and on go the translation debates. But no
matter the translation, the sentiment of this verse is disturbing
and triggers my American sense of individuality and fairness.
I remember a conversation with a family member who
had recently read all the way through the Bible. This particular
repeating message of the sins of the parent being visited upon
the children upset her, and she asked me what I thought. The
only thing I could come up with was that it seemed realistic,
yet I hoped it was not fatalistic.
It is true that without significant intervention, we as
parents will repeat the dysfunction of our own parents who are
just repeating that of their own parents, and thus it is
transferred from generation to generation to generation. I
remember learning that sometimes the word sin or iniquity is
more accurately rendered “missing the mark,” as in archery.
Often rather than a willful choice or blatant wrong, our
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