Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, “Thus saith the Lord YHWH: ‘Do ye pollute yourselves after the manner of your fathers? And play ye the harlot after their abominations? And when ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, do ye pollute yourselves with all your idols unto this day? And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live’, saith the Lord YHWH, ‘I will not be inquired of by you'”! (Ezekiel 20:30-31).
The soul that sins shall die: a person will not bear the iniquity of their father, nor will the father bear the iniquity of their son. The apple does not fall far from the tree: like father, like son; like mother, like daughter. Both of these statements prove equally true, as Ezekiel would have Israel understand.
Ezekiel received the message on August 14, 591 BCE; Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had already determined on a western military campaign in Beyond the (Euphrates) River, and most likely was on the march (Ezekiel 20:1; cf. Ezekiel 21:21-27). The judgment against Judah and Jerusalem was about to play out in real time. The elders of Israel would inquire of YHWH before Ezekiel; YHWH asked if He would really be inquired of by them, and Ezekiel was to judge them by making known to them the abomination of their fathers (Ezekiel 20:2-4).
Ezekiel then set forth a comprehensive indictment of Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry manifest in the generation liberated from Egyptian bondage: their eyes had feasted on the abominations of Egypt, and in their hearts they never fully parted from the idols of the Egyptians (Ezekiel 20:5-7). The only reason He did not destroy them then or in the Wilderness was on account of His name lest it be profaned among the nations (Ezekiel 20:8-17).
But it was not only this generation: YHWH spoke to their children and urged them to turn aside from the ways and idolatry of their fathers, and to follow in the statutes of YHWH their God, and yet they also rebelled against Him, keeping their eyes on their fathers’ idols (Ezekiel 20:18-24). Again YHWH did not destroy them on account of His name lest it would be profaned.
Successive generations did not fare much better. They blasphemed against God and dealt treacherously with Him even after He brought them into the land He had promised to their fathers: they offered sacrifices on high hills and made provocative offerings to idols on high places (Ezekiel 20:25-29). And thus Ezekiel offered YHWH’s indictment against the elders and people of Israel: they defiled themselves after the manner of their fathers and served their detestable idols, presenting gifts and offering children to the fire (Ezekiel 20:30-31). Thus the judgment YHWH was about to bring against Judah and Jerusalem was more than just.
For many, “Ezekiel” immediately conjures up his message in Ezekiel 18:1-32: the soul that sins will die; fathers will not die because of the iniquity of the son, or vice versa. Ezekiel certainly taught this message, and meant it, yet not in an atomistic individualist way. The Israelites were using a proverb to suggest their doom was fated and thus there was nothing they could do about it (Ezekiel 18:1-2): Ezekiel exhorted them to cease that mentality, to change their hearts and minds so they might live and not die.
However we understand Ezekiel 18:1-32 must also take Ezekiel 20:1-31 into account: both messages come from YHWH and are given by the same prophet to the same audience. It remains correct that the son will not die because of the iniquity of his father: but if the son follows in the iniquitous ways of his fathers, he also will die. Sons can change and no longer walk in the ways of their fathers; and yet children tend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps.
For generations we have seen far too many go to extremes regarding “the sins of the fathers.” Many, insisting on passages like Exodus 20:5-6, suggest predetermined depravity and condemnation: the sons are punished for the sins of the fathers, and that is right and good. Others, insisting on Ezekiel 18:1-32, suggest a complete separation between fathers and sons: sons and fathers are completely different people, a Lockean confidence in children as tabulae rasae, “clean slates” upon whom justice and righteousness might easily be impressed. Each argues against the extreme form of the other; neither end up capturing the truth.
When we understand Ezekiel 18:1-32 and Ezekiel 20:1-31 in light of each other, we can come to a more effective and holistic understanding. Children are not tabulae rasae; they are born with characteristics of their parents for good and for ill. They are acculturated by their parents and culture and will most likely follow after the ways of their parents and culture (cf. Proverbs 22:6). They might rebel against their parents and culture and follow a different path, and yet even then their disposition, actions, and attitudes will reflect that engagement with the ways of their parents. People can change; people can turn from iniquity to righteousness, but also can turn from righteousness to iniquity. We are never compelled to follow in the ways of our fathers; but we generally follow their ways, consciously and unconsciously, because that is how we have been raised.
And so Israelites for generations persisted in the idolatry they learned in Egypt. They served the litany of gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East; they did not fully sanctify YHWH as their God and did not observe His statutes. God continually sent prophets to warn Israel from their ways, to turn aside from the delusions of their fathers; nevertheless, they mostly persisted. Some certainly turned from idolatry to righteousness; a few may have been raised righteous but turned aside to idolatry. They would experience the distress of the trial of judgment and exile; many persisted in idolatry and assimilated into the native populations of Assyria and Babylon, but a precious few did turn sharply to fully dedicate themselves to YHWH and to teach their children likewise.
We do well to compare and contrast Israel in Ezekiel’s day with Daniel and Ezra. Israel in Ezekiel’s day first felt as if they were doomed because of their father’s sins and thus felt justified in doing as they wished (Ezekiel 18:1-2); after the exile, they were convinced they suffered so greatly because of their transgressions and sins that they could not be brought to repentance (Ezekiel 33:10): in both situations they did not seek YHWH but despaired of life, and in many respects did not wish to see their complicity and guilt which led to their circumstances. Daniel and Ezra were conditioned by the trauma of the exile to immediately beg for forgiveness for the sins of their fathers they had continued to commit, whether or not they fully participated in all of their father’s sins (Daniel 9:4-19 and Ezra 9:6-15): they sought to draw near to YHWH, and were willing to identify with the sins of their fathers in order to do so.
No, children do not need to persist in the ways of their fathers. But children tend to go after the manner of their fathers. Our fathers can but leave us with a mixed legacy: we can honor them for what is right, just, and good about what they have done and what they have left us, but we must fully identify, confess, and repent of what is evil, unjust, and ugly about what they have done and what they have given us. Whatever we do not separate ourselves from in sharp relief we will be tempted to continue to practice.
We all remain creatures of our time, place, and context, no matter our pretensions toward transcendence or objectivity. The legacy our fathers and mothers bequeathed us has many praiseworthy and honorable aspects, and we do well to celebrate, uphold, and imitate them. Yet that legacy also has many sinful, evil, and ugly aspects: if we do not identify them, confess them, and repent of them, we will be continually tempted to persist in them. We cannot just uphold the good and pretend the bad does not exist, or think we can suppress or neglect the bad in order to honor those who came before us and come out unscathed. Sons do not bear the iniquity of the fathers merely because the fathers committed iniquity. Yet, more often than not, sons do bear iniquity, because they do not turn away from that on which their fathers feasted their eyes. May we all pursue the ways of our heavenly Father, and glorify and honor Him in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry