Collective Accountability

“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 20:5b-6 NIV)

Our prayer lighthouse/Bible study group has been working our way through the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible). At first I was pretty skeptical that I’d get anything out of it; I just remembered lots of skin diseases and Tabernacle decorations from previous times when I’ve tried to read the Bible straight through. But that’s why we should read the Bible in community! With the insight of other believers, I’ve gotten a lot out of our discussions.

One topic that’s come up multiple times in our group is collective responsibility. I squirm when I read passages like Exodus 20:5-6 (above). It feels radically unfair to punish children for the sin of their parents. Exodus 34:6-7 has a similar message, describing God as one who is compassionate but who won’t leave the guilty unpunished. One way we looked at those verses was as a description of the effects of a person’s choices, where the ramifications are felt through multiple generations. That’s equally true of bad choices—for example, children of prisoners are more likely to be in poverty—and good choices, such as children of involved parents doing better in school.

Still, there’s no escaping that some of God’s promises are to the Israelite nation as a whole. Leviticus 26 details the many material and spiritual blessings that God will lavish on Israel should they obey him, and the escalating disasters he’ll use to try to bring their attention back to him if it should wander. He never punishes out of spite, but always with the goal of leading his people to repent and turn back to him—yet the list of calamities is fearsome to read. In that chapter, “you” is always plural.

Perhaps my discomfort comes from American Christianity, especially evangelicalism, talking so much about “my” need for a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ, who is both Lord and Savior. Other cultures have a much stronger sense of communal or collective responsibility, in which people’s actions reflect not primarily on themselves but on their whole family—for good or ill. People from such cultures might have an easier time relating to ancient Israel, which seems more communal in that respect.

Our Bible study didn’t always find an explanation that satisfied us. It’s simply hard for me to reconcile a God who would spare a whole city for as few as ten righteous people (see Genesis 18:32) with a God who would bring devastating famine on an entire nation. He is at once merciful and divinely wrathful, both infinitely loving and intolerant of evil.

One thing we can always fall back on is that his nature has never changed and never will. He’s the same God who sent Christ to die for us while we were still guilty (Romans 5:8). We can approach God as his beloved children (Romans 8:14-16). I’m very grateful to live under the new covenant of Jesus. But I expect I’ll have more to say on this topic as it relates to our individualistic society.

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