To prove that I actually was paying attention at worship on Sunday (see previous post) I heard something that had never quite registered in the Ten Commandments when the Old Testament lesson (Ex. 20:1-17) was read. “You shall not bow down to [other gods or idols] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (vv 5f).
That phrase “to the third and the fourth generation” has been part of my consciousness for as long as I remember. Of course I’ve heard preachers talk about it, but I’ve also heard psychologists and crime experts use the phrase when talking about a whole host of societal troubles being generational. But on Sunday it was the following phrase that jumped out at me: “But showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
I wish I was still in an academic community, or at the very least still had access to a good theological library because I have a hunch. When that sentence is viewed as a whole, the first half has the feel of folk wisdom. I wonder if that’s not how the people viewed their world apart from any divine revelation. The sort of troubles that were self-inflicted not only affected you, but also your children and grand-children to the third and even fourth generation. I’m wondering if that’s not just how people viewed (and still view) the world. I want to be very clear that I’m not offering an interpretation; I’m speculating. I’m speculating that the explanation of this first commandment begins with a bit of popular wisdom: things you cause have consequences “to the third and the fourth generation.”
Let’s assume I’m correct for a moment and the explanation for this commandment begins with how people think about the world. God then starts with that assumption and expands (or explodes) it beyond all recognition. Let me rephrase it as follows: “You tend to think in the negative. You think that if you break the covenant it will have consequences not only for yourself but for your offspring for several generations. But your perception of me (that is, God) is backward. The covenant is everlasting, and if you worship me instead of other gods, I will show you unwavering covenant love for a thousand generations (ie, for as long as you can imagine).
We tend to think, “What are all the ways that this can go wrong?” It’s human nature. But I suspect that God is rejecting that sort of thinking and telling us to replace it with a different question: “What are all the ways this can go right beyond our imagination?” We can imagine a lot of bad things. In contrast to our imagination, God is offering us unwavering covenant love beyond what we can even imagine.
So, if there’s any actual Old Testament scholars out there who have the tools to research this stuff, I ask you if I’m on to something. Is the whole “third and fourth generation” thing actually a bit of folk wisdom, or am I completely off base? Whether it is or not, this first commandment is a remarkable statement of divine mercy. Thanks be to God.