They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’. (NRSV)
The Bible can be puzzling and even unsettling. This text is one example. It seems to suggest that just because a parent went off the rails, the descendants are held responsible. This seems to go against the consistent teaching of the Bible that we are accountable for our own life. Civil justice at the time of Moses did not punish a child for the wrongdoing of a parent.
So, what do we make of this? God says to Moses that he is a gracious God. He is not licking his lips just itching to hurl thunderbolts of judgement at us. He forgives sins, he shows mercy. That is his essential nature, reinforced by reference to the “thousandth generation”. In other words, he is not going to run out of grace and mercy.
But God does not turn a blind eye to human wrongdoing either. That reference to the third and fourth generation need not be taken literally. It is a reminder that sin has its consequences but the mercy of God is more far reaching, extending as it does to the thousandth generation. Again, a phrase we need not take literally.
Perhaps we best grasp the meaning by recognising that what one generation does impacts future generations. Parental neglect or abuse has an effect on a child which may be passed on to a grandchild. If my parents give no good model of parenting, chances are my own parenting will suffer.
Who we are now is a result of who others were before us. And yet through the grace of a merciful God we are not helpless captives to our histories. And so mercy triumphs over judgement.