Friday, April 20, 2012

On Generational Curses


I really need to finish posting February 2009 E-Block material, so unless something earth-shaking happens, I'll spend the next two entries finishing that off. Here's an item on generational curses I did at the request of my pastor. I have edited out a dead link and a reference from it.


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 I became broadly familiar with the idea of "generational curses" a long time ago when I was a new Christian and had as yet no idea what doctrines were kosher and which were, well, reflective of creative exegesis. Generational curses didn't make a lot of sense to me to begin with, so I never gave them much credence, but a pastoral reader has asked me about these, so I thought it a good subject to look into now. 

I will let a website supporting the notion give the description: "Generational curses are judgments that are passed on to individuals because of sins perpetuated in a family in a number of generations... . They bring judgment or bondage during an individual's life, reducing the quality of life, until that individual addresses the sin issues that put the curses into place." More specifically, my inquirer referred to persons coming to him saying a relative had become ill because of an unrebuked curse, or that a family member's sin had caused them to be afflicted by evil spirits. 

Various websites promising advice for "deliverance" from generational curses may offer extensive lists of sins in one's household that may provoke a generational curse. These are recommended to be named and thereafter repented of, sincerely, in order for the curse to be lifted. 

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, performing consumer testing on the advice these sites offer isn't easy; epistemically, they are another "burning in the bosom" product,the results of which are conveniently nondisprovable. The victim of the curse who does everything they are told to do, but still suffers, will undoubtedly be told that they missed some sin, or that their repentance was not sincere enough, or perhaps even that they did not say "May I?" before repenting. 

All of this may be more simply disposed of by asking if there is even a sound Biblical basis for this idea of generational curses. I expected, even before searching, supporters to cite such passages as these:
Exodus 34:6-7 And He [the Lord] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.'
And indeed, this, along with parallel statements in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, were at the heart of every case for generational curses (GC). Beyond that? Well, the Biblical case thereafter became virtually nil. A couple of other verses were used by one particular commentator, but let's deal with these "third and fourth generation" statements before we step out into the wild and woolly side of generational exegesis.

We should begin by acknowledging a certain point fairly. GC advocates have been replied to with the point that the salvation offered by Jesus should mean that that there is no more need for generational curses. It has been properly replied that generational curses may simply be a form of spiritual discipline, of the same sort a believer might undergo for their own sin. So the critical question becomes whether the key OT passages are being interpreted correctly.
Some commentators, including GC advocates, read these verses much as I did in an article on a slightly different subject some years back. Some think of these curses in terms of natural results: That is, a case of descendants carrying on the sins of their parents in their own life, and being punished accordingly.
I am not sure how a GC advocate can read this sort of meaning into these texts, however. Exodus 34:6-7 and the parallels speak of a specific act of God, not a natural result of behavior that is passed on. In the end, this reading does not do justice to the text, which is why I abandoned it. (It also erases peculiar claims by some GC advocates that Satan is the one responsible for the curses and that it is Satan that needs to be rebuked!)

A more nuanced, contextualized version of this answer, the one which I ended up with, interprets these passages in light of the knowledge that ancient people lived in extended families of up to 4 generations, and so these passages imply complicity in sin by more than one member of the family. This is a sound, contextual answer rooted in the collectivist social world of the Old Testament, and would defeat any notion that punishment is spread to relative innocents.
I would also add, from the same article linked above, the point that Ezekiel and Jeremiah end up rebuking a point of view that essentially mirrors that of GC advocates. Israelites in captivity had assumed a "generational curse" was on them. Ezekiel and Jeremiah replied that they had their own sins to pay for. This point, too, would defeat the GC position that relative innocents pay for the sins of others.

In searching for more on this subject, I found these additional salient points made by those answering GC advocates.

The point is not to number generations, but to send a message about God's wrath versus His kindness. Following the curse on three and four generations, it is also said that God shows mercy to "thousands" of generations that keep his commandments. Thus the passages are not describing a literal practice, but making a point of comparison.

Indeed, logically, if we do take such passages with exceptional literalism, as GC advocates do, we are left with a conundrum: Surely all of us have in our ancestry some disobedient person deserving of a curse, but it is even more likely we have someone deserving of blessing. Given the statistical odds, no one on this basis ought to have a curse on them.

The reports of the Bible itself in history do not support a GC interpretation. It is not hard to find examples of evil people in the Bible whose children were not cursed, and good people in the Bible whose children ended up in hot water.

With that, what is left for the GC advocates in Scripture? One, amazingly, appealed to John 9, in which Jesus was asked whether the blind man sinned or his parents did, as reflective of a belief in GC. It is true that John 9:2 relates to discussions in Judaism over whether an infant could sin in the womb or whether a mother's sin might affect the unborn child. But this has to do with a direct effect from one person to another, in a specific relationship that is unusually close (an enwombed child), and cannot be taken over into the realm of those already born. In addition, since Jesus does not endorse the idea that the mother's sin harmed the unborn child, it cannot be used to validate such a belief.

The same advocate also cited Proverbs 26:2, "A curse, causeless, shall not come." Of course, there is nothing here about curses over generations, or that transfer from one person to another; and as I have written many times, it is not wise to generalize proverbial statements into particular teachings.

Such is the case for generational curses - thin as indeed it is. Little more needs to be said, other than that there is an implicit danger in this teaching of wasting time seeking solutions for non-problems, and in creating a world in which one's own personal responsibility is waylaid by ideas that perhaps one's aunt or uncle are to blame for one's own sufferings. I think the message of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, as summarized in my earlier article, contrasts to that of GC well: Let us look to our own sins, our own experiences, and our own need to repent, rather than blaming others for our own misfortunes.

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