Actions with Consequences
The Second Book of Samuel 12 is home to one of the most disturbing episodes of Tanakh. After King David’s reckless encounter with Batsheva and the murder of Uriah the Hittite, Nathan the prophet is sent by God to rebuke David. Nathan speaks in a biting metaphor, leading David in the direction of seeing himself as the guilty party of the parable. And just as Nathan concludes his story, he points his finger at David — informing David of his punishment: the sword will forever plague his household. What becomes shocking, though, is not the punishment that devolves on the shoulders of David, but rather the tragic end to the offspring of David and Batsheva. The child dies, and the narrative leads us to believe that the death of this child is God’s will. An innocent child is mortally punished for the transgression of his parents. The theology behind this episode is difficult for modern readers of Tanakh to tolerate. How do we come to terms with a God who punishes children for the sins of their parents? While such theology is not foreign to the biblical mindset (as found clearly in this week’s parashah, Parashat Ki Tissa), this thinking undergoes a profound transformation — through the hands of Ezekiel and the later sages.
As the Thirteen Attributes of God are narrated, the passage closes declaring, “[God] visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:7). While Ibn Ezra (1080–1164) explains that the import of poked is the sense of “remembering” — namely that God remembers what the father did and will not be patient with the son, Ramban (1194–1270) explains the word poked means vengeance: God punishes the children for the father’s sin. Ibn Ezra and Ramban then take a traditionalist interpretation. Uncomfortable with the theological ramifications of the original statement, the prophet Ezekiel seems to abrogate Moses’ teaching as he declares “the person who sins, only he will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). Notable, too, is the fact that the rabbis of the Talmud pick up on this bold move of Ezekiel in the Gemara, of Tractate Makkot 24a, which states clearly that Ezekiel went against the words of Moses. Maimonides (1135–1204), on the other hand, limits the context of the Torah’s proclamation. He argues that the only sin alluded to in this verse is idolatry. Only if the perpetrator engages in idolatrous behavior will God then punish the children of this individual.
Still, the finest resolution to our problem may come from M. D. Cassuto (1883–1951) who writes,
the difficulty exists only for those who overlook the fact that the verse, in its simple signification, is directed to the entire nation as a single entity in time throughout its generations. Since a man, and particularly an Israelite, grieves over the tribulation of his children and grandchildren, not less than over his own affliction, the Bible issues a warning, so as to keep man far away from sin, that in the course of the nation’s life it is possible that the children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences of the iniquities of their father and grandfather.
Cassuto suggests that the verse presents a warning to the present generation — for our actions impinge not only on ourselves, but on future generations. And not only that, but also as family–systems theory teaches, destructive patterns of emotional and physical abuse often repeat themselves from one generation to another. May each of us have the wisdom of Cassuto to think about the Jewish future as we negotiate our personal present.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.