“Could you explain passages such as Exodus 20:5; 34:7, and 1 Samuel 3:13? They seem to suggest that a later generation is punished for the sins of a former one. Does God hold one generation accountable for the sins of another?”
Let us look as these texts individually, and then draw such conclusions as are warranted by the evidence.
Exodus 20:5; 34:7
Both of the texts in Exodus (20:5; cf. 34:7) affirm the same principle. In condemning the heinous sin of idolatry, the Lord says:
“I Jehovah, your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing lovingkindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.”
First, we must observe that the term “jealous” is a common biblical figure of speech called “anthropopathism,” whereby God employs human emotions to give emphasis to a particular point. It does not suggest that the Lord is evil (in the sense of human jealousy), but that, being the true God, he simply will not tolerate the worship of false gods.
In addressing these passages it must be carefully observed that the idolatry of the “fathers” had, through their evil influence, trickled down to the children of the subsequent generations. Moses explicitly says that these offspring of the third and fourth generations were, in character, those “that hate me [God].” “Hate” is the equivalent of disregarding the law to which they were accountable. Conversely, those who “loved” the Lord (i.e., faithfully served him out of gratitude for his grace) received an abundance of divine love and kindness.
It is a further reality, however, that even though God never holds one eternally accountable for the sins of another, it nonetheless is true that there is such a thing as national accountability. A nation can become so corrupt that God withdraws his providential care, and disaster results.
The history of the nation of Israel is replete with examples of such. The Assyrians took the northern kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonians ravaged the southern kingdom of Judah. When the Hebrew nation reached the zenith of its wickedness (killing its own Messiah), the Romans were used as Heaven’s instrument of judicial wrath (Matthew 22:7).
Although temporal judgments may be sent against a nation, that does not mean that each individual who dies under that circumstance is lost eternally, even though they must endure the hardships of chastisement (cf. Daniel, Ezekiel, etc., in Babylonian captivity). There is such a thing as “corporate” accountability (cf. Proverbs 14:34; Psalm 9:17).
1 Samuel 3:13-14
This text reads as follows:
“For I have told him [Eli] that I will judge his house for ever, for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons did bring a curse upon themselves, and he restrained them not. And therefore I have sworn unto the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated with sacrifice nor offering forever.”
In order to understand this prophecy, one needs to explore the background of Eli’s family. The record is found in the first four chapters of 1 Samuel.
Eli was a priest of God residing at Shiloh where the “house of Jehovah” (the tabernacle) was located at the time. The evidence appears to indicate that Eli was a descendant of Ithamar, the youngest son of Aaron (cf. 1 Kings 2:27; 1 Chronicles 24:3). It is not known why the priestly office passed from the family of Eleazar, to the lineage of Ithamar, but Josephus says that Eli was the first of that line to occupy the position (Antiquities, 5.11.5).
Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who were priests as well, ministering with their father (1 Samuel 1:3). These sons were wicked indeed; they “knew not Jehovah” (2:12). They greedily corrupted the sacrificial services, taking provisions that were not due them (2:13-17). In addition, they fornicated with certain women who served at the entrance of the tabernacle. Eli heard of their “evil dealings” and expressed displeasure, but he exercised no discipline against them (2:22-25; cf. 3:13).
Presently, an unidentified prophet appeared on the scene and chastised the aged priest, indicting him with honoring his sons above Jehovah (2:29). It thus was declared that the priestly house of which these men were representatives would come to an end (2:30ff). As one scholar has noted, the promise of a perpetual priesthood “was conditional upon faithfulness on the part of the family, a condition which applies to God’s promises even when it is not explicitly stated” (Baldwin, 62).
Subsequently, when the Israelites were engaged in battle with the Philistines, the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the battle scene for support. It was folly to think that merely parading the Ark before the enemy would reverse the circumstances of apostasy. In the conflict that followed thousands of Israelite warriors were killed, and Hophni and Phinehas lost their lives as well (4:11). When Eli heard of the deaths of his sons, the 98-year-old priest fell from his seat, broke his neck, and died (4:18).
The evil sons of Eli were so hardened in their rebellion that no “sacrifice nor offering” could prevail in their case. The judgment visited upon them was “forever,” in the sense that the priestly line of Eli would be terminated eventually. In the years that followed, all of the priests of Eli’s line were either killed (1 Samuel 22:9-20), or removed from office, and the prophecy regarding his priestly descendants was fulfilled (see 1 Kings 2:26-27). The priesthood subsequently was restored to the family of Eleazar, Aaron’s oldest son.
In this episode there is absolutely nothing that would suggest that anyone was tainted hereditarily, so that his sinfulness was a condition for which he was not responsible. The doctrine of inherited guilt is of human invention, with no basis in scripture (see Ezekiel 18:20).