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Exodus 20:5 says that God will "punish the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me." (NIV) Deuteronomy 5:9 says precisely the same thing.
What does that mean? At a glance it looks like sheer injustice with maybe a large helping of spite thrown in. The fathers sin and God punishes someone else? Why not simply punish the guilty? What makes matters worse is that Deuteronomy 24:16 forbids the practice: "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin." So does God forbid this injustice to humans but practice it himself?
We acknowledge Deuteronomy 24:16 as simple justice and we've shaped our judicial system on that basis so we need to take a closer look at Exodus 20:5.
The truth is, to render the passage as the NIV does (in company with others) is to be too precise. The passage doesn't say God will "punish" the children for the sins their fathers committed. Old Testament and Hebrew scholar, Speiser, says that the Hebrew verb paqad has probably given scholars more difficulty than any other verb. It means "punishment" only when the context determines that that's what the writer has in mind; it means to visit (with friendly or hostile intent, it means to visit with blessing or curse). The same word is used when God "visits" Israel to bless (Exodus 3:16; 4:31, "watched over" and "was concerned" in the NIV).
In numerous passages the idea of "punishment" is easily seen, but it's the context that determines the nature of the visitation. The problem with our word "punishment" is that (if the procedure is just), it always implies guilt on the part of the one punished.
You simply don't knowingly punish someone for the crime of another. God won't have itóDeuteronomy 24:16.
Yes, but in what way and on what basis are the sins of the fathers "visited" on the children? In the same way "mercy" (hesed, covenant faithfulness expressed in kindness) is visited on the children of those who love God (Exodus 20:6).