“So now, please, let Adonai’s power be as great as when you said, ‘Adonai is slow to anger, rich in grace, forgiving offenses and crimes; yet not exonerating the guilty, but causing the negative effects of the parents’ offenses to be experienced by their children and even by the third and fourth generations.’ Please! Forgive the offense of this people according to the greatness of your grace, just as you have borne with this people from Egypt until now.'”-Numbers 14:17-19
Today I want to share a Biblical principle you’ve probably never heard discussed in all your years of attending a Christian church.
And yes, I had never heard of it either.
At least not until I decided to finally undergo a thorough study of the Torah and understand what God’s Words REALLY said on certain topics.
So let’s jump right right into it.
The Principle I’m talking about is what the Rabbis call “The Principle of Vertical Retribution“.
This principle means that God will withhold the punishment due a certain person or group and later level that punishment on the offspring of the person or group in question.
This is exactly what Moses is talking about in verse 18 when he says “Adonai is slow to anger, rich in grace, forgiving offenses and crimes; yet not exonerating the guilty, but causing the negative effects of the parents’ offenses to be experienced by their children and even by the third and fourth generation“.’
In reality, Moses isn’t actually asking God to completely withdraw punishment due the people because of their sins but to postpone it or at least transfer a portion of the retribution owed over to the children of the rebellious lot.
Now as with many of the concepts and themes we encounter in the Scriptures, this Principle of Vertical Retribution was already in existence long before Israel.
In an ancient Hittite document, there is a king named King Mursilis who is quoted as saying “And so it is, the sins of the father have come upon the son; and so my father’s sins have come upon me“.
So we can see the idea of an innocent party bearing the divine punishment of a guilty party (both parties are of the same family however) in place way before Moses.
This principle is all over the place in the Bible.
Here are just a few examples:
-Noah puts a curse on his grandson Canaan after finding out what happened after he got drunk in a tent
-In 1 Kings 14, the prophet Ahijah tells Jeroboam that punishment for his sins will be transferred to his son
-In 1 Kings 16, we’re told that Elah, the son of Baasha, will pay for the sins of his father.
And of course, this principle also works in reverse.
Check out this passage from the Psalms:
“But the mercy of Adonai
on those who fear him
is from eternity
past to eternity future,
and his righteousness extends
to his children’s children,
provided they keep his covenant
and remember to follow his precepts.”
Notice the qualifier stating that blessings will only be passed on if the covenant is kept.
Of course, when the Lord will or will not allow vertical retribution depends on the circumstances.
For instance, check out the following verse from 1 Kings:
“Because Ahab has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the disaster in his lifetime; I will bring the disaster upon his house in his son’s time.”
In this case, because Ahab repented of his sins, God decided to postpone the payment of the “disaster” debt owed.
So it seems the one legal circumstance that allows a sin debt to be postponed is if the person who committed the sin repents.
Another thing I’m getting from all of this is that a sin debt can never really be completely dissolved.
Someone has to pay, whether it’s the person who committed the sin or another person.
In response to Moses’ plea to God to postpone the punishment due the adult parents who rebelled, God agrees to meet Moses halfway.
The people didn’t show any remorse nor did they repent.
Therefore, although God will not destroy them on the spot, He decreed that they would never enter the Promised Land.
Everyone of the rebellious adults (except Joshua and Caleb) would end up dying in the desert.
And their children would be forced to wander in the desert for 40 years.