Thursday, September 22, 2016

Generational Curses

In answer to the question: What role do generational curses have in our lives today? I searched the Scriptures for the keywords “generation” and “curse.” Exodus 20 seems to be the source of many beliefs about generational curses saying that God is “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (v 5) despite the specific application to idol worship. In Ezekiel 18 God clearly states that, “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child” (v 20). And as a final authority, Galatians 3 says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (v 13). The strengths and weaknesses of each argument are examined in more detail; however, the results show that there is no evidence that generational curses are or ever were a legitimate explanation for suffering.

An Examination of Generational Curses in the Old and New Testaments

Contemplating the adoption of a specific inner-healing ministry and the various tools they use in bringing about that healing, I mentioned the role of generational curses in suffering to a spiritual mentor. He challenged me, somewhat indirectly, to search the Word for myself. This loosely academic exercise is the result of seeking help from the Holy Spirit in pouring over the Word (NIV translation) in that examination. The results are somewhat surprising.

The primary question to be answered is: What role do generational curses have in our lives today?

Defining the Keywords

As I progressed through this exercise, I realized that the word “curse” is not actually used in places I’d expected to find it and instead I found words like “punish” and “discipline.” In order to well understand the results, I found myself looking into Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (an actual hardcopy of the book) to understand the nuances. According to Webster, a curse is “the general word for calling down evil or injury on someone or something. A calling on God or the gods to send evil or injury down on some person or thing.” (I am purposely leaving alone other gods, as the topic of witchcraft and the occult may warrant an entirely separate study.)

One key point taken from this definition is that someone other than God does the “calling down” of evil. If God were the one cursing, it seems logical that he would not call upon himself to do so. Such a revelation raised the question of whether or not our good God would actually curse anyone. The answer can be found in Malachi,

If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me (2:2).

Keep in mind, this specific curse is for failing to honor God and ought not necessarily be taken to mean that God curses people at any time for any reason, though he certainly has the power and the authority to do so. However, the verse clearly shows that our good God could and did curse people. Note too that the curse is the result of wrong behavior on the part of God’s people, which is relevant to our discussion about punishment.

Webster defines the word “punishment” as “to cause to undergo pain, loss, or suffering for a crime or wrongdoing. To impose a penalty on a wrongdoer.” Notice again that there is some force causing the pain. We know from our childhood that our parents have the power to punish us. We know that God punishes his children too. Ezekiel the prophet relays this message to Jerusalem:

Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “You have been more unruly than the nations around you and have not followed my decrees or kept my laws. You have not even conformed to the standards of the nations around you.” Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “I myself am against you, Jerusalem, and I will inflict punishment on you in the sight of the nations. Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again” (5:7-9).

Of importance in this particular selection is that the reason for punishment is “detestable idols.” This point will be relevant as we progress in the discussion about generational curses and look at Exodus 20.

Finally, Webster defines the word “discipline” as “a treatment that corrects or punishes.” While punishment has already been defined, discipline has the possibility of being positively corrective and not necessarily painful.

Webster indicates that the words “punish” and “discipline” are synonymous, and “curse” is not likened to either. How, then, can we distinguish curses? Perhaps the element of evil sets it apart from punishment and discipline. However, allow me to leave that question unanswered as we examine the Word in search of meaning.


A simple explanation of the research method is in order. For, how can you critically evaluate the results without understanding how they were reached? I began by conducting an electronic search for the terms “generation” and “curse” in the Word (using Bible Gateway, of course). I then highlighted the modifying words and observed a few high-level themes. After organizing those verses according to their themes, I examined each verse according to its more specific context. Finally, within each context I looked for sub-themes and noted any questions or assumptions.

Along with direct word groupings, I also surveyed the content for the issue of punishment or curses that may have been underlying the context, as well as thematic issues relevant to the Old and/or New Testaments separately.

I did not examine popular texts, internet articles, or any other outside source as I did not want my study of the Word to be unnecessarily, and perhaps inaccurately, influenced.

The coded word-verse documents are available upon request. However, please keep in mind that this examination is limited because of the method itself. The results of a keyword search do not always include important contextual references where those references lack that keyword. For example, I did not search “punish” or “discipline,” which may alter the findings, and so these results are limited in that way. However, that limitation in no way diminishes our specific study of generational curses.



A study of verses containing the word “generation” revealed the following thematic groupings.
  • The first grouping is specific to “this” generation. For example, “The Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation’” (Genesis 7:1).
  • The second grouping is specific to the “generations to come.” For example, “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for generations to come’” (Genesis 17:9). Note that “generations to come” does not necessarily mean in all future generations.
  • The third grouping is specific to finite generations such as “to the third and fourth generation.” For example, “The Lord said to Jehu, ‘Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab all I had in mind to do, your descendants will sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation’” (2 Kings 10:30).
  • The final grouping contained general statements about generations such as “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). 
A careful review of those four groupings revealed no evidence of generational curses…save one. It is this one from which perhaps every popular belief about generational curses emerges. Therefore, these verses prompted more in-depth consideration. Exodus 20:5 (repeated in Num 14:18, Deut 5:9), and perhaps its parallel in Exodus 34:7 with regards to the second set of tablets, offer a starting point.

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).

Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:7).

A few observations are made based on these verses and their contexts.
  • These verses do not call God’s promise a “curse,” but instead a punishment to those who hate him.
  • The 10 Commandments, specifically the command to worship no other image, are what brought about God’s punishment to the third and fourth generation.
  • The punishment was issued to a specific people (Israel) for a specific sin (idol worship).
  • God also promises love to a thousand generations of those who love him.
Finally, of note is that the vast majority of references to the generations are found in the Old Testament. Because we are to interpret the Old in light of the New, I searched for meaning in the New Testament. What I found was that, though Jesus had a generally unfavorable opinion of the generation in which he lived (Matthew 16:4, 17:17; Mark 8:38, 9:19), he made no reference to future generations let alone reference to curses, punishment, or suffering on them.


The thematic organization of verses containing the word “curse” in the Old and New Testaments proved to be quite a challenge. Loosely defined, as loosely was all that was possible, the following groupings emerged:
  • Ordinances from God and the results of disobedience. For example, “‘Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow’” (Deuteronomy 27:19).
  • The cursed ground from the beginning. For example, “To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life’” (Genesis 3:17).
  • Curses from God. For example, “So the Lord said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life’” (Genesis 3:14).
  • Curse of God (primarily in the context of Job). For example, “His wife said to him, ‘Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!’” (Job 2:9).
  • Blessings and curses. For example, “I will bless those who bless you [Abraham], and whoever curses you I will curse; and all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).
  • Curses uttered from others. For example, Balak put forth a great deal of effort to urge Balaam to curse a nation so that he could win the war, “A people that come out of Egypt covers the face of the land. Now come and put a curse on them for me. Perhaps then I will be able to fight them and drive them away” (Numbers 22:11).
  • General or miscellaneous comments about curses. For example, profane curses or mention of a cursed person, “Jehu went in and ate and drank. ‘Take care of that cursed woman,’ he said, ‘and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter’” (2 Kings 9:34).
A careful review of those groupings revealed no evidence of generational curses…again, save one. It is from these verses that original sin emerges and because Christians accept that sin as generational, or at least all encompassing, a brief look into their relevance to generational curses is warranted.

To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat from it,” “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17, emphasis mine).

And the Lord said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken (Genesis 3:22).

A few observations are made based on these verses and their contexts.
  • The curse was made by God on the ground and not on mankind.
  • Being banished is certainly a punishment at the very least, yet the words curse or punishment are not used.
  • There is no evidence in these words alone that this curse on the ground would last through the generations, nor was there any end to that proclamation. This is an interesting finding given the number of times the words “for generations to come” are used in the Old Testament. Perhaps the lack of generational reference at the time—only Adam and Eve lived then—is sufficient explanation.
Finally, a good researcher accepts what the text alone says rather than reading her own preferences, biases, or preconceptions into the findings. Therefore, my temptation to make explanations for what the text does not say about generational curses as it relates to original sin will be put aside. However, this finding does highlight the limitations of this study. Please cast no stones just yet as the purpose of this work is not to examine original sin and the effects of the Fall.

It is at this juncture that all the questions about generational curses swirling around in our heads can and should be discussed. Remember, too, that these questions, these minute examinations of every word and meaning to the point of picking apart and finding loopholes, are precisely what keeps us under the law.


Our discussion must be limited to the significant findings, which include the Exodus punishment “to the third and fourth generation” for worshiping idols, and the curse of the ground and punishment for disobedience in Genesis, and their relevance to the role of generational curses today. I tend to use a snowball approach where one question leads to another hoping to have our research question answered in the end.

As such, the following questions are raised:

Question 1
Does God’s promise of punishment for idol worship, as part of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, also apply to all other sin? For example, if I am a thief (another of the Ten), will my sin be punished to the third and fourth generation in the same way as if I worshipped idols? If so, why don’t the Ten Commandments indicate such? And why is there no mention elsewhere in Scripture of such a curse? If not, why are we dragging generational curses into unrelated applications today?

Question 2
Does God’s love for those who love him transcend his punishment to future generations (as in Exodus 20:6)? For example, if my father worshiped idols but I worship God, do I still incur the punishment owed my father? To be honest, the Exodus text isn’t clear about whether the curse or the love is supreme.

Here is where we turn to Ezekiel 18 for an additional evaluation. Ezekiel was pressed to answer for an “unjust” God who was punishing the sons for the sins of the father. I encourage you to read the entire chapter for yourself; however, the Lord is clear. The Word of the Lord came to Ezekiel and he said, among other things, that if the man does not “eat at the mountain shrines or look to the idols of Israel” (v 6) he will be called righteous and live (v 9). Further, in response to many people in Ezekiel’s time demanding answers, the Lord said, “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child” (v 20).

Reconciling God’s proclamation of punishment to the third and fourth generation in Exodus 20 with these verses in Ezekiel 18 becomes rather difficult, particularly because we are not yet at the foot of the cross. We know that Scripture will never contradict itself and so I am inclined to acknowledge that there are things I do not understand. However, one possible explanation could be that Moses was referring to the long lasting consequences of the fathers’ sin and Ezekiel was referring to the guilt of that sin. I make this proposal based on Moses’ use of the word punishment and Ezekiel’s inclusion of the word die. Punishment and death are two different results which may allow room for two different meanings.

Whether satisfied with this explanation or not, the Ezekiel chapter is clear that children will not be held guilty for the sins of their fathers. If unsatisfied with that answer, we continue our exploration. Whether curse or punishment, the only evidence that weakly remains in support of generational curses are the Exodus 20 verses.

Question 3
What role does Jesus’ work on the cross play in overcoming the punishment of Exodus 20? In addition to Ezekiel in chapter 18, Paul is very clear in his letter to the Galatians:

For all who rely on the words of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (3:10).

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole” (Galatians 3:13).

In light of these verses, what happens when we accept that generational curses are operating in our lives? We dismiss Jesus’ death on the cross as irrelevant and meaningless. We acknowledge that his blood was not enough to cover our sin—ours or our father’s.

Question 4
If those who rely on the words of the law are under a curse, what happens to the Old Testament (and by extension the Exodus 20 punishment)? Jesus said this:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5: 17-18).

These verses taken in light of the Galatians verses seem to indicate that the law remains but the curse has been removed through Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus became sin so that we could be saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).

I feel like I arrive at answering this question and run out of arguments in support of generational curses. I wonder if I should have started here and could have avoided the entire exercise. And yet, we now know for ourselves what the Word says which gives us the opportunity to know the love of God in an entirely new way.


Our goal was to answer to the research question: What role do generational curses play in our lives today? Our work, as is shown, answers that question very well. Generational curses never were nor are they today active or relevant in explaining any negative phenomenon in the lives of God’s people.

First, we find only one verse in the Old Testament that suggests the possibility of a generational curse, though that verse uses the word punishment rather than curse which may be reason enough to exclude the verse from our research. However, my expectation that this exclusion would leave many readers unsatisfied, necessitates addressing additional findings.

Second, the Exodus 20 verse is a punishment issued to a specific people for a specific sin and, therefore, may not be relevant today. Regardless, we know that the law remains (worship no idols) but the curse is broken (punishment to the third and fourth generations) (Exodus 20:4-6; Matthew 5: 17-18).

Third, the Exodus 20 verse about the love of God to a thousand generations for those who keep his commands is reinforced five times in Scripture (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10, 7:9; 1 Chronicles 16:15; Psalm 105:8) and may supersede the punishment to the generations.

Fourth, Ezekiel 18 is clear that even as it relates to idol worship the sons will not die for the sins of the father.

Finally, there seems to be no other way to reconcile Galatians 3—that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (v 13)—with the present day existence of generational curses.

Accepting these findings as truth—that generational curses are not in operation today (nor were they ever)—leaves a gaping hole when we try to explain suffering, calamity, bad behaviors, and the like. If generational curses don’t explain things, what does? Here is where my own common sense and experience, more so than Scripture, take over.
  1.  A fallen world. When sin entered the world, everything fell apart. Christ’s redemption is both now and not yet which means we sometimes suffer today.
  2. Physical laws. God set in motion so many physical and other laws or truths (gravity, Newton’s law, weather, fire is hot, etc.) to make our world function for our benefit. Sometimes these laws bring about suffering.
  3. Heredity/Genetics. Science has proven that numerous behavioral, emotional, psychological and other traits are hereditary (ADHD, dyslexia, depression, etc.).
  4. Familiar spirits. Spirits that do the work of the father of lies to overtake the work of God and are often entertained through open doors such as unforgiveness, fear, sexual sins, or witchcraft. Unfortunately, we often learn these behaviors from our parents and therefore open the same doors to familiar spirits that they opened which gives the appearance of a generational curse.
  5. Consequences. The consequences of the choices of others (sinful or not) play a role in what we perceive as a curse.
  6. Environment. Our surroundings (poverty, abuse, etc.) can influence our suffering including the nature/nurture influences.
  7. Circumstance. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  8. Parenting. Some parents are ill equipped, absent, abusive, or worse. Children suffer the consequences of that bad parenting.
These are just a few of the explanations over which we have no control, and that is the category we tend to put generational curses into…no control. However, sometimes there is a grain of responsibility we need to accept for ourselves.
  1. Our own sin. Sometimes our own sin brings about consequences that are painful and we would rather not accept responsibility.
  2. Our own bad choices. Apart from sin, we make choices that don’t always turn out the way we expected. In the end, we suffer.
  3. Self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you are cursed you will act like you are cursed, if you believe you are free you will act like you are free.
  4. Salvation. Our understanding of who Christ is and what he’s done can influence the way we experience and understand suffering.
While there could be any number of additional explanations, and before dismissing the truth of these possible explanations, let’s look at a few examples.

A man finds himself having an affair claiming that his wife neglects his sexual needs. His wife is responsible for the household and caring for their four children, and receives little help from her husband. She often finds herself exhausted with little energy remaining to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs. In having that affair, he opens the door to sexual sin and the familiar spirits make their way into his life and destroys their marriage. One or both of the male children in this family observe their father’s struggle and conclude that extramarital affairs are justifiable under certain circumstances. Because of the example that father has set (along with perhaps a number of other factors), the familiar spirits continue to spread lies and those now-adult men also have extra marital affairs. And the cycle continues.

A college-age young woman becomes irritated with her boyfriend and leaves the frat party alone. She isn’t aware that she is followed by three young men from that party. Those men each take turns raping her in the alley way before she reaches home. As a married adult, this woman never fully trusts her husband, fails to share her opinions, and lacks general closeness with him. Her traumatic experience opened the door to fear of men and intimacy, which worked itself out in an angry defense. Rather than being vulnerable with her husband, she became angry and shouted many false accusations about his sexual intensions. Her girl children learned these attitudes by nurture and carried them into their own marriage. And the cycle continues.

A young boy grew up in a church that taught him that that God was angry with him for his bad behavior and that he would be punished both here and in heaven for that behavior. All his efforts to be a good person as he grew up were met with harsh judgments from the church and self-condemnation. His children were strictly disciplined in order to ensure their good behavior and thus secure their place in heaven. Among the many problems these attitudes created, judgment of others led to isolation for the entire family. As a result, the children also grew isolating themselves so as to avoid judgment, or to avoid bad behaviors that would prevent them from reaching heaven, or simply to please their father. And the cycle continues.

These few simple examples demonstrate the variety of influences and their impact on suffering, bad behaviors, and the like. These explanations are reasonable given what we now know about the lie of generational curses. They also align with what we know about Christ’s work in taking the curse of the law upon himself. This is indeed the good news of our gospel.

Jesus Christ took the curse upon himself so that we could instead freely live under grace. If you have lived under the lie of generational curses, ask God to forgive you for believing that lie and for rejecting the work of his Son on the cross. Thank him for making a new way to be reconciled to him. And ask him to reveal the truth about the situation that brought you to this study in the first place. And finally ask him to bring freedom and healing to that situation.

With a great love and desire for your freedom in Christ, I respectfully submit this report.