Q. In Old Testament law, were children to be punished for the sins of their fathers?
The Bible contains both applicable laws and prophetic revelations throughout the text. The applicable laws are directions that people are supposed to carry out, while the prophetic revelations may be actions that only Yahweh is supposed to carry out.
According to Deuteronomy 24:16, government must not deliberately initiate generational punishment:
“Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers, everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”
This is because according to the Biblical view, humans are fallible and have limited understanding. People cannot be trusted to be in charge of carrying out generational punishment or vengeance. This is contrary to the typical customs of the era. Law in Mesopotamian cultures often ordered punishment based on the sins of parents.
Yahweh, however, is capable of removing protection from family lines based on the sins of an ancestor:
“You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who keep My commandments.”
– Deuteronomy 5:9-10