Your sons … will suffer for your unfaithfulness (Numbers 14:31-33)

‘Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey—I will bring them in, and they will know the land which you have rejected. But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness.’

Numbers 14:31-33

I wondered, when I read the verses about God visiting the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations, how God could punish one person for another person’s sin. It seemed odd to me and out of keeping with God’s character as I understood it in The Bible. This morning, I read over this verse and the thought process makes a bit more sense, I think.

God’s indignation here takes place after the spies come back with a bad report and the people all get together to stone Moses and Aaron and go back to Egypt. God is rightly miffed with these people. And the punishment is in keeping with the crime. The spies had forty days to go back and forth in the Promised Land and see how great things were. So God promises forty years of wandering: one year per day of spying. If they were so worried about whether or not they could defeat the people of the land, they could have asked for a sign. God is not above comforting our hearts when we’re legitimately freaking out. Just look at Gideon. Gideon doesn’t even ask for a sign, but God says to Gideon (my paraphrase), “Gideon, I told you to go down and lay the smack down on those guys in the valley, there, but you’re freaking out. So take your servant and sneak on down to eavesdrop a bit and what you hear will be encouraging and then you’ll be ready to kick butt and chew bubble gum — minus the bubble gum, since it hasn’t been invented yet.” Gideon goes down, hears encouraging words, then proceeds to lay a major whooping on Midian. Saul’s son Jonathan does something similar. But these spies don’t do that. Two of the spies aren’t asking for any sort of sign because they’re thinking (my paraphrase, again), “Yeah, buddy! This is good land. God is totally making good on His promise and I think I’m going to build a house right over there. Yeah. That ridge line looks good. Nice view. The giants will have to go, though.” Caleb had thoughts like that, at least. I mean, dude is asking for hill country when he’s, like, 85. And he knows full well that the giants are in the hill country he asks for. He then proceeds to kick some giant keister all up and down those hills. Good stuff. The other ten spies are freaking out about the giants and the walled cities and all that madness.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Not a thing. But it has everything to do with the idea of the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons. When God pronounces judgment on the fathers — the spies and the folks who planned to stone Moses and Aaron and go back to Egypt — God makes note that the wrongs these men were committing would impact the lives of their children. These men and women would be punished for their own wrong-doing, absolutely, but their children are along for the ride. The kids can’t go off on their own and God doesn’t want them to. God wants them to see what happens when people put their faith in the wrong place. Since the parents are obviously unable to teach their children faith — what with their horrible memories and awesome imaginations about how great Egypt was and how fat and happy they were there and how quick they are to want to go back (God notes that they’ve considered going back TEN TIMES since leaving … that’s one time for every plague God dropped on Egypt) —God will do the teaching. But the lesson will be hard. The parents chose the curriculum, but the children have to attend the classes. The same is true still.

I may think that my wrong-doing doesn’t hurt anyone else, but it does. Whenever God has to school me, my wife and daughter are along for the ride. Every one of my whimpers while I’m learning the lesson is communicated to both of them. If I’m miserable, then that misery is shared among the family. The sins of the father (me) are visited on the child (just the one, for now) and possibly on her children and their children. The consequences of my bad choices can carry on for a while and I will not bear that burden alone, no matter how I might try to. Suddenly, God saying that He will visit the sins of the fathers on the sons to the third and fourth generations makes a whole lot more sense. That’s about as long as I’m likely to live if I live to be a very old man. And my understanding of what God is on about in that promise increases.

In a larger sense, this idea that our sins (or, more accurately, their consequences) are carried by those who come after (and alongside: Joshua and Caleb had to endure the wandering, too, and they came back with a good report) translates to the body of Christ; the family of God. Nothing I do is done in isolation from others. Every action carries in it the seeds of consequence. The seeds may not sprout. That happens sometimes. But not often. And the consequences can be good (for obedience) or bad (for sins). Whatever seeds I put down are the fruit that will be harvested. If I’m putting down the seeds of obedience then I can expect to see a harvest of blessing. Maybe not in my own life, but definitely in lives I’ve touched — my wife, my daughter, the fellow believers I spend time with at church and in general … even people I don’t even consider having come into contact with. My parents’ yard is a breeding ground for illustrations of this principle. My dad and I were looking over his yard years ago when we noticed a seedling in among the weeds. We hadn’t planted that tree (it turned out to be rather a large tree, too), but someone else had planted a tree of that type in the neighborhood and the birds had dropped a seed. Weeds grow everywhere, no big surprise there, but I’ve noticed that there are more weeds around when someone in the neighborhood is not tending their yards. If everyone is taking care of their yards, then the weeds are fewer and the random plants are curious, but not bad. If anyone in the neighborhood is letting their yard go then there are weeds to tear out in everyone’s yards. So it is with us. If I’m tending my life and working to get the weeds (sins) out and cultivate the good plants (fruit of the Spirit) then those around me have an easier go of things. And vice versa.

This morning’s application is this: I need to attend to my life and keep the garden that is me as free of weeds (sin) as possible. This is not only beneficial for me, but for those around me.

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