When it comes to the Old Testament, I have selective memory. My knowledge of the bible was shaped by those Sunday school teachers and preachers who more or less thought of the New Testament (i.e., Jesus) as the solution for the Old Testament (i.e., Judaism). It’s a logical and easy-to-explain approach to Christianity, but it’s inadequate, untrue, and more-than-a-little anti-Semitic. I give thanks for those teachers and preachers and friends and colleagues in college and seminary and beyond who have helped me think and talk about the Hebrew scriptures in a fuller way. Still, though, I can’t help what my brain remembers about the Old Testament.
In particular, I remember that God will punish children for the sins of their parents—to the third and fourth generation. I remember it because it’s one of those things that scared me when I read it as a child in Sunday school. That particular statement is found in today’s OT reading (Exodus 20:1-21). God gives the Ten Commandments to his people, and he explains the second commandment (no graven images) by declaring that he is a “jealous God,” who will punish children for their parents’ transgressions. But, as I read the passage this morning, I discovered something that had totally fallen out of my selective memory.
Here’s how that sentence of scripture that deals with idols actually reads: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Did you see that bit about steadfast love to the thousandth generation? 1000. I can barely name my eight great-grandparents, and, counting my own children, that only covers five generations. Who knows where we were 30,000 years ago? That’s five times as long as the people of Israel have been the people of Israel. Is there any way to estimate God’s gracious love? That’s a comparison of 1000 to 4. Do you get it?
But we don’t remember the love promised to the 1000th generation. We remember the fire and brimstone—and not only from the Old Testament but also from those preachers and teachers who gave us the gospel of fear. There is no gospel of fear! But those who wield our faith as if it were a threat to those who are not in agreement have poisoned the well that springs to eternal life. I hear from lots of “recovering evangelicals,” who ran away from the church of their childhood because they were spiritually beaten into accepting a God who is terrifying. But that’s not who God is. The God of the Old and New Testaments is a God of eager love, who beckons his wayward children to return to him. He is ready to shower his people with love for 1000 generations—which is to say for as long as we can imagine and even longer. Those of us who preach and teach about our faith need to be sure that that’s what those people in our charge remember twenty years from now.