By Jean E. Jones
Does God punish innocent children to the third and fourth generations for the sins of the fathers?
Last week, someone asked several questions about children being punished for their parents’ wrongdoings, including whether events in Jewish history were examples of this and whether he should be concerned that he’ll suffer for his parents’ and grandparents’ sins.
What did God mean when he told the Israelites he would punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation?
The second of the Ten Commandments says this:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol 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 fathers 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 20:3-6
If the head of a household worshipped false gods, typically his descendents would join in that idolatry. The successive generations would be punished for committing the sins they learned from parents. (Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; and Jeremiah 32:18 are similar.) Douglas K. Stuart wrote:
In other words, God will not say, “I won’t punish this generation for what they are doing to break my covenant because, after all, they merely learned it from their parents who did it too.’ Instead, God will indeed punish generation after generation (‘to the third and fourth generation’) if they keep doing the same sorts of sins that prior generations did. If the children continue to do the sins their parents did, they will receive the same punishments as their parents.”
Stuart goes on to point out that “‘Third and fourth’ is idiomatic in Hb. for ‘whatever number’ or ‘plenty of.’” 
That this verse does not mean innocent children will be punished is supported by Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.”