In Exodus 34:7, we hear about the God of the Bible “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” And from this passage derives the notion of generational curses or the concept of pathological dysfunction as spiritual punishment. Modern adaptations of this idea speak to the cyclical nature of unhealthy family pathologies, citing things like poor health, illiteracy, sexual violence and poverty as examples of these matriclinous misfortunes. But how much of our dysfunction is compounded by our decisions as opposed to our descent. How many of us hide behind the guise of inherited issues to dodge the responsibility of having to resolve them? Probably quite a few of us. And when we take this passage as proof positive that our propensity for problematic behavior is everyone’s fault but our own, rendering us helpless to defend ourselves against it, we embrace a level of victimhood that keeps us trapped in its’ cycle. So when does our participation in unhealthy familial patterns stop being the result of our generational curses and start being the consequence of our generational choices?
The Bible speaks to this subject a total of four times, the most noted being in Exodus 34:7 just shortly after telling the story of Moses and the Commandments. And despite the sorted placement of these passages within the text, they all tell a similar story. To get a better understanding of the passage, it’s just as vital to understand the historical context within which it was written, as well as its context within the surrounding scripture. The story told in Exodus Chapter 34 centers around the renegotiation of God’s covenant with his chosen people, the Israelites. God instructs Moses, the leader of the Israelites, to travel to Mt. Sinai in order to receive instructions for the sculpting of new Stone commandments to replace the ones he earlier destroyed. And it’s during this journey that God reveals his character to Moses, acknowledging both his propensity for wrath as well as his merciful nature. While verse 7 is the most heavily referenced one in terms of discussing generational curses, it’s the passages leading up to it that highlight the comparison being made. “And he passed in front of Moses” Exodus 34:6 begins, “proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Here it’s evident that the focal point of the entire passage is to speak to God being bountifully merciful, not just to His being firm and just. The focus of the full passage is to demonstrate God’s favor on those who love him, any abbreviated application of the text is regular old religious propaganda.
So how does this narrow interpretation reflect on the way we’ve been applying this concept to our circumstances? Well, for starters, it implies we’ve been looking at generational curses all wrong. And to take it a step further, the curses referred to in the Bible don’t appear to be curses at all. More like consequences, specifically for disobedience towards God. In Christian doctrine, the punishments for sin range from birthmarks to barrenness, and everything in between, making it repeatedly clear that God doesn’t play when it comes to paying what you owe. But without applying Christian parameters to the concept, the theory simply doesn’t hold water. If not for the laws governing the Christian Bible, the threat of generational curses simply wouldn’t exist for most of us at all. There’s a level of victimhood implied by the idea itself that renders us helpless to control our circumstances and that notion isn’t supported in the Bible or anywhere else. Can a combination of genetic, environmental and developmental factors make a person more susceptible to something like alcoholism, drug abuse, or poor health, absolutely. Our medical records take into consideration the health of our parents and their parents for a reason, it matters. But some of these”curses” require a level of complicity that calls into question just how many of us are participants in our own spiritual imprisonment as opposed to pawns of a higher power.
The Old Testament divided people into two categories, the cursed and the blessed. Those who obeyed God were good and therefore blessed and those who did not were bad and therefore cursed. Living according to Gods word was thought to improve the quality of ones life and living a sinful life was thought to increasingly make life more difficult. But there is a clear division between the deserving and the undeserving that exists only in the Bible. We don’t have the luxury of simply adhering to script scribbled on stone and having the rawness of our realities washed away. Salvation is the only instant in religion. No matter the measure of biblical obedience, some of us are more predisposed to these problems and that predisposition is wholly problematic when coupled with a lack of accountability. If we grow up watching alcohol control the lives of our close relatives and choose to partake without any preparation or consideration for how that history of addiction might repeat itself in us, we do so putting ourselves at risk. And we can’t call it a curse if it’s the consequence of a conscious choice.
There’s nothing generational about generational curses. And unless the rate of fatherlessness in our community is the result of millions of immaculate conceptions or second-hand alcoholism pops up in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, curse probably isn’t the right word for it either. The careful combination of these words doesn’t just make our problems sound too big to solve by ourselves, it makes them sound too big to solve. Ironically, curses aren’t solved, they’re broken, and when, how or if that happens is out of our hands. When people feel powerless to solve their problems, they’re more likely to embrace what they believe to be the inevitable. The inability to envision a better future for oneself or the belief that the future is at the mercy of some grandfathered guilt leads to feelings of hopelessness, stagnancy and depression, all of which decreases the likelihood that you do anything to change your circumstances. And when the circumstances don’t change, you point to the “curse” as the cause while unknowingly reinforcing the problem behavior for witnessing generations. If there is a curse, it’s the one we cast every time we deny our ability to change the trajectory of our lives. And let’s be honest, a lot of our problems are there because we put ‘em there, because no amount of mysticism could completely derail a healthy, positive, well-intentioned personal journey. It’s gonna take a lot more than bad juju to do that. Either we’re at the mercy of the rigidity of religious doctrine, even the ones we personally don’t subscribe to, or we have the power to learn from and be shaped by the fullness of our past without being punished by it. The latter should be an easy choice.