I’ve always been just a bit concerned about the part of the Ten Commandments story that notes God’s “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me.” (Exodus 20:5 KJV) It has never seemed fair that someone could be punished for what their ancestors did so many years ago.
Fair or not, though, this may be true biologically. Epigenetics, a newly established branch of genetics, suggests that over our lifetimes, our behaviors and environment can influence how our genes are expressed—how our bodies read our inherited DNA sequences. There is also some evidence that those expressed genetic codes can be passed on to succeeding generations.
Based on the context of this passage, “those who hate me” seems to mean anyone whose self-idolatry shuts out God. That’s a sobering matter, because this kind of idolatry has probably affected most generations in one way or the other. So any of us could be epigenetically tilted towards egocentricity. Any of us could be laying a hereditary foundation whose results might be harmful to those who follow us.
God’s Mt. Sinai warning also includes the promise: “But if you love me and obey my law, I will be kind to your families for thousands of generations.” (Exodus 20:6 CEV) That epigenetic assurance calms and challenges me: To love future generations by my current lifestyle.
At a practical level, two ideas come to mind: First, it might be helpful to familiarize ourselves with our heritages–the lifestyles and spiritual traits of our great-great grandparents. People we never knew, but whose genetic makeup we received. The second insight: As a guide to living fully, we can remain lovingly mindful about those who will inherit our legacies.
Which I hope to do!
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