Commentary on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
We may never have eaten a sour grape or know exactly what it means to have our teeth set on edge, but we get the gist of the proverb: children suffer the consequences of their parents’ actions. The proverb was probably used by the exiles to exonerate themselves of responsibility for their situation: they are not in exile through any fault of their own but rather are suffering for the sins of their ancestors.
Certainly Ezekiel has pointed to Israel’s long history of rebellion against God, beginning before they even left Egypt (Ezekiel 20). Yet through a long legal disputation that challenges Israelite conceptions of intergenerational guilt and punishment, Ezekiel argues that righteous children do not suffer for their parents’ wickedness; nor do wicked children benefit from their parent’s righteousness. Somewhat surprisingly, Ezekiel’s audience does not willingly give up their predictable calculus of guilt and punishment. The real riddle of this reading is why the people prefer their proverb, and not God’s offer of life.
In an earlier study of this text, I followed the lead of most commentators, who suggested that the problem was not the proverb but its use by the exiles to exonerate themselves of guilt. It’s hard to find fault with the truism that children usually do suffer from their parents’ mistakes. Ancient Israel embedded its own communal experience of intergenerational guilt and punishment in its understanding of God’s justice, which “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). Although we no longer attribute children’s suffering to the hand of God, we do recognize the impact of family violence on subsequent generations. After all, it’s the stuff of southern novels and the bread and butter of psychotherapists.
But when God rejects the proverb, the issue is not how it’s used, but that it’s used at all. Against the fated inevitability of inheriting and suffering from a parent’s guilt, God proposes an alternative understanding of the nature of justice by grounding it in his identity as the sovereign creator of life. Just how that conviction breaks the inevitable cycle of sin and punishment, however, remains an open question, since it remains tightly bound to a strict doctrine of retribution: “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die” (18:4).
Although 18:5-24 are omitted from the lectionary reading, these verses are an important stage in the argument leading to the final appeal of 18:25-32. In a series of legal rulings describing the deeds of a righteous father, his wicked son, and the righteous grandson, Ezekiel breaks the basic premise of the proverb. A wicked son does not benefit from his father’s righteousness, nor does he jeopardize his son’s chance at life.
As the argument proceeds, it becomes clear that God’s greater concern is the preservation of life, not the strict application of justice. If, for example, the righteous grandchild is free to change course once he sees and understands the consequences of his father’s wickedness, what about the wicked themselves? Are they doomed to suffer punishment for past wickedness? No, says Ezekiel: even the wicked may turn from their wickedness, change course, and live. Because all life belongs to God, even the lives of the wicked, the future remains open, not only for children of bad men, but also for the bad men themselves.
Somewhat surprisingly, the exiles protest: “The way of the Lord doesn’t add up!” (NRSV: unfair; 18:25). NRSV’s “unfair” partly conveys the notion of divine arbitrariness, but it does not do justice to the Hebrew verb, tkn, whose root meaning is to weigh, or measure (Job 28:25; Isaiah 40:12; 2 Kings 12:11). God “weighs” or measures human thoughts (Proverbs 16:2; 21:2; 24:12), but one cannot “weigh” or understand the spirit of God (Isaiah 40:13). What the exiles say about God’s way is, in a sense true, since the ways of God are always beyond human understanding. Certainly in the situation described here, in which God’s commitment to human life makes the future possible, there is an unaccountable mystery at work. Who could have known, at the darkest moments of exile, that God preferred life?
However, God’s reaction to the exiles’ remark shows that it was the wrong thing to say. God throws it back at them: is it not your ways that don’t measure up? By what calculus would human beings prefer a fixed destiny of suffering to the freedom of being able to repent, to change course, and thereby to gain life? Although the exiles don’t get to answer that question, we can guess that the argument in chapter 18 forces them to acknowledge their own culpability. They want to see themselves as innocents, children suffering for parents’ sins. If that perception gives them the freedom to remain victims of others’ actions, it also renders them helpless to move into new patterns of life.
But in Ezekiel’s case law, the child who suffers is not innocent, while the other, the righteous grandchild, does not suffer. This is a very strict theory of retribution, and while we might otherwise seek a little more leeway, its purpose here is to lead the exiles to acknowledge their own complicity in the events that have landed them in exile. Ezekiel’s argument should shatter their self-perception and lead them to repentance. That it does not; that they should choose a fatalistic proverb over life makes no sense at all. To God who delights in life, such a way is quite literally unfathomable.
Nevertheless, God’s offer of life stands. The chapter closes with the remarkably sweeping statement in God’s own voice: I do not take pleasure in the death of anyone! This declaration is stunning in its universalism, and we can imagine the author of Jonah playing with this idea as he pens the final verses of his book. “Should I not have pity on Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11). No, God does not desire the death of Babylonians or Assyrians, innocent or wicked.
Yet God leaves it up to human beings to choose the way of life over the way of death. Perhaps we can understand the final words, “Turn, then, and live!” as words that echo across the testaments, into Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and into our own time. Perhaps we do not express our fatalism in the same way that the exiles do. Ours is more advanced, because more scientific, rooted in what we know about the genetic code and environmental conditioning. But perhaps this scientific explanation of our destiny is no less a threat to our well-being. Why would we choose scientific explanations for our frailty and limitations over the indeterminate freedom of God’s grace? Why don’t we turn, and live?