In those days people will no longer say, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge. (Jeremiah 31.29-30)
A Toxic Notion
The rendering of Mosaic Law during Israel’s wilderness experience gave birth to a toxic notion we’ve yet to eliminate. It lives today as a proverb: “The parents' sins are visited on the children,” which we take to mean every generation must pay for its ancestors’ mistakes. There’s no getting past the fact God warns of this fate numerous times. It’s literally writ in stone, attached to the Second Commandment forbidding idols: “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.” (Exodus 20.5; emphasis added.) The italicized phrase, word-for-word, appears four more times in the Talmud, with several variants amounting the same thing.
Accepting it as-is startles us, because there’s also no getting past the fact it’s patently unjust and cruel. Why would God punish one’s children (let alone, their children and their children’s children) for parental disobedience? It’s a curse that defies reason and contradicts everything we know God to be. It also discourages us from overcoming our parents’ weaknesses. If we’re going to suffer for their sins, why resist the same impulses that led them astray? This is pretty much how Israel responds to God’s warning. In resigning themselves to bear the brunt of their forebears’ wrongdoing, they grant themselves license to perpetuate their errors. We live with this poisonous mentality even today: “I come from a long line of alcoholics.” “My dad was abusive, which is why I’m a mess.” “My mom has a bad temper, so naturally I fly off the handle.” “Because my family are hypocrites, I want nothing to do with religion.” The sins-of-the-parent script practically writes itself. Since it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, its reliability is guaranteed.
The Parent Card
But there’s a problem with the formula—a big one that highlights how crazy and mixed-up such thinking is. It’s based on reading God’s warning backwards, from the kids’ angle, not the parents’, which blatantly distorts its purpose and meaning. When God says, “Don’t do this, or else the damage will live on for generations,” He’s issuing preventative policy, not punitive threat. What’s more, He isn’t speaking to children at all. He’s talking to parents. He’s stressing their duty to break cycles instead of repeating them. It’s backwards to read these warnings as ground rules for a blame-game, where dropping the Parent Card entitles us to a free pass for our misbehavior. And here’s why: our contribution to cyclical defeatism and disrespect casts us in parental roles. Whether or not we have biological offspring, embracing toxic ideas and behaviors conceives and nurtures a new generation of destructive tendencies. It’s no longer about what we’ve been saddled with. It’s the burden we’re saddling on future lives.
Israel never figures this out. Every time their story takes a terrible turn, they throw up their hands and say, “We knew this would happen, because our parents were so rebellious. It’s not our fault we’re just like them.” It never occurs to them they can break the cycle. It never crosses their minds they suffer because they prefer the blame-game to changing the game. This goes on for centuries, until God finally changes all of the rules. He raises a prophet, Jeremiah, to tell Israel: “We had covenant. We set down terms and conditions. Ever since, you’ve either ignored them or looked for loopholes to flout them. So I’m voiding the old covenant to issue a new one.” No surprise, one of the first loopholes God closes is the sins-of-the-parent excuse. Under the new paradigm, according Jeremiah 31.29-30, “people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.” God takes the Parent Card off the table. No more blame-game. But—and this is extremely important—He does not relax His expectation that each generation breaks its predecessors’ deadly cycles. Indeed, he ups the ante to ensure it doesn’t. “Everyone will die for his own sin.”
The English idiom “sour grapes” has no connection to this text. It comes from Aesop’s fable about a fox that sees a cluster of grapes. After repeated attempts to get them fail, he gives up, telling himself, “They’re probably not ripe anyway. What do I want with sour grapes?” Jeremiah’s usage of “sour grapes” infers much more than resentful equivocation—though that’s part of it. The person who plucks and eats unripe grapes exhibits a bounty of unhealthy traits: impatience, recklessness, lack of wisdom, distrust of others (who may steal his ripe harvest), poor foresight, and selfishness, along with its twin, self-loathing. The discomfort and embarrassment that come of his foolishness don’t faze him. He makes his own misery knowingly. That Jeremiah sets the statement about fathers eating sour grapes in quotes indicates it’s a popular proverb of his day—his readers’ version of “Like father, like son.” And when he smashes it with “whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge,” he invokes another popular modern proverb: “Monkey see, monkey do.”
We are not obliged to embrace the fears, prejudices, presumptions, and myths of earlier generations. The onus rests on each of us to evaluate everything we’ve heard, learned, and seen in terms of how truly they reflect God’s expectations and Christ’s teaching. Our parents’ sins are theirs to account for. When we credence them by repeating them or exploit them to excuse our weaknesses, cycles that deeply hurt us will persist. We deserve better than sour grapes. So do those following us. We break cycles of bitterness and failure by claiming Christ’s promise in John 10.10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Sweet life, rich life, abundant, healthy life—that’s what the new covenant offers. That’s what breaking destructive, defeatist cycles brings.
Embracing or blaming previous generations’ mistakes perpetuates destructive cycles. God calls us to break them. We do this by accepting Christ’s promise of abundant, healthy life.