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    fifteenth cent. artwork of fire descending from heaven on the sons of Korah, while beneath them the ground opens up and swallows them

    The Sins of the Fathers

    Our ancestors’ guilt can affect the present generation. The Hebrew prophets show a way out.

    By Helmuth Eiwen

    November 22, 2000
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    In 1990, my wife, Uli, and I founded a church in Wiener Neustadt, a city of some forty thousand people south of Vienna. It was hard going; there seemed to be a kind of spiritual torpor hanging over the town. We prayed a great deal about how to respond.

    After some time, we felt our prayers had been answered. Through a series of events that seemed to us like divine guidance, we discovered a section of the old city wall in a park, hidden behind shrubs. There we found six ancient Hebrew-inscribed gravestones set into the wall; and next to them, a plaque explaining that they were from a Jewish cemetery shuttered in 1496.

    Eventually we learned that for centuries, there had been a flourishing Jewish community in our new hometown until the year the cemetery was closed, the year the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I ordered all Jews to leave the city, forbidding them ever to return.

    When we read his edict, we recalled the words God spoke to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you; but whoever curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3). Could it be that a curse lay over the city? It certainly seemed possible: the expulsion of the Jews had had fatal economic consequences. Wiener Neustadt had been a flourishing city, but after its large Jewish community was driven out, the city descended into decay.

    In the nineteenth century a Jewish community was reestablished, but by the 1930s, with the rise of National Socialism, it was once again threatened and then completely eliminated.

    We began to ask ourselves if the guilt of our forebears was still affecting the town’s spiritual life, and became increasingly convinced that this was the case. And we began to examine what Scripture can teach about how the guilt of past generations might be healed.

    A Curse from the Past?

    How can we deal with the “sins of the fathers,” the guilt of past generations? Can those of us living today repent for misdeeds committed in the past? In Ezekiel, we read:

    The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. (Ezek. 18:20)

    According to this understanding, people cannot be called to account for the sins of their predecessors, or to repent for their actions. Forgiveness of sins, in the sense of the cleansing and salvation of the sinner, is a personal experience between God and the penitent. No one can step in to be cleansed or forgiven in the sinner’s stead.

    Yet the Bible describes another important aspect of guilt: the reality that the so-called “sins of the fathers” may have lasting negative results. In other words, even if we do not bear the sins of our ancestors, we may not be able to escape the consequences of their actions.

    The Bible describes such negative ramifications with two concepts: punishment and curse. “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (Exod. 20:5). “Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities” (Lam. 5:7).

    Such an inheritance may not be personal but collective; God’s history is marked not only by relationships and covenants with individuals but with whole groups – families, cities, tribes, and entire peoples or nations.

    fifteenth cent. artwork of fire descending from heaven on the sons of Korah, while beneath them the ground opens up and swallows them

    In this illustration from a fifteenth-century ­manuscript of Josephus’ Antiquities, fire descends from heaven on the sons of Korah, while beneath them the ground opens up and swallows them.

    In Leviticus and Numbers, the negative implications of sin are referred to as a “curse,” with consequences on the guilty person himself, his house and family, the group to which he belongs, and the next generations (Lev. 26:14–29, 30–39; Deut. 28). This “curse” is an act of God – he turns his face away from us and we are deprived of his blessing. “And I will set my face against you, and ye shall be slain before your enemies” (Lev. 26:17).

    In Exodus 20:5 God says that he visits the sins of his people on their children to the third and the fourth generations. However, this does not mean that after this, the ill effects of their sin automatically dissipate; the curse might be protracted over centuries.

    A dramatic example appears in the story of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28–30). The first monarch of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Jeroboam set up – in defiance of God – substitute shrines in Dan and Bethel to prevent his people from making regular pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem, the city of his political rivals. These places soon became centers of idolatry, the so-called “sin of Jeroboam.” This sin had negative results for him personally, for his house, and for his people (the living generation). But it continued to affect successive kings and their subjects, who fell into the same sin (1 Kings 14:10, 15–16; 15:25–26). Ultimately, two centuries after Jeroboam’s reign, Samaria was destroyed, the North Kingdom ended, and its people were exiled in Assyria. In 2 Kings 17:21–23, this catastrophe is clearly described as a consequence of the “sin of Jeroboam,” a curse inflicted by God himself.

    Daniel speaks about this, too, in relation to the Babylonian exile: “Yea, all Israel have transgressed thy law, even by departing, that they might not obey thy voice; therefore the curse is poured upon us, and the oath that is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, because we have sinned against him” (Dan. 9:11). “Because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people are become a reproach to all that are about us” (Dan. 9:16).

    Two generations later, Nehemiah speaks even more plainly and comprehensively regarding the curse of ancestral sin and the resulting enslavement of the present generation. (Nehemiah 9:33–37 KJV)

    Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly: Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept thy law, nor hearkened unto thy commandments and thy testimonies, wherewith thou didst testify against them. For they have not served thee in their kingdom, and in thy great goodness that thou gavest them, and in the large and fat land which thou gavest before them, neither turned they from their wicked works. Behold, we are servants this day, and for the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it: And it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins: also they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.

    The ongoing aftereffects of “sins of the fathers” may be temporal: political oppression or subjugation, or economic woe. They may manifest as wars, famines, and natural catastrophes, or as pandemics and plagues.

    Just as grave, if less visible, are the spiritual fruits of such sin – the blindness that can lead to unbiblical or faulty theologies being passed from one generation to the next; they may be wrongheaded (and even deadly) traditions, worldviews, and attitudes. Antisemitism is one such malign legacy; its insidious invincibility has poisoned countless souls and continues to do so. Ungodly decisions, stipulations, and legal decrees by government officials or clerical leaders preserve injustice.

    When a dark cloud hangs over a city, region, or a church, its origin does not matter: it will hinder the breaking through of the gospel. More often than not, it will show itself in splits and divisions within Christendom that can be traced back to instances of persecution, hatred, and ostracism.

    Repentance by Identification

    We cannot repent on behalf of somebody else. But we can identify with them and ask God to lift the curse – the negative consequences – that we are suffering under; we can even be so bold as to pray that he turns it into a blessing.

    What does “repentance by identification” for the sins of one’s forebears look like, and how might it take place? Daniel’s prayer of repentance provides a model:

    I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments; we have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments … therefore the curse is poured upon us, and the oath that is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, because we have sinned against him.

    And he hath confirmed his words, which he spake against us. … The Lord our God is righteous in all his works which he doeth: for we obeyed not his voice …

    O Lord, according to all thy righteousness, I beseech thee, let thine anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city Jerusalem, thy holy mountain: because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and thy people are become a reproach to all that are about us. Now therefore, O our God, hear the prayer of thy servant, and his supplications, and cause thy face to shine upon thy sanctuary that is desolate, for the Lord’s sake. (Dan. 9:4–5, 11–12, 14, 16–17)

    By this token, such repentance requires a double identification: first, with “our fathers,” and second, with their sins. Considered biblically, it is clear that God does not see us only as individuals, but always as part of the larger people to which we belong and with which God has a history as well. As individuals, one of the ways we relate to God is by sharing in the fate, the history, the blessing or curse of this people.

    What does it mean to be a member of a people? In what way do we claim to identify with those “fathers” of the city whose sins we were repenting? It can be a complicated thing. In my case, my ancestors are not from Wiener Neustadt. But I am a citizen of this city, and we are raising our children here. I have a share in the history of guilt and blessings of this city. I also am a Christian; I am part of the body of believers, some of whom have been guilty of wrongdoing to the city’s Jews in its history.

    As a member of a people who had become guilty, Daniel was made to personally bear the consequences of their guilt, the suffering of exile, even though he was not guilty himself (Dan. 9:11). It is important that we are ready to identify with our fathers before God the same way. We are bound to them by a common history – by the nexus of past, present, and future. We cannot simply distance ourselves and claim that we have nothing to do with them.

    When we identify with our fathers, this cannot be done in a spirit of pointing accusatory fingers at them or, as it were, erasing them from our memory. They are and remain part of the history in which we are bound together by God. Their guilt does not make them our enemies, who are only a burden to us. Thus, as descendants, we are challenged to first treat them with love and respect and to acknowledge that God has also given them in various ways to be a blessing for their descendants. We must be grateful to God for them.

    We must also be mindful that it is often impossible for us to comprehend the circumstances, temptations, and influences under which their guilty actions occurred; we don’t know how we ourselves would have acted in such situations.

    When we ask God in our prayer to cover the guilt of our fathers with the blood of Jesus, we cannot hope that our prayer will be answered if we do so with an accusing and condemning heart. That would be a contradiction in terms.

    Daniel was given a clear recognition regarding the sins of his ancestors. He did not seek to remove himself from them, sweep them under the rug, or say they were not his business. Rather, he clearly acknowledged and named sins, and confessed them “before God’s countenance.” He could do this because he knew he was a member of a people whose ancestors had sinned, and he himself was thus ready to bear the consequences of their sin in his exile – perhaps almost as a guarantor for them.

    Nehemiah did the same, saying to God:

    Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. (Neh. 1:6)

    In such a confession, we include our own guilt – our personal guilt, and the sins of our generation – especially if we or our generation have fallen into the same sins of our forebears. Thus did Daniel and Nehemiah speak – in the first person, acknowledging the sins of their fathers but also their own: “We have sinned, we have done wickedly” (Dan. 9).

    Such a confession implies the recognition that God’s judgment and punishment are just. In other words, Daniel and Nehemiah do not complain about the curse under which they and their generation suffer, nor do they accuse God of being unfair. Rather, they agree with God’s judgment and acknowledge that the present curse is a just consequence of the ancestral sin in question: “Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly” (Neh. 9:33).

    Notably, their confession is followed by a prayer for forgiveness and a plea that God might mercifully intervene in the present situation: “Let thy anger and thy fury be turned away from thy city” – its inhabitants in the present generation (Dan. 9:16). Daniel does not pray, “Lord, forgive our fathers, cleanse them of their guilt.” That is something they could only do themselves. When Daniel prays for forgiveness, he is asking God to lift today’s curse. And so we too pray for God to break today’s curse so that the chain of destructive consequences of “the sins of the fathers” might come to an end – and so that there will finally be real freedom, once and for all.

    “Cause thy face to shine upon thy sanctuary that is desolate,” begs Daniel (Dan. 9:17); this request is central to achieving the goal of what I am calling repentance by identification. It is a request for God to not only lift this or that curse, but to transform it into a blessing; for him to open the door – and even the heavens themselves – to a new chapter, allowing his light to break through our blindness and pouring out the Spirit on us.

    Such bold expectation is justified, rooted as it is in the promise of salvation worked by Jesus on the cross. After all, when he died for our sins, he broke every curse. As the apostle Paul writes, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Gal. 3:13).

    Against the backdrop of Jesus’ salvific suffering, we may acknowledge the sins of our forebears before God and ask him to cover them with the blood of his Son so that they are no longer the source of a continuing succession of curses. We can ask him to break that heavy chain, and instead release his blessing. And we can – we must – also believe God’s promise that he will truly intervene on our behalf. This is precisely what Daniel experienced in receiving a word that was directed to his people, but whose promise extends far beyond them and their generation:

    And whiles I was speaking, and praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the Lord my God for the holy mountain of my God; Yea, whiles I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation. And he informed me, and talked with me, and said, O Daniel, I am now come forth to give thee skill and understanding. At the beginning of thy supplications the commandment came forth, and I am come to shew thee; for thou art greatly beloved. (Dan. 9:20–23)

    A Blessing – and a Task

    A confession of identification is a beginning, but to bear fruit, it must lead to concrete action on the part of individuals and the community at hand – to deeds that demonstrate the authenticity of the confession by bringing about real change. Examples might include the correction of false theologies; reconciliation, which encourages new behavior and new attitudes; compensation, which, to some degree, returns what has been stolen; and the solidification of new attitudes and paradigms by the passing of new insights to the next generation.

    For repentance by identification to be fruitful, it must include as many of the individuals and groups who represent the collective body in question as possible. Not only solitary men and women, but whole families, congregations, churches, neighborhoods, cities, and peoples, must be willing to identify with the guilt of their fathers and step into the fissure.

    Certainly, an individual can step forward to speak for his family, church, or city, after the biblical examples of those who acknowledged the sins of their fathers – Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Nehemiah, and Ezra.

    The work of such repentance can also come about through the initiatives of spiritual leaders; after all, it is they who bear responsibility for the collective over which they preside. Ezra, for example, took on the collective guilt of his people (Ezra 9:1–4). When this occurs, it will naturally spill over and be taken up by the body entire, at the grassroots – in the soil (to extend the image) of a city, region, or nation.

    Finally, the secular leadership of a social body (whether an organization, municipality, or nation-state) also has a responsibility to deal with the guilt of its fathers, insofar as they have knowledge that such guilt exists. Though he was a secular leader, Nehemiah confessed the sin of his people before God (Neh. 1:6) and ended up leading his entire people to repent as a nation (Neh. 9:1ff.).

    Lifting the Cloud over Our City

    It was with all this in mind that we considered the guilt of the city of Wiener Neustadt, once we had learned about it. Eventually, we gathered the leaders of our new congregation and came before God in prayer. Soberly placing ourselves under the guilt of our ancestors, we confessed it as ours, too, and asked God’s forgiveness for all the offenses bound up with the persecution of the city’s Jews, from the Middle Ages to the present. Then we implored God graciously to turn his face to this city again, and turn the curse into a blessing.

    Before long, speaking into the depths of our hearts, God made it clear to us that our internal repentance had to be followed by a public act of external remorse. At a prayer meeting with a group of fellow believers from abroad, one of the visitors reported receiving a vision that showed us a way forward. He said, “I see delegations of Jews from all over the world coming here, standing in this building, beautifully dressed and eating and drinking – as at a celebratory reception. I see, too, a word of God going out from the city to Jews around the whole world.”

    We asked God to help us discern the concrete meaning of this message, and came to clarity on a course of action: we were to seek out former Jewish citizens of our city who had survived the Holocaust and were now living in other countries and invite them to return to Wiener Neustadt for a “week of encounters” so that we could ask their forgiveness face to face. The vision of such a gathering burned in our hearts, and we asked God to show us how we could make it happen. Through a series of providential circumstances, we were able to locate the addresses of numerous former Jewish citizens of Wiener Neustadt. They were scattered throughout the world, though most had settled in Israel.

    And so we wrote each one a letter and invited them to attend our planned “week of encounters” at our expense. The response was overwhelming. In May 1995 we welcomed the first group of some forty Holocaust survivors. Through visits to the mayor’s office and to schools, and through other events, the whole city was affected. The focus of this week, however, was an event at our church where we publicly asked our guests to forgive us for all that had been done to them and their families. Tears flowed freely on all sides.

    The ongoing testimonies of our Jewish guests after this “week of encounters” were overwhelming. Hearts closed in indifference were opened; hearts previously brimming with bitterness melted. Friendships were forged that continue to this day, although many of the original participants have died in the years since.

    One remarkable fruit of this process of “repentance by identification” has been an increased openness to the gospel in Wiener Neustadt. As far as we have been able to observe, God has revitalized not only our congregation’s spiritual life but also that of other churches in the city. Many spiritual leaders and congregants gather regularly to pray for revival. I do not know what the future will bring, but I can say this: the spiritual atmosphere has changed, the cloud has lifted, and the skies above Weiner Neustadt are now open to God.


    Translated from the German by Emmy Barth Maendel and Chris Zimmerman.

    Contributed By HelmuthEiewen2 Helmuth Eiwen

    Helmuth Eiwen is pastor of Ichthys Gemeinde, a free evangelical church in Wiener Neustadt, Austria.

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