Exodus 20:5: “You shall not bow down to [idols] 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.”
So, is God judging children, even if the they are innocent, of sins committed by their parents? Some Christian scholars have argued no since in in Deuteronomy it says that “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin” (24:16). Instead, Exodus 20:5 seems to say that new generations will repeat the sins of their parents. So, when God punishes these children it is because they are repeating their fathers’ sins. The sin in this context is referring to idolatry; a serious crime that should be avoided (Gal. 5:19-21, 1 Cor. 10:14, Deu. 4:15-18, Exodus 20:4, Lev. 26:1).
According to Professor of Old Testament Douglas Stuart “this oft-repeated theme speaks of God’s determination to punish successive generations for committing the same sins they learned from their parents. In other words, God will not say, “I won’t punish this generation for what they are doing to break my covenant because, after all, they merely learned it from their parents who did it too.’ Instead, God will indeed punish generation after generation (‘to the third and fourth generation’) if they keep doing the same sorts of sins that prior generations did. If the children continue to do the sins their parents did, they will receive the same punishments as their parents” (1).
1. Stuart, D. 2006. Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary. p. 454.