"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, and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:5-6)
"Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments" (Deuteronomy 7:9)
"If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers . . . I will not cast them away . . . But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors" (Leviticus 26:40-45)
"Israel . . . stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers." (Nehemiah 9:2)
The blessings and curses are often misunderstood. By and large, the promise of blessing is not about God’s special act in history to bless His children for obedience. Rather, since obedience to the law of God fulfills what it means to be truly human and in harmony with creation, the obedient acts themselves bear an intrinsic relation to the blessing which follows. The same is true of the curses. Rebellion against the law of God intrinsically leads to increasing social disorder and a less fruitful human life.
Generational curses exist because of the ontological bond that exists in family lines. It is not so much that God punishes the sin of the father on the son, but that the son often inherits the consequences of his father’s actions. This is true even relative to certain temptations with which we particularly struggle. More recent scientific research has revealed that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is not a myth, but actually plays an important role in the development of particular characteristics in each bloodline. I know of a bloodline where the male in each generation had a problem with adultery, until the last in line issued forth in the real, true repentance which had lacked in the generations of his fathers.
A more concrete example is debt. The Bible warns repeatedly against the excessive accumulation of debt. It reflects, in general, moral calumny, greed, a lack of patience, and folly. The accumulation of debt then intrinsically leads to a reduction in the debtor’s capacity to exercise influence over others and creation. That cursed debt is passed on as an estate to one’s offspring. The same is true, in the reverse, for wealth accumulation.
But God’s blessing is to the thousandth, not fourth, generation. Wealth exponentially multiplies faster than does debt. Those family lines who make faithfulness to God and wise management of their estate a marker of their name will find that they are continually increasing in dominion and influence over the creation. This is the promise of the covenant through the Spirit who circumcises the heart. Moses in Deuteronomy 30 and Isaiah in Isaiah 59 speak of that heart-circumcision by the Spirit in the new covenant as particularly relating to the transmission of faithful family lines. You see, under the old covenant, there were occasionally faithful generations. Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, after all.
But immediately afterwards, there was apostasy. Judges records this apostasy and faults the fathers of the household and the fathers of the priestly nation (the Levitical tribe) for their failure to teach and discipline Israel. The problem, as apostle Paul says, is flesh- “God has done what the law, weak as it was THROUGH THE FLESH, could not do.” Flesh in scripture is repeatedly associated with multiplication and reproduction. The “two shall become one flesh” is the first time the term is used. Circumcision is “in the flesh” and on the organ of reproduction. The Torah particularly associates emissions from reproductive organs with “the flesh”, symbolizing death and constituting a person as ritually unclean.
As Maximus and the other Fathers teach us, the disease of Adam is transmitted through reproduction. Think of the human family as a single corporate entity, a single body. Fallenness is necrosis which spreads throughout the body. One faithful generation here and there which kept the Torah doesn’t stop the spread. That’s why we have the Messiah, the Spirit, and the new covenant. As Paul continues from the above quotation- “God did, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned Sin in the flesh.” Flesh is put to death in the Messiah’s death.
Sharing in that death and resurrection circumcises our heart and enables us to live faithful lives- and it enables the church corporately to persist in faithfulness throughout all generations. The full realization of this blessing, obviously, has not occurred. In my personal view, it is very possible that we are still in the infant Church relative to the whole span of God’s work in history. This is something which the Spirit produces over time, in fits and starts, through many deaths and resurrections. As Jesus teaches of the kingdom, it is like leaven which spread throughout a lump until it was “all leavened.”
The link between generations and in family lines is also reflected in our baptism of infants. We don’t baptize just any infant. We baptize those infants whose parents are identified with the people of God and who covenant to bring that child up in the faith. God works in an expanding series of concentric circles, each representing a degree of familial relation. The Church prays for the “unity of all mankind”, meaning the incorporation of the whole people of Adam into the Church, which would be made up of a wonderful family of nations, each with its distinctive language, culture, and contribution to the Kingdom of God, each altered and changed in its own unique way. This is why the Slavs can be converted corporately when St. Vladimir is baptized. Israel was corporately baptized in the Red Sea, the Slavs are corporately baptized under Prince Vladimir.
The ordering of familial relations is fractal in nature. The one family of Adam is made up of a number of civilizational families. For example, one of the families is the pan-European civilization, descended from Japheth the son of Noah. Then, when we examine this family, we find that it itself opens into multiple families- the Slavs, the Anglos, the Franks, the Italians, and so on. And when we pick out one of these groupings, it too opens up into a series of multiple subgroups.
God instructed the Apostles to teach and baptize “all nations”, not just individuals from these nations. Grace sanctifies, glorifies, and fulfills nature, and it is part of the inner constitution of human nature that its subsistence be in the ordering of interrelated natural families. We baptize infants in Christian families not because they’re the only infants that we can get our hands on, but because in virtue of our being “in the Messiah”, members of our families are “set apart” or “consecrated” (1 Corinthians 7:14). This, I think, is liturgically reflected in the fact that infants undergo a “churching” which has traditionally preceded their baptism. Those interested in the mystery of the family and its corporate status in Christ should take a closer look at at the Service for the Churching and see what insights can be gleaned.
Because God is One and Three, the co-inherence of unity and diversity is replicated at every level of creation. Moreover, fractals are ubiquitous because of the “fractal” structure of the divine processions/energies themselves. For example, love is an energy of God, interrelated with every other energy- justice, peace, humility, and so on- while being irreducibly distinct. And yet, there are an infinite number of divine loves which are eternal, each of them also being irreducibly distinct.
And so we find such a pattern pervasively present throughout our world.
One last thing — the theological and ontological significance of the family line is also reflected in St. Gregory Palamas’ teaching concerning the Theotokos. Palamas taught that the history of Israel prepared a very special, sanctified genealogical branch which was specially pruned and cared for by God, so that the Mother of God was produced by a pure root, emerging as a pure branch.
St. Paisios stated that he received a revelation of sorts explaining to him the nature of our Lady’s conception, where Ss. Joachim and Anna conceived her in a “passionless” embrace. We should understand this not in terms of the mechanistic conjugality of 1984, but as a declaration that in the conception of the Mother of God, Ss. Joachim and Anna each embraced the other in a perfect act of self-giving, where there was no trace of selfishness in the intent or act of either party. This is the root of Maximus’ pleasure-pain dialectic through which the disorientation of the will is transmitted among the sons of Adam.
Palamas teaches that the history of the seed line carefully cultivated a family line for whom such an event was conceivable. This is a kind of “progressive sanctification” where the tendency of the will is gradually reoriented towards God over a span of many generations. This understanding of Israel’s story has rich biblical foundations, though I won’t go into all of those at the moment. The Old Testament is the family tree of the Messiah. As the precise specifications of the Temple and Tabernacle are measured and dictated (see Zechariah 1-2, Ezekiel 40-48, Revelation 11 for the measuring angels) because they are holy space, so also does the Bible provide precise specifications for the sacred time and sacred line leading to the Messiah.
The genealogical records were carefully preserved and documented in order to delineate this sacred family tree, and the sanctification of time that results from Israel’s covenant journey to bring forth God the Word is symbolized in the extremely precise chronology that Scripture provides to us — a chronology from the creation of the world to the completion of the Seventy Weeks in Daniel 9, where the gospel goes to the nations. That chronology is always specified according to the life of the holy people — whether in her genealogies (Genesis 5, 11), national birth (Exodus 12), Temple (1 Kings 12), or coming of the Messiah to fill up all things (Daniel 9).
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