In the September 9, 2018 “thetorah.com,” Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber offers a very thoughtful essay “Does YHWH Remit Punishment.” He asks does God inflict punishment even after a person repents. He cites several Torah statements that seem to indicate that even after people repent, they and their innocent descendants are punished for several generations. The rabbi finds this troubling since the Bible tells us that God is compassionate, and he offers a solution to the problem. The following is my solution.
The problem verses
Exodus 34:5 to the middle of verse 7 states that God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, very kind, faithful, showing kindness to the seventh generation, forgiving iniquity, transgressions, and errors. However, the last part of verse 7 states what appears to be a contradiction of the prior statement: “and that by no means clears the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation.”
Besides the apparent contradiction, the verse seems to punish guiltless descendants for an ancestor’s misdeeds. Dr. Rabbi Farber does not address this problem, which also exists in the Decalogue, in Exodus 20:2-5 and Deuteronomy 5:7-10. My solution answers both difficulties.
The issue is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashana 17a, Sanhedrin 102a, and Yoma 86a where the Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi (1040-1105) explains that the verses are speaking of two circumstances: God is gracious to people who repent but punishes those who fail to do so. This solution resolves the first problem, not the second, but the resolution that the verse is speaking of two types of people is not even hinted in the verse.
Dr. Rabbi Farber’s solution
Dr. Rabbi Farber relies on the view that the Torah was changed from time to time by various editors with divergent world views. He suggests that the verses start with the opinion of an editor who felt that God is always merciful and forgiving, while the ending of the verses reflects the contrary notion that God will punish people who misbehave even if they repent. This solution contains the same problem as Rashi’s: there is no hint in the verses that that they were composed by two editors.
I understand the passages in accordance with Maimonides’ teaching in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48 that God created the laws of nature and does not interfere with them or change them. The verse is telling us that God is compassionate, but people need to realize that in nature acts have consequences that not only affect the actor, but also the actor’s family, friends, and often an entire community, and the after affects may last for generations.
Repentance is good if done properly. People are not forgiven by attending a synagogue and praying to God to remove their misdeed. When a man mistreats his wife, rushes to the synagogue and begs God to forgive him, returns home and finds his wife angry, he should not be surprised that his wife is not satisfied when he claims, “I don’t know why you are still mad; I went to Shull and asked God to forgive me.”
Maimonides explained that the process of repentance is a common sense one. True repentance is when individuals recognizes that they did wrong, decide not to commit the wrong again, do all they can to correct the wrong – such as apologizing to the wronged individual, repairing what was broken, and paying if appropriate – and develop habits of behavior to assure that the wrong will not be repeated. This solves much. It may even prompt the person who was hurt to forgive the wrongdoer. But it does not address and remove the natural consequences of the misdeed. Every act has consequences which generally cannot be avoided by words, prayers, or even the best of intentions.
I described an example of this in my book “The Tragedies of King David.” David’s act of adultery and the murder of Bat Sheba’s husband and his military unit affected his children and grandchildren who copied his unlawful sexual behavior and murders. In fact, all of King David’s tragedies – the rape by one of his sons of his half-sister, her full-brother Absalom’s murder of the rapist, the agony David felt when he punished Absalom, Absalom’s rebellion, Absalom’s rape of his father David’s mistresses, David’s grief over Absalom’s death, and more – were consequences of his act despite he begging God to forgive him.
The sole exception of the multiple disasters that David suffered that was not a consequence of the Bat Sheba affair were the tens of thousands of deaths that followed his counting of his troops. And even these deaths were a natural consequence of his counting, as I explain in the book. David foolishly ordered his officers to draft soldiers for a secret attack against an Israelite enemy, to count the men who were mobilized, and report the count to him. Since he foolishly had the mustering and counting done publically, the enemy learnt of the impending attack, mustered its forces, and were able to butcher many of David’s soldiers. David realized his mistake and pleaded with God to forgive him, but his repentance did not stop the massacre of his troops by enemy forces and the plague that followed because of the multitude of dead bodies.
 The general practice today is to place the rabbinical title before the doctorate, but thetorah.com prefers to reverse the order.
 Because of this apparent contradiction, the rabbis included the words of Exodus 34:5-7 as an integral part of synagogue services, including Yom Kippur, with the final wording deleted.
 God is not like the plumber who fixed a sink and needs to return to refix it. Many scholars are convinced that Maimonides did not believe that God performed miracles; there was no need to do so. What appeared to be miracles was the laws of nature in action.