Understanding and addressing ancestral iniquity

When we see the original meaning of the Hebrew words and phrases that define ancestral iniquity, we find that it is actually an intervention initiated by God for the purpose of reconciling wayward children to himself. It is not a curse or automatic inheritance. Our reference passage is Exodus 20:3-6 (with the key words underlined below):

“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, … You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

To understand what God is doing here, we need to see three things:

  1. Divine motivation: Ancestral iniquity is initiated by God because he is jealous when his children give themselves to idols or to the lifestyle of idol worshippers. That Old Testament lifestyle included things like drunkenness, gluttony, greed, sensuality, sexual sin, self-serving motives, and more. This is a God-initiated process designed to provide motivation to change patterns of sinful behavior that can affect generations of families. 
  2. Divine intervention: The Hebrew word translated “visiting” is usually used in the Old Testament to indicate an intervention or an action taken on someone’s behalf. (See Genesis 21:1, Exodus 4:31.) In other words, with ancestral iniquity, God is intervening for the good of his children. Sometimes he intervenes with blessings, sometimes with pain. The purpose of a pain intervention is to motivate children to turn and reestablish fellowship with him instead of the enemy or the enemy’s ways.
  3. Divine end point: The phrase “to the third and fourth generation” is a Hebrew idiom that means “enough” or “plenty of.” It is not a number. We see this phrase used repeatedly in Proverbs Chapter 30 in phrases such as, “There are three things which are too wonderful for me, Four which I do not understand.” It means there are more than enough things that I cannot understand.” God uses a similar phrase in Amos Chapter 1 when he says things like, “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment.” Regarding ancestral iniquity, it means that God continues the passing down of iniquity until the intervention has done enough. Enough to do what? Enough to turn the children back to God, satisfying his jealousy over losing their hearts, so that he can bless them (verse 6).

If we were to paraphrase Exodus 20:3-6, it would read something like, “I am a jealous God, intervening in the lives of my children, letting them feel the errors of the ways of their fathers until there has been enough pain to cause them to choose to turn back to me as their true father, so that I can bless them.”

How do I deal with ancestral iniquity in my life?

I am not much of a fan of  prayers that break or cancel ancestral iniquity because I don’t like treating an intervention of God as if it were a curse. Likewise, don’t confuse ancestral iniquity with the Adamic inheritance of a sin nature and try to break it all the way back to Adam. Our sin nature is dealt with through the cross and through the sanctification process. Ancestral iniquity is motivation to bring specific issues back to the feet of Jesus for full restoration of the heart to him.

Ancestral iniquity does not give the enemy the right to control you. He still has to win the battle of influence over your heart and mind. The ultimate root of any stronghold is still identity damage (or a negative belief about self). Deal with ancestral iniquity as you would any other foothold or stronghold. Ancestral iniquity is usually going to require healing broken parts that carry the influence of the iniquity.