20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, 1 for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous 2 God, responding to 3 the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations 4 of those who reject me, 5 20:6 and showing covenant faithfulness 6 to a thousand generations 7 of those who love me and keep my commandments.
1 tn The combination of these two verbs customarily refers to the worship of pagan deities (e.g., Deut 17:3: 30:17; Jer 8:2; see J. J. Stamm and M. E. Andrew, The Ten Commandments in Recent Research [SBT], 86). The first verb is לאֹ־תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה (lo’ tishtakhaveh), now to be classified as a hishtaphel imperfect from חָוָה (khavah; BDB 1005 s.v. שׁחה), “to cause oneself to be low to the ground.” It is used of the true worship of God as well. The second verb is וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם (vÿlo’ to’ovdem). The two could be taken as a hendiadys: “you will not prostrate yourself to serve them.” In an interesting side comment U. Cassuto (Exodus, 242) offers an explanation of the spelling of the second verb: he suggests that it was spelled with the qamets khatuf vowel to show contempt for pagan worship, as if their conduct does not even warrant a correct spelling of the word “serve.” Gesenius says that the forms like this are anomalous, but he wonders if they were pointed as if the verb was a Hophal with the meaning “you shall not allow yourself to be brought to worship them” (GKC 161 §60.b). But this is unlikely.
2 sn The word “jealous” is the same word often translated “zeal” or “zealous.” The word describes a passionate intensity to protect or defend something that is jeopardized. The word can also have the sense of “envy,” but in that case the object is out of bounds. God’s zeal or jealousy is to protect his people or his institutions or his honor. Yahweh’s honor is bound up with the life of his people.
3 tn Verses 5 and 6 are very concise, and the word פָּקַד (paqad) is difficult to translate. Often rendered “visiting,” it might here be rendered “dealing with” in a negative sense or “punishing,” but it describes positive attention in 13:19. When used of God, it essentially means that God intervenes in the lives of people for blessing or for cursing. Some would simply translate the participle here as “punishing” the children for the sins of the fathers (cf. Lev 18:25; Isa 26:21; Jer 29:32; 36:31; Hos 1:4; Amos 3:2). That is workable, but may not say enough. The verse may indicate that those who hate Yahweh and do not keep his commandments will repeat the sins their fathers committed and suffer for them. Deut 24:16 says that individuals will die for their own sins and not their father’s sins (see also Deut 7:10 and Ezek 18). It may have more to do with patterns of sin being repeated from generation to generation; if the sin and the guilt were not fully developed in the one generation, then left unchecked they would develop and continue in the next. But it may also indicate that the effects of the sins of the fathers will be experienced in the following generations, especially in the case of Israel as a national entity (U. Cassuto, Exodus, 243). God is showing here that his ethical character is displayed in how he deals with sin and righteousness, all of which he describes as giving strong motivation for loyalty to him and for avoiding idolatry. There is a justice at work in the dealings of God that is not present in the pagan world.
4 tn The Hebrew word for “generations” is not found in v. 5 or 6. The numbers are short for a longer expression, which is understood as part of the description of the children already mentioned (see Deut 7:9, where “generation” [דּוֹר, dor] is present and more necessary, since “children” have not been mentioned).
5 tn This is an important qualification to the principle. The word rendered “reject” is often translated “hate” and carries with it the idea of defiantly rejecting and opposing God and his word. Such people are doomed to carry on the sins of their ancestors and bear guilt with them.
6 tn Literally “doing loyal love” (עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד, ’oseh khesed). The noun refers to God’s covenant loyalty, his faithful love to those who belong to him. These are members of the covenant, recipients of grace, the people of God, whom God will preserve and protect from evil and its effects.
7 tn Heb “to thousands” or “to thousandth.” After “tenth,” Hebrew uses cardinal numbers for ordinals also. This statement is the antithesis of the preceding line. The “thousands” or “thousandth [generation]” are those who love Yahweh and keep his commands. These are descendants from the righteous, and even associates with them, who benefit from the mercy that God extends to his people. S. R. Driver (Exodus, 195) says that this passage teaches that God’s mercy transcends his wrath; in his providence the beneficial consequences of a life of goodness extend indefinitely further than the retribution that is the penalty for persisting in sin. To say that God’s loyal love extends to thousands of generations or the thousandth generation is parallel to saying that it endures forever (Ps. 118). See also Exod 34:7; Deut 5:10; 7:9; Ps 18:51; Jer 32:18.