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Generational Curses: Part 1 — Inheriting sin?

Inheriting sin?

Can we inherit our ancestors’ sins?

In her article in the Globe and Mail entitled “The Bad Seed,” Carolyn Abraham tells the story of Dan S. (a pseudonym). In 2003, when she wrote this article, the man was sitting on death row in a state prison in the southern US.

The court sentenced him to death for the cold-blooded murder of a pizza store manager in a 1991 robbery.

When he entered the pizza store, the 24-year-old manager quickly complied with Dan’s demands and handed over all the money in the till. Then Dan forced the manager to his knees and in a gangland style murder, callously shot the employee point-blank in the back of the head.

“You should have seen the fat slob begging for his life,” Dan later gloated.

He was on a rampage. Prior to this incident, he had committed a number of armed robberies, plus a string of car and credit-card thefts. After the pizza-store hold-up, he robbed six more restaurants and dry cleaning businesses before the police finally captured him after a high-speed chase through downtown Atlanta.

Showing no remorse for his brutal crime, Dan brazenly tattooed the name of the pizza store across his back, as a macabre badge of honor. While in prison, he hung a pizza box emblazoned with the franchise name from the ceiling in his cell like a hunter’s trophy.

He even callously joked about applying for the vacant manager’s position.

What is most intriguing about Dan’s case is that his profile runs opposite of most violent criminals. He didn’t come from an impoverished family. His dad is a wealthy business man and a self-made millionaire.

The family grew up in a community billed as a “haven of health and happiness.” They had everything they wanted and Dan — along with his other sibling — was destined to inherit a fortune.

So what went wrong?

When Dan lost his first trial, he fired his attorney. The new lawyer implemented an audacious defense for his defendant’s appeal, based on testimony provided by one of Dan’s relatives.

Independent of Dan’s trial, this woman had researched and documented the ‘S.’ family tree and discovered that violence had plagued this family for generations.

Most families have one or two bad apples, but this clan had more than its fair share of murderers and rapists. In fact, the woman researching the family was told by her mother to be thankful she was related so she would never have to marry a man from the “S.” family.

But ironically, these violent traits even affected the women in this group.

Some of the family’s bad apples included:

  • A mother, who helped her son beat up his wife due to a difference in opinions;
  • A man who robbed his father’s grocery store;
  • Another family member who pistol-whipped his wife on the front-yard of their home on the day of his father’s funeral;
  • A convicted bank robber who allowed family friends to repeatedly rape his daughter. He supposedly became a Christian in prison, but the church services started — at his initiation — were eventually closed down when he was caught selling drugs during the services.
  • Others who served time for rape, drug dealing and murder.

Based on this evidence, Dan’s new lawyer argued that his client was not responsible for his crimes because he genetically inherited his violent traits from his family. The lawyer hoped this argument could at least avoid the death penalty.

Their case fell apart when they couldn’t find a credible geneticist to testify that violent genes are passed down through the family line — no one believed that Dan simply inherited his murderous streak.

Even the notorious defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, used a similar argument in 1924 when he defended Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold. In the Chicago-based trial, that scandalized the nation, the two men were convicted for the kidnapping and death of a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks.

Darrow is the lawyer who argued in favor of evolution during the now infamous Scopes trial.

In this case, the two young men came from well-to-do homes and the sole motivation was their sadistic desire to pull off the perfect crime.

After listening to psychiatric testimony, Darrow closed with a 12-hour summation stating that these two men had no capacity to feel moral shock. Darrow stated that Loeb and Leopold were “corrupted by the seed of remote ancestors.”

He added that “Nature is strong and she is pitiless…We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand and we only play our parts.”

Darrow fervently tried to attribute his clients barbaric behaviour to a kick back of some obscure evolutionary gene. But during this trial Darrow, like many others, was simply acknowledging what people have noticed for years, that families are often plagued by certain traits —  addictions, alcoholism, anger and anxiety to name just a few.

How are these tendencies passed down from one family member to the next?

Generational curses

In the book Exodus, we find an intriguing verse where God sternly warns that family sins can be passed down from one generation to the next. These are more commonly referred to as Generational curses.

4) “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. (5) You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate me.” (Exodus 20:4-5 NASV)

It was a warning God repeated several times (Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9 and Jeremiah 36:31). Sins of the parents are passed down to children as simply as freckles and blonde hair.

In the Exodus passage, we can draw out several principles on generational curses that help us to better understand this phenomenon.

“Visiting” the iniquity

The first principle is that iniquity will be “visited” upon the children. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for visit means, “to exercise oversight over a subordinate, either in the form of inspecting or in taking action to cause a considerable change in the circumstances of the subordinate either for the better or for the worse.”

This implies that the parent’s iniquity has the right to influence the children. This does not mean that the children will automatically bend to this pressure, but it does suggest that temptations will be positioned to entice children to follow in their parent’s footsteps.

Some may struggle with the notion that God allows harmful traits to be passed down to family members who were not involved in the original sin. But even Adam and Eve’s original sin was generational — affecting all men to follow.

The principles that govern the spiritual realm parallel those that govern the natural. As children inherit their parents’ physical characteristics such as red hair, the same principle is at work in the spiritual realm.

Arguably the earliest references to generational curses is found in Job.

Considered one of the oldest books in the Bible, Job was probably a contemporary of Noah. In Job 21:19, we read that the parent’s iniquity is stored up for the children — patiently waiting for the day it can be released into their lives.

This verse puts iniquity on the same par as other collateral goods such as grain and cattle that children inherit from their parents.

Another verse in Exodus 34:7 provides an interesting insight into why God allows iniquity to be passed down in this manner — it was a punishment for the sins of the parents. Perhaps the single greatest joy of any parent is to watch their children succeed. God wanted this to motivate people to straighten out their lives.

When the movie Daddy Day Care was released in the summer of 2003, I considered watching it —- until I discovered that Eddie Murphy played one of the lead roles. A few years back, I watched one of Murphy’s movies presumably aimed at a children’s market. It was so full of swearing and vulgarity that I silently swore never again.

But then I found out that Daddy Day Care was different — other than a few potty jokes and minor vulgarities — it was pretty tame fare compared to Murphy’s previous movies. Why the dramatic transformation?

Well according to Holly McClure, who writes movie reviews for, “Murphy used to be known for using bad language in his films and comedy routines. Since he’s had kids, Murphy has been more discerning, choosing family films and roles his kids can watch with him.”

Kids do have an affect and God uses this innate desire to protect their children to motivate parents to choose their lifestyle carefully.

Certainly this view was firmly entrenched in the Jewish mindset. When the disciples came upon a man who was blind from birth (John 9:1-4), they asked Jesus if the man’s loss of sight was punishment for his own sin or the sin of his parents?

Iniquity vs sin

The second principle we see mentioned in Exodus 20 is that it was “iniquity” that was visited upon the heirs. For years, I looked upon iniquity as merely another word for sin. Part of this confusion is traced back to some modern Bible translations — such as the NIV — that translate the Hebrew word “awon” used in Exodus 20:5 as sin.

However, other versions such as the King James and New American Standard Bible recognized the difference between iniquity (awon) and the Hebrew word ‘chattah’ commonly translated sin.6

In several verses, ‘awon’ is used along with ‘chattah’ indicating that these two words have distinct meanings.

In a vision as he was taken to the throne room of God, the prophet Isaiah was confronted with his own unrighteousness. An angel took a burning coal off the altar and touched Isaiah’s lips and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity (awon) is taken away and your sin (chattaah) is forgiven,” (Isaiah 6:7).

Isaiah’s iniquity was surgically removed like some cancerous growth, while his sins were simply wiped away or forgiven. Clearly, from this verse iniquity and sin were handled in two distinct fashions, suggesting they are different.

Defining iniquity

So what is the difference between sin and iniquity?

The Hebrew word chattah — used in the above verses — means to “miss the mark.” The word is utilised in Judges 20:16 to describe left-handed slingers who could sling a stone at a hair and “not miss the mark.” In a moral sense, the word pertains to a distinct and specific act of disobedience — a failure to achieve a certain standard of living.

In contrast, the word iniquity ‘awon’ refers to the character behind the action which is why in Psalms 32:5, David writes about how God forgave the “iniquity of his sin.”

The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia describes iniquity as the character of a person, which has a twist, perversion or bend towards sin. Though iniquity includes the idea of sin, it is much more than this and refers to an individual’s very nature or being.

Because of this, iniquity becomes the source of the sin acts. This characteristic of iniquity is seen in Isaiah 64:6,7 where God told Israel that they were delivered over to the ‘power’ of iniquity (v 7).

The prophet compared this to a withered dead leaf being blown by the wind. When people have iniquity in their lives, they are no longer in control — other forces are now in charge.

Iniquity = sin addiction

Basically, iniquity is the Biblical definition of a sin stronghold. Individuals in a state of iniquity are so captivated by this addiction that it causes them to sin.

So what causes iniquity to form in a person’s life? It can happen through repeated sinning or committing a major catastrophic sin.

For example, an individual may be tempted to look at pornography through an unsolicited email. As they feed these fantasies, iniquity or a sex addiction is gradually established in their lives.

They no longer need external temptations but are driven to visit porn sites because of powerful internal desires. This is why in Ezekiel 18:30-31, God warns Israel to turn away from their sin, so that their iniquity (awon) would not become a stumbling block to them.

A few years back, a 10 year-old girl was brutally murdered in the city of Toronto. Her body was cut up and deposited in a bags in a nearby Lake Ontario. She was kidnapped while walking a few blocks from her friend’s place to her home.

The 37 year-old man, charged in this brutal murder, had no earlier record. But he became a suspect when police — while interviewing people in their homes in the neighborhood — noticed that he had recently painted his home and installed new carpet.

To the trained eye, this was a subtle indicator of an individual trying to cover up a brutal murder.

When the police went through his home, they found over 10,000 pornographic images stored on his computer, including some involving children. Though he had committed no previous crimes, the repeated viewing of these images apparently built such a potent stronghold in his life that it eventually manifested itself in the brutal sex slaying of a young girl.

This is the first in a seven-part series on Generational Curses.

More in this series:


  • Abraham, Carolyn, The bad seed (Globe and Mail: Toronto, ON) Saturday, March 1, 2003
  • McClure, Holly, Daddy Day Care Movie Review (


When Paul speaks about our human condition he refers to our fleshly body as our sinful nature, corrupted flesh or vile body. This may suggest that man’s genetic nature was somehow impacted, distorted and marred by sin. It would appear that a sin virus has corrupted the human genetic code. This is why at the resurrection we will be given a new body that does not have this genetic disposition to sin.


1 Comment

  1. Olga Miller says

    Excellent – I am leading a Women’s Study next week on my testimony which is all about Generational Sin and foregiveness. I did not want to try to explain it at such a small event given I only have 30 minutes to speak. When I found your site I was so excited. I will be using your site and Title for Parts 1 thru 7. Thanks you for an excellent study!

    Olga Miller


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