Generational Curses in the Pentateuch

An American and Maasai Intercultural Analysis

by Beth E. Elness-Hanson (Author)
©2017 Monographs XVIII, 292 Pages
Series: Bible and Theology in Africa, Volume 24


Although the demographics of World Christianity demonstrate a population shift to the Global South, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the preponderance of biblical scholarship continues to be dominated by Western scholars in pursuit of their contextual questions that are influenced by an Enlightenment-oriented worldview. Unfortunately, nascent methodologies used to bridge this chasm often continue to marginalize indigenous voices. In contradistinction, Beth E. Elness-Hanson’s research challenges biblical scholars to engage stronger methods for dialogue with global voices, as well as encourages Majority World scholars to share their perspectives with the West.
Elness-Hanson’s fundamental question is: How do we more fully understand the “generational curses” in the Pentateuch? The phrase, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation,” appears four times in the Pentateuch: Exod 20:4–6; Exod 34:6–7; Num 14:18; and Deut 5:8–10. While generational curses remain prevalent within the Maasai worldview in East Africa, an Enlightenment-influenced worldview diminishes curses as a phenomenon. However, fuller understandings develop as we listen and learn from each other.
This research develops a theoretical framework from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” and applies it through Ellen Herda’s anthropological protocol of “participatory inquiry.” The resulting dialogue with Maasai theologians in Tanzania, builds bridges of understanding across cultures. Elness-Hanson’s intercultural analysis of American and Maasai interpretations of the Pentateuchal texts on the generational curses demonstrates that intercultural dialogues increase understandings, which otherwise are limited by one worldview.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Generational Curses in the Pentateuch
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Note
  • Bibliography
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter One: Question and Texts
  • Introduction
  • The Rise of World Christianity Compels Intercultural Analysis
  • My Horizon Shaped by My Sociolocation
  • Observations Provoked Research Inquiry
  • Overview of Dialogue with Maasai Participants
  • Terminology
  • Terminology for the Three Constituent Groups
  • Approach, Method, and Methodology
  • The Approach of Intercultural Hermeneutics
  • Enlightenment and Modernity
  • Generational Curse
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Two: Theoretical Framework for Intercultural Hermeneutics
  • Introduction
  • Overview of Intercultural Hermeneutics
  • Gadamer’s “Fusion of Horizons”
  • Intercultural Biblical Scholars Who Have Incorporated Gadamer
  • Hans-Georg Gadamer
  • Gadamer Critiqued
  • Effective Historical Consciousness Shapes Horizon
  • Gadamer’s Concept of “Fusion of Horizons”
  • Fusing Horizons through Dialogue
  • Fusing Horizons through Bildung
  • Summary of Integrating Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons as a Theoretical Framework
  • Influential Exponents in Intercultural Hermeneutics
  • Justin Ukpong: A Pioneer of African Biblical Hermeneutics
  • Gerald West: Prophet and Pioneer of Contextual Bible Studies
  • Hans de Wit: Vanguard of Intercultural Bible Reading
  • Knut Holter: Exponent of European and African Dialogue
  • Letting X Interpret Y or Y Interpret X
  • Multidimensional Exegesis
  • Blessings and Curses in Speech-Act Theory
  • Practical Application of the Theoretical into Intercultural Hermeneutics
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Three: The Maasai Concept of Generational Curses as Reconciliation
  • Introduction
  • Maasai Origin and Social Structure
  • Maasai Cosmogony and Cattle as the Center of Life
  • An Analysis of a Portion of the Traditional Maasai Worldview
  • The Power Hierarchy
  • Maasai Cursing
  • A General Maasai Christian Perspective
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Four: Exegesis in Dialogue with the Maasai Conceptual Paradigm of Reconciliation
  • Introduction
  • Developing the Contextual Conceptual Paradigm
  • The Maasai Compared with Ancient Israel
  • Dialogical Exegesis of Exodus 20:4–6
  • The Literary Context of Exodus 20:4–6
  • The Literary Genre of Exodus 20:4–6
  • Reading of the Text and Textual Issues of Exodus 20:4–6
  • The Generational Curse and Reconciliation of Exodus 20:4–6
  • Theological Themes in the Fusion of Horizons of Exodus 20:4–6
  • Summary of Exodus 20:4–6
  • Dialogical Exegesis of Exodus 34:6–8
  • The Literary Context of Exodus 34:6–8
  • Reading of the Text and Textual Issues of Exodus 34:6–8
  • The Generational Curse and Reconciliation of Exodus 34:6–8
  • The Contextual Conceptual Paradigm of Reconciliation of Exodus 34:6–8
  • Theological Themes in the Fusion of Horizons of Exodus 34:6–8
  • Summary of Exodus 34:6–8
  • Dialogical Exegesis of Numbers 14:18
  • The Literary Context of Numbers 14:18
  • Reading of the Text and Textual Issues of Numbers 14:18
  • The Generational Curse and Consequences in Numbers 14:18
  • The Contextual Conceptual Paradigm of Reconciliation in Numbers 14:18
  • Theological Themes in the Fusion of Horizons in Numbers 14:18
  • Summary of Numbers 14:18
  • Dialogical Exegesis of Deuteronomy 5:8–10
  • The Literary Context of Deuteronomy 5:8–10
  • Reading of the Text and Textual Issues of Deuteronomy 5:8–10
  • The Generational Curse and Consequences in Deuteronomy 5:8–10
  • The Contextual Conceptual Paradigm of Reconciliation in Deuteronomy 5:8–10
  • Theological Themes in the Fusion of Horizons in Deuteronomy 5:8–10
  • Summary of Deuteronomy 5:8–10
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter Five: Analysis and Potentials
  • Introduction
  • Summary of Findings
  • Exegetical Findings Toward a Fusing of Horizons
  • How Were the Hows?: Critique of Methodology with Hermeneutical Lens
  • Strengths and Contributions
  • Challenges
  • Potentials for Intercultural Biblical Hermeneutics
  • Possibilities for Further Study and Application
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices
  • Appendix 1: Summary of Informants
  • Appendix 2: Beginning Questions for Participatory Inquiry in 2012
  • Church Work and Educational Background Information
  • Exodus 20 Passage Questions
  • Generational Curses in Traditional Maasai Understanding
  • Christian Maasai Understanding of Traditional Maasai Curses
  • The Numbers Related to Curse and Blessing
  • Corporate Responsibility
  • Appendix 3: Summary of Kimaasai Words for Curses
  • Appendix 4: Summary of 2012 Transcription Analysis
  • Appendix 5: Follow-up Questions for Participatory Inquiry in 2013
  • Questions for Clarification
  • Kimaasai Words for Curse
  • Idolatry
  • Contextual Interpretations
  • Appendix 6: Various Ways of Numbering the Ten Commandments
  • Appendix 7: “Curse” in the Hebrew Bible
  • Subject Index
  • Scripture Index
  • Series index

| xi →


Figure 1.1. Google Ngram Viewer for “Generational Curse”

Figure 2.1. The Process of Fusion of Horizons in Intercultural Hermeneutics

Figure 2.2. Gadamer’s Hermeneutical Circle

Figure 2.3. Appropriating Herda’s “Participatory Inquiry” Anthropological Protocol

Figure 5.1. Generalized Perspectives

Figure 5.2. Fusing of Horizons

| xiii →


“I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am.”1 This African ontological proverb expresses my assessment of this volume, which began as a doctoral dissertation. My program in Old Testament at Misjonshøgskolen, in Stavanger, Norway—which was recently renamed VID Specialized University—was under the supervision of Prof. Knut Holter. He saw the potential of the proposal and nurtured this project to fruition beyond my expectations with his relentless support, constructive critiques, and modeling of exemplary diplomacy.

This scholarly journey would not have begun without Dr. Charles Scalise and Dr. Pamela Scalise, who generously mentored me after my studies at Fuller Seminary Northwest. This research topic was sparked by Pam, but I ended up at VID through Charlie’s phronesis (practical wisdom).

The journey would not have come to completion without the careful scrutiny and gracious challenges from my esteemed dissertation committee: Dr. Fernando F. Segovia, Vanderbilt University; Dr. Madipoane Masenya (ngwan’a Mphahlele), University of South Africa; and Dr. Marta Høyland Lavik, VID Specialized University. I was honored to have such exceptional members who were uniquely qualified to assess an intercultural project.

I thank my Maasai conversation partners generously shared their voices and wisdom with me. I would prefer to honor you by name if research protocols allowed it, but this project would not have been possible without your vital participation. Your insights nurtured my Bildung (transformation). ← xiii | xiv →

My research was aided by the VID research community, including administrators, library staff, faculty, student colleagues, and Birkeland’s Legacy. Thank you for your gracious assistance, scholarships, and a six-month research fellowship. Special words of thanks go Tina Dykesteen Nielsen, Hoyce Jacob Lyimo-Mbowe, Zephania Shila Nkesela, and Rebecca Solevåg.

There were many who facilitated the writing process, especially M. Kananen, Jean Wahlstrom, and Elaine Elness, with their valiant transcribing and intrepid proofing of multiple versions of the dissertation. Elenn´ Elness and Anya Hanson provided painstaking help with citation checks. The process began with support from Elizabeth Hayes, who helped a budding scholar collect scattered thoughts into a cohesive proposal and encouraged me all along the way.

I am indebted to my family and fill-in family: my daughter Anya Hanson, who accommodated times of my absence, my stressful stages, and travel to Africa and Norway (OK, a perk!); my parents, Elaine and Jerry Elness, who instilled in me a love for the world and other cultures, but especially for the message of the Bible; for Bill and Karen Hanson, for their love, encouragement, and financial support; for Janet Cederberg, the Boysen family, and the Middleton-Youngs family who graciously cared for Anya while I was away; and for the memory of Eric T. Hanson, my late husband, whose reminiscences and Nordic fascinations have been part of this journey.

I give thanks for the hospitality of Rev. Prof. Joseph Parsalaw and the archives at Tumaini University Makumira; and Dr. Seth Msinjili, Ciwila Shirima, and Rebecca Ernest at the MaaSAE Girls Lutheran Secondary School.

For all who have cared, prayed, encouraged, and tolerantly listened to obtuse descriptions of this project, as well as given numerous airport rides, indeed, I am because of you.

Beth Elness-Hanson
Uppsala, Sweden


1. John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 2nd rev. and enl. ed. (Oxford: Heinemann, 1969), 110.


Mbiti, John. African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. Oxford: Heinemann, 1969.

| xv →


AOTC Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries

AB Anchor Bible

ABD Anchor Bible Dictionary

AYBRL Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library

ANE Ancient Near East

ANES Ancient Near Eastern Studies

BCE Before the Common Era

BTAf Bible and Theology in Africa

BSac Bilioteca Sacra

BDB The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament

BHS Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia

BibSem The Biblical Seminar

CBC Cambridge Bible Commentary

CBQ Catholic Biblical Quarterly

ChrCent Christian Century

COSTECH Commission for Science and Technology (Tanzania)

CTM Concordia Theological Monthly

ECC Eerdmans Critical Commentary

ESV English Standard Version ← xv | xvi →

FAT Forschungen zum Alten Testament

HB Hebrew Bible

IVBS International Voices in Biblical Studies

IBC Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching

JSOTSup Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series

JBL Journal of Biblical Literature

JTS The Journal of Theological Studies

JTSA Journal of Theology for Southern Africa

JE Jewish Encyclopedia

JPS Jewish Publication Society

JPSTC The JPS Torah Commentary

JQR The Jewish Quarterly Review

LB Late Bronze

LHBOTS The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies

LXX Greek Septuagint

MT Masoretic Text

NIH National Institutes of Health (U.S.A.)

NASB New American Standard Bible

NCBC New Cambridge Bible Commentary

NIBCOT New International Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament

NICOT New International Commentary on the Old Testament

NIB The New Interpreter’s Bible

NIV New International Version

NRSV New Revised Standard Version

NT New Testament

NSD Norsk Samfunnsvitenskapelig Datatjeneste (Norway)

OT Old Testament

OTE Old Testament Essays

OTL Old Testament Library

SBL Society of Biblical Literature

SBTS Sources for Biblical and Theological Study

SSN Studia Semitica Neerlandica

StBibLit Studies in Biblical Literature (Lang)

SRA Studies of Religion in Africa

TDOT Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament

TNIV Today’s New International Version

TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

WBC Word Biblical Commentary

YHWH The Tetragrammaton for the divine name, Yahweh

| 1 →

Question and Texts


We are quite aware that the world is changing. While there are many aspects in the dramatic change in the past hundred years, this research project is prompted by the rise of World Christianity, or the Global South, where the majority of Christians are living in the southern hemisphere. However, the majority of biblical scholarship has been developed in the cultural contexts of Europe and North America. Much of this scholarship has been generated out of questions that are of concern within “Western” contexts and an Enlightenment-oriented worldview.1 Yet, much of the “Majority World”2 lives in contexts that have not been as dramatically influenced by Enlightenment concerns, and so these Christians bring different questions to the biblical texts, which “Western” scholarship does not address.

This rise of World Christianity and globalization compels us to be increasingly intentional about building bridges of understanding across cultures. In contrast to welcoming “token” voices into “our” conversation, this research project incorporates the hermeneutical philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer which seeks to facilitate a “fusion of horizons.”3 This means that as we mutually risk our preunderstandings and listen to others and their concerns, we develop together a fuller and growing understanding of selected biblical texts. ← 1 | 2 →

The primary question of this research project is: How do we more fully understand the “generational curses”4 in the Pentateuch? The “we” can be understood to mean that I, as the researcher and author, am at the core of the “we.” However, I write in the spirit of the African proverb, “I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am.”5 This research is interdependent with Maasai theologians through dialogue (see page 15) as well as Western colleagues who have dialogued with me and shaped my understanding. The dissemination of this research to others will further develop the circle of “we” as it stimulates critical reflection from others.

This project engages four quintessential passages in their greater literary contexts: Exod 20:4–6; Exod 34:6–7; Num 14:18; and Deut 5:8–10. These passages were selected because they all contain the phrase, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation.”6 Through dialogue between myself—as a representative of the Western tradition of exegesis—and several Maasai Christian theologians of Tanzania, East Africa, a “fusion of horizons” is developing, undergirded by intercultural analysis of extant American biblical scholarship and the distinctive perspectives of Maasai theologians.7

Because this dialogue engages two distinctive worldviews, some of the unconscious aspects of our preunderstandings have become exposed. One foundational issue is the phenomenological effectiveness of generational curses. As on one hand, curses are inherently effective within the Maasai worldview, while on the other hand, Enlightenment-influenced scholarship minimizes the effect of curses today. Thus, this intercultural analysis will be mutually challenging and beneficial for enhancing understanding for both viewpoints within the discussion. This approach of intercultural hermeneutics asserts that we can learn from each other as we authentically dialogue about biblical texts. However, the result is more than simply a cognitive understanding of the other’s perspective, because we who risk are transformed through the journey.

The Rise of World Christianity Compels Intercultural Analysis

In 1910, over ninety percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe (66.3 percent) and the Americas (27.1 percent), while only 1.4 percent of Christians were in Africa.8 A dramatic demographic shift over the past century now reveals a rise of Christianity in the Global South, which now comprises 47.3 percent of the world’s Christians. Sub-Sahara Africa alone represents almost one out of every four Christians (23.6 percent). Demographic trends indicate that by 2050 Sub-Saharan Africa alone will be home for more than one of every three of the world’s ← 2 | 3 → Christians (38.1 percent).9 This demographic shift also represents an extraordinary shift in diversity as Christianity is now a religion of more than two thousand different language groups with people praying and worshipping in more languages than any other religion in the world.10

Furthermore, just as contemporary Western Christianity reflects the diversity of multicultural societies,11 the recent rise of world Christianity has expanded the enculturation process so that the expressions of the faith are changing.12 Philip Jenkins identifies:

These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and Puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority. They preach messages that, to a Westerner, appear simplistically charismatic, visionary, and apocalyptic. In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith-healing, exorcism, and dream-visions are all basic components of religious sensibility.13

Furthermore, this manifold representation of Christianity reflects more than language and cultural distinctions. This diversity also demonstrates the dynamics of the underlying worldviews, especially with regard to powers and principalities.14 With such differences, how can we build bridges of understanding? Thus, this research project also addresses the secondary and supportive question of what protocol or method can be utilized to constructively nurture understanding which is enriched by different perspectives.

With the rise of World Christianity, the voices of theologians and scholars from the majority world are underrepresented. They are calling for their distinctive perspectives to be recognized, welcomed, and integrated into the global conversations.15 For example, Gerald West’s and Musa Dube’s editorial compilation of essays on the Bible in Africa identifies the “difference and diversity” of biblical interpretation in their contexts. They state that with this collection of essays, “Western biblical scholars can no longer say, ‘We did not know.’ ”16 This challenge to the marginalization from the guild of Western biblical scholarship has intensified the need for engaging intercultural hermeneutics.17

With this rise of World Christianity, I align my voice with many from the Western tradition who are realizing that their dominance is rightly being displaced. This dynamic global context and a critique of Enlightenment claims compel us to move beyond the previous universal presumptions of Western interpretation.18 Daniel Patte, a French-born New Testament scholar teaching in the United States, has taken an ethical stand for intentional inclusion. He claims that continuing in critical biblical studies as usual contributes to the injustices of colonialism, racism, sexism, and other oppression.19 More than being open to other perspectives, the ethical call is to purposefully nurture agency for the voices of those on the margin. ← 3 | 4 →

Beyond welcoming others into the guild and agency of these voices, the next important step is developing an attitude of appreciation for what new perspectives bring to biblical scholarship and application for the Church. Are Western scholars indeed willing to learn from others despite different approaches and sometimes different sensibilities? Cuban-American historian and theologian, Justo Gonzáles, writes:

Werner Kahl also challenges a deeper engagement by rhetorically asking:

Can we learn from one another, despite our different understandings and interpretations of the Bible? Can we learn about:

the Bible and the relevance of its writings in antiquity;

the relevance of today’s interpretations in distinct contexts;

the contextuality of our own readings; and possibly,

new ways of reading and understanding biblical writings and the world we live in.21

As I have nurtured conversations with theologians from diverse cultural contexts, I have not only learned from the others, but I have also become increasingly aware of my preunderstandings which often subconsciously limit what I see in the biblical text. John Riches has similarly described that when listening to others, we are then more aware of our own cultural biases, “which can be corrected only by complementary views from members of different cultural groups.”22

In the recent past, an increasing collection of multicultural perspectives in biblical scholarship is developing,23 and Daniel Patte’s efforts to foreground a multicultural and scholarly conversation is a solid beginning. Patte states that he is convinced that he can no longer engage biblical interpretation as an individual, as “it became impossible to conceive of working/writing/interpreting by myself,” but that the interpretive process requires the “WE” of collaborative engagement.24 However, the plurivocality on the full text in a multivolume commentary is yet to be developed. This potential project will be discussed further on page 248. ← 4 | 5 →

Unfortunately, exegetical methods which authentically synthesize different voices are lacking. Traditional exegesis in the scholarly guild focused on historical-critical methods. Fernando Segovia describes the issues with regard to the Western models of biblical scholarship:


XVIII, 292
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XVIII, 292 pp., 6 b/w ill., 4 tables

Biographical notes

Beth E. Elness-Hanson (Author)

Beth E. Elness-Hanson (Ph.D., VID Specialized University, Stavanger, Norway) is Lecturer in Old Testament at Johannelunds Teologiska Högskola in Uppsala, Sweden, an institution with over 150 years of relationships within East Africa.


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