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Generational Curses in the Pentateuch

An American and Maasai Intercultural Analysis


Beth E. Elness-Hanson

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.

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The Contextual Conceptual Paradigm of Reconciliation in Numbers 14:18


The Maasai contextual conceptual paradigm of reconciliation can again be meaningfully applied to this text.445 The paradigm of reconciliation centers on how sin damages relationships. Israel’s sin of faithless rebellion assaulted the center of the covenantal relationship with YHWH. Trust and obedience are lost; the covenant ← 181 | 182 → has been violated by Israel’s revolt. YHWH is on the cusp of cutting the Israelites off, when Moses appeals for forgiveness. The steadfast love of YHWH restores the relationship by granting that forgiveness.

In addition, the paradigm affirms that there are consequences for sin, especially for broken relationships which then need reconciliation. The forboding consequences are meant to be a deterrent and keep people from sin. Wenham states, “Ever afterwards these experiences were looked back upon and retold to warn later generations not to make the mistakes their fathers did (e.g. Deut. 1:19–40; Ps. 95:10–11; 106:24–27).”446 Yet, if the consequences fail in prevention, they are also to be considered as a wake-up call to return to the right way and be reconciled. The narrative of Numbers 13–14 ends with the wake-up call in Num 14:39–45. Here, the repentant but still disobedient Israelites thought that they could proceed and go up to seize the land that was promised. However, they did not heed Moses’ command to not go, as YHWH would not go with them. Indeed, they were quickly defeated, which served as a rude awakening.


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