For years I’ve been declaring that I would spend some of my retirement time in serious genealogical research. The impetus to action came earlier this summer, when my sister found a packet of photo negatives and shared the resulting images with others in the family. Though I already have a fairly substantial collection of old family photos, these were mostly pictures that I had never seen before. We could put names to some of the faces; others remain a total mystery. In that initial search for identities, I found the spark that moved my long-intended project into concrete action.
This process of searching for ancestors has led me to reflect on our awareness of place and generations. It is said that the U. S. is a nation of immigrants, and for the most part this is true. When we only have to look back two or three generations to find an ancestor who came from another country, we simply haven’t had the opportunity to establish a long connection to the land on which we now live. Our highly mobile society also works against our having a sense of belonging to a particular place.
The writers of the Bible, on the other hand, were very much aware of belonging to the land. They remembered that their ancestor Abraham had migrated from Ur, an important trade center in ancient Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq), and that his descendants had spent four hundred years in Egypt before occupying the land along the Jordan River. This time in Egypt is referred to as a “sojourn,” a temporary stay. We can hardly imagine regarding anything lasting four centuries as “temporary,” but from the perspective of those whose families had lived in the same location in the land of Israel for a thousand years or more, it was indeed a relatively short time.
This long, enduring relationship between people and land engendered a strong sense of responsibility to generations past and future. Traditional cultures frequently speak of accountability to the seventh generation. Repeatedly God is depicted in the Old Testament as saying that the sins of the parents will be visited on the children to the third and fourth generations. (Cf., Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9) While these passages are often read as prescriptive, they can also be understood as descriptive, reflecting the understanding that what a person does in his or her lifetime can adversely affect children yet unborn.
The first few verses of Deuteronomy 23 name certain classes of persons who are to be excluded from the Assembly of the Lord down to the tenth generation. How many of us today have any clue of who our ancestors were ten generations ago, let alone what they might have done to violate the laws and mores of their own time? In some ways this is a good thing. We are not burdened with historic grudges and rivalries that should have been put to rest long ago. On the other hand, lacking a sense of our own history can lure us into disregarding the impact our choices will have on future generations.
We also may be limited in our understanding of and empathy with traditional peoples whose connection to place and generations is far greater than our own. Several examples come readily to mind. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli policies frequently restrict Palestinian farmers from working their land and tending their crops. Olive trees, which provide essential food and oil, can survive for a thousand and more years, providing a living connection to generations far in the past. To lose a grove of olive trees is not only an economic disaster, and not just a loss of nourishment, but an emotional disaster as well. Thus the regular attacks by both military and settlers on Palestinian olive groves, sometimes destroying hundreds of trees in a single night, constitute a deliberate strike at the heart, body, and soul of the targeted families.
Other indigenous peoples are being driven from their land by our changing climate. The Yup’ik villagers of Newtok on the western coast of Alaska have been fishing and hunting in the same location for centuries. Now they are facing the fact that the rapidly melting ice of the far north, feeding the Ninglick River and causing ever-increasing erosion, threatens to wash away the entire village within the next five years. The 350 residents of Newtok are about to become the U.S.’s first climate refugees, but they won’t be the last. More than 180 other native Alaskan villages live under the same threat.
On the other side of the globe, the government of The Maldives, an archipelago nation where about 80% of the land mass is less than three feet above sea level, is making plans to move their entire population of 350 thousand to higher ground within another country before the rising sea level submerges their native land. Already eleven islands have had to be abandoned.
And close to home, the proposed AtlanticSunrise pipeline threatens farmland, forests, and species, as well as significant historical sites and burial grounds where the Conestoga Indians once flourished. Fortunately there has been substantial resistance to a project which would inevitably leave massive and long-lasting scars on our Garden Spot. Political and economic power, however, lie with the developer and its allies, who are more concerned with the next quarter’s profits than they are with the generations who will have to live with the results of their assault on the land.
As a nation of immigrants we may not be able to name our ancestors to the seventh generation, but we can all heed the call of scripture to be mindful of how our actions will affect our descendants to the seventh generation and beyond. Choices we make today will determine the kind of world they live in two hundred years from now. We are blessed with the intellectual capacity to comprehend past, present, and future. Let us live in such a way that those to come may also enjoy life abundant.