The Old Testament’s Take on Sin
Recap of Voluntary Offerings
The previous article discussed the voluntary Levitical offerings. We noted that these were mostly freewill offerings, with the exception of the recommended daily burnt and grain sacrifices offered by the priests on behalf of the nation. The sacrificial system – both voluntary and mandatory – was a means to draw near to God for the purpose of communion. The burnt offering signaled the worshippers’ intention to approach God. The grain offering – which almost always accompanied animal sacrifices – was a tribute gift presented to God. It served as a reminder of His covenant relationship with Israel. The peace offering illustrated the goal for which all the other offerings served to facilitate. The sacrifice of fat on the brazen altar, along with the thanksgiving meal, featuring God as the honoured guest, was the quintessential manifestation of shalom between God and the offeror, and between the offeror and his or her community.
The voluntary offerings assumed an intact relationship between God and the worshipper. These sacrifices are described as a ‘pleasing aroma to the Lord’ because the worshipper enjoyed unhindered access to God and therefore experienced His blessings of peace, welfare and prosperity.
It’s Not Personal…It’s Strictly Business
The experience of the voluntary offerings was entirely enjoyable for both parties. The encounter produced a mutually pleasant outcome for God and the offeror. God’s positive enjoyment is described in the anthropomorphic language of smelling the ‘pleasing aroma’. It evokes a sense of delight and satisfaction. The actions performed by offeror also signifies a sense of joy and thankfulness. The burnt offering was presented in confidence and joyful expectation of God’s favourable response. The grain offering was brought forth in a spirit of gratitude for God’s blessings. The peace offering always occasioned a convivial atmosphere. In fact, God prescribed the voluntary offerings for Israel’s festive occasions:
Also at your times of rejoicing—your appointed festivals and New Moon feasts—you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God.”
Numbers 10:10 (NIV)
Some of ancient Israel’s momentous occasions were marked by the voluntary offerings. The Old Testament (OT) recounts when David finally brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem…
12 …So David went to bring up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing…14 Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, 15 while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets…17 They brought the ark of the Lord and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the Lord.
2 Samuel 6:12-17 (NIV)
The voluntary offerings assumed an intact relationship with God. The mandatory offerings, on the other hand, served to restore a broken connection between the worshipper and God. The activity of the voluntary offerings was relational, but for the mandatory offerings it was largely transactional. These offerings were transactional in the sense that the attention of both parties involved – the offeror, in presenting the sacrifice, and God, in effecting atonement and forgiveness – was turned onto the sin that had been introduced into the relationship. The action of both parties was for the sole purpose of eradicating the occurrence of sin and its negative effects. The sin of the worshipper essentially short-circuited his or her connection with God and also with his neighbour. The mandatory offerings then, served to identify and eliminate this short-circuit, thereby re-establishing the pleasant flow of interaction with God and with his neighbour.
In this article I will attempt to expand on the concept of sin in the Old Testament. This will hopefully help to provide a better understanding of the purpose for the mandatory sacrifices (the topic of the next article).
The Trifecta of Sin
The OT has a nuanced view of sin. Three Hebrew words are generally employed to describe various wrongdoings: ḥaṭṭāʾt is translated as ‘sin’, ʿāwōn is usually rendered as ‘iniquity’, and pešaʿ is often translated as ‘transgression’. Although these words describe actions that are all considered sinful, they should not be thought of as synonymous. As one scholar insightfully notes, “each disqualifies ‘sin’ in its own way.” (+) Each word highlights a different characteristic of sin.
Sin – ḥaṭṭāʾt
The noun ḥaṭṭāʾt is the general term for offences in the OT, be it legal, religious, or social. (+) It is derived from the root ḥṭʾ which means “to miss a mark or a goal”. (^) The missed goal could be a physical target…
Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥṭʾ].
Judges 20:16 (NIV)
…or it could describe a lack of completeness…
I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss [ḥṭʾ] myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night.
Genesis 31:39 (NIV)
The root ḥṭʾ evokes a sense of either coming up short or going astray from an intended goal. Applied theologically then, ‘sin’ may be understood as any action or state of being which is characterized as a deficiency or deviation from the perfect holiness of God.
Of all the books in the Bible – both OT and NT – the word ‘holy’ occurs most frequently in Leviticus. The purpose of the tabernacle and sacrificial system can be summed up in God’s exhortation to the Israelites:
I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.
Leviticus 11:44 (NIV)
Merriam-Webster defines ‘holy’ as, “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” (*) The standard or goal for which sin falls short – God’s holiness – is the very essence of perfection, and may be safely said, unique to God Himself. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount sheds light on the full extent of the standard of living that attains to God’s perfection. Such a standard is irreproachable in thought, word and deed. Humans may strive to do good, and some may boast of a sinless life. But even such persons cannot claim to have never faltered in these three areas. The only entity who can make such a bold claim of never having sinned at any time, is God. For this reason, He is the standard of perfection to which everything is compared.
The truth about God’s holiness is often presented as a twofold statement in the Bible. The fact of God’s perfect holiness is but one part of the discussion of sin. The other equally important part is that God commands us to attain to his standard of perfection. Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount by reiterating this twofold truth:
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:48 (NASB)
God’s commandment for perfection, therefore, renders any deficiency or deviation from the standard as an infraction. As a result, a person is considered guilty whether his or her erroneous actions are consciously or unconsciously committed.
Iniquity – ʿāwōn
Compare & Contrast with ḥaṭṭāʾt
The word ḥaṭṭāʾt characterizes sin as a shortcoming. It places an emphasis on the goal of moral actions. The word ʿāwōn, on the other hand, seems to bring focus on the performance or activity of moral actions that result in missing the target. The basic meaning of ʿāwōn is “to bend, curve, turn aside, twist.” (+) The word could be used in a literal sense…
6I am bent over [ꜥāwāh] and racked with pain. All day long I walk around filled with grief. 7A raging fever burns within me, and my health is broken.
Psalm 38:6-7 (NLT)
…or in a figurative sense…
Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate and he will twist [ꜥāwāh] its surface and scatter its inhabitants.
When applied theologically, āwōn highlights the inherent attributes as well as the outcome of moral actions that fail to achieve the goal of God’s perfect holiness.
Iniquity as Collective Sin
ʿāwōn is most often translated as ‘iniquity’. It is slightly nuanced in its take on sin. Whereas ḥaṭṭāʾt often highlights particular incidents of sin, ʿāwōn normally speaks of sin as a collective, whether in a person or in a group of people. It usually emphasizes the human propensity for sinning. For example, the collective sins of the nation of Israel are often described asʿāwōn…
They have turned back to the iniquities [ʿāwōn] of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words. They have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their fathers.
Jeremiah 11:10 (ESV)
God’s main indictment against Israel was idol worship, and in this verse – as in many similar verses – ʿāwōn encapsulates the nations’ tendencies towards idol worship, as well as their practice of it. Also, even thoughʿāwōn can refer to specific instances of an individual’s sin, it is oftentimes used to emphasize the general sinfulness of a person.
For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity [ʿāwōn] that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.
1 Samuel 3:13 (NRSV)
The iniquity in this case is the collective sins of Eli’s sons in their disdainful attitude and practice with regard to their priestly duties.
Guilt & Punishment
Because God commands us to attain to his perfection, any failure to reach this goal is automatically considered an infraction, making the offending party culpable for their actions. Therefore,ʿāwōn is sometimes translated as “guilt” or “punishment”. These two words draw attention to the consequences associated with sin. ‘Guilt’ often refers to the guilty status which always accompanies sin. While ‘punishment’ speaks of the repercussions or effects of sin.
Cain’s complaint with regard to his punishment for murdering Abel, for example, was not about the fact that he was being punished. He seemed to accept his guilt and punishment as a natural implication for his actions. Rather he complained about the severity of his sentence.
13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment [ʿāwōn] is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Genesis 4:13-14 (NIV)
An important truth which ʿāwōn underscores is that one need not be conscious of his or her sin to be considered guilty or to suffer from its consequences because these outcomes are inherent to sin.
Transgression – pešaʿ
A third word for sin is pešaʿ. It was primarily understood as a legal term to describe actions that were punishable under the law, i.e. crimes and criminal behaviour. These were actions that caused a break in relationship, whether personal, political or religious. (+) For example, political treaties in the ancient Near East were often legal agreements, and any breach of terms was considered a break in the relationship.
4 Now Mesha king of Moab raised sheep, and he had to pay the king of Israel a tribute of a hundred thousand lambs and the wool of a hundred thousand rams. 5 But after Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled [pešaʿ] against the king of Israel.
2 Kings 3:4-5 (NIV)
Israel’s relationship with Yahweh was essentially a legal one. At Sinai, Yahweh entered into a covenant/treaty relationship with Israel. Therefore, every act of disobedience on the part of nation was considered pešaʿ – a revolt or rebellion – against Yahweh. The primary purpose of the prophets was to bring attention the nation’s sinful actions – its breach of the covenant/treaty – and to call the people to repentance. For this reason, pešaʿ appears most frequently in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. For instance, the book of Isaiah begins thus…
Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the Lord has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled [pešaʿ] against me
Isaiah 1:2 (NIV)
pešaʿ eventually came to mark the totality of indictments that caused the nation of Israel to be driven into exile. But the Old Testament also demonstrates that although pešaʿ is a criminal act that deserves punishment, God is always willing to forgive the breach and restore relationship.
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions [pešaʿ], for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.
Isaiah 43:25 (NIV)
The different words for sin in the Old Testament point out its various characteristics. ḥaṭṭāʾt focuses on the goal of moral behaviour – God’s perfect holiness – for which sin falls short. ʿāwōn enters into the reality of sin and brings out the inherent guilt associated with sin as well as its devastating consequences. pešaʿ eventually became the term for the most grievous sins because its actions resulted in severing relationships. Each term touches on a distinct property of sin and together paint a full picture of the nature and effects of sin, on humankind, and on our relationship with God.
- (+) Jenni, Ernst and Claus Westermann, eds. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. 3 vols. Hendrickson, 1997.
(^) Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1907.