Updated: Mar 9, 2019
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How is sin expressed in the biblical narratives? One would think that this term should be easy to understand when we consider that it is mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible whether one is reading from what is called the “Old Testament” (Tanakh – Torah, Prophets, and Writings) or reading from what is called the “New Testament” (haBrit haChadasha).
Generally, I think for most people, the word “sin” is generically defined to mean an action that violates any of God's laws, including the Ten Commandments and to be fair, this is a reasonable definition; however, it goes much deeper. Together, let us dig into Hebrew scripture and understand “sin” as the Almighty, Eternal One presents it through the biblical redactors of scripture.
In the Hebrew Bible, sin is understood according to three categories. To help us to understand things, let’s read the following passages:
Exodus 34:7. Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
Psalm 32:5. I acknowledged my sin to you, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to YHVH.”
Isaiah 59:12. Our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and as for our iniquities, we know them.
Jeremiah 33:8. I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned and by which they have transgressed against me.
Ezekiel 21:24. Therefore thus says YHVH Elohim: ‘Because you have made your iniquity to be remembered, in that your transgressions are uncovered, so that in all your doings your sins appear.
Daniel 9:24. Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity.
Notice that each of the above quoted passages connect the term “sin” with two other words – transgression and iniquity. Therefore, the All Eternal One uses three different words to identify what it is that mankind is troubled with: iniquity, transgression, sin.
Iniquity is from the Hebrew word pesha – פשע, a concept that defines a breaking of trust; one that is unfaithful to a contract or covenant. For example, look at 2 Kings 3:5:
“When Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.”
Here, the king of Moab rebelled against Ahab, the king of Israel. The term “rebelled” derives from pesha, the same word that English translators use when they speak about iniquity. In other words, based on the Hebrew word pesha, iniquity is a breaking of trust or infidelity against a covenant or contract.
Transgression is the Hebrew word ahvon – spelled עון (but also spelled with the Hebrew letter aleph because in Hebrew, the letters Ayin - ע and Aleph - א can sometimes be interchanged). The Hebrew root for ahvon is linked to the three letters ayin-vav-heh – עוה. Ahvon means to bend, twist, deviate and distort. For example, see Lamentations 3:9 and Ezekiel 21:27 (21:32 in Hebrew):
Lamentations 3:9. He has blocked my ways with hewn stone; He has made my paths crooked.
Ezekiel 21:27 (21:32 in Hebrew): Overthrown, overthrown, I will make it overthrown! It shall be no longer, until he comes whose right it is, and I will give it to him.
With these two examples, the words crooked and overthrown are from the Hebrew root – ahvah with an ayin – ע, which gives us ahvon – עון – the term for the English word transgression. The concept of ahvon or ahvah is something or someone that bends, twists, distorts, and deviates. In the Bible, truth is often something that is bent, twisted, and distorted by one who turns away from truth or lies against the truth. This one is a deviate who does ahvon.
Sin is from the Hebrew word chatah– חטא, meaning to miss a mark or a goal. The word chatah with an aleph – חטא is also similarly spelled as chitah, the term for wheat – חטה. (In Hebrew, as an aleph and ayin are often interchangeable, so also an aleph and a heh.)
One might ask, what in the world does sin have to do with wheat? since both Hebrew words are linked. Over the centuries, many ideas have been posited. However, one concept that I think fits well is in a teaching that Yeshua presented in Matthew 13; that of his parable of the wheat and the tares. Yeshua explained that an enemy sowed tares (in Greek: darnel) amongst grains of wheat in a field (see Matthew 13:25) and in doing so, the field of the story becomes corrupted with a mixture of wheat and tares. To the Second Temple period listeners of that story, the idea was nothing shocking because it was taught through oral tradition (from a lesson Abraham allegedly presented) that the “tree” (in Hebrew – עץ) of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden might have been a very large stalk of wheat resembling one of the towering cedars of Lebanon. Here are a couple of snippets from the teaching:
And the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. What was the tree whereof Adam and Eve ate? R. Meir said: "It was wheat, for when a person lacks knowledge people say, ‘That man has never eaten bread of wheat.'"
R. Samuel b. Isaac asked R. Ze’ira: "is it possible that it (the tree) was wheat?" ‘Yes’ replied he. But surely TREE is written?’ he argued. ‘It grew lofty like the cedars of the Lebanon.”
Of course, the meaning is that the cedars of Lebanon grew to a very great height. Therefore, a wheat stalk could have grown so high that it could easily look like a tree. Nonetheless, there is one problem with the idea that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a large and tall wheat stalk or “wheat tree.” The problem I see is that Yeshua’s parable was about wheat and tares. To me, this implies that the Tree of Life was the wheat and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the tare because that tree was bent, twisted, and distorted unto Sin and Death. In other words, it looks like wheat but, in reality, it was a “tare tree.” Thus, with a rather strange sense of irony, the rabbinic teachers of the story might have inadvertently twisted, bent, and distorted the truth.
The point that I am driving at here is that chitah (wheat) and chatah (sin) are linked for a reason. Chatah means to miss a mark or a goal, whereas, chitah is not about missing a mark or goal; it is about attaching oneself to life and good by eating from the bread of life in the Garden – the “wheat Tree of Life” (with no sprayed-on poison such as Glyphosate, a carcinogenic chemical in Monsanto Corporation’s product called "Round-up").
In the Garden of Eden, Adam, and Eve “sinned”; that is, they missed the mark or the goal (chatah) of the Tree of Life (chitah – the wheat stalk of life). By not eating from the Tree of Life (chitah), they ate from the poison tare of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and missed the goal or the mark of the Tree of Life. They were snookered into becoming one with a wheat lookalike sown into the field by their enemy – see Matthew 13:25-26. According to the story, the enemy is the Serpent of Genesis 3:1.
CLOSING THOUGHTS ON INIQUITY
Again, the English word iniquity is about the Hebrew word pesha, which is about infidelity and a breaking of covenant trust, or if you will, unfaithfulness. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they came to be one with that “tare tree” of the field in the Garden. In other words, they broke covenant and were unfaithful to their Creator – the Word, who originally desired that they would eat from him and walk in the Spirit of the Truth. With their infidelity and broken trust, their actions proved them to be with a lack of fidelity, which is the concept of pesha. Therefore, Yeshua and the writers of the New Testament called their generation of spiritual leaders unfaithful and adulterous.
CLOSING THOUGHTS ON TRANSGRESSION
Again, the English word transgression is about the Hebrew word ahvon, which is about twisting and distortion; not walking straight, but instead, crooked. This is why iniquity and transgression are often written about together in the biblical narratives because infidelity (iniquity) and crookedness (transgression) feed on each other. Which comes first? I suppose it is like asking, what comes first? the chicken or the egg? I think perhaps we might say that pesha (infidelity) feeds ahvon (transgression) and transgression (ahvon) feeds infidelity (pesha), or if you will, unfaithfulness feeds on distortion and distortion feeds on unfaithfulness. This leads me to another point.
In Acts 2:40 of the Brit HaChadasha (the New Testament), Peter collectively speaks about the religious ideology of the spiritual leaders calling them a perverse and twisted generation. However, in all Hebrew scripture, there is not one specific reference to the Serpent (Nachash – “Satan”) as one who is perverse and twisted. Of course, it is a general assumption that this is his character. So, if the Hebrew Bible does not specifically call him by the term ahvon or ahvah (the root of ahvon), then where do we get the idea that the Nachash (the Serpent or “Devil”) is in fact one that twists, bends, and distorts anything and everything? I think the idea comes from a collection of many theological passages in the Brit haChadasha (the New Testament). For example, Yeshua spoke about the Serpent of Genesis 3 in a teaching from John 8:44, saying to some religious leaders:
John 8:44. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.
Logically, a lie is a distortion and twisting of truth. Since the Serpent (Nachash) is the father of the lie (as Yeshua said), therefore, it makes sense that the Serpent twists and distorts anything and everything that he relates to. We can see this characteristic quite clearly in Genesis 3:1 when he said to the Woman (Eve):
“Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?
This was a twisting, bending, and a distortion of the Truth because in Genesis 2:17, the Word said to Adam:
“…but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat.”
Through the distorted, twisted, bent words of the Serpent – his ahvon, doubt was introduced when at first, there was none. Hence, with the Serpent’s curse of Genesis 3:14, YHVH the Word said to him:
“…on your belly you shall go.”
The implication is graphic; the Serpent lost his mobility (presumably from the loss of his legs – see Ezekiel 28:14). As a result, the Serpent as a snake, slithers across the ground in bending and twisting movements, precisely as a reptile moves with lateral mobility. This is the idea of transgression or in Hebrew, ahvon. Therefore, I am saying that the idea of ahvon (transgression) goes back to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden.
CLOSING THOUGHTS ON SIN
Again, the English word sin is about the Hebrew word chatah, which is about missing a mark or a goal. And interestingly, in Hebrew, it is spelled Chet – Tet – Aleph (חטא). Judging from ancient pictographs of paleo Hebrew (before Judah’s exile to Babylon), the three-lettered root חטא tells the story of the Garden of Eden. The Chet ח represents a boundary fence. The Tet ט represents a mark or goal and looks a bit like a coiled serpent (in post Babylonian block Hebrew). The Aleph א represents a strong ox or the image of preeminence. Together, these three letters that give us the English basis for what is called “sin” tells me that in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, there was an established boundary between the Garden of Eden and everything else that was outside of the Garden (see Genesis 2:15 and Genesis 1:28). That boundary (fence, wall) was breached by the Serpent, who initially was placed in the Fields of Eden and not in the midst of the Garden (see Genesis 3:1). The boundary was breached (the Chet – ח) and the mark or goal was missed (the Tet – ט); that is, the Tree of Life in the middle or midst of the Garden (the Alef – א), which was established as the food of the Garden, the Tree of Life. Thus, could Paul say in Romans 10:4:
“For Messiah (the Word) is the goal of the Torah (Law) for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
Adam and Eve missed the mark; missed the goal. In missing this goal, it birthed two additional “sin actions” – a) distortion of divine truth, which is lust (the NKJV translates the word as “desire”) and b) covenant unfaithfulness, which is Death. This explains the imagery behind James (Ya’acov) 1:15-16:
Then, when desire (“lust” in Hebrew) has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
In our Hebraic studies of the Brit haChadasha (the New Testament) and even in our Hebraic studies of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, may I suggest that when we read and hear the words sin, iniquity, transgression, and other such terminology; that we not randomly define them according to the simplicities of our religious culture. When we see words like sins, sinner, sinful, transgression, transgressor, iniquity, or even opposite terms like blameless or innocent, know that there is going-on, a much deeper definition than meets the eye. Certainly, it’s tempting to think, “I’m a good person” or “I sin, but not all the time.” But, the biblical reality is, we all enter the world with a baked-in crookedness (ahvon) and long before we took our first baby steps, we were already separated from God’s eternal Laws and Covenant. It is up to us to study and walk in the truth as Yeshua said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Words like these are laced with deep meanings and it is up to each of us to:
…be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
Avi ben Mordechai