The Evolving Definition of Sin in the Bible

10 May

Sin may be defined as the wilful transgression of a divine moral precept; Thomas Aquinas identifies sin as “nothing else than a bad human act,” a voluntary contravention of “eternal law.”[1] However, the notion of sin in the Bible is deeper than simply a violation of law or a moral evil. In Scripture, sin entails a rupture of relationship, either between human beings or between the sinner and God. The Bible, Bruce Vawter and S.J. DeVries agree, has a highly developed theological vocabulary for sin,[2] which stems from “its keen sense of moral and spiritual values.”[3] Vawter points out that in Biblical text sin does not have an “exclusively moral association.”[4] The Hebrew word hattah, which “literally means ‘to miss the mark,’” is the most frequent word in the Hebrew Old Testament translated into English as “sin.”[5] The New Testament Greek equivalent to hattah is άμαρτία (hamartia).[6] After hattah, another common Biblical Hebrew word that connotes sin is pesha, whose literal meaning is to ‘overstep’ or to ‘rebel.’ Like hattah, pesha is used in Scripture beyond the context of moral wrongdoing. Vawter gives the example of 2 Kings 8:20, where pesha describes the rebellion of Edom against Judah, a “political fact”[7] that is not judged as immoral.

The moral and spiritual awareness conveyed in Scripture, though, must be viewed within the framework of the covenant relationship between Israel and God. The scriptural idea of covenant, and likewise of sin, arises from a personalistic worldview within which human beings and God are in personal relationship with one another.[8] Personalism, as opposed to moralism, which defines sin as “deviation from an external norm,”[9] and monism, “in which sin is… equated with [humankind’s] creatureliness or physical nature,”[10] is dominant and continuous throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

In this essay, I will trace the development of the concept of sin in Scripture, and consider points of continuity and of discontinuity between the Old and New Testament notions of sin. The Old and New Testaments both highlight the significance of sin, although the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the one who alone is able to gain “certain victory”[11] over sin. Thus, God intervenes radically to establish a new and “everlasting covenant in which sin should have no part.”[12] I will therefore also discuss the growth in the understanding of covenant that is linked in Scripture to that of sin. Along with the development in the meaning of covenant in Scripture, the concept of sin evolved from that of an infringement against a binding pact with God or against law in the earlier traditions through to the post-exilic additions of the Old Testament to the breach of the bond of love between God and humanity. Moreover, where sin is equated with an offence against divine law in Scripture, it is primarily construed as a misdeed against God and not only against law.[13]

Ancient Israel’s appreciation of covenant progressed greatly over the approximately one thousand years during which the Old Testament as it is currently known was written.[14] The earliest traditions of the Old Testament illustrate covenant as a binding agreement between an all-powerful God who blessed those who were faithful to that covenant and cursed those who were unfaithful to it. Law and covenant became increasingly intertwined between the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., as Israel’s monarchy and, concurrently, the peak of the prophetic age gave way to the Babylonian Exile.[15] From post-Exilic Old Testament traditions into the New Testament era, covenant, while still viewed as the expression of God’s will as law for humankind and the human response to that divine will, came to be understood as a divine-human relationship of love.[16]

Thomas Ogletree argues that the idea of covenant law originated in pre-Scriptural oral traditions. “Creative individuals,” Ogletree writes, served as spokespersons of the Israelite culture: “collectors, redactors and editors of… memories of a people regarding their own past” that “were passed from generation to generation.”[17] Those memories became cultic legends whose purpose was to establish and to “articulate the authority of the moral notions the people shared in common.”[18] Myths founded in collective experience were then grouped into narratives and into lists of “laws and ordinances” that “made up the content of Israel’s covenant obligations.”[19] Ogletree gives several examples of the legal and cultic codes included in the Pentateuch,[20] but his connection of these codes or commandments to the framework of covenant is most pertinent; in ancient Israel divine commandments were understood within the context of covenant. To emphasize this, Ogletree quotes Jeremiah 7:21, 23: “Thus says the Lord of hosts… ‘Obey my voice, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the ways that I command you, that it may be well with you.’”

Just as covenant and commandment are essentially linked in Scripture, so too are “cultic and social regulations.”[21] Human beings are fundamentally social. Ogletree contends therefore that, in the Old Testament, the sense of covenant as a communion of the Israelite people with God and the ethics that resulted from that covenant grew out of the experience of “everyday human interactions.”[22] Cultic norms developed, for example, around the rhythms of nature, the protection of the vulnerable, and an exclusive “Israelite allegiance to Yahweh.”[23] It became a moral obligation[24] among the Israelites to connect the religious reality of covenant with the reality and “normal processes”[25] of human society. Ogletree thus summarizes this point: “A religious ethic [that] is wholly extracted from the cult is a religious ethic without historical and social substance.”[26] That was clearly true in Old Testament Israel, where a perception of covenant originated and developed from a common sense of historical, social, religious, and moral order.

As Ogletree demonstrates, the origins and development of covenant, both pre-Scriptural and in Scripture itself, are easily identified. The Priestly tradition of the Pentateuch in particular divides Israel’s covenant history into three sections: firstly, from the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:25-26 to God’s blessing of Noah and promise not to destroy the world by a flood again (Gn 9:1-17); secondly, from Noah to God’s covenant with Abraham to multiply his descendants (Gn 17), and thirdly, from Abraham to the gift of the Decalogue to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 6:2-13).[27] Nevertheless, the Scriptural origin of the concept of sin is more difficult to ascertain. The account of the fall of humankind in Genesis 3, a contribution of the Yahwist tradition, likely the earliest written tradition of the Pentateuch,[28] “unmistakeably intends to explain how sin began,”  even though there “the terminology of sin is lacking,”[29] says S.J. DeVries. This narrative also depicts the consequences of human disobedience toward God.

The story of the fall begins with the portrayal of Adam and Eve as naked, yet without shame (Gn 2:25). The Hebrew word translated as ‘naked’ is ‘arom. In the next verse, the serpent is described as “cunning.” In Hebrew, this adjective is ‘arum, which forms a play on words with the representation of Adam and of Eve as naked in the previous verse.[30] Thus the serpent is the ideal tempter; Eve and then Adam succumb to the snake’s shrewdness only because of their vanity in desiring the wisdom and immortality of God.[31] The ultimate effect of the defiance of God’s command not to eat the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gn 2:17) is death (Gn 2:17, 3:3), although as the serpent deviously indicates, this death is not immediate nor is it primarily corporeal. The principal consequence of sin is spiritual death; through the cunning of the serpent, nakedness and shame are united. Sin is exposed for what it is: estrangement from God. That result of sin is emphasized after the fall, when God searches for Adam and Eve in the garden. The Lord does not judge the action of Adam and Eve as wrongful, but asks them, “Where are you?” (Gn 3:9) Adam and Eve are separated from God; therefore Genesis describes them as hidden and afraid (Gn 3:10). The loss of communion with God through sin is further highlighted by God’s expulsion of Adam and of Eve from the garden (Gn 3:24), after which they must toil in the wilderness (Gn 3:17).

After the murder of his brother Abel in the continuation of the Yahwist narrative, Cain receives essentially the same punishment as did Adam: “You will become a restless wanderer on the earth.” (Gn 4:12) This rift in the God-human relationship is a greater consequence of sin than the disordered inequality between man and woman, pain in childbirth (Gn 3:16), agricultural failure (Gn 3:17-18), or even physical death (Gn 3:19). Thus, Cain pleads with God, “My punishment is too great to bear. Since you have banished me from the soil, and I must avoid your presence… anyone may kill me at sight.” (Gn 4:13-14) Although DeVries argues that Cain “understood all too little the consequences of his sin” while he protested instead against the severity of his banishment,[32] Cain’s appeal to the Lord suggests that the idea of the separation from God and resultant confusion and fear caused by sin was ingrained in the consciousness of the writers of the Yahwist tradition.

The recognition of sin as a reality that “sunders” humankind from God and therefore leads to a sense of being “lost in the presence of the Holy”[33] is most intense in the writings of the prophets of the late Monarchical and Exilic periods and in the penitential Psalms. This theme continues into the New Testament. Simon Peter, for example, “[astonished] at the catch of fish” on the Lake of Gennesaret, exclaims to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk 5:8-9) Peter’s response to Jesus’ call to service in Luke’s Gospel is similar to those of the Old Testament prophets, who also often express consciousness of their own sin as well as that of the people. Isaiah’s answer to God’s call to prophesy clearly illustrates awareness of both personal sin and the collective sin of the Israelites: “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” (Is 6:5)

Neither personal nor social sin, though, is beyond the remedial capacity of a loving and merciful God. The message of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah was that, while God would hold Israel accountable for its sin, God’s restoration of the covenant relationship with Israel was certain. Following God’s call to Isaiah to prophesy and the latter’s objection that he is a sinner among a sinful people and unfit to be a prophet, seraphim are sent to touch Isaiah’s lips with a burning ember. Thus Isaiah’s “wickedness is removed, [his] sin purged.” (Is 6:7) Amid the Babylonian Exile, Jeremiah proclaims the return of the Israelites to their homeland under divine power. The purity of Israel will be restored as if they had never violated the covenant:

As Israel comes forward to be given his rest, the LORD appears to him from afar: With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you. Again I will restore you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin Israel. (Jer 31:3-4)

 Deutero-Isaiah echoes the consoling message of Jeremiah: Israel has more than paid the penalty for its iniquity, and a merciful God promises the remission of sin and re-establishment of the covenant:

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. (Is 40:1-2)

 While Jeremiah 31:3-4 includes the Hebrew word hesed, “translated variously as ‘mercy’, ‘loyalty’, ‘devotion’, ‘loving kindness’, or simply ‘love,’”[34] the notion  of a kind and loving God is implied also in Isaiah 40:1-2. Both passages associate God’s forgiveness of sin with hesed. Deutero-Isaiah and Jeremiah reflect a theology that begins as early as the height of Israel’s monarchy wherein God is understood as able to mend human breaches of the covenant. Humankind, although fallen from moral perfection, is still held to have been created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:27). Therefore, as Bruce Vawter states, “it is in the moral order rather than in the order of being that [humanity] is seen to be most separated from God.”[35]

That human estrangement from the divine can only be remitted by a “wonderful, unique act of God”[36]– an act of divine hesed. Vawter cites Psalm 51 as an example of an appeal of a sinner to God’s hesed. Meanwhile, the Psalmist recognizes that “God alone can and must [remedy] his sinful state.”[37] God is petitioned thus: “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offense… Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my guilt…From my sin cleanse me… A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.” (Ps 51:3-4, 11-12) The Hebrew verbs rendered as “blot out” and “cleanse,” according to Vawter, are references to the ritual washing of clothing described in Numbers 5:23 and Leviticus 13:6.[38] The Psalmist then employs the verb bara– “to create”- that appears in Genesis 1:1. The heart was, “to the Semite,” equivalent to “the Self” and was not only the seat of the intellect or will.[39] Vawter argues, then, that along with an appeal to hesed, the Psalmist appeals to God to produce a radical transformation of the sinner:

Create, [the Psalmist] says, a new me. Such an idea is boundless in its commentary on what he believed the effect of sin to be in the sinner, an effect which obviously far transcends any notion of purely formal or legal rectitude. Sin was, in [the Psalmist’s] eyes, an involvement from which [one] could not emerge without an alteration in [one’s] inmost being.

 A significant difference between the Old Testament and New Testament conceptions of sin is the shift from the definition of sin as the contravention of an external law to the idea that sin is a corruption of one’s interior disposition. As in Psalm 51, this sense of sin, of its effects, and of God’s response to it is already foreshadowed in the Old Testament, but it is actualized in the New Testament, whose theology about the internal nature of sin is shown most clearly in the Gospel of Mark: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile [a] person, but the things that come out from within are what defile.” (Mk 7:15) One is interiorly inclined toward or away from the good. At the same time, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to those oriented toward goodness. The Spirit of God comes to dwell in those who love Christ and follow His commandments: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” (Jn 14:20)

This simultaneous indwelling of the capability to do good and to do evil, of “the things…that defile” and of the Holy Spirit, is not to be understood as a dualism[40]; the forces of good and of evil are not in competition with each other in New Testament theology. Instead, God has intervened in human history the person of Jesus Christ, the definitive “assurance” that sin will be conquered.[41] Also, the “interior law”[42] of the Spirit is complementary to the external law. In practice, the legalists whom Jesus criticizes viewed the old covenant and the new spiritual law as opposed to one another. Jesus does not intend this to be so: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” (Mt 5:17)

St. Paul is more ambiguous in his assessment of the relationship between the old external law and the law of the Spirit, as Nicholas Crotty observes. Paul writes that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12) and counts “the Law as one of Israel’s privileges”[43] in Romans 9:4. On the contrary, he characterizes the Mosaic covenant as “the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2) and says, in seeming contradiction of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17, that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (Rom 10:4) Crotty comments incisively about such Pauline ambiguity regarding the law:

It was to the Law that the Jews looked for life, and this was something it could not give them. [Since] it imparted knowledge of the good but not the power to achieve it, [and] it enabled them to recognize sin without enabling them to avoid it, such a law could only make [people] conscious of their own sinfulness.

 One minor addition ought to be made to Crotty’s remark in order to better understand the New Testament relationship between sin and the law: the old law alone cannot give life. Observance of the old covenant commandments to the Christian is good yet insufficient.[44] Mosaic law is supplemented and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Word who, having taken on our human form, has “made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14) and indeed within us. “Charity,” Bruce Vawter notes, “is the hesed of the new covenant.”[45] This hesed is no longer an external reality of divine love, but is an internal divine gift of charity.

Hesed, covenant, commandment, law, and sin are related in Scripture, and the understanding of each grows and changes from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The notion of covenant originates in pre- Scriptural oral tradition as a personal relationship with God, a feature of covenant that is constant throughout Scripture. Obedience of divine commandments is equated with maintenance of the covenant. Contravention of God’s commandments is not only seen as sin against divine law in the Old Testament, but as disobedience toward God and a rupture of the covenant bond. Hesed, the loving kindness or mercy of God, results in God’s foundation of a new covenant that is no longer external to the human person, but comes to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ. While the proclivity of humankind toward sin still exists in the new covenant era, so does the indwelling Spirit of God who has overcome that sin. 



This essay was originally submitted for my Topics in Christian Ethics class, Theology I, Semester 1, on 7 December, 2009, at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON, Canada.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-I, q. 71, a. 6.

[2] Bruce Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” The Way 2 (1962): 19-20.

[3] S.J. DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 4:361.

[4] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 19.

[5] Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 91.

[6] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 362.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 371.

[12] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 26.

[13] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 363.

[14] R. H. Pfeiffer, “Canon of the Old Testament,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 1:500.

[15] John L. McKenzie, “Aspects of Old Testament Thought,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 750-751.

[16] Ibid., 751.

[17] Thomas W. Ogletree, The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics: A Constructive Essay (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 52-53.

[18] Ibid., 53.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 54.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 57.

[24] Ibid., 55.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984), 173-174.

[28] Ibid., 96.

[29] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 363.

[30] Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, 119.

[31] Ibid.

[32] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 366.

[33] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 24.

[34] Ibid., 21.

[35] Ibid., 24.

[36] Ibid., 25.

[37] Ibid., 24.

[38] Ibid., 25.

[39] Ibid.

[40] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 371.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Nicholas Crotty, “Biblical Perspectives in Moral Theology,” Theological Studies 26 (1965): 579.

[43] Ibid., 580.

[44] DeVries, “Sin, Sinners,” 372.

[45] Vawter, “Missing the Mark,” 23.

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