The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.
Part 2 - What Is a sin?
Is it the same today as in 1200 BCE?
Copyright © 2017 Dorian Scott Cole
Some think that maybe we need a new definition of sin. The word doesn't fit well into modern culture, and the notions about what sin is, don't fit either. Preaching sin, guilt, and punishment have commonly served to drive people away from the church, and to focus on the wrong things.
The related idea of being tolerant of each other doesn't fit well either. Divorce affects nearly half of marriages, and single heads of household are now over 50%, since we apparently prefer not to live together and tolerate each other. LGBTQ issues remain unresolved or rejected by many churches and religious people who are adamant that it can't be tolerated. The younger generation simply leaves the church and refuses to participate because it no longer seems relevant. Outsiders keep it at arms length. The church is slowly decaying, with attendance dropping steadily since 1900, with many people having no idea what the mission of the church is.
In this study on sin and iniquity, I look at the idea of sin, origins, and how it applies today.
Part 2 - What Is a sin?
Is the meaning of sin, breaking some commandment? An action against God? An action against another person?
Before looking at types of sin, equality of sin, and if sins are still relevant, an overview of sin. Rather than direct quotes, I simply paraphrase to keep it short and easily understandable.
There are two first sins in the Bible - both with Adam and Eve and family. First, even though their action isn't labeled sin, Adam and Eve eat the apple, even though God told them not to. They didn't have a red pill, blue pill choice. It looked edible, so they jumped to the conclusion it wasn't poison. The first sin was doing something otherwise innocuous, disobeying God. Who knew?! Eating an apple can have earth shattering consequences... and can also keep the doctor away.
The Adam and Eve story is an allegory meant to tell us something about human nature. It may not be historically accurate in the sense that there was a person named Adam. But it is a first story telling us about human nature and a relationship with God. It has been understood in many different ways. Some think it tells us about "original sin," and why we suffer as humans. But that's a bit literal. It tells us about human nature and that our activities often create our own suffering, and it could be that suffering is the result of the process of gaining knowledge of good and evil. (They ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.) We kick a bee's nest and then we suffer and learn not to do that anymore.
Learning is experiential. You can give people a list of rules, and it is meaningless. You learn this especially with children. Rules are meaningless to them. We have cats at home. They know they are not allowed on tables and counters when we are present. They don't know or appreciate why, so when we're not present, they get on the counters and tables. Children do the same thing. They have no understanding or appreciation for why they should not do things, so when parents aren't present, or if tempted enough, they do them. "No," has no absolute meaning for children. It's conditional. But when people hurt other people, they learn that they suffer for it, and not to do that action again. Experience is a very effective teacher.
Back to Adam and Eve. By the time their children, Cain and Able had grown up, a new word came into being: sin. Boys will be boys. Men and women will be men and women. People will be people. We can assume this wasn't a surprise to God. There was absolutely need for a name for this new human experience.
Cain and Able made a sacrifice to God. God wasn't that pleased with Cain's. So Cain felt the appropriate thing to do was to eliminate the competition by smashing Able's head with a rock. "Sin!"
We don't know why, in Genesis 4, Cain's sacrifice of grain he had raised was not appreciated by God, nor why Abel's animal sacrifice was somehow better. Cain looked downcast, so God said to him, if you do well, won't you be accepted? If not, "sin" (chatta'ah: sin. חַטָּאָה) waits at your door. We see in this that God is more pleased by good behavior than sacrifice. This casts all of the future in a different light. Behavior is most important.
The word "acceptable" to God, is nothing special (seeth, שְׂאֵת). It's a very old word, as are all the words in this story, which shows it came from very ancient times (thanks MP). It means the person is cheerful, raised up in some way, exalted in rank or character, or dignity. So the person is elevated in God's evaluation.
So after Cain took Abel out in the field and killed him, God said to him, when you farm, the earth shall not produce for you, and you will be a fugitive and wander the earth. To this Cain replied that this punishment was too much. After all, people are replaceable. (OK, he didn't say that people are replaceable, even paraphrased. Politicians hadn't been invented yet.) Continuing, what he actually did say, you have driven me from your face, and everyone will want to kill me.
What was important to Cain was that he be more acceptable to God than Abel, and that he always be viewed as having great character by God. But as we so often do, he got it backwards. He substituded religious activity (making a sacrifice) for good behavior, then got horribly upset when the sacrifice wasn't greeted with high acclaim.
What does chatta'ah: (sin. חַטָּאָה) mean? Does it mean offending God? It means an offence that is worthy of punishment, even if the punishment is simply a sacrifice of something important.
On the surface, within this Adam and Eve, Cain and Able passage is presented four ideas. First, disobeying God is a sin that can have unforeseen repercussions that we may not understand. Second, do what is right and you are acceptable before God, and the obverse, if you do what is wrong you are not acceptable before God (although this is moderated by Christ). Acceptable is different from unacceptable. One is rejection. The other is elevation. Third, God says that Cain must rule over sin or it will rule over him. Fourth, sin is worthy of punishment, which can be separation from God and others (wanderer who others want to kill), or it can require the sacrifice of something important to you.
Sin and the new covenant
In Jeremiah 31:34, speaking of the time of Christ, "For I will forgive their wickedness (or iniquity) and will remember their sins no more." Why does Jeremiah use the word "iniquity," which is used in many other places in the Bible, such as "Psalm 89:32 I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging;..." I'm not sure which would be worse, the rod or flogging, but flog is a verb that carries the idea of a longer action. The word iniquity means immoral or grossly unfair behavior, as does wickedness, which means "the quality of being evil or morally wrong."
It's interesting that Jeremiah chose to apply forgiveness to two conditions: Sin and iniquity. Did sin apply more to the 613 Laws of the Bible for Jews, and breaking these was against God? The Prophets spoke mostly about people mistreating others - a more social approach. Is this why there are two terms? No, not really either meaning.
The words iniquity, immoral, gross unfairness, and wickedness can be used interchangeably. The meaning of immorality is, "Not conforming to accepted standards of morality." Morality means "Right and wrong or good and bad behavior." And just to be clear, moral means "concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character." Absent in all of these definitions is any reference to any particular kind of behavior. They are references to what groups or religions find immoral. What does the Hebrew Bible mean?
The word commonly translated iniquity (עָווֹן, avon - noun) is more about the life, character, and activities of the person. (See note 1 about Jewish interpretation of this.) It has a similar meaning as the word sin, but it's more about the perverse person who remains in sin. Some interpretations say twisting the will of God for selfish reasons. Where the word Pesha would mean, for example, a career criminal, or someone who is consistently cruel. It's someone who not only commits a sin, but does so continuously, as in crooked and loving it.
The Prophet Jeremiah said in Jeremiah 33 (NIV) about the New Covenant Christ would bring, "Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, saith the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: 'Know the LORD'; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more."
A covenant is simply an agreement. Most agreements in the Bible take the form: "If you do this, I will do that." So God says in this new covenant, every person knows right from wrong - it's in your heart. For example, we all know when we have hurt others. Every person knows God.
Is ignorance of the law an excuse? Are all 613 Jewish Laws written in people's hearts? No, that's not possible. What is possible is that we recognize when we hurt someone, and we regret it. We recogize when we are ignoring God or speaking against him. We recognize that we have learned how to behave, and we don't (sin), or we rebel against it and keep doing it (Pesha). But the good news is that we will be forgiven if we ask and genuinely make an effort to stop our wrong behavior, even if we are career criminals, even if we repeatedly fail (70 times 7).
We're human, we do things that are wrong. We hurt other people. Sometimes these are small things, and we can even forget or dismiss them, or just say, "I'm sorry." Sometimes the things we do can hang around our necks for life, pulling us down, ruining relationships, and keeping us from living a better life. Sometimes these things just take over our lives and we keep doing them. So wrong and sin "waits at your door" to make you its slave. They become your life. But at the end of the day, or our life, we have learned the knowledge of right and wrong. Experience is a profound and often horrible teacher.
Today, we are under a new covenant. We don't have to ask people if they know God. They know God. And they usually understand if they have hurt someone, or turned away from God. We have Good News for us and them. God forgives the wrong things we do, if we will just ask and try to do better, no matter how bad our actions are, or how long we have done bad things. And we're not going to get flogged no matter what we have done. The court may throw us in prison, or send us to a doctor, but we have forgiveness. We can move on with our lives. God is impressed by our good behavior, which makes us acceptable, not so much by sacrifices we make to honor him. Either way we are forgiven.
*1. Hebrew words for sin: Pesha is interpreted as a rebellious sin, committed in defiance of God. Avon is interpreted as perverse sins meant to twist the will of God for selfish reasons, or uncontrolled emotion, but not to defy God. Avera means any type of sin. Cheit (chata'ah) is an unintentional sin, for which the person is not considered respnsible. Or to miss the mark, such as an archer aiming at a target but missing. It is the word most often translated as sin.
Covenants in the Bible Covenant, Biblical - Wikipedia