The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.
Part 3: Are all sins equal?
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 3: Are all sins equal?
Are all sins the same, or are they weighted, kind of like our legal system. Driving under the influence isn't treated the same as premeditated murder. How are we judged in the end? Do more heinous sins make us candidates for the Lake of Fire? while the lighter sins are just scoff laws? Or are the forgiven not judged at all?
First, an important lesson for us all. My last article I had to edit after publishing it, for word interpretation problems. I had looked at 3 Hebrew words used for sin, and used the Strong Concordance and numbered lexicon, with due reference to Brown–Driver–Briggs. To a Jew who knows Hebrew, my errors would have been obvious. My apologies. I caught the errors when doing further research among the experts.
This points to a problem with interpretation, with which I'm very familiar. It ain't easy. I don't translate, I simply understand the difficulties with translating, which are numerous. Most skilled interpreters spend most of their lives doing just that. Looking at multiple opinions helps. The Jews have a long history with the Hebrew Bible (Our Old Testament), and long history of interpretation. I tend to favor their interpretation. However, I don't find complete agreement even in their references.
When I read some of the passages containing these words, and looked at the meaning of the words, they suggested certain things to me. Yet I discovered that Judasim has a different view. Same word, same meaning, same context, different overall interpretation in context. It's a lesson to all of us. When we read a word or passage, we may think we know what it means. And this is a common problem in translation, and in semiotics and linguistics. We may even interpret something, we think, in context. But history, especially of those who used the word for thousands of years, is a very important context, and may present a different view. So much for that.
The Apostle Paul - a man on the extremes
Now a realistic look at the Apostle Paul. This isn't meant to diminish Paul in any way, but to gain more context about what he said and why he said it. The Apostle Paul began the book of Romans with a laundry list of sins that people shouldn't do, saying that God had turned them over to their lusts, and (Romans 1:29-32 NIV), "They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them."
So there Paul says it. Are we under the Law again? Argh! We're all doomed. But in Romans 7 (NIV) he confesses, "...I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the Law.... I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.... in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death..." He continues as if confused, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
I have news for Paul. This "devil in me made me do it," thing does not work as a defense in court. They throw the devil within you in jail, and the good guy goes, too. Being torn by good and evil must have been very difficult for Paul to accept. He was a fanatic for God, going around with a group finding and killing Christians, who they thought were teaching false doctrines. In all of his writings you can see the polarizing extreme views in Paul: We're all guilty of sin and death. All sin is the same. Sexual sins are the worst.... We are dead to sin. The Law was given so we would recognize sin. The Law condemns us to death. We are no longer under law, but under love. Paul was like the philosophical notion of "reductio ad absurdum" that is, push every argument to its extreme, so that what results is absurd and impracticle. This doesn't mean he was wrong. It just means to take some of the things he said with a grain of salt, or sand, or rocks. Take Paul's words with one big word: understanding. Or you will be out killing those whom you think are heretics.
Two ideas were very pronounced in Paul's thinking, from his Jewish heritage. 1. Marriage is the only state for people to be in, and men are the leaders, unless people remain unmarried for religious reasons. Marriage is viewed as holy. 2. Purity is the only state to be in before God, although Jews knew that all people sin, including Paul. All of Jewish religion is focused on purity. If you were impure, you weren't presentable to God. Purity meant without sin, forgiven.
There were two very prominent sects in Judaism, for whom purity was also very important. The Sadducee sect in Judaism was the ruling sect. These were descendents of the people who came back after the Second Diaspora in which the leaders had been removed to Babylon and the Temple destroyed. They felt they had been removed because they had failed to keep God's commandments, so their emphasis was on keeping God's Laws, absolutely. Absolute purity. But Paul was a Pharisee. He wasn't such a fanatic on so called "ritual Laws," that had to do with keeping of the many rituals in Judaism. But "divine Law" was another story. If it came from the Bible, or God, or revelation, then it was eternal and there was no deviation from it except through a new revelation, of which Paul happened to have several.
Anything that deviated from what Paul knew about the Bible, was bad. It made people impure and unable to stand before God. So he expounded on these things at length, and added to them. For example, there is no prohibition in Judaism and the Hebrew Bible about women lying with women for sexual reasons. Yet Paul included that in his condemnation.
On the one hand, Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 10, 11: "I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others."... "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way."
On the other hand, for Paul, even the length of a person's hair was very important. He says, "Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head." ..."Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God."
Paul was ready to throw people out of church for their hair and head coverings. What about law? Tolerance? love? Most of us have gotten past judging people because of the length of their hair and their head ornaments. We understand that those may be cultural issues for some, but they have nothing to do with the character of the person.
So how do we understand Paul? He was certainly a man of strong passion for purity and a stickler for the smallest cultural detail, yet through his own failings he also understood that we are not pure. Yet a person could only stand before God in purity. Were we under law? Were we under love, all was legal, and we are forgiven? Like many today, Paul was torn between the two extremes. The Law and culture stood large in his eyes and his culture. Getting to love was very hard.
Paul reasoned in extreme terms with very little middle ground. He was essentially a zealot and a fundamentalist. He loved the law, but he wrestled at length with the idea of love, going to great lengths to define it for us (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). He stood well entrenched in Judaism, and he spoke out in extreme terms against the offensive things he saw in other cultures, especially Hellenic culture. So does this diminish what Paul said? In this article, we see more of the way the Jews looked at sin, and understand better Paul's heritage on this.
The cultural time of Paul
While we associate the New Testament of Christ with Rome, that was a very new development. Rome didn't rise to power in that area until 31 BCE. Before that, for 300 years the Greeks (Hellenism) had been the dominant influence. Alexander rose to power in 325 BCE and conquered the countries in the eastern Mediterranean rim as far as Egypt on the southern rim, and stopping at Italy on the northern rim, except the southeast section of Italy became Hellenized.
Hellenism brought about the "abomination of desolation" talked about in the book of Daniel. They took their gods into new regions and blended them with local gods. Hellenism and Rome had different sexual standards. Honor was a high virtue in Hellenism, and sexual freedom was a key characteristic. It was a macho culture in which men were to be virile and not sexually subservient. Man-boy relationships were common. So what Paul saw in Hellenism must have set his soul on fire. Everything they did was religiously objectionable.
The Romans were different from the Greeks, but not that different. It was also a macho culture, had many gods, and permitted sexual practices that Judaism would have found abohorent, such as sex with slaves, and man-boy sexual relationships with slaves in the military. Paul would have had a huge amount of animosity for them also.
The Abrahamic religions and sin
Several religions have Abraham and the first five books of the Bible as their root, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Bahá'í Faith, Rastafari, Yazdânism (the Yezidi), and Samaritanism. Many have slightly different versions of the Ten Commandments. Abrahamic religions.
Christians are generally familiar with the Good Samaritan story in the Bible, but are unfamiliar with Samaritan history. The area was originally part of Israel, but during the Diaspora when the leaders and much of the population was taken to Babylon, there were remnants left behind in Samaria and other areas. The Samaritans mixed their religion with the Akkadian religion, which had its roots in ancient Sumer. Later during Hellenization, groups separated and became Hellenized.
The Jews regarded (despised) the Samaritans as having corrupted their religion. They believed in easier divorce, which the Jews hated. They didn't accept the Jewish Prophets. Samaritans.
Together all of the Abrahamic based religions make up around 54% of the world's religions, and their views on sin are more alike than different.
What does Judaism actually say about sin?
In general, Jews look differently at sins against people than disobedience to God. At Yom Kippur holiday, only sins between man and God, not sins between man and his neighbor, are expiated. Small sins are overlooked. Sins against people are expiated by compensation to the offended person.
In Judaism, there is the thought that there is a reward system in ultimate divine judgment, that gives higher rewards to the more righteous. Proverbs 11:31: "Behold, the righteous shall be recompensed on earth: much more the wicked and the sinner." At the end, all souls would be judged on earth and sent either to paradise or Gehenna (consumed by fire). Jewish Encyclopedia
The Jewish Encyclopedia breaks down the 3 types of sin this way: "Of the three kinds of sin embraced in this division, the lightest is the "ḥeṭ," "ḥaṭṭa'ah," or "ḥaṭṭat" (lit. "fault," "shortcoming," "misstep"), an infraction of a command committed in ignorance of the existence or meaning of that command ("be-shogeg"). The second kind is the "'awon," a breach of a minor commandment committed with a full knowledge of the existence and nature of that commandment ("bemezid"). The gravest kind is the "pesha'" or "mered," a presumptuous and rebellious act against God; or a "resha'," such an act committed with a wicked intention. These three degrees are mentioned by the Psalmist (cvi. 6): "We have sinned ["ḥaṭa'nu"], . . . we have committed iniquity ["he-'ewinu"], we have done wickedly." - http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13761-si
Sins against God are forgiven on the annual celebration Of the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16:30 (NIV), ...on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. 34: This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.
This is certainly different from the way Christians typically understand sin. In Christianity, all sins are the same and all are forgivable by asking God. We overlook the grievous peril of mistreating others. From Judaism, we can understand that God may be forgiving of sins against God, but sins against others we need to fix.
In Judaism, "Sin has many classifications and degrees. Some sins are punishable with death by the court, others with death by heaven, others with lashes, and others without such punishment, but no sins committed with willful intentions go without consequence."
Crosscheck - other commentators put it this way: "Judaism describes three levels of sin. There are three categories of a person who commits an avera. The first one is someone who does an avera intentionally, or "B'mezid." This is the most serious category. The second is one who did an avera by accident. This is called "B'shogeg," and while the person is still responsible for their action it is considered less serious. The third category is someone who is a "Tinok Shenishba", which is a person who was raised in an environment that was assimilated or non-Jewish, and is not aware of the proper Jewish laws, or halacha. This person is not held accountable for his or her actions.
"Jews recognize two kinds of sin, offenses against other people, and offenses against God. Offenses against God may be understood as violation of a contract (the covenant between God and the Children of Israel). Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews have believed that right action (as opposed to right belief) is the way for a person to atone for one's sins. Midrash Avot de Rabbi Natan states the following:
One time, when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehosua, they arrived at where the Temple now stood in ruins. "Woe to us" cried Rabbi Yehosua, "for this house where atonement was made for Israel's sins now lies in ruins!" Answered Rabban Yochanan, "We have another, equally important source of atonement, the practice of gemilut hasadim ("loving kindness"), as it is stated "I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).
In Judaism all human beings are believed to have free will and can choose the path in life that they will take. It does not teach that choosing good is impossible - only at times more difficult. There is almost always a "way back" if a person wills it. (Although texts mention certain categories for whom the way back will be exceedingly hard, such as the slanderer, the habitual gossip, and the malicious person)
Some Christians have the belief that success and wealth are the visible indication of God's approval and reward. Many in Judaism embrace the following teaching: The very evil do not repent even at the gates of hell. Such people prosper in this world to receive their reward for any good deed, but cannot be cleansed by and hence cannot leave gehinom, because they don't or can't repent. This world can therefore seem unjust where the righteous suffer, while the wicked prosper. Many great thinkers have contemplated this, but God's justice is long, precise and just. (Thanks also to K.G.L.)
Another view is that life brings what it brings to all. The Apostle Paul said he knew good times and bad. Reward (material things) has nothing to do with anything spiritual. God helps us through the difficult times, through faith. He also brings us into contact with those who can make our world better, or with whom we can make the world better for all.
The idea of sin originated very early in the Hebrew Bible. Judaism developed various words to indicate sin, by degree and type. Sins against God generally aren't regarded as horrible, and these are forgiven annually. However, rebellion against God (Pesha) is the worst sin. Most sins are simply regarded as "missing the mark." The Ancient Greek word, hamartia, frequently used by Paul, means the same thing as in Hebrew, Chata'ah, missing the mark.
The writer of 1 John, probably dictated by John, says this in 1 John 3:6 (NIV) "No one who lives in him [Christ] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him." Rebellious people probably aren't Christians, although no one can judge their hearts. This is the equivalent of the Jewish word, "pesha."
Chata'ah is the infraction of a small command. Chata'ah means an error, missing the mark, most commonly translated as "transgression." This is the word most commonly found, meaning sin in our Bible. It generally isn't a willful act, but a human limitation of some kind. We are generally not held responsible for this.
Awon more commonly means wickedness, such as distorting the word of God for our own means. Taking words and passages out of context because they support what we want would be one such action. As Christians, we were given "love," as the lens through which to judge all actions, interpretations, and beliefs. When the action, interpretation, or belief doesn't fit with love, we know it is false.
Sometimes the person doesn't know any better, so he is blameless. We may know the Law that is written in our hearts, partly because we have compassion for others and don't want to hurt anyone. We know not to kill, steal, cheat in marriage because that would hurt others. But there are a lot of other areas that are not so black and white, and especially before the age of 26, people lack a clear picture of the consequences for their actions because their experience is limited. We have to sort out what is willful rebellion against what we know is right, and just moral and ethical confusion.
Having the "right beliefs" isn't seen in Judaism as important as how you treat your fellow man. Even in sin you aren't responsible for not knowing the Law. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 (NIV) "If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal." "...where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away." "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."#1
There are a lot of things that we should or shouldn't do. We turn a blind eye to those in need, and dismiss it because there are too many needs, there are too many cheats, and working with people is too dangerous and burdensome. We cheat in business to make more money, and dismiss it as a lucrative marketing plan - this is capitalism. We feel pressured to do these things. We're human and miss the mark. We dimiss our errors and omissions by somehow justifying what we do. We are forgiven, and need to clean up our act.
Jesus didn't come to talk about sin. He came to bring the Good News. Forgiveness did not require sacrifice, nor did it have to wait for the Day Of Atonement. Forgiveness was for the asking. It was now. And that forgiveness made you presentable to God, and a member of the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven, which is here, now.
Jesus had the same heritage as Paul. He knew the Jewish Law. Yet he broke the Law, such as the Sabbath, by healing and harvesting food on that day. He went to those whom the Jews despised: Tax collectors for the Romans, lepers, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, prostitutes, and also to women who culture said he shouldn't talk to... and he talked to them and helped them without question... even though he knew their sins but didn't mention them. He showed that God is not a list of rules. Those rules and Laws were made for man, not for God. At times God even hated their feasts and ceremonies when their mistreatment of others overshadowed their religious ceremonies (Amos 5:21). He demonstrated that God is love.
From Judaism to Jesus to Paul, sin was central in some way to their thought. The Jews understood it, categorized it, had amends for it, and insisted on purity. Sin isolated people from God. The Jewish historical understanding of sin can be helpful to us.
Jesus understood that the Law was for us and helped us quit hurting each other, and that we need the burden of sin lifted from us because sin (offending others, enmity with God) dragged us down and kept us away from God. His action brought people back to God.
Paul realized that we are under love, not Law. He felt that the Law made him aware of sin, then God's forgiveness of everyone and all sin showed us God's love.
Romans 13: 8-10 (NIV) "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not covet,' and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."
Can we be without the Law? Can we be free from offending and hurting others? Can we stop allowing selfish motivation to keep us from God (keep us from helping others)? We can shift the emphasis to loving others, away from rigid following of laws. In some ways, the Law is always there. It will always be wrong to murder, steal.... These are basic laws, or the 7 Noahide laws, and they are written in our hearts. This was a belief shared by John Wesley, the father of Methodism (the Methodist Church). We know these things are wrong. We don't need a list.
1. The Apostle Paul puts forward "justification by faith," which means that Christ atoned for our sins by being a sacrifice. No more sacrifice is required. (Turning away from sin is.) Asking God for forgiveness in the name of Christ is an appeal to God through Christ's sacrifice, which is appropriate. Some interpret justification by faith to mean, in extreme logic, that someone has to believe in Christ to claim forgiveness, or they are lost forever. So belief is paramount. What this does is place head knowledge, believing the right thing, above how we treat others, which is a perversion that disregards the beliefs of Judaism that came first, and puts God in the position of sending the entire world to Hell because of incorrect head knowledge. This is equivalent to Paul's proverbial "resounding gong or a clanging cymbal," without love, missing the mark. Faith and belief are basis for action, not a justification for inaction and condemnation of others.
Next: Sexual Morality