What Are Hebrew Words for Sin?

Mark Jones
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The importance of the Old Testament teaching on sin includes the plethora of words used to describe sin, as well as the many different manifestations of sin in the lives of the godly and the wicked. We get a fascinating look at the peculiarities of the human personality in the vividly portrayed stories of individuals, groups, and nations. The book of Genesis, for example, explores human nature in ways that are deeply profound, such as that tricky character called Jacob who needed a lot of work (and patience) from above. David, Absalom, and Manasseh provide fascinating looks into the peculiar character of sin and its consequences. As enlightening as studies on various characters may be, something needs to be said about the precise language God uses in His Word for sin.

Missing the Mark

The Hebrew root, hātā, generally refers to the idea of erring, doing wrong, missing the mark, or going astray, which may or may not relate directly to sin. Still, the word is the most common for sin in the Old Testament. Sometimes physical language even symbolizes the same spiritually in that passage. For example, in Proverbs 19:2 the English translates as “missing the way”: “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” But of course, the straying here is understood spiritually in terms of impetuosity. The hasty person sinfully “rushes into things” by acting without thinking, which is a form of pride. Pride is at odds with patient waiting on the Lord. As we can see, we have to be careful with word studies, making sure to do them with the context in mind. Here, in the wisdom literature of Proverbs, the term denotes sin in terms of an everyday experience symbolic of a moral failure.

“Even for the wicked we see the amazing compassion of God who does not only pardon, but abundantly pardons.”

Rebel and Depart the Path

The verb “rebel” (pāšāʿ) refers to willful rebellion either against God or other humans. So Israel “rebelled against” God (Ezek. 2:3) and, on a human level, “against the house of David to this day” (1 Kings 12:19; see also 2 Kings 1:1). Closely connected to this verb is sāra, whose root refers generally to departure from a path and can denote a spiritual and stubborn deviation from such: “Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel?” (Isa. 1:5; see also Deut. 13:5).

Treacherous Unfaithfulness

The noun maʿal refers to treachery or faithlessness: “And I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, declares the Lord God” (Ezek. 15:8); “I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon and enter into judgment with him there for the treachery he has committed against me” (Ezek. 17:20). Abomination (toʿēba) is also used to describe something repulsive, which may refer to something God abhors or even something that people abhor. One may sacrifice a blemished sheep, for example, and this would be an abomination to God (Deut. 17:1); or sexual perversions, such as a man lying with another man, may be called an abomination (Lev. 18:22).

The term ʾārar, which denotes a curse, frequently appears in the curse formulas as a specific and formal declaration of punishment (Gen. 3:14, 17), often with a threatening aspect (Jer. 11:3). Various other Old Testament words occur for sin, depending on the specific English translation: mischief, wickedness, trouble, wrong, error, fraud, crime, etc. The Old Testament term often translated as “iniquity” (ʿawon) is particularly illuminating. Based upon its frequent usage (more than two hundred instances), we come to the conclusion that it refers in the first place to the iniquitous act itself; second, to the guilt that accompanies all iniquitous acts; and, third, to the inevitable punishment that must result from the act of iniquity. The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 bears our iniquities (vv. 6, 11).

God Is Merciful, But He Hates Sin

In Exodus 34:6–7, the Lord proclaims that He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” In one of the most glorious revelations of His attributes, we also have one of the fiercest declarations of God’s wrath upon those whose fathers have committed iniquity. Here we are faced with the danger of iniquity. It is not an individual problem, but a corporate one (e.g., racism).

Just as righteous parents bring many blessings to their children, it is also true that children suffer for the sins of their parents. An ominous example of corporate punishment for iniquity occurs in 1 Samuel 3:13–14. The house of Eli is punished forever, “for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.” Eli did not restrain his wicked sons, and so his household suffered as a consequence. Sin left unchecked will lead to ruinous consequences.

What About Wickedness?

The Old Testament also speaks regularly of the wicked (rāšāʿ). The adjective rāšāʿ is the most frequently used term to described wicked persons, often in contrast to the righteous (e.g., Gen. 18:23, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”; Ps. 1:6, “for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish”). The wicked offer evil counsel (Ps. 1:1) and in Psalm 10 we are told that the wicked person pursues the poor (v. 2), curses and renounces the Lord (v. 3), lives as a practical atheist (v. 4), deceives and oppresses (v. 7), speaks “mischief and iniquity” (v. 7), seizes the poor (v. 9), and believes God will not remember his actions (v. 11). Wickedness invariably leads to practical atheism. As such, God will vindicate the righteous and destroy the unrepentant wicked (Ps. 1:4–6). So, unless the wicked listen to God’s prophets who call upon them to repent and turn from their wicked ways toward God:

“Let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion
on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isa. 55:7)

The way away from God, for someone who should know better, is indeed wicked. But even for the wicked we see the amazing compassion of God who does not only pardon, but abundantly pardons. Again, so often we see in God’s Word that right next to God’s condemnation of the sinner we find a testimony to God’s grace to the same.

For Further Reading:

Knowing Sin

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