views updated


In biblical Hebrew there are about 20 different words which denote "sin." It may be inferred, therefore, that the ancient Israelites had more concepts expressing various nuances of sin than Western thought and theology. A study of the biblical concept of sin, therefore, cannot disregard the diversity of words denoting sin. These words must be examined in their context, i.e., in the formulas and literary units in which they occur. An analytic study of the three most commonly used terms – ḥeṭʾ, peshaʿ and avon (ʿawon) – has been undertaken by R. Knierim. As these are often found together (Ex. 34:7; Lev. 16:21; Num. 14:18; Isa. 59:12; Jer. 33:8; Ezek. 21:29; Micah 7:18–19; Ps. 32:1, 5; 51:3–7; 59:4–5; Job 7:20–21; 13:23; Dan. 9:24; cf. Isa. 1:2, 4; Ezek. 33:10, 12), even in poetic parallelism, there cannot be an appreciable difference of meaning among them, yet they are not simply synonymous.

The root ḥṭʾ occurs in the Bible 459 times. The original meaning of the verb ḥaṭaʾ is "to miss" something, "to fail," as can be seen from Genesis 31:39; Leviticus 5:15–16; Numbers 14:40; Judges 20:16; Psalms 25:8; Proverbs 8:36; 19:2; and Job 5:24, which indicates that sin as denoted by ḥṭʾ was originally viewed as a failure, a lack of perfection in carrying out a duty. The root ḥṭʾ signifies a failure of mutual relations and corresponds, then, to the modern idea of "offense" rather than to that of "sin," which is a theological concept. One who fulfills the claims of a relation or an agreement is righteous, ẓaddik (ẓaddiq); one who does not, offends (ḥṭʾ l-) his partner. "What is my offense that you have so hotly pursued after me?" Jacob asks Laban (Gen. 31:36). David puts a similar question to Jonathan in connection with his relation to Saul (i Sam. 20:1). This relation was of such a nature that it required of David that he devote all his abilities to the service of Saul, and of Saul that he treat David as his loyal subject. The obligation was mutual as long as it was upheld by both parties. When Saul and David were in the same cave, and David was content to cut off the skirt of Saul's robe, he called out to Saul that it was now clear that he had not "offended" him (i Sam. 24:12). Then Saul acknowledged that David was righteous and that he himself was the offender (cf. i Sam. 26:21), since he had not fulfilled his obligations. All lack of obedience toward superiors is "offense," because in the relations between subordinates and superiors the former are expected to obey the latter. The Egyptian baker and cupbearer who were in prison with Joseph had been sent there because they had "failed" to obey the orders of Pharaoh (Gen. 40:1; 41:9). The people of Pharaoh were accused of "failing" (ḥṭʾ) in their duty, when they did not give any straw to the Israelites so that they might make bricks (Ex. 5:16). The same applies to every deed that is in conflict with, or causes the dissolution of, a community. So Reuben acknowledged that his brothers "sinned" against their brother Joseph (Gen. 42:22). When the king of the Ammonites attacked Israel, Jephthah sent him word explaining that there had always been a relation of peace between the two peoples, and he addressed to him the following reproach: "I have not 'sinned' against you, but you do me wrong to war against me" (Judg. 11:27). The "sin" is here a breach of the covenant relation between the peoples. When Sennacherib threatened Judah in 701, King Hezekiah sent a messenger to him, saying: "I have 'sinned'" (ii Kings 18:14). The "sin" of Hezekiah consisted in a violation of his vassal duties. A "sinful" act, i.e., one of dereliction of duty, is thus a matter between two parties. The one who does not fulfill his obligations in relation to the other is a sinner with regard to the latter; he "sins against him," i.e., "he fails him," and so gives the other a claim upon him.

According to i Samuel 2:25, failure in carrying out one's duty can concern the relations between men or between God and man: "If a man offends against (ḥṭʾ) a man, God will mediate, but if a man offends against (ḥṭʾ) God, who shall act as mediator?" This passage indicates that the "sin" against God was conceived as an "offense," as a failure to fulfill one's obligation toward God. Since the root ḥṭʾ denotes an action, that failure is neither an abstraction nor a permanent disqualification but a concrete act with its consequences. This act is defined as a "failure," an "offense," when it is contrary to a norm regulating the relations between God and man. So, for instance, the infringement of the law of ban (ḥerem) appears in Joshua 7:11, 20 and i Samuel 15:3–19 as an "offense" or "sin" against God in view of the traditions partially recorded in Deuteronomy 20:10–18. That adultery is a "sin" against the Lord (Gen. 20:6, 9; 39:9; ii Sam. 12:13) results from a law such as Exodus 20:14. Social mischiefs stigmatized as "sins" by the prophets (Isa. 58:1ff.; 59:2ff.; Jer. 2:35; 5:25; Ezek. 14:13; 16:51; 33:14; Hos. 12:9; Amos 5:12; Micah 3:8; 6:13) are, in fact, contrary to commandments of the divine law such as Exodus 20:16 (13); 23:1–9; Deuteronomy 27:17–19. The concept of ḥṭʾ extends not only to juridical, moral, and social matters, but also to cultic obligations, and even to involuntary infringements of ritual prescriptions (Lev. 4–5) or of occasional divine premonitions (Num. 22:34).

The root pshʿ occurs in the Bible 136 times, and it too is found in early texts as Genesis 31:36; 50:17; Exodus 22:8; i Samuel 24:11; ii Kings 8:20, 22; Amos 1–2; Micah 3:8; and Proverbs 28:24. Its basic meaning is that of "breach." In terms of international law, the breach of a covenant is thus called peshaʿ (i Kings 12:19; ii Kings 1:1; 3:5, 7; 8:20, 22; Hos. 8:1). In the realm of criminal law, peshaʿ is the delict which dissolves the community or breaks the peaceful relation between two parties (e.g., Gen. 31:36; Ex. 22:8; Prov. 28:24). This is also the meaning of pshʿ when used to express the sinful behavior of man toward God (e.g., i Kings 8:50; Ps. 25:7; 51:3). The verb ʿawah, found in the Bible 17 times, basically expresses the idea of crookedness, and thus means "to wrong" (Lam. 3:9), and in the passive form (nifʿal), "to become bent" (Ps. 38:7). The noun ʿawon, from the same root, is found 227 (229) times, and designates "crookedness." The use of these words in a figurative sense to denote the transgression, the guilt incurred by it, or the punishment, is of popular origin. The metaphor does not belong to the juridical terminology, but was assumed by the theological language. Isaiah 59:2, for example, says that the ʿawonot set up a wall between the Lord and the sinner.

The nouns ḥeṭʾ, haṭaʾah or ḥaṭṭaʾt, peshaʾ, and ʿawon, and also the corresponding verbs, denote a "sin" in the theological sense of the word when they characterize a human deed as a "failure," a "breach," or a "crooked" action with reference to prescriptions that proceed finally from the stipulations of the Covenant. It is not the external nature of the act that makes it sinful. In biblical thought, the relation that creates the right to God's protection also creates the sin. There would be no sin if there were no covenantal law. The sinner is one who has failed in his relation to God, insofar as he has not fulfilled his obligation to God. In other words, it is a "sin" to violate, or to break, the Covenant (cf. Jer. 14:20–21). The biblical doctrine of sin is thus described in Jeremiah 16:10–12 in the following way: "When you tell this people all this, and they say to you: 'Why has the Lord threatened us with such terrible misfortune? What is our crime? What is the offense (ḥṭʾ) we have committed against the Lord our God?' – then answer them: 'It is because your fathers forsook Me. They followed other gods, worshiping them and doing obeisance to them, and forsook Me and did not keep My law. And you have done even worse than they did, each following his own stubbornly wicked inclinations and refusing to listen to Me.'" Even the sin of Adam and Eve, although not described as such in the Bible, was an act that destroyed a special relation between God and man (Gen. 3). The original sin does not appear in the Bible as an innate depravity common to all human beings in consequence of the fall of the first parents. Rather, the biblical tradition knows that "there is no man who does not sin" (i Kings 8:46; cf. Eccles. 7:20). The hyperbolic language in which the psalmist describes his own sinfulness, "I was even born in iniquity, my mother conceived me in sin" (Ps. 51:7; cf. Gen. 8:21), only stresses the ineluctable character of sin. Nobody can escape from it, as the sin can also be involuntary (Lev. 4–5) or proceed from ignorance (Gen. 20:6; Num. 22:34). A man is responsible for all his actions. Therefore sick people may conclude that their illness is a punishment for having offended God (Ps. 38:4, 19; 41:5). This does not mean, however, that the ancient Israelites did not make a distinction between an inadvertent sin and one that is committed willfully. This distinction clearly emerges in Numbers 15:27 and 30. The psychological sentiment of guilt is also expressed in various texts (Ps. 51; 78:17, 32; Prov. 21:4; 24:9; Job 31:30; cf. Gen. 4:7; Deut. 15:9; 22:26). The subjective aspect of a deed is even taken into account by the law, especially in Exodus 21:13–14 and Deuteronomy 19:4–5.

The idea of "deadly" or "mortal" sin originates in biblical expressions connecting ḥṭʾ with mwt ("to die," "death"; Num. 18:22; 27:3; Deut. 21:22; 22:26; 24:16; ii Kings 14:6; Ezek. 3:20; 18:4, 20; Amos 9:10; ii Chron. 25:4). The oldest text connecting the two is probably Amos 9:10, dating from the eighth century b.c.e.: "All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword." The connection of the formula expressing the death sentence with such an indefinite word as "sin" or "offense" cannot be original. It must be regarded as a generalization proceeding from theological reflection. Its original "setting in life" (sitz im leben) is still visible in Deuteronomy 21:22 and 22:16, which refer to the proceedings of the civil tribunal. Numbers 18:22 and 27:3, both of which belong to the Priestly tradition, reflect instead the sphere of sacral law. The remaining passages use the concept of "mortal sin" in a context of "prophetic" preaching.

In a certain sense, every sin may be regarded as "deadly"; for, if all people die, it is because all have sinned, and not in consequence of "the original sin." That the sinner must die is stated or assumed by many texts (Ex. 32:33; Lev. 20:20; 22:9; 24:15–17; Num. 9:13; 16:26; 17:3; 18:22, 32; i Sam. 15:18; i Kings 13:34; 14:11–18; 15:29–30; 16:12–13, 18–19; Isa. 13:9; 38:17; 43:27–28; 64:4–5; Jer. 8:14; Ezek. 3:20; 18:24; Amos 9:8, 10; Ps. 104:34). Stereotyped formulas say even that "each man shall die because of his sin" (ḥṭʾ: Num. 27:3; Deut. 24:16; ii Kings 14:6) or "because of his transgression" (ʿawon: Josh. 22:20; Ezek. 4:17; 7:13, 16; 18:17, 20; 33:6, 8, 9; cf. Gen. 19:15). The sinner must indeed "bear (nsʾ) his sin." The expression means practically "to take the blame upon oneself," and it normally refers to the sinner himself (Gen. 4:13; Ex. 28:43; Lev. 5:1, 17; 7:18; 19:8, 17; 20:17, 19, 20; 22:9; 24:15; Num. 5:31; 9:13; 14:34; 18:22, 23, 32; Ezek. 14:10; 44:10, 12). The law of retaliation demands, in fact, that the offender should be punished according to his sin. However, the same expression also occurs in early pleas for forgiveness (Gen. 50:17; Ex. 10:17; 32:32; i Sam. 15:25; Hos. 14:3; Ps. 25:18), in doxological formulas (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Micah 7:18; Ps. 32:1; 85:3), in a thanksgiving psalm (32:5), in a predication (Josh. 24:19), and in a Song of the Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 53:12). In these texts, the one who takes the blame upon himself is God, the offended person, or a substitute of the sinner (cf. ii Sam. 12:13–14). There are still other cases when one's ʿawon is borne by another person: by the priests (Num. 18:1), by Aaron (Ex. 28:38), by the husband (Num. 30:16), by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 4:4–6), by the community (Lev. 22:16), by the scapegoat (Lev. 16:22), or even by a sacrificed goat (Lev. 10:17). It means that there was a possibility that the sin might not work its consequences upon the sinner. Accordingly, there was sense to the prayer for the forgiveness of sin (cf. i Kings 8:30, 34, 36, 50; Ps. 51:4; 79:9) or the intercession of a prophet (Gen. 20:7; Ex. 9:27–29; 10:17; 32:30–33; Num. 21:7; Deut. 9:18–20; i Sam. 7:5; 12:19; Jer. 14:11; 15:1). The ancient remedy, the sin-offering (ḥaṭṭaʾt), also worked both for the purification of the person and to obtain the forgiveness of the Lord. It is probable that the killed animal was originally regarded as a substitute for the sinner (cf. Lev. 10:17). The confession of sins was another means of winning forgiveness. In this way the sinner expels the sin from his heart; he shows at the same time that he does not intend to conceal his sin and to deceive the Lord.

The formula of the individual's confession of sins, ex-pressed by the verb ḥaṭaʾti ("I have sinned"), is found in the Bible 30 times. It has beyond any doubt a ritual character, even if it is used twice in a rather colloquial way (i Kings 18:9; Neh. 6:13). In the other instances, it is employed with reference to sacral judicial proceedings, as shown by the juridical terminology of the context. It is used not only when someone has sinned against God (Gen. 39:9; Ex. 9:27; 10:16; Num. 22:34; Josh. 7:20; i Sam. 15:24, 30; ii Sam. 12:13; 24:10, 17; Jer. 2:35; Micah 7:9; Ps. 41:5; 51:6; i Chron. 21:8, 17; cf. Job 7:20; 10:14; 33:27) but also against man (Gen. 20:9; 43:9; 44:32; Judg. 11:27; i Sam. 24:11; 26:21; ii Sam. 19:21; ii Kings 18:14; Jer. 37:18). More than half the occurrences are in ancient texts. The oldest form of the proceedings is most likely the one in Joshua 7:13–23, on the occasion of *Achan's sin at Jericho; it seems to be presupposed in Leviticus 5:5 and also Psalms 32:5. After the sinner was designated by the sacred lots, Urim and *Thummim, he had to present a public confession of his sin, which was confirmed by an inquiry. The sin could be forgiven or not, it could be expiated by a sacrifice or by putting the sinner to death. On the other hand, in i Samuel 15:24 and ii Samuel 12:13 (cf. ii Sam. 24:10–19), the casting of lots and public confession are dispensed with, the sin being confessed before the cultic prophet who accused the sinner in God's name. This procedure was probably characteristic of the early monarchical period. The individual confession of sins is also expressed by the words peshaʿai (Ps. 25:7; 32:5; 39:9; 51:3, 5) and ʿawonotai (Ps. 38:5; 40:13), by the singular pishʿi (Micah 6:7; Job 7:21; 14:17) and ʿawoni (Gen. 4:13; Ps. 32:5; 38:19), or else by various locutions using one of these words (Gen. 44:16; i Sam. 25:24; ii Sam. 14:9). These confessions occur in many different contexts: prayer, praise, interrogation, etc.; the confession of sins is thus often indirect.

The formula of the national confession of sins is expressed by the verb ḥaṭaʾnu ("we have sinned"). This verbal form occurs in the Bible 24 times, but only twice in texts that are definitely ancient – Numbers 12:11 and 14:40, which seem to belong to the Elohistic tradition of the Pentateuch. However, the first of these two passages does not actually contain a national confession of sins, since the sinners are Miriam and Aaron; thus an individual confession of sins is applied to two persons at once. None of the remaining 22 attestations of the form can safely be dated before the late seventh centuryb.c.e. (Num. 21:7; Deut. 1:41; Judg. 10:10, 15; i Kings 8:47; Isa. 42:24; Jer. 3:25; 8:14; 14:7, 20; 16:10; Ps. 106:6; Lam. 5:16; Dan. 9:5, 8, 11, 15; Neh. 1:6 (twice); ii Chron. 6:37). All these texts have a cultic or sacral character. Other formulas of national confession of sins, expressed by the word peshaʿenu ("our sins") can be found in Isaiah 53:5; 59:12; Ezekiel 33:10; Psalms 65:4; 103:12; and Lamentations 1:14, 22. As far as these texts can be dated, they were all composed in the sixth century b.c.e. The term ʿawonenu, or ʿawonotenu, also occurs with that meaning, namely, in Isaiah 53:5–6; 64:5; Psalms 90:8; Daniel 9:13; and Ezra 9:6, 13 – texts which are all Exilic or post-Exilic. It seems, therefore, that, contrary to the individual confession, the national one is a relatively late innovation in Israel's penitential liturgy (cf. E. Lipinski, La liturgie pénitentielle dans la Bible (1969), 35–41).

When God "forgives" one's sin, He "covers" or "hides" it (Micah 7:18; Ps. 32:1, 5; 85:3; Prov. 10:12; 17:9; 19:11; 28:13; Job 31:33), He "does not remember [i.e., that He overlooks]" it (Isa. 64:8; Ps. 25:7), He "bears" it Himself (Ex. 32:32; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Josh. 24:19; Hos. 14:3; Micah 7:18; Ps. 25:18; 32:1, 5; 85:3). Though it is merely said that the sin is forgotten, covered, not imputed to the sinner, God's forgiveness of sins is identical with the curing of the man and with the regeneration of his strength. It means, indeed, that God will not take him away "in the middle of his days" (Jer. 17:11; Ps. 55:24; 102:25), but will permit him to spend on earth the full span of human life, i.e., "70 years" (Isa. 23:15; Ps. 90:10). Then He will cut him off by death, for "there is no righteous man on earth who does good and never sins" (Eccles. 7:20).

[Edward Lipinski]

Rabbinic Views

The usual rabbinic term for sin is averah, from the root avar ("to pass over"; i.e., sin is a rejection of God's will). The rabbis rarely speak of sin in the abstract but usually of specific sins. There are sins of commission and omission – in the rabbinic terminology, the transgression of negative precepts and the failure to perform positive precepts (Yoma 8:8). Sins of commission are more serious than those of omission (Yoma 85:86a), and the term averah generally refers to the former. In one respect, however, the latter are more severe. If positive precepts have to be carried out at a certain time and that time has passed, the omission cannot be rectified, e.g., the failure to recite the Shema on a particular day. To this is applied the verse (Eccles. 1:15): "That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered" (Ber. 26a). Sins involving the transgression of negative precepts are of two kinds – offenses against God and offenses against one's neighbor. The Day of Atonement brings forgiveness for sins committed against God, i.e., for purely religious offenses. It only brings forgiveness for offenses against other human beings if the wrong done to the victim has first been put right (Yoma 8:9). The intention to sin is not reckoned as sin except in the case of idolatry (Kid. 39b).

Sins are also divided into light and severe sins. The three most serious sins for the rabbis are murder, idolatry, and adultery and incest. It was eventually ruled that rather than commit these, a man must forfeit his life (Sanh. 74a). The light sins are those which "a man treads underfoot" (Tanḥ. B. Deut. 8b). A marked tendency to be observed in rabbinic homiletics is to encourage people to take the lighter sins more seriously by treating them as if they were far weightier offenses. Thus, whoever leaves the Holy Land to reside outside it is as if he had worshiped idols (Sifra, Be-Har 6); whoever bears evil tales is as if he denies the root principle of faith (Ar. 15b); whoever shames his neighbor in public is as if he had shed blood (bm 58b).

Those who cause others to sin were severely castigated by the rabbis. One who causes another to sin is worse than one who slays him, because the murderer only excludes his victim from this life, while the one who causes another to sin excludes him from the life of the world to come (Sif. Deut. 252). Jeroboam is the prototype of the one who leads others to sin (Avot 5:18).

Sin is caused by the evil *inclination (yeẓer ha-ra), the force in man which drives him to gratify his instincts and ambitions. Although called the "evil inclination" because it can easily lead man to wrongdoing, it is essential to life in that it provides life with its driving power. Were it not for the yeẓer ha-ra, remarks a rabbinic Midrash (Gen. R. 9:7), a man would not build a house, or marry, or have children, or engage in commerce. In similar vein is the curious legend (Yoma 69b) that the men of the Great Synagogue wanted to kill the yeẓer ha-ra, who warned them that if they were successful the "world would go down," i.e., would come to an end. They therefore imprisoned him for three days and then searched all the land for a new-laid egg without finding one. Passages such as these, however, must not be construed as suggesting any rabbinic acceptance of the inevitability of sin or of its condonation. The strongest expressions are used of the heinousness of sin and surrender to the yeẓer ha-ra. R. Simeon b. Lakish said "Satan, the yeẓer ha-ra, and the angel of death are one and the same" (bb 16a). The yeẓer ha-ra entices man to sin in this world and bears witness against him in the future world (Suk. 52b). The yeẓer ha-ra assaults man every day, endeavoring to kill him, and if God would not support him, man could not resist him; as it is said (Ps. 37:32): "The wicked watcheth the righteous and seeketh to slay him. The Lord will not leave him in his hand" (ibid.). Unless severe control is exercised man becomes the prey of sin. Commenting on ii Samuel 12:4, it is said that the yeẓer ha-ra is at first called a "passerby," then a "guest," and finally "one who occupies the house" (ibid.). When a man sins and repeats the sin, it no longer seems to him as forbidden (Yoma 86b).

The much discussed question of whether there are any parallels to the Christian doctrine of original sin in rabbinic literature can be disposed of simply by noting that there are no such parallels. The passages which state that "four died through the serpent's machinations" (Shab. 55b) and that "the serpent copulated with Eve and infected her with his filth" (Shab. 146a), quoted in this connection, expressly exclude Israel from the effects of the serpent's machinations and his filth, and in all probability are an intentional polemic against the doctrine of original sin. Nevertheless, while the rabbis do not see sin as hereditary – that man is bound to sin because of Adam's sin – their views are far removed from "liberal" optimism regarding man's inherent goodness, as the doctrine of the yeẓer ha-ra clearly demonstrates. It is recorded that the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai debated for two and a half years whether it were better for man not to have been created (i.e., because of his propensity to sin); it was finally decided that it would have been better if he had not been created, but since he has been let him investigate his deeds (Eruv. 13b).

Counsels are given to man as to how he can rise above sin. He should know that above him there is a seeing eye and a hearing ear and that all his deeds are recorded in a book (Avot 2:1). He should reflect that he comes from a putrid drop, that he goes to a place of dust, worms, and maggots, and that he is destined to give an account and a reckoning before the King of kings (Avot 3:1). But the study of the Torah and the practice of the precepts are the best method of avoiding sin (Sot. 21a). God says: "My children! I created the evil inclination, but I created the Torah as its antidote; if you occupy yourselves with the Torah you will not be delivered into [the inclination's] hand" (Kid. 30b). The school of R. Ishmael taught: "My son, if this repulsive wretch [the yeẓer ha-ra] attacks you, lead him to the house of learning: if he is stone, he will dissolve; if iron, he will shiver into fragments" (Kid. 30b).

[Louis Jacobs]


L. Koehler, Old Testament Theology (1957), ch. 51; E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (1958), pt. 3, ch. 1; J. Scharbert, in bz, 2 (1958), 14–26, 190–213; L.F. Hartmann, in: cbq, 20 (1958), 26–40; D. Daube, in: jjs, 10 (1959), 1–13; idem, Sin, Ignorance and Forgiveness in the Bible (1960); R. Knierim, Die Hauptbegriffe fuer Suende im Alten Testament (1965); idem, in: vt, 16 (1966), 366–85; K. Koch, in: Evangelische Theologie, 26 (1966), 169–90; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 (1967), 380–483. rabbinic views: S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909), 219–343; G.F. Moore, Judaism (1958), 445–552; A. Buechler, Studies in Sin and Atonement (1928); C.M. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (1938), index; A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (1949), 95–103; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1970), 371–392.


views updated



Sin, in most religions, may be rooted in human being but shows itself in human action. This action is of a negative character and represents what the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) described as an awareness that things are not the way they ought to be (Rahner 1961-1979, p. 164). In some faiths the stress is on the corporate character of sin: what causes it, how it is manifested, and what a community does with it. Thus when ancient Israel offended against the way things ought to be as prescribed by Yahweh, the people together experienced punishment by this God and recognized a need to atone for sin, to bring the lives of the community and individuals in it in line with the way things ought to be.

The source of that sense of ought may relate to the ways humans in the earliest and simplest of circumstances sensed that there must be a right way, but they were not able to attain it or resisted attainment. Or the source may be in conscience. How the separate faiths account for conscience or any other inner apparatus that inspires and informs conduct tells much about what each considers to be sin and what each prescribes to be a remedy, often called atonement. Alongside a primitive sense of oughtness and conscience, a third way of discerning the source of sin is in divine revelation. Ordinarily this means that gifted and charismatic individuals, prophets within the tradition, judge people against the standard of what some holy book has described as conformity to the proper way or prescribed as atoning action.

In cultures informed by the Bible of the Jews and Christians, the definitions and experiences of sin come to focus in a witness to a living creator God who interacts with people, stipulating how they should live, and who in a sacred scripture sets forth a covenant, a divine-human pact that must be followed if God is to be pleased or given an opportunity to show mercy. Whether on a communal or an individual level and whether on gross or trivial scales, sin is seen as a free violation of what God commands and expects. In Christianity there is a similar stress on locating the errant individual in light of how he or she affirms or departs from a divine-human covenant. Christianity preaches that God is both just and merciful. Being merciful, God can recognize value in the efforts of those who try to live in accord with divine commands and can extend mercy even where there is failure.

Sin in most Christian traditions is seen against the background of what Christians call original sin, which they perceive as a reality even if they have difficulty accounting for it along with other negative features and experiences in a universe created and governed by a good God. Traditionally original sin, the factor in human experience that makes it impossible for anyone to live a perfect life, is traced to Adam and Eve, the first humans, according to the account in Genesis. Tempted by an external agent, the serpent, they willingly responded and went against the express decree of God. When, acting upon this evil agency in and around them, their heirs, all humans, engage in actual sin also a technical termthey are breaking the covenant. In some biblical language, sin means missing the mark or transgressing Gods boundaries.

In Judaism and Christianity various paths of return to the covenant and Gods good graces are prescribed and are called atonement or reconciliation to God. The same God who set forth the mark that was missed or the boundary transgressed and who can be wrathful and will exact punishment is also witnessed to as merciful. Through atoning activities, for Christians in the agency of Jesus Christ as Gods Son who is offered up in a loving sacrifice for others, believers are set on a path that allows them to approach hitting the mark, staying in the boundaries, pleasing God, and receiving a reward, thanks to the grace of this covenanting God. One of the main differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant varieties of Christianity is the stress in the former on human participation in redeeming activities through good works, while for Protestantism, which also expects good works, the accent is more on Gods grace.

In virtually every faith, though terms like original sin and transgressing may be absent, there is some pattern or ideal to be followed to place human individuals or the community in a positive relation to the highest power or source. This is usually God, under a variety of names, such as for Muslims Allah. Allah has created an ordered universe, but humans who violate the laws of Allah cause disorder and are evil or act evilly. While Islam does not employ concepts such as original sin, Muslims know that they are in a universe where something is expected of them that they do not and cannot achieve on their own. Practicing rites of prayer, almsgiving, and submission to Allah represents a turning from sin and the threat of punishment and makes room for Allah the All-Merciful to show mercy.

Religious communities that either do not witness to God or gods, such as Buddhism, or where deity is represented by various supernatural beings, as in Hinduism, will not speak in terms of a covenant with a merciful God that humans choose to follow or break. Thus in Buddhism, which cannot connect human evil with a covenanting God because there is no witness to God, the concern is to deal with negative forces and actions, summarized in the term karma. Individual actions are measured in the light of whether the intention of an act was positive or negative, with the goal of dealing with suffering, which is a universal human experience, by disciplines and practices that in their intention make room for good and positive karma and actions.

In Hinduism there is also no covenant with the one God (monotheism) or original sin, yet there are also prescribed paths for conduct pleasing to the deities adored in Hinduism. In Hinduism, as well as most other faiths, there are actions equivalent to atoning ones in monotheistic faiths, actions that through conduct and proper ritual or meditation lead one to positive conduct and reward. In almost all faiths atoning activities that counter sin or bad karma have positive rewards in this life and, in many faiths, in life after death. This is so in Christian resurrection or Hindu reincarnation. In none of the faiths is the realistic note wholly lost. That is, they do not envision a complete overcoming of evil as expressed in human sin but teach ways to live and think in the face of such evil that resides in the external world and in the self.

SEE ALSO Christianity; Hell; Hinduism; Judaism; Punishment; Purification; Reincarnation; Religion; Supreme Being


Häring, Bernard. 1974. Sin in the Secular Age. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Park, Andrew Sung. 1993. The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

Rahner, Karl. 1961-1979. Anonymous Christianity. In Theological Investigations, vol. 12. Baltimore: Helicon.

Smith, C. Ryder. 1953. The Bible Doctrine of Sin and of the Ways of God with Sinners. London: Epworth.

Martin E. Marty


views updated



In the Hebrew scriptures there are three main categories of sin. Ḥet indicates a failure of mutual relations, Pesha indicates a breach in the relationship between two parties. The verb awah (avah) expresses the notion of crookedness. The rabbis used the term averah (passing over), so sin is a passing over or rejection of the will of God. The primary cause of sin is the evil inclination. See also SACRIFICE; TESHUVA; FORGIVENESS.


In the New Testament there are distinctive treatments of sin in (i) Paul, for whom sin is a ruling power in the world (Romans 5. 12; Galatians 3. 22) and in people (Romans 6. 6, 7. 14–20); (ii) the Johannine writings, where ‘sin’ is the opposite of ‘truth’ and is related to disbelief in Christ (John 9. 41, 15. 24); and (iii) Hebrews, where it is a disorder atoned for by sacrifices (2. 17, 5. 1). Otherwise the word and its cognates are used without great precision, particularly in expounding the saving work of Christ.

Of later elaborations of the understanding of sin, the most important is probably the concept of original sin. Also important was the development of the penitential system. Social sin has been increasingly recognized as amounting to far more than the sum of individual sins and sinners, as e.g. in Liberation Theology. See also SEVEN DEADLY SINS.


There are more than ninety words in the Qurʾān for sin or offence against God or one's fellow human beings; it is therefore impossible to summarize the many nuances of sin in Islam. But from that fact alone, it is obvious that the mission of Muḥammad was addressed to humans who are in grave danger because of their propensity to sin. There is no trace of an ab-original fault which affects all subsequent humans. Nevertheless, there are many ways in which humans fall into sin or error, and the Qurʾān offers guidance so that there can be no doubt what behaviour God requires. The Day of Judgement (yaum al-Din) is decided on an exact balance between good and evil acts—though evaluation takes account of niy(y)a (intention). But God is merciful and compassionate, and the way of repentance (tawbah) is always open. Even so, there were those in early Islam who held that a Muslim who sins has become an apostate and therefore no longer belongs to the community (see KHARIJITES).


As in other E. religions, the most radical fault which has to be overcome is not so much sin as ignorance (avidyā). Nevertheless, it is perfectly well recognized that there are behaviours (and thoughts) which are wrong and which might well be called sin, for which the most usual word is pāpa. The foremost of these (pāpātama) is moha. Closely associated are lobha and krodha (anger). The classic texts of dharmaśastra develop an elaborate casuistry, dividing sins into mahāpātakas (great offences) and upapātakas (lesser offences). There are five greater offences: killing a brahman (brāhmaṇahatyā; killing an outcaste is a lesser offence than killing a cow, since there is no dharma of religious consequence in relation to those without caste); drinking intoxicants (surāpāna); stealing (steyam, not in general, but in specified ways); sexual relations with the wife of a guru (guruvaṅganāgama; sometimes interpreted as ‘father’, i.e. against incest); associating with a known sinner (mahāpātakasaṃsārga). The lesser offences are far more varied and differently listed. The way to deal with offences is to undertake penance and make atonement. Penance may range from prāṇāyāma and tapas (to burn out offence) to gifts to brahmans and pilgrimage.


Buddhism does not accept the existence of an omnipotent deity and has no concept of sin as the offence against such a being by the contravention of his will as expressed through revelation or deduced by reason. It does, however (in terms of the doctrine of karma), distinguish clearly between good and evil deeds.

A wrongful thought, word, or deed is one which is committed under the influence of the ‘Three Roots of Evil’ (akusalamūla), namely greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha). Wrongful actions are designated in various ways: as evil (pāpa), bad (akusala), demeritorious (apuñña), or corrupt (sankiliṭṭha), and all such deeds lead inevitably to a deeper entanglement in the process of suffering and rebirth (saṃsāra) and away from the fulfilment and enlightenment of nirvāna.


views updated


Sin is the condition or act by which a human person produces evil. Evil is suffering produced by either sin, disease, or accident. Suffering that leads to death and loss of relationship to God is the ultimate evil. The classic Christian list of seven deadly sins includes pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. Islam, led by the Qur'han, sees sin in terms of pride and opposition to God. Iblis or Satan provided the model for human sinning when he refused to obey God's command to prostrate himself before Adam. In an ancient Hindu-Buddhist myth of the fall a primordial disembodied mind living in the golden age descends into a physical body where desire, lust, passion, and covetousness prevail. Others follow, souls taking on flesh. Greed leads to stealing and violence, and the human soul becomes trapped in a physical world of temporal temptation from which it longs to escape to eternity.

Phenomenologically, evil is first experienced biologically as suffering. The most primitive awareness of sin takes the form of defilement, of external contamination deriving from physical contact with what is profane. Rituals of cleansing, usually with water, become the liturgical means for ridding the sinner of defilement. When this becomes internalized, defilement is associated with physical passions welling up from within, with carnal desires that tempt by threatening to overwhelm the rational mind by chaotic passion. Fleshly desires become identified with the lower nature, while mind or soul or spirit becomes identified with the higher nature. The higher nature is where the human will is lodged, and the highest form of sin is a freely willed act of evil.

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures advance no theory of sin, yet examples of sinning abound. Sins corrupt a person's whole heart, and total corruption requires total transformation or renewal by an act of divine grace. Sin applies to the individual heart as well as to a people or nation, warranting transformation of all things into a new creation.

Twentieth-century theologians and psychologists tended to associate the origin of sin with anxiety, anxiety understood existentially as feeling threatened by loss, threatened by dissolution into nonbeing. Death is nonbeing to a human, and the threat of death triggers in the human psyche a panic impulse to steal what it can from the imagined life force. In the moral sphere the pursuit of virtue becomes sinful, as those fleeing anxiety engage in self-justification and scapegoating. To define oneself as virtuous simultaneously requires assigning responsibility for the evil in the world to someone else, usually an enemy; this provides justification for decimating the enemy through gossip, lawsuits, war, or genocide.

Some religious theories associated with sin have been challenged during the era of modern science. The biblical story of Adam and Eve in paradise falling into sin, for example, has long been considered a historical event in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though interpreted quite differently. With the rise of evolutionary theory and deep time, the idea of a single pair of human progenitors has lost scientific credibility. No sinless paradise would be possible according to evolutionary theory because natural selection and survival of the fittest would necessarily apply at the point of origin. This dilemma has left theologians with two options. One is to deny acceptance to evolutionary theory, the path taken by scientific creationists in American Christianity and fundamentalist Muslims in Turkey. The other is to admit evolutionary theory and deny historicity to the Garden of Eden, the path followed by liberal Protestant Christian and Jewish commentators who see the Adam and Eve story as a myth describing everyday human activity.

A second challenge is indirect, the challenge to human free will from biological reductionism in genetics. During the era of the Human Genome Project, public belief in the determining power of DNA grew, and molecular biologists began to assign genes for not only physical traits but also predispositions to behavior. Antisocial behavior such as a propensity toward alcoholism, aggression, and violence were postulated as genetic in origin, as was homosexuality. Sociobiologists added the idea of the selfish gene, the principle that genes employ human bodies and human culture to insure their own replication through reproductiontheir version of survival of the fittest. The fittest are those genes that bring their hosts to reproductive age. This idea allegedly explains why families and clans protect their own kin and are willing to prosecute war or even genocide against others. Moral behavior and religious practices became explainable as the result of genetic expression. Some scientists began to claim they had produced a biological explanation for original sin in the sense of an inherited propensity to survive to reproductive age even if it means perpetrating violence against genetic competitors.

The naturalistic question arises here for theologians. If theological interpretations of sin are compossible with genetic or other forms of biological determinism, one needs to ask: If something is natural is it good? If a doctrine of creation asserts that what exists presently in nature is due to God's will, then biological impulses even toward aggressive behavior must become normative. This is a theological version of what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy: What is is what ought to be. However, much of traditional spirituality in Asia as well as the West has regarded human biological makeup as the source of misleading desire and dangerous passion; biological determinism would only increase religious resolve to pit the power of the spirit over the power of the flesh.

See also Evil and Suffering; Fall; Genetic Determinism; Selfish Gene; Sociobiology


medina, john. the genetic inferno: inside the seven deadly sins. new york: cambridge university press, 2000.

o'flaherty, wendy doniger. the origins of evil in hindu mythology. berkeley and los angeles: university of california press, 1976.

peters, ted. sin: radical evil in soul and society. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1994.

ricoeur, paul. symbolism of evil, trans. emerson buchanan. boston, mass.: beacon, 1967.

suchocki, marjorie hewitt. the fall to violence: original sin in relational theology. new york: continuum, 1994.

tillich, paul. systematic theology. chicago: university of chicago press, 19511963.

wright, robert. the moral animal. new york: pantheon, 1994.

ted peters


views updated

sin1 / sin/ • n. an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law: a sin in the eyes of God | the human capacity for sin. ∎  an act regarded as a serious or regrettable fault, offense, or omission: he committed the unforgivable sin of refusing to give interviews | humorous with air like this, it's a sin not to go out. • v. (sinned, sin·ning) [intr.] commit a sin: I sinned and brought shame down on us. ∎  (sin against) offend against (God, a person, or a principle): I had sinned against my master.PHRASES: (as) —— as sin inf. having a particular undesirable quality to a high degree: as ugly as in sin inf., dated live together as though married.sin of commission a sinful action.sin of omission a sinful failure to perform an action.DERIVATIVES: sin·less adj.sin·less·ly adv.sin·less·ness n.sin2 / sīn/ • abbr. sine.


views updated

sin an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law; an act regarded as a serious or regrettable fault, offence, or omission. The word is recorded from Old English (in form synn), and is probably related to Latin sons, sont- ‘guilty’.
it's a sin to steal a pin proverbial saying, late 19th century; meaning that even if what is stolen is of little value, the action is still wrong.
the sin against the Holy Ghost in theological debate, the only sin which may be beyond forgiveness, as indicated in the words of Jesus in Matthew 13:32. In extended modern usage, the phrase may be used for the one thing in a particular context which is seen as beyond toleration.
sin-eater someone traditionally hired to take upon themselves the sins of a deceased person by means of food eaten beside the dead body; the term is recorded from the mid 17th century, in Remains of Gentilism and Judaism by the antiquary John Aubrey (1626–97).

See also charity covers a multitude of sins, Satan rebuking sin, seven deadly sins.


views updated

Sin ★½ 2002 (R)

Retired cop Eddie Burns (Rhames) searches for his missing sister Kassie (Washington) and discovers she's part of a twisted plot by crime boss Charlie Strom (Oldman) to get revenge on Burns for their shared past. Too many plot holes and unbelievable situations make this revenge thriller less than scintillating despite the pro work of the leads. (Okay, so Oldman chews the scenery but you expect that.) 107m/C DVD . Ving Rhames, Gary Oldman, Kerry Washington, Brian Cox, Alicia Coppola, William Sage, Gregg Henry, Arie Verveen, Chris Spencer; D: Michael Stevens; W: Tim Willocks; C: Zoran Popovic; M: Michael Giacchino.


views updated

367. Sin

See also 146. EVIL ; 203. HELL ; 205. HERESY ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .

Theology. the study or science of the doctrine of sin.
an obsession with sin.
an abnormal fear of error or sin.
1. the state or condition of being sinful or in sin.
2. a sinful act. peccant, adj.
peccatiphobia, peccatophobia
an abnormal fear of sinning.
the sin or offense of selling or granting for personal advantage church appointments, benefices, preferments, etc. simonist, n.


views updated

sin State or instance of being or acting in a way that is contrary to the ideals of righteousness propounded by a religion. In most religions, sin results from contravening the will of God or the gods as revealed in the code of behaviour upon which the religion rests. See also original sin


views updated

sin transgression of the divine law. OE. syn(n) wrongdoing, offence, (also) enmity; :- *sunjō, rel. to OS. sundea, OHG. sunt(e)a, sund(e)a (G. sünde), ON. synd.
So sin vb. OE. syngian (:- *sunniʒōjan), ME. sun(i)gen, singen, repl. by sinne, based on the sb.