Christianity in the extreme and other religions to one degree or another talk about ‘sin’. Most people have some idea of ‘sin’; typically doing something ‘wrong’. In order to discuss sin in the Judeo-Christian, Biblical sense, one must understand what exactly the Bible means by sin.
The discussion to follow will probably depart from societal concepts of wrongdoing. The discussion will radically differ from secular, especially atheist views of wrong. However, I find it pointless to discuss or argue about anything without first agreeing upon the subject and what that subject entails.
In the Old Testament, the scriptures use several Hebrew (and the equivalent Aramaic) words for wrongdoing. One is the classic “sin” and the second is the familiar but less used “trespass”.
From Strong’s Lexicon H2398 חָטָא translitered as: chata’ Pronounced: khä•tä’
Usually translated (in the meaning of the word for this discussion) as ‘sin’.
A root verb meaning to miss the mark; to miss the goal or path of right and duty; lose oneself, wander from the way; to incur penalty by sin, forfeit; purify from uncleanness
The idea of ‘to miss the mark’ is that of an archer (or rifleman, currently) firing at a target and missing. Not hitting the intended target is ‘sin’. The concept spreads to answering a test question and ‘missing’. Getting a test question wrong is ‘sin’, missing the mark. This then extends into one’s deportment – following the rules of honor and duty – wherein failing to act properly as in negligence or dereliction of duty is ‘sin’. The Hebrew language uses the same word in context to denote the penalty for sin and also the manner in which one removes the guilt of sin from one’s character.
From Strong’s Lexicon פָּשַׁע translitered as: pasha` Pronounced: pä•shah’
Usually translated as transgression or rebellion.
A root verb meaning: to rebel, transgress, revolt
This isn’t merely a ‘missing of the mark’; this is intentionally shooting at a different target.
The last word – just for clarification – derives from the first:
From Strong’s Lexicon H2403 חַטָּאָת translitered as: chatta’ath Pronounced: khat•tä•ä’
This is essentially the word for ‘generic’ wrongdoing, encompassing all forms of wrong actions. However, it is also translated into English as ‘sin’.
In modern English, when the word ‘sin’ is used, one normally thinks of breaking the rules. One can list a number of such rules ranging from not talking back to one’s parents to not properly sorting one’s recyclables to murder and child molestation. I remember growing up in the 1950s and essentially learning from some adult members of the (Southern Baptist) church a ‘good Christian’ didn’t drink, smoke, dance, go to movies or use the Lord’s name in vain – as a swear word. That’s a pretty simple view, but it is essentially what most people still consider ‘being good’ – consisting mostly of what one doesn’t do. In some respects, it mirrors the Ten Commandments; “Thou shalt not…, Thou shalt not…, Thou shalt not…” However, it isn’t the whole story.
The Ten Commandments
From time to time, I hear non-believers tell me they follow the Ten Commandments. Just for the tally book, here they are:
Exodus 20:1 The Decalogue
God spoke all these words:
20:2 “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.
20:3 (One) “You shall have no other gods before me.
20:4 (Two) “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below.
20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, 20:6 and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
20:7 (Three) “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless anyone who takes his name in vain.
20:8 (Four) “Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. 20:9 For six days you may labor and do all your work, 20:10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates.
20:11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
20:12 (Five) “Honor your father and your mother, that you may live a long time in the land the Lord your God is giving to you.
20:13 (Six) “You shall not murder.
20:14 (Seven) “You shall not commit adultery.
20:15 (Eight) “You shall not steal.
20:16 (Nine) “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
20:17 (Ten) “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
20:18 All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and saw the mountain smoking – and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 20:19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20:20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 20:21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
When I ask these non-believers who claim to follow the Ten Commandments if they can remember just exactly those Ten Commandments, I am typically presented with evasions. The evasions are polite ways of saying they really don’t know. Most get numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9 and proudly report they have never ‘… killed anyone, stole anything …’ and they are ‘…not a liar!’. Number 7 gets the highest number of curious statements, ranging from outright denial of any sort of infidelity to the qualification of ‘…going to a prostitute doesn’t count…’ to the ‘consenting adults’ exception.
Most people haven’t killed anyone in the sense of intentional murder – which is in fact what the Commandment forbids. Those who have contributed to the needless deaths – even murders – of others are incalculable. Anyone who has purchased any illegal narcotic or recreational drug has contributed to the murders committed by gangs from Southeast Asia to Southwest Asia to Mexico to the Southwestern U. S. Border to Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and New York City. The criminal chain of events is unquestionable. I’m not even going to mention abortion deaths, or those who support such.
I will however, point out Jesus said (Matthew 5:21-22) “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment.” How many have been angry enough to kill if they thought they could get away with it? The same applies to adultery or any other sexual sin; if one wants to and would if allowed, failure to follow through is no defense. (Which is different from being in a position to follow through and choosing not to do so.)
In regard to ‘…giving false testimony…’; how many people have repeated gossip of dubious origin? For that matter, even repeating gossip of proven provenance is pretty shaky.
When I ask about Commandments One and Two, I typically get a blank look. Upon discussion, I find most people in my experience – Continental United States, primarily western half – deny any sort of involvement with idols. As to ‘other gods’, there are two main classes of responses: the atheist view who don’t allow for any gods, including that of the Bible; and the deist view who think there’s some god, but aren’t sure which one or if that one is really interested in hearing from them. However, both views deny putting ‘any other god’ in place of the posited God of the Ten Commandments. Compared to the specific God mentioned in the Decalogue, the denial means little.
Commandment number Three gets a mixed review as well. The atheist view is the Third commandment – along with One and Two – really doesn’t mean anything. Coming from an atheist, I find that response encouragingly candid and honest. However, I do know atheists who will not say “God Damn” simply because they are decent people who do not want to intentionally offend believers. (On the other hand, I’ve never heard an atheist say “Nothing Damn!”) The deist view is a little more relaxed, usually. Typically Three doesn’t bother them, as they aren’t sure what God’s ‘real name’ is anyway. Usually they also will not use the offensive phrase in front of believers, usually not in front of women and children or ‘men of the cloth’ – as if ‘men of the cloth’ might tell God. What I find enlightening regarding both these views is it completely misses the point of the Commandment.
Back to Strong’s Lexicon for another Hebrew word.
Strong’s H8034 שֵׁם shem
A noun meaning: name; reputation, fame, glory; the Name (as designation of God); memorial, monument.
When speaking of God’s name, the concept of more of what in English is phrased as “good name”. The Third Commandment does not so much concern itself with the descriptive term, but God’s reputation and character. For instance, the phrase “God Hates Fags” is far more offensive to God’s good name than the angry cursing of a non-functional bit of machinery. God hates rebellion, but not people. To claim otherwise is using His name in vain. Anytime anyone assigns values or actions or motivations to God which are inconsistent with His nature, that person is ‘using God’s name in vain.’
Everyone feels safe with the Fourth Commandment. They all take weekends off. Done.
Not exactly. The Sabbath was designated a day to stop working and worship God. Originally, the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week – Saturday. It derives from the Genesis account of Creation; everything was done in Six ‘days’ of Creation. On the Sixth Day, God rested. That is to say, God stopped ‘creating’; everything was in place and set into motion. (All the laws of the Universe still function; stars and planets are still being made as ordained by the physical laws and so forth.) All that aside, the Sabbath was instituted as a time to re-acquaint with God. In Christianity, we celebrate the first day of the week – Sunday – as the day Jesus was Resurrected. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, not the Sabbath. Neither the Sabbath nor the Lord’s Day was intended for drinking beer while watching the football game. One cannot observe the Sabbath in any way shape or form without including God.
How about the Fifth Commandment? How does one honor one’s Father and Mother? The Hallmark solution comes to mind; send them a card on their birthday, Mother’s and Father’s Day, Easter and Christmas.
I suggest the best way to honor one’s parents is to be a proper person. To be successful, not only in the eyes of society, but also in the eyes of God. Certainly that was the ideal to the Jewish nation and people. So how many people seek to be the best person they can be, rather than just the most comfortable or wealthiest? Of course, some ‘modern’ thinking denies the need to be altruistic in one’s own right; to consider others prior to self, to give unselfishly. The ‘modern’ concept of ‘personal responsibility’ is to be responsible for self, only.
I submit in any case, benevolent neglect or not harming is not a true ‘honoring’ of one’s parents.
The last commandment presents some interesting problems for modern life. The Tenth Commandment deals with ‘covetousness’. Covetousness involves an unhealthy desire for someone else’s property or achievement. “Coveting thy neighbor’s house, wife, servant, equipment, or stuff” implies a willingness – or even eagerness – to do the neighbor out of his or her stuff. This gets confused a lot in secular life.
It does not mean one cannot aspire to own a better house or car. Or, in my case, gun collection. It does forbid one from attempting to procure, obtain, or embezzle another’s property by means of trickery and deceit (the age old tools of mankind) or outright theft. It is the area of ‘trickery and deceit’ that causes the doubt. It’s odd, we have all sorts of laws about property ownership and still lawyers make huge salaries arguing over what exactly defines ‘trickery and deceit’.
I think the claim of ‘following the Ten Commandments’ is a pretty hollow claim for anyone.
Back to sin. What is ‘sin’?
Jesus once said the two most important commandments were – recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 22 – as follows:
34 … the Pharisees … assembled together. 35 And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 22:37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (NET Bible)
Jesus said loving the Lord God fully and loving one’s neighbor as oneself sum up all the Jewish Law and all the prophet’s instruction. So note Jesus did not say righteousness was the result of following a list of positive things to do and negative things from which to abstain. It is a system of living; loving God and loving others. How’s that for simple?
However, to the essence of sin. What is ‘missing the mark’ or ‘trespass’? The easiest example for study is the earliest recorded sin in Genesis.
Genesis Three records the bare events. Actually, the story begins in Chapter Two, where God gives man – mankind if you will – possession and guardianship of the Garden of Eden. Then, God issues a couple of directions or orders.
Chapter 2, verse 15 The Lord God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it. 16 Then the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”
Not recorded verbatim but implied is the direction to “…care … and … maintain…” the Garden (orchard in the NET translated shown here.) Overtly given is the command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Pretty simple and clear, right? Use food from any tree EXCEPT that one.
Then in Chapter 3, we read about the snake and Eve and the apple. (Or pomegranate or orange or fig or whatever; it really doesn’t matter.) Satan in the form of the snake – serpent – talks to Eve and convinces her God is lying to her. God isn’t trying to protect Eve, God is trying to keep her subjective to Him. I find this echoed today. I hear many voices claiming if people reject God, they will be ‘free’. How strange.
At this point, one feels the need to remind the reader God is – well – God. Everyone and everything is subject to God anyway. Sort of like everyone and everything is subject to gravity. Or the Uncertainty Principle. Or traffic laws, even though some pretend they’re not.
Eve swallows both Satan’s lie and a bite of the apple. Then she goes to Adam, who for reasons not given, also eats some of the apple. I say for ‘reasons not given’; there are several speculations. One I like is that Adam was being loyal to Eve. However, for whatever reason, Adam DECIDED to disobey God.
That was the problem. That was the sin. Not eating an apple, but CHOOSING to disobey God’s command.
That is still the essence of sin. Choosing to ignore God’s command. Do I have to say that includes claiming God does not exist?