Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


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 century B.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).


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.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.