When many of us think of sin we are heavily influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by what we remember from the Old Testament. So let’s look briefly at Old Testament concepts of sin; I think it will help resolve some of the problematic impact it has on us today.
The word ‘sin’ in various forms is mentioned about 600 times in the Old Testament, but the concepts involved are not the same. They include offenses by Israel against God, laws to be observed, and temple rituals for sin.
In the Israelite community, personal and national sins were to be satisfied by ritual sacrifice in the tabernacle and, later, in the temple. A high percentage of references to sin in the Old Testament pertain to these ritual sacrifices, which are quite detailed.
For example, the entirety of Leviticus 4-9 is given to temple ritual. The lengthy section begins with detailed introduction on what to do if the anointed priest sins and brings guilt upon the people. It describes how the sacrifice is to be slaughtered and how the blood, fat, and organs are to be applied. It continues with detailed instructions for other cases. A number of Old Testament books talk about ritual sacrifices, but Leviticus and Numbers are preoccupied with them.
Sins in Israel include both personal and corporate (national) sins. Often personal sins are also considered corporate sins and all Israel was punished for them, as in the case of Achan in Joshua 7. To the Israelites, sin involved a relationship—a relationship between Israel and her God.
Jesus confronted temple sacrifice as God’s method of forgiveness. According to the Gospels, early in his ministry Jesus challenged the temple sacrificial system by forgiving the sins of a paralyzed man. Instead of just healing him Jesus said to the man, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” To which the Pharisees protested, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
This raises a question: How did the Pharisees imagine God accomplished forgiveness of sin? He forgave sin through temple ritual! The paralyzed man should have followed temple sacrifice procedure for forgiveness of sin.
But Jesus cut through all that and simply pronounced the man forgiven; his authority to do so was demonstrated in that he also healed him. Jesus and the New Testament writers abandoned all support for the concept of sin as a ritual temple transaction.
Specific Sins in the Old Testament
The Old Testament represents God as giving Israel numerous laws to keep. Leviticus lists many of these laws along with the punishments for infractions—often very harsh punishments. Some were rules that discouraged assimilation into surrounding cultures (‘Do not do what the Canaanites do.’); others were social laws common to all societies that enable populations to function with a degree of stability.
But the crowning statement of Israel’s law was the Ten Commandments. Notice that they also contain both laws relating to Israel’s distinctive culture and common laws of societies everywhere. Exodus 20 reports them as:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Throughout the Old Testament the most prominent laws are against idolatry and rituals relating to gods of neighboring cultures. Perhaps the next most important is Sabbath keeping, which was a distinct Israelite observance. Then there were laws against other practices of neighboring cultures in order to discourage assimilation. And, of course, there were common social laws to regulate society.
The Relationship of Israel and God
Corporate sin was an important issue to Israel. They imagined God as their national God. If crops did not thrive due to famine, they were certain some sin was involved. They also thought their God was a war God. If battles went against them, or they were conquered by foreign enemies, it was because of sin in their midst. Sometimes the king was blamed, and other times the nation collectively repented of their sins. The books of 1 Kings and 2 Kings emphasize the sins of the kings of Israel, and a number of the prophets connected the conquest of Judah by Babylon to the sin of the nation.
Leviticus 26 gives a particularly strong statement on sin in Israel. God is said to have laid out the punishments for such sin: he would punish them seven times over. The punishments included disease, defeat by their enemies, soil that would not produce crops, depopulation by wild animals, and plague. God supposedly said, “They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees.”
To the Israelites, sin involved a relationship—a relationship between Israel and her God who demanded obedience to detailed laws and was heavy with the punishment when they were broken. This idea of harsh Old Testament God feeds the understanding of many Christian believers today on sin, salvation, and the accompanying legalism; but next time we will see how this emphasis changes to something much better as Jesus talks of sin in a new way.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?