« Prev III. Old Testament Doctrine of Sin. Next »

III.

OLD TESTAMENT DOCTRINE OF SIN.

WHEN we turn from the various systems of Nature-religion, even in their most developed form, to Revelation, we find ourselves in a very different atmosphere. Whence this atmosphere has come—to what special sources we are to trace the higher religious views that here meet us—it is no part of our present business to inquire. This would involve a treatment of the whole subject of Revelation—what it means—how far it is natural, and how far supernatural. It would involve, moreover, the treatment of many literary questions regarding the books of the Old Testament—their age, origin, authenticity, and integrity—all of which we must equally pass by. These are subjects belonging to a different branch of Theology from that with which we are concerned, and they must be dealt with on their own merits. No one in a time like ours, speaking from a scientific point of view, can assume such questions to be settled. While we decline to enter upon them, 61therefore, we do not venture to assume the conclusions of one school or another regarding them. The dogmatic theologian is not bound to do so. He takes the Bible as he finds it. Whatever may be the authorship and age of its several books, he sees with sufficient clearness that they contain a progressive development of religious thought and sentiment; and he has no difficulty in detecting what general elements of this thought and sentiment are of earlier and what of later origin. No one can doubt, for example—whatever conclusion may be ultimately reached as to the origin and composition of the Pentateuch—that the five books traditionally attributed to Moses contain the earliest Scriptures, and consequently the earliest religious ideas, of the Hebrews. They may or may not also contain later elements. The legal and priestly institutions which they describe may—some of them at least—belong to a period subsequent to that of Moses. But no one who has any historic sense can doubt that the narrative pictures of Genesis belong to a more primitive type of thought than anything else in the Old Testament, and the theologian whose province it is to trace the evolution of Doctrine in Scripture is therefore warranted in assuming them as the starting-point of his exposition. Even if there be the traces here and there of later colouring—of light reflected backwards from a prophetic vision which 62did not reach its fulness till long after the time of Moses—this would not affect his conclusions. Here and everywhere he must gather together the threads of revealed thought, and discriminate its lines of advance with the best skill he can. No traditionary conception of Revelation or of the contents of Scripture, however hard and fast that conception may be, can save him from this task of interpretation, and help him in the discharge of it. The sum of revealed truth is to him still only what he finds in Scripture.

Our present concern is with the development of the idea of sin in Old Testament Revelation; and our statement is, that so soon as we come within the sphere of this Revelation we find ourselves breathing a different atmosphere from that which comes from any of the Nature-religions of which we have been speaking. In all of these the idea of evil is in some form or another an external idea. It comes to man even in its moral guise—in Zoroastrianism and Hellenism—from the outside. It is a power which holds him—the shadow of destructive Nature-force—or the idealisation of the more complex elements of wrong that surround him in life and society. It is hardly, if at all, an error of his own mind, or the depravation of his own will. But these, on the other hand, are the aspects in which from the first the idea of evil comes before us in Scripture. The 63spectre arises from within and not from without. The enemy is in man himself, and not in nature or in any symbol drawn from the suggestions of nature or of external life. In other words, as soon as we come within the’ sphere of Revelation we have left nature far behind, and are in front of a human Will. The sphere of Revelation is from the beginning the sphere of Morality, towards which we have been slowly rising in our upward advance along the line of Nature-religion.

It is impossible not to be struck with this change, not merely as it affects man, but as it affects nature. Nature is no longer a manifestation of evil powers, or of powers partly evil and partly good. The primitive man of Hebrew literature is placed in a garden eastward in Eden in which there “grows every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” “Every herb which is upon the face of all the earth,” and “every tree,” and “the fowl of the air,” and “every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” are all given into the possession of man for rule and enjoyment. Nothing can be further from the picture than any shadow of evil influence. “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.”2626   Gen. i. 31. Man is planted in the midst of these as lord of all. There is no suggestion of conflict—of the 64struggle of good against evil. There is no evil as yet in nature or in man.

It is impossible to conceive a greater contrast to the picture presented to us in the dawn of the religious consciousness outside of Revelation. And yet this is only one point of the contrast. There are others still more important. Not only are nature and man set in a different light, but the Divine is, above all, differently conceived. The God or Gods of nature are dual or manifold in their conception—the wavering reflection of man’s varying experience of joy and suffering. Their relation to man varies with the promptings of his own heart, and the monitions of his intellect feebly groping to comprehend the problem of his being. In the Hebrew Scriptures the Divine power is drawn from the first with a firm and clear hand, as the creative Source of all being, order, and life. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth;” “and God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.”2727   Gen. i. 1, 3-5.

It is hardly possible for language to measure the length and breadth of advance which is here represented, beyond any stage of religious thought that is 65external to the Scriptures. The great features of nature—the heaven and the earth, the light and the darkness—are no longer first, but second. A creative Mind whose word is law stands at their head. A free Will whose work is Providence calls them into being and directs all their movements. Instead of looking with a confused and troubled glance upon the dim personalities of man’s imagination in the earth and sky, the sunshine and storm, here we look beyond heaven and earth alike, directly into a region of Divine Intelligence and creative Will. And this fundamental difference makes everything else different. We are no longer in a region of Nature-shadows, but of moral realities,—a Divine Will on one side, and an ordered nature and human will on the other side. And it is out of these essential and primary relations of being that the conception of sin arises. It is a conception which includes evil, and yet is deeper far than any conception of evil we have yet reached.

This will fully appear as we proceed with our exposition,—1st, Of the Fall, or primal act of sin, depicted in the third chapter of Genesis; 2d, Of the several expressions used throughout the Old Testament Scriptures to denote sin; and 3d, and more particularly, as we glance rapidly at the development of the idea in these Scriptures in its relations to the 66divine law, the divine personality, and the community and mankind at large.

What is known as the Fall, or primal act of sin, not merely stands, after the act of creation, at the fountain-Head of Hebrew literature, but enters more or less into all the developements of the Hebrew religious consciousness. Certain features of the narrative, on the most traditionary view that may be taken of it, are obviously figurative. They are features, that is to say, of a moral incident; and the incident remains the same whether we conceive these features to represent external facts or not. This applies especially to the supposed action and speech of the serpent, and the virtues attributed to “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Nothing but confusion of thought can arise from attempting to fix a definite meaning on such accessories of the incident,2828   This was clearly pointed out long ago in Dr. Hill’s Lectures—to refer to a well-known Scotch theological authority—vol. ii. p. 4, 5, “Several parts of the history,” he says, “cannot be understood in a literal sense. Thus it is not to be supposed that the tree of which man was forbidden to eat had the power which the name seems to imply, and which the serpent suggests, of making those who ate the fruit wise, knowing good and evil; neither is it to be supposed that the serpent at that time possessed those powers of speech and reason which the narrative seems to ascribe to him, or that the plain meaning of the words, ‘The seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the serpent,’ expresses the whole punishment of the tempter.” all the genuine meaning of which arises from the moral portrait which it sets before us. This moral portrait is a true expression of the religious thought of the 67Hebrews, and it is their thought as to sin which we are in search of, and with which we have now to deal, whatever may be made of the literary vesture or form in which that thought is expressed. Here, as elsewhere, the reality of the thought is not dependent upon the view we may take of the narrative forms in which it is conveyed.

What, then, is the sum of the moral portrait presented to us in the third chapter of Genesis? What are the elements of the primitive religious consciousness of the Hebrews on the subject, as here depicted? There is, first, the reality of a divine will and of a human will in the face of it. The human is the image or reflection of the Divine: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” It is true that this is a part of the prior creation narrative, and not of the Fall narrative, and that these narratives are possibly not from the same original source;—so modern criticism assures us. [See Appendix X.] But whether from diverse sources or not, it is the same thought they reveal. The man who is tempted in the third chapter, is the same man, made in the image of God, spoken of in the first. He is a being, that is to say, gifted with reason and moral freedom; the image and the subject of God. The command given him in the second chapter, which is admitted to belong to the same narrative as the third, is an expression 68of this subjection, and, at the same time, of man’s responsibility. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

This command is presupposed in the third chapter, and forms the key to its whole meaning. Here, therefore, we have two great moral conceptions—conceptions so vital that they lie at the foundation of all Scriptural theology and all Scriptural ethics—the divine will addressing the human will and intelligence which it has called into being; in other words, drawing out still more fully the moral picture presented to us. We have (1) the divine will, (2) the expression of this will in a divine command or law, and (3) a creaturely will the subject of the law; and if all this has as yet nothing to do with sin, it is nevertheless the essential background to the idea. It enables us, and compels us from the first, to set the idea in its true light, and to recognize that its genuine and exclusive meaning is moral, and that it vanishes save in front of the Divine as will and law.

The human will thus placed under authority, and made the subject of a revealed command, is first enticed and then yields to disobedience., “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field 69which the Lord God” (Jahveh-Elohim) “had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”2929   Gen. iii. 1-7. And when they heard the voice of the Lord God in the garden, they were afraid, and hid themselves.

Such is the picture of the Fall. It is unnecessary, and would be quite useless, to try to give any explanation of its special features;—of the serpent; of the form of temptation, and its special nature—whether ambition or sensuality; of the growth of sinful desire in the woman, her act of disobedience, and the participation of her husband in it; of its 70effects in the awaking of hitherto unknown conditions of shame in relation to one another and the divine voice. All these aspects of the subject may furnish matters of comment, although I hardly think of reasonable or useful comment, to those who care to inquire into them. But it is not at all necessary to deal specially with them in order to enter into the full meaning of the incident as a moral transaction. The sum of this meaning is plainly that the human will, in face of the divine command, yields to the force of temptation and external inducement, and violates the command. This is the entrance of sin into the world—the transgression of the divine law. The will which was made subject to law—the happiness of which was to lie within the law, in obedience to it—turns against it and seeks its happiness outside of the law, in opposition to it. The revolt, moreover, is induced by external enticement or influence; in other words, the will or spirit becomes subject to evil suggestion and the influence of Nature in place of divine law. This is the moral essence of the story. Let us draw out more fully its several points. They sum up a world of meaning, which no analysis can well exhaust.

(a.) Evil, as it emerges upon us in the primitive Hebrew consciousness, is not something outside of us, but essentially something in us. It is the wilful turning away from the Divine, clearly revealed, expressing 71itself clearly and unequivocally in conscience—“Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die;” and the wilful yielding to Nature or some outside influence—“As good for food, pleasant to the eyes, or to be desired to make one wise.” It is this that makes the evil. The outside—Nature—has only force or power over the will after it has yielded from within to it. Or at least, the will must turn from the Divine to something else not Divine, before the evil lays hold of it. Something else must be desirable in preference before the evil emerges. In other words, the good lies in the conformity of the divine and human will. The evil can only arise from their nonconformity.

But it may be said, Is the evil not already posited outside of man in the idea of the serpent as the. tempter? Have we not here the evil Power already opposed to the good, and man represented as his victim snatched by his wiles from the possession and enjoyment of the good? The later thought of Jewish theology and the Christian Church, in its various branches, have associated the evil personality known as Satan or the Devil with the serpent of Genesis. And good reasons may be urged for this association. The idea of the serpent tempting man and exciting him to evil, points to the idea of an evil Principle having already entered into the world and acquired influence in it. The cunning with which the serpent 72works upon the desire of the woman to rise above the limits of her creaturely existence, and be as God to whom she is rightfully subject, is truly diabolical. No doubt, therefore, was felt on this point in the later Jewish Church; and the Christian consciousness, which was influenced so largely by Jewish thought, readily took up the idea and expanded it. But in the narrative of Genesis, taken by itself, there is nothing of this later view. The serpent is more subtil than any beast of the field, but nothing more. The curse pronounced against him alludes entirely to his animal nature. And as a mere matter of historical criticism, therefore, we are not warranted in transferring the later conception to the earlier stage of Hebrew thought. Whatever we may make of the serpent and his cunning, we cannot say that a Power, and still less a Spirit, of evil was already conceived by the Hebrew mind as clearly existing outside of man. I do not profess to explain fully this feature of the incident. I am content to leave many things unexplained in Scripture and elsewhere. Possibly there were elements in the Hebrew consciousness, with all its moral elevation, which clung to an outside view of evil or the association of evil influence with certain aspects or animals of nature. It would be strange, indeed, if there were not survivals of the old Nature-worship of the Chaldean tribes, cut of which Abraham came, among his descendants. 73All that it is necessary to say here is, that in the narrative of the Fall, taken by itself, there is no suggestion of a distinct Power of Evil—like that which is found in Zoroastrianism—having a share in man no less than the good power. Man is not made evil because there is evil already without him, from which he cannot escape. He is made evil because he yields from within to the gratification of lawless desire externally excited. The object of desire is before him. An evil voice whispers to him that the evil is good, and the good evil. He listens, yields, and falls under the voice of temptation and the prompting of his own desire. But the very fact of desire beyond the law is already sin, and without this desire the evil would never have laid hold of him. The essential evil does not, therefore, come to him from without, but from within. Man makes himself a sinner.

(b) Not only so. Evil, as conceived by the Hebrew religious consciousness, is not only from within, a revolt of the self-will from the divine will, but it is a self-rejection of an order which is felt to be wise and good. It is a fall from an ideal acknowledged to be divine. “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” This is the acknowledgment of the woman. She has no doubt of the divine order., It is the way at once of 74wisdom and of pleasantness. The voice of God utters itself unmistakably in the heart; but the desire of the eyes, the pleasantness of the outside, of the tree fair and beautiful, and apparently “good for food,” prevails, and the sinful act is consummated. Paradise is lost; the ideal approven by the higher nature vanishes, never to be recalled. The knowledge of good and evil is indeed gained, but at a price which brings with it only shame and confusion of face.

Nothing can be further from the Biblical conception than any idea of evil entering into humanity as a necessary factor in its development. The Fall is truly a stumble—in no sense a step in advance. It may be that compensation is to be found in it at last, and that the knowledge of the evil as well as the good was necessary to carry man forward beyond the childlike naivete of the paradisiacal state, in which he dwelt in harmony with the Divine above him and nature around him. The world of human intelligence, industry, and art, as we know it, may be inconceivable in connection with the primitive man. Evil may all along have been as necessary to its development as good. The very idea of progress may posit the evil as a necessary condition. This may be all true: all we say is, that there is no countenance given to such a view in the Biblical picture. The suggestion of a higher knowledge as 75the result of disobedience comes from the tempter. It lies within the temptation itself as its most powerful spring,—that the intellectual nature of the man and woman were to be advanced by the act of self-assertion; and the fact of this advance is so far acknowledged from the divine side.3030   Gen. iii. 2. Man is allowed to have gained in intellect, and so far to have come nearer the Divine (“like one of us”) by the knowledge of evil. But his intellectual gain is his moral loss. The suggestion of the tempter is not the less a lie because there happened in it to be a side of truth. It was the bait of a richer being—of a higher happiness—that he had held before the woman. The bait was not altogether deceptive. The being is enlarged by the mental experience of evil, but it loses far more than it gains. It loses cheerfiul communion with the Divine; it loses the sense of self-approval; it is driven forth from Paradise. Adam and Eve have grown at once to the consciousness of manhood and womanhood—they are no longer as children in a garden—but they are at the same time ashamed of one another, and afraid of God. In short, they have fallen; they have lost a sure position—they have gained an uncertain future. The idea of a fall, of a distinct moral loss not to be recovered, is carefully and completely preserved; and whatever later theory may have made of a balance 76even of moral good in the origin of evil, there is nothing to encourage such a theory in the early picture. From the moral side—and this is the essential side—the picture is dark throughout.

(c.) All this is more clearly evident from the idea of death associated with the picture. The divine prohibition, as to the “fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden,” was, “Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” The suggestion of the tempter was, “Ye shall not surely die;”3131   Gen. iii. 3, 4. and, finally, the man is driven from the garden, lest he “take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.”3232   Gen. iii. 22. Out of these well-known features of the story has come the intimate association of death with the Fall—an association frequently repeated in Scripture, and which will come before us for special consideration in the writings of St. Paul. All that is necessary to say now is that, whatever more general interpretation we may put upon these intimations, they must be supposed chiefly to point to the moral loss or injury involved in the act of disobedience. Death, as a simple physical fact, is unaffected by moral conditions. Its character may be greatly altered, and no doubt has been greatly altered, by the fact of sin; but its incidence is natural, and lies in the constitution of things. There is nothing in the passage which makes us think otherwise. Death is intimated 77as the hazard of disobedience, and the idea of perpetuated existence is connected with the eating of the tree of life. Theologians have pictured the glories of an unfallen state, and the immortality of a sinless race; but there is nothing in the Biblical text to warrant such pictures. It is nowhere indicated that man would have been immortal in Eden if he had not sinned. Physical dissolution did not directly follow the act of sin, and is not connected with it as immediate cause and effect. What is really always connected with sin is the destruction of the higher nature or self, which loses strength and dies under the power of evil when once accepted. In the very moment of sin it receives this death into itself,3333   “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”—Ezek. xviii. 4, 20. for it thereby passes out of the condition of spiritual healthfulness, and, in falling below the fulness of the divine life which belongs to it, may be said to die. Sin is, therefore, not only the loss of an ideal which man might have enjoyed, but it is an element of death working destruction in the fallen will which has yielded to it, if not immediately, yet not the less surely. This was the true loss or penalty incurred by Adam; and here, as elsewhere, we are to look for a spiritual and not a literal meaning in the narrative. To do otherwise is merely to entangle ourselves in hopeless difficulties.

2. Such are the main features of the Fall, and the 78same moral features appear more or less plainly in the expressions used to denote sin in the Old Testament. There is a considerable variety of such expressions, but it cannot be said that any clear ethical progress is marked by their use. They occur, if not indiscriminately, yet without marking any definite advance from period to period of Hebrew thought. Some, however, are more general, and others more particular; and it may be well to begin with the more general, which at the same time are more frequent in occurrence.

(a.) The most frequent and universal word for sin in the Old Testament is chatath,3434   חַטָּאת from a verb which originally signifies, exactly like its Greek representative in the New Testament, to miss the mark.3535   Ἁμαρτάνω It is used in its primary physical meaning in the Book of Judges,3636   Judges, xx. 16. where men are spoken of as being each able to sling stones at an hair’s-breadth “and not miss.” Chatath is the term used in the seventh verse of the fourth chapter of Genesis, where the expression “sin” first occurs in our English version, in reference to the sacrifice of Cain. Sometimes in our version it is rendered more precisely fault,3737   Gen. xli. 9; Exod. v. 16. sometimes trespass,3838   1 Kings, viii. 31. sometimes harm,3939   Levit. v. 16. and blame.4040   Gen. xliii. 9. The idea conveyed in the expression is one of the most rudimentary as well as comprehensive in 79relation to sin—the idea of failure. Whatever sin may otherwise be, it is always failure,—a departure from the straight road—a missing of the point aimed at, or which should have been aimed at. The idea of right, and not merely of success, is implied as the correlative of the expression. There is a right—an aim which it is not merely an advantage to have achieved, but which ought to be achieved. And to miss this aim is not merely to fail in the sense of deficiency, but it is to go out of the right way and make a mistake. Man was made for the right, and every departure from it is a departure from the true purpose for which he was made. And this is the fundamental and universal idea of sin conveyed in Scripture.

(b.) The expression avon4141   עָוֹן is commonly taken as denoting the next most characteristic definition of sin. The original meaning is crookedness, perversity, from a verb4242   עָוָה “to bend,” “distort,” or “turn out of the right course.” The same rudimentary idea, therefore, is so far conveyed here as in the previous expression. As there is a right mark or point to be aimed at, so there is always a right line towards it. And sin is not only failure as missing the mark, but perversity as taking a wrong line. The divine life springing from its fountain-head is not only the creative, but is designed to be also the directive principle, both of 80humanity and the world; and sin arises whenever the course of this life is turned aside and deflected. There seems a deeper moral meaning, therefore, in this expression—the idea not only of failure which might arise from mere deficiency and lack of strength, but of intentional wrongness. And, upon the whole, the use of the expression bears out this deeper meaning. It is the expression applied by Cain to his own sin, when he has heard the curse pronounced against him, and begins to realise its true magnitude.4343   Gen. iv. 13. It is the word also used by Judah when he and his brethren stand before Joseph arraigned for having carried away his cup, which had been found in Benjamin’s sack. “And Judah said, What shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants.”4444   Gen. xliv. 16. It is still more significantly used in the Psalms—as, for example, in the thirty-second and fifty-first Psalms, both of which are indeed storehouses of all the main expressions denoting sin. “Blessed is he whose transgression” (pesha) “is forgiven, whose sin” (chätaah) “is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity” (avon). “I acknowledged my sin” (cattathi) “unto Thee, and mine iniquity” (avoni) “have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions” (peshaai) “unto the Lord; and Thou 81forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (avon chattathi).4545   Psalm xxxii. 1, 2, 5. Again: “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity” (avoni), “and cleanse me from my sin” (chattathi). “For I acknowledge my transgressions” (peshaai): “and my sin” (chattathi) “is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned” (the ordinary verb chata), “and done this evil” (ra) “in thy sight. . . Behold, I was shapen in iniquity” (avon); “and in sin” (chet)4646   חֵטָא. This simple form of the word occurs pretty frequently, and the form חַטָאָה occasionally. “did my mother conceive me.”4747   Psalm li. 2-5.

It is unnecessary to enter into further details, or to press any additional force that may seem to be in this expression. It would be too much to say that it is always discriminated from the former word by a precise shade of meaning—as, for example, in the last words quoted from the Psalmist’s confession of sin. We nowhere find in the language of moral experience such precise adjustments of meaning—no more in Hebrew or Greek than in our own language. On the contrary, the expressions have a tendency to pass into one another, and to become mixed in their application, just as the words “sin” and “iniquity” with us. The former, however, remains the more general, the latter the more special expression. And it is the same with the Hebrew equivalents. 82The idea of wrongness in fact—failure, missing the mark—and the idea of wrongness in intention—injustice, iniquity—are the ideas respectively conveyed. And this reference to the will implied in the last word gives it a deeper shade of meaning. It brings out more prominently the moral character of the act, and fixes it home upon the sinner. And hence the word passes naturally into the idea of “guilt,” for which it is often used in the earlier Scriptures; as in the expressions, “The iniquity” or guilt “of the Amorites is not yet full;”4848   Gen. xv. 16. “Visiting the iniquity” or guilt “of the fathers upon . . . the third generation;”4949   Exod. xx. 5. and again, in a passage where we have, as in the passage quoted from the Psalms, all the three expressions close together. “Forgiving iniquity” (guilt), and “transgression and sin.”5050   עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָהExod. xxxiv. 7.

(c.) There is another word, aven,5151   אָוֶן. which is very often translated in our version “iniquity,”5252   No fewer than thirty-eight times, it is said. but which primarily means “vanity” and “nothingness.”5353   As in such passages as Amos, v. 5, “And Bethel shall come to nought;” and Isaiah, xli. 29, “Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing,”—the word is connected with אֵין ,אַיִן, from an unused root lt., implying the idea of negation. The term is translated in the Septuagint, ἀνομία ἀδικία, and occasionally πόνος κόπος. As applied to our subject, it seems to 83convey the idea of the unreality or nothingness of all evil or opposition to the Divine. Powerful or successful as it may seem for a time, it must prove in the end unprofitable and vain.

(d.) But a more important word is that which we have already found so often associated both with chattath and avon—viz., pesha,5454   פֶשַׁע—Septuagint, ἀσέβεια, άδικία ἄνομία. which our translators have generally rendered transgression, sometimes trespass,5555   Gen. xxxi. 36, l. 17; Exod. xxii. 9; 1 Sam. xxv. 28; Hosea, viii. 1, &c. sometimes rebellion.5656   1. Kings, xii. 19; Job, xxxiv. 37. These renderings as nearly as possible convey the meaning of the word, which seems always to imply as its background the idea of a divine law, which has been broken or transgressed. There is here, therefore, also a strongly personal or moral meaning. All sorts of sins, acts of weakness, negligence, or carelessness, are implied in the primary expression chattath; but sins of design and violent purpose are specially implied by pesha. There is no passage brings this out more fully than the one in Job already indicated along with others—a passage which is translated in our version, “For he addeth rebellion” (pesha) (“unto his sin” (chattatho).

(e.) In addition to these words, there are the general expression ra,5757   רַע. denoting evil in all senses, physical, 84ethical, and accidental,5858   Levit. xxvii. 10; Gen. viii. 21; Isa. iii. 11. and resha,5959   רֶשַׁע. commonly rendered wickedness, from a root to make a noise or tumult. This term is supposed to express the disposition of evil—evil become a habit—or the quality of unrighteousness, just as tzedek6060   צֶדֶק. is the quality of righteousness.

(f.) There is still a further word which claims attention before we close this analysis—viz., asham,6161   אָשָׁם. generally translated in our version as trespass or guilt, and carefully discriminated from chattath in its application to the Mosaic sacrifices; the one denoting the sin-offering, and the other the trespass-offering. Asham is derived from a root (asham) which means to fail, having for “its primary idea negligence, especially in going or gait.” (Gesen.) It seems to have everywhere a more special meaning than chattath, as indeed all the other words we have been considering have. The specialty in this case seems to point to definite acts of sin, violations of law and commandment which have been brought home to the offender or offenders—for example, in the forty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis,6262   Gen. xlii. 21. where we have one of the first and most typical uses of the word. It is when the offence committed against Joseph flashes suddenly on the 85minds of his brethren, under the force of his demand to bring Benjamin into Egypt, that they say one to another, “We are verily guilty” (ashemin) “concerning our brother.” Frequently the word is used in reference to public sins, as when the numbering of the people is spoken of in the First Book of Chronicles6363   1 Chron. xxi. 3. as a cause of trespass (asham) to Israel; and still more frequently for sin, either ignorant or wilful, against definite prohibitions of the law.6464    Num. v. 6, 7; Levit. vi. 2-7. In the sixty-ninth Psalm6565    Ps. lxix. 5. it is used to denote particular acts of sin: “O God, Thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from Thee.”

It is unnecessary to dwell further upon these details,-the chief interest of which consists in the various and dispersing light which they throw around the idea of sin. v All of them from the most general to the most particular, imply a moral significance; in other words, they connect the idea of sin with a human personality—some of them more closely than others, but all of them more or less. To “miss a mark,” “to deviate from the straight road,” “to break some rule or law,” all involve definitely the action of an intelligent will, which not only might have done otherwise, but which ought to have done otherwise. In some cases the mistake, deviation, or transgression may not 86have been of purpose, but rather the result of weakness, negligence, or carelessness. But in no case is it suggested that the sinful act was inevitable or necessary, or, in other words, that the evil coming forth in human actions was beyond man’s control, or a mere part of his nature wielded from without. In most cases the act is expressly referred to the free will or personality of the actor, and condemned as such. A moral meaning in the act is therefore everywhere asserted.

3. When wet turn finally to view the subject under the successive phases of the Old Testament religion, this character of sin still more clearly appears. It everywhere comes forth as an act of the human will done against the divine will, or some special institutions supposed to represent the divine will. Sometimes the sinful act is more prominently held forth in relation to God as Supreme Creator and Governor, as Head of the world, and the Lord and Sovereign of men. This is the pervading idea of Genesis. “And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man. . . . And God saw that the wickedness” (ra) “of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil” (ra) “continually.”6666   Gen. vi. 3-5. In such statements as these, and generally throughout the earlier portions of the divine Revelation, 87the conception of sin is more objective and general. It is something wrong in the disposition or state of man towards the Divine, something always for which man is responsible. But there is no analysis of the conception, beyond the fact that it is at variance with the divine order.

As we advance beyond the simple imaginations of the Patriarchal to the more elaborate culture of the Mosaic times, the conception both- deepens in moral significance and acquires a more varied emphasis. If we are allowed to bring into view the ample machinery of the so-called Mosaic legislation, it is needless to point out how greatly the idea of sin must have become enlarged, or at least widened, in the face of that legislation. The different orders of sacrifice, and the minutiae of the ceremonial and social laws of the Hebrews, all point to special kinds of sin, called into vivid recognition by the theocratic restrictions everywhere encompassing the chosen people. An authoritative divine ritual touching the national life at every point necessarily diffused a widespread sense of obligation, which too frequently remained unfulfilled. A danger, it is true, lay in this very diffusion, illustrated by the Hebrew history as by all sacerdotal history. The numerous Levitical ordinances had a tendency to draw the sense of sin towards the surface, and so far to empty it of moral meaning—a result more or less seen in every species 88of sacerdotalism. When men are led to concentrate religious attention upon external acts, they begin to lose something of inward depth and spiritual reality; and religion often perishes in the very multitude of religious forms. The history of the Jewish religion is certainly no exception to this rule.

Should we not feel warranted in attributing all the ceremonial and sacerdotal legislation of the Pentateuch to the time of Moses, Mosaism yet remains a great institution, powerful in moral influence. The ten “words” or commandments which even the most advanced criticism carries up to Moses, are in literature the most profound and comprehensive expression of that great order which encompasses all moral life. The moral law powerfully contributed to awaken the inner sense of the Hebrew people, and deepen their consciousness of sin. The Divine is presented in it not merely as Sovereign and Lord—although this is the opening key-note6767   “I am the Lord thy God. . . . Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”—Exod. xx. 2, 3.—but as identified with every aspect of order, truth, righteousness, and purity in human life, A moral ideal not only invests all life, but is carried up to Jahveh-Elohim as the Source of this life and its highest Exemplar. It was impossible to dwell in the light of such an ideal and not to have had the spiritual sense quickened and made sensitive, and the feeling of offence towards 89the Divine called forth in many ways hitherto little understood or owned. This is what St. Paul means when he says that “the law entered that the offence might abound;”6868   Rom. v. 20. and again, that “without the law sin was dead.”6969   Rom. vii. 8. He is speaking of his own experience, or of the experience of a devout Jew in his own time; but the experience of the religious nature is always so far the same—nay, the experience of the individual is typical of the race. When the law entered into the consciousness of Humanity, and was added to the progressive force of divine Revelation, the sense of sin was deepened alongside of it. Conscience became alive in front of the divine commandment, and spiritual life was touched to its depths by that sad undertone of sin which has never died out of it. Through ages, the moral law has been the most powerful moral factor of humanity, restraining its chaotic tendencies, and binding it into harmonies of domestic, social, and religious well-being. It has lain not merely upon the human conscience, but entered into the human heart as one of its most living inward springs-bracing its weakness, rebuking its laxity, holding before it an inflexible rule of moral good. Words cannot measure the strength which it has been to all the higher qualities of the race, and the widespread moral education which it has diffused—discriminating and purifying the ideas alike of good 90and evil wherever it has prevailed, and clothing life with a reality and depth of meaning which it would never otherwise have possessed.

With the development of Hebrew thought in the prophetic writings and the Psalms, all the special characteristics of sin come out yet more prominently. The prophetic order in its highest signification was nothing else than a living witness for those eternal principles of righteousness which previous Revelation had implanted in the Hebrew race, and through them in the life of Humanity. The prophets were the preachers of that holy religion of Jahveh which, beginning with Abraham, instituted by Moses, and consolidated by David and Solomon, runs through Hebrew history with all its vacillations and reversions as a golden thread, making it a power of spiritual elevation and blessing for the world. Continually, when the national consciousness of the Divine sank or became perverted, it was revived, reinforced, and once more turned in a right direction. The reality of the divine government under which Israel lived, of the exclusive claims of the worship of Jahveh, and of the essential antagonism betwixt this worship and all deeds of sinful disorder and impurity, was once more awakened and brought into the clear light of national recognition. This was the work of the prophets more than all others.: It was they who kept alive the moral 91thoughtfulness of the chosen people. The priestly sacrifices and ordinances, valuable as they were, were apt, like all forms of ritual, to degenerate into formalities. In themselves, they were not and could not be sources of spiritual good—it was only the divine feeling which lay behind their use which gave them any religious value; and when this feeling failed, they helped to choke it up and externalise it rather than to call it forth afresh. The law was a constant monition of divine duty; but, as the frequent lapses into idolatry prove, its very first word was too often forgotten and powerless. Neither the priestly nor the moral side of Mosaism, it may be said, could have preserved in any purity the religious thought of Hebraism, surrounded as it was by so many depressing influences, to which it was continually yielding. It required a distinct force to renovate and recruit it from time to time. And this it found in prophecy, which for more than six hundred years was its most powerful element of religious revival, and remains to this day the most vital factor of Hebrew literature. [See Appendix XI.]

With this continual revival of divine consciousness in the Hebrew people the consciousness of sin revived, deepened, and became more real. It was felt as an offence not merely against divine law or precept, but against a Divine Person, a living One who 92had claims upon the life of all His servants, and the violation of whose commandments was disobedience of His will. The prophet was always the messenger of God. The word of God came unto him, and he could not but utter it. He was not only the preacher of the law and its righteous demands, but he was the direct organ of the divine voice and will; and through him the sense of a supreme personal authority, whom it was sin to disobey, was brought near to the Hebrew mind. There cannot be a better illustration of this than the fifty-first Psalm, which represents the results of the dealing of the prophet Nathan with David in the matter of Bathsheba. An act of definite transgression is not only brought home to the conscience of the king, but conscience is quickened throughout, and the divine presence made so living to it that every other aspect of the king’s conduct disappears in the overwhelming sense that it was sin—against the law, indeed, but above all against the author of the law—against God Himself. “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight; that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”7070   Psalm li. 3-5. There is no more comprehensive or individual expression 93of sin in all the Old Testament Scriptures. It is a definite act of transgression or violation of law; it is a consciousness of guilt ever before the awakened soul; it is, more than all, a consciousness of offence against God, who has given the law, and who has endowed the soul with the capacity of serving Him. Withal it is the outcome of an evil nature. Sin is personal, and the sinner without excuse. Yet its origin lies beyond the individual will. It is an inheritance of nature which comes to us with our birth. All these aspects of the subject are presented in the verses I have quoted, which occur irresistibly to the student of Scripture in speaking of it. There is no thought of definition. The different sides of the subject are not put forward in any systematic relation to one another. They come forth only as the cries of a manifold experience which knows and thinks of nothing but the burden which it bears. And so the same experience repeats itself—if not in the same comprehensive manner—in many an utterance of Psalm and prophecy. Wherever the voice of the prophet was heard sounding the depth of the souls that he addressed, there was the response of repentance and confession: “I acknowledge my transgression.” “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned.” The fact of divine law came near to the sinner; the fact of the divine presence overwhelmed him. The thought of God evoked 94the consciousness of sin, and drove it home upon the sinner’s heart.

The same word of prophecy brought out more distinctly than before the universality of sin, and its persistence in the nation and the world. The prophet was a preacher of righteousness to the individual conscience. But he was even more a national preacher and reformer. He put himself forward as a public man, and dealt with all the aspects of public life. He was, as has been said,7171   J. S. Mill, Represent. Gov., 4l—passage quoted in Appendix XI. “a power in the nation,” and all the elements of national life are graphically depicted in his pages. It is impossible to peruse these pages without recognising how pervading a presence evil is everywhere felt to be. It is a state and quality diffused throughout the nation—a characteristic of humanity. While originating in individual self-will, it is not merely the result of will in every particular case, but has so permeated the mass of human nature, that its thoughts are evil, and only evil. This conception of pervasive influence of sin goes back, indeed, to the very opening of Revelation, as shown in the words of Genesis already quoted7272   Gen. vi. 5. See p. 86. regarding the Flood. It is of the nature of sin to multiply and diffuse its power, repeating itself by example and a degraded tone of general feeling. And pervading as its influence, are 95its fatal consequences. Like a subtle poison, it not only contaminates and injures the individual, but the family, the tribe, the race. It kills wherever it spreads. Its original penalty is an inherent penalty. It works death by its own direct action, cutting off the life of man from God—the only source of life—and leaving behind only a perverted and self-destroying image of human activity.

As a whole, we may sum up the doctrine of the Old Testament as follows, gathering into one view the results of our analysis:—

(1.) The Hebrew conception of evil is distinctively moral. It is the disobedience of the human will against the Divine expressed in the form of command, revelation, or law. In other words, it is what we specially mean by sin.

(2.) It is not only a violation of divine law, but a rejection of divine good.

(3.) All sin is in its nature destructive. It bears death in it as its natural working or outcome.

(4.) It is not merely individual, but diffusive. Having once entered into human nature, it becomes a part of it, an hereditary taint, passing from generation to generation, often with accelerated force.

(5.) It is connected with a power or powers of evil outside of man, the character and influence of which are as yet but dimly revealed.

(6.) And to these several points of our summary 96we may add a further, which has been emphasised by certain expositors of the religion of Israel. Evil is also connected with the will of Jahveh as the supreme source of all energy and all events. Facts of evil (ra), no less than of good, are traced upwards to the Almighty Will, as the ultimate source of all things.7373   ”I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord” (Jahveh) “do all these things,”—Isaiah, xlv, 7. “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord” (Jahveh) “hath not done it?”—Amos, iii. 6. This is true beyond all question; but it exceeds the truth to say, as Kuenen does,7474   Religion of Israel, iii. 40. See Appendix XII. that the older Israelitish prophets and historians did not hesitate to derive even moral evil from Jahveh. Precise distinctions of morality and contingency were unfamiliar to the Hebrew mind; and at no time would this mind have shrunk from attributing every form of evil accident (however immediately caused by human wickedness) to the Sovereign Power, which did as it willed in heaven and on earth. But it is nevertheless true, as has been clearly seen in the course of our exposition, that the essential idea of evil in the Hebrew mind was so far from associating itself with the Divine Will, that its special note or characteristic was opposition to this Will. The line of later argument, as to a possible relation of the Divine Will to sin (whereby its omnipotence and yet its purity should be preserved), is foreign to the Old Testament. It grasps events concretely; it does not analyse them in their origin or nature; and so, while it hesitates not to ascribe all evil as matter of fact, and as part of the universal providence which governs the world, to the Divine Will, it never fails to set forth sin as springing out of the depths of human personality in opposition to the Divine. This idea is stamped on every page of the Old Testament, and no concrete figures of prophetic rhetoric can be allowed to efface so clear and deep an impression.

98
« Prev III. Old Testament Doctrine of Sin. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |