What is sin? How do we know the difference between right and wrong. It seems like such an elementary question. And the answer is elementary indeed. Wikipedia says of sin, “In a religious context, sin is the act of violating God’s will by transgressing his commandments,” and Merriam Webster dictionary defines sin as “an offense against religious or moral law; transgression of the law of God.” These definitions seem pretty straightforward. Is the biblical definition as candid as these? Yes. For example, the apostle Sha’ul (Paul) relays to the Romans that sin is not known without being defined by the Law (Torah). More on that later. Maybe we don’t realize which god’s law we are supposed to obey. We often think of sin in relative rather than concrete ways. Is it possible our moral compass has been affected by the world’s relativistic culture? According to such a paradigm, each individual gets to decide their own standard for morality. Essentially, this makes each person their own god with their own law to obey. From such a worldview come statements such as, “To each his own”, or “If it feels good, do it.” Have believers fallen into this trap? If we believe in the Elohim (GOD) of the Bible, then isn’t it the transgressing of His commands which equates to sin? Is it up to us or Elohim to decide what is sin? Is it up to us or Elohim to decide which commandments we are to obey?
Let us remember the source of the Scriptures and from whose mouth the commandments come! The name of our Creator appears 6828 times in the Tanakh (Old Testament) alone, a fact which emphasizes my point. According to the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible the word “sin” appears 440 times in 389 verses. While this number may be bolstered by the inclusion of the translation for “sin offering”, it must also be remembered that this number does not account for words of similar meaning such as iniquity, transgression, trespass, or offense. By comparison, the English word “love” is found 551 times in the ESV, and this number is similarly bolstered by the inclusion of the translation for “loving kindness”. The point is, Elohim speaks of sin frequently for a good reason: presumably, that we wouldn’t do it! Also, I compare the frequency of the words sin and love because they’re connected to each other. We know that the greatest commandment is love (Mk 12:28-34) and that loving Elohim means obeying His commandments (Deu 6:4-9, Jn 14:15, 1Jn 5:3). What then does disobedience to His commandments mean? Is sin a violation of love?
A look at the original Biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek reveals insight into the intent behind the English translation, “sin”. The Hebrew word most often translated as sin is chattat, which means, “to miss the mark, to fail to reach, to be displeasing.”1. In Greek, the word is hamartia, meaning, “a failing to hit the mark; first, an error of the understanding, second, a bad action, evil deed”2. Both words presume that an underlying standard or goal exists, a “mark”. Sin, therefore, is a failure to meet that standard or hit that mark. Think in terms of target practice: there is hitting the target, and there is missing the target. Those are the only two options. In the same way, we either obey the commandment of Elohim or we don’t.
Understanding what constitutes sin is absolutely foundational to Biblical faith. Disobedience to Elohim’s commandment is what characterizes the kingdom of ha-satan (Satan). It is the origin of all death and suffering in this world. It is the reason for the great separation between Elohim and mankind. And bridging that chasm is the reason that Yeshua, the spotless Lamb of Elohim, gave His life, purchasing for Himself a people who would be holy and blameless. How then could we dismiss the commandment of Elohim, a practice which cost our Savior His life in the first place? To quote Sha’ul, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Rom 6:1-2a).
The study of the question, “What is sin?”, will be divided into 3 parts. First, we will look at the first incidence of sin in the Garden of Eden. Then we will look at the first use of the word, chattat, found in the story of Kayin and Havel (Cain and Abel). Finally, we will ask some pointed questions of Elohim’s Word regarding sin and let the Torah, Prophets, Writings, and Apostolic Scriptures answer them for us.
Part 1: First Occurrence
Not long ago, I had the great privilege of baptizing my niece. She told me her favorite Bible story was that of the garden of Eden. How appropriate for one making a commitment to repentance because in the garden is where we are first presented with the problem of sin.
Elohim told man, “Eat of every tree of the garden, but do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall certainly die.” -Gen 2:16-17. The serpent speaks truth, but it is stated in a very negative and manipulative way, “Indeed, for Elohim said you shall not eat from every tree of the garden.” -Gen 3:2
Should we be surprised by this deception? Why wouldn’t the father of the lie twist the truth for his own purposes? Notice his strategy. He plants the seeds of dissatisfaction with Yehovah’s instruction. That dissatisfaction creates a vacuum, a void wanting to be filled. It drives man to desire what is not his to have and to pursue it despite the cost. When man gives in to this desire, he has sinned and missed the mark. This is the goal of the enemy: that we choose of our own free will to disobey Elohim’s commandments. But stop and think for a second, why is it so important to the enemy that we disobey Yehovah’s commandments? Is it really about the fruit? Perhaps we’ll get our answer once the consequences of sin come into view.
The woman responds to the serpent by quoting the word of Elohim, but do you notice something funny about her response? I don’t remember Yehovah giving the man instruction against touching the fruit, just against eating it. So, where did this instruction come from? Did it come from the man? Might Adam have made this instruction as an extra fence to guard his wife from breaking Elohim’s command? We do not know for sure but think about why this strategy might be dangerous. If Chava touched the fruit and nothing happened, how might her trust in Elohim’s Word be affected?
It is also interesting to note that when the serpent responds to her he does not mention the touching prohibition but rather that of eating the fruit. Certainly, the serpent cares not if man breaks his own commandment, but twisting the truth, as is his common strategy, the serpent led the woman to believe that disobedience to the commandment of Yehovah would be for her good. This lie poured out over the seed of dissatisfaction, nurtured by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and selfish pride sprouted into covetousness, and she ate. How common we see this pattern played out in our lives to this very day!
Her decision was not without collateral damage. She gave some to her husband with her who, despite received the Creator’s instruction personally, gave no apparent dissent to her offer. They disobeyed Yehovah’s commandment. They missed the mark. They sinned. The eyes of both were opened. The awareness of sin set in and we clearly see the progression of sin’s disastrous consequences, beginning with fear. With the awareness of sin comes fear because we anticipate judgment and subsequent punishment. So, to avoid such negative consequences we hide. We step out of the light and into the shadows. As in shame, we remain in darkness hoping that what can’t be seen can’t be judged. But such a self-defense mechanism backfires. We desire restoration of our inner peace but, refusing repentance as the only way of restoration, we conceal ourselves, avoiding fellowship with the Light of the World, further straining and damaging our relationship with Him. When at one time our hearts would jump at the sound of His footsteps, now we scramble to avoid Him.
How it must break our Father’s heart. First, we turn away from His voice to pursue what brings death. Then, instead of trusting in the loving kindness of His forgiveness, we pursue a deeper darkness further distancing ourselves from Him. He walks in the garden of our hearts and cries out, “Ayeka?!” It is a Hebrew word/phrase commonly translated as “where are you?” in English. But, if one wished to interrogate physical location, there is another word, eyfoh, still in use today to accomplish this purpose. But eyfoh is not the word used here because location is not the issue. Elohim is not a man that He should need to ask where a human is located. The word in our text can indeed mean “where” but it is also used to ask “why” or “for what purpose”. This perspective then paints a picture of a heart-broken Father coming upon a tragic scene and expressing His grief as if to say, “Why are you in this state? What’s the meaning of our disconnect?” It’s a relational question.
One at a time, He asks His children for an explanation, but why does He ask them? Is there something of which the Almighty is unaware? Is there some detail He missed that He seeks a human’s counsel? By no means! He asks because it is not our Father’s desire to condemn but to teach, to discipline His children that they might grow. Conversely, notice that He does not ask the serpent any questions. This being is beyond teaching and discipline. This being already stands condemned. But Yehovah knows what is to become of the serpent and what must now take place in order to rectify the damage that has been done. At this moment, He declares the first prophecy of His anointed one, ha-Mashiach (the Messiah), the Redeemer, the Conqueror, whose life would ultimately overcome the death set in motion by this enemy.
What is our Heavenly Father’s first action upon sin’s entrance into the world? “Yehovah Elohim made for Adam and his wife garments of skins and he clothed them.” -Gen 3:21. Consider the implications of this action. How rich the themes from this verse alone!
- The result of sin requires a remedy
- The remedy is a covering
- We cannot provide this covering for ourselves (although they try)
- The covering comes from sacrificial substitution
- Life in the blood requires death to access (He meets us at the death we caused)
- Elohim as priest covers His children with His sacrifice
Do you see this shadow picture? Or maybe I should ask, “Whose shadow do you see in this picture?” We have this thing called, “the problem of sin”. To paraphrase the apostle Sha’ul, “because we’ve all done it, we’re all removed from Elohim” (Rom 3:23). Of course this is a big problem. Actually, it’s the biggest problem, and it requires a big solution! Because of His great loving-kindness, Yehovah has made a remedy prefigured in this scene at the Fall. This remedy is also foreshadowed by the entire sacrificial system given to Israel, for Yehovah says of the sin offering, “and the priest shall make atonement (kafar, “covering”) for them and they shall be forgiven” -Lev 4:20. Something we had in the garden was lost because of sin and we require a covering to be in the presence of Elohim (Heb 10:19). Try as we may to provide our own make-shift covering, but all our attempts fall short (Isa 64:6). A substitutionary sacrifice is the method chosen by Yehovah to pay the death price for our sin (1Jn 4:10). The blood of the substitution must be shed. Why? Because the life is in the blood (Lev 17:11) and life is the appropriate tool to conquer death (Rom 5:9-10). Ironically but appropriately, access to the lifeblood occurs through the death of the substitution, a strategy of our Creator to continually remind us of the great debt which our sin incurred (Rom 5:8). Finally, as officiating priest in the garden, Yehovah takes the skins which are His rightful due (Lev 7:7) and clothes His children with the sacrifice He has made (Eph 1:7-8). Surely we can see that the shadow in the picture belongs to Yeshua, the Lamb of Elohim, who takes away the sin of the world.
In this we see the undying love of Elohim. Even though we have sinned against Him, He is willing to forgive and offer hope. But forgiveness does not mean removal of consequences. Access to the tree of life is immediately revoked. It is surely Yehovah’s desire that man lives forever, but not in this state, not in the state of sin and death. The life-giving fruit will again be offered, but not until man is renewed and restored in the world to come.
Forgiveness also doesn’t mean the relationship can simply return to what it was. Yes, Yehovah loves us, desires us, and continues to reach out to us, but now under a different set of circumstances. Man is cast from the garden and estranged from the place where he met intimately with his Creator. There would be no more walks together in the cool of the day. In fact, Scripture does not record Adam or Chavah having any further interaction with Elohim. Man has been alienated from Him. Yes, the Creator will still meet with man but not in the same way, not without some layer between them. A separating division now exists between Elohim and man, at least for the time being.
So, I ask again: Why is it so important to the enemy that we disobey Yehovah’s commandments? Is it really about the fruit? No, it is about separating us from our Father. The enemy is wise to the result of disobedience which is why he tempts us to do just that. He knows that sin will separate us from Yehovah and damage the entire reason we exist: relationship with our Creator.
In the next installment, we will explore the first usage of the Hebrew word for sin (chattat), found in the story of Adam and Chavah’s offspring: Kayin and Havel.
1 “חטאת”, HALOT, Accordance 11.2.4.
2 “αμαρτια”, Thayer, Accordance 11.2.4.