Wednesday, 12 August 2009
נשׂא עון - bearing sin
Some Christians understand Jesus' crucifixion to be an act whereby Jesus bore our sins upon himself. In other words, we did something wrong, and he chose to, somehow, take the consequences upon himself.
This is viewed as unethical by others. They say, "How can someone bear the consequences for something that I have done?"
But doesn't the very logic of forgiving someone mean that you automatically bear their sin upon yourself, in the sense that you live with the consequences and don't pay them back for it? If I can't choose to bear, in some sense, the consequences of someone else's actions, then how can I forgive them?
In short, what Jesus was doing on the cross is an intensified version of what we do for each other when we forgive each other anyway.
This seems to accord with the semantics of one way of expressing forgiveness in Biblical Hebrew. One way to say that you forgive someone in Hebrew is to say that you "bear their sins" (נשׂא עון). The main character in the Bible to do this is God Himself. In fact, it belongs to his essential character to do such things, as he states about Himself in Num 14:18:
יהוה אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפָשַׁע
If you aren't forgiven, then you "bear your own iniquity" (וְנָשָׂא עֲוֹנֹו; Lev 5:17). This has consequences. For example, the Israelites sinned by not trusting in God's ability to give them the Promised Land. As a result, they had to "bear their iniquity" by wandering for forty years in the wilderness (Num 13:34: תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת־עֲוֹנֹתֵיכֶם אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה). In fact, in order for the Israelites not to suffer the consequences of all their sins, the priests had the job of bearing their sins for them (Lev 10:17: לָשֵׂאת אֶת־עֲוֹן הָעֵדָה).
In other words, "forgiving someone" and "bearing the consequences of iniquity" are practically synonymous in Hebrew. At least some times.
So, why can't Jesus bear my sins for me?