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?


Bob MacDonald said...

Numbers 14:34. For you, with you, in you? I know there are so many confessional stances here. How important it is that we not take someone else's word for the confessional stance. Yet how would we know anything if we did not have some sort of pointer - given the potentially dismal outlook of me-first or even me-only?

Yes, Phil - I do believe they are borne by him in him for us and that the resurrection seals our capacity to join him in the bearing of the sins of the whole world. In my searches for confession, I have never put it quite this way before. Nor will I give you chapter and verse.

By the way, I have four started posts on NSA and related nouns - but it's a slow job finding the data with the tools I have at my disposal. (Maybe I should dispose some of them!)

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil and Bob,

here is a interesting article on the semantics of nasa awon:

B. J. Schwartz, “‘Term’ or Metaphor: Biblical nasa ‘awon/peša‘/het’,” Tarbiz, 63 (1994): 149–171

Keep up the good blogging, Phil! Unfortunately, I have not had the time to give your postings the thoughtful reflection they deserve.


Phil Sumpter said...


lexical semantics is a really complex field. I highly recommend reading the relevant chapter Sue Groom's Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew in order to get orientated. I've decided it's way beyond the scope of my dissertation to try and figure out by myself the basic semantics of nasa'. It's a fascinating area, though, that I'd like to get into one day.


it's always good to hear from you. Do pop in again! Thanks for the bibliographic reference. This post is not really connected to my studies, it was just a thought on the side, so I won't be following this reference up for the time being. One day, when I have time ...

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