In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sin (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Impurity
  • Law
  • Individual versus Collective Responsibility
  • Divine Wrath and Punishment
  • Prayer
  • The Psalms
  • Repentance and Forgiveness
  • Near Eastern Context

Biblical Studies Sin (Hebrew Bible/Old Testament)
David Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0158


This article focuses on sin in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. “Sin” may be defined as a behavior that is unacceptable to a deity or supernatural being and subject to punishment by him. This theological construct is largely built on an analogy to the way humans interact. Just as humans might be offended by behaviors of others, and just as they might castigate offenders and could be pacified by verbal apology and gift-giving, so supernatural beings are imagined to be offended and pacified. In the Hebrew Bible, as well as in other religious traditions, analogy with regard to sin operates in two different modes: the personal and the cultic. The personal mode reflects the basic interactive relationship between humans, where an offender engages an offended party directly. In this mode, the sinner appeals to the deity directly by prayer, sometimes accompanied by formal ritual activity, such as mourning behaviors or making an offering as a gift to the deity. The cultic mode, which is most prominent in the Priestly Holiness writings of the Pentateuch, builds on the personal approach but also contextualizes sin and its effects in the framework of a sanctuary or temple. An additional analogical conception operates here. The sanctuary is thought to be the dwelling of the deity, like the palace of a king or other ruling figure in society. Sin, even that committed outside the sanctuary boundaries, is imagined to create impurity that pollutes this dwelling. In order to keep the deity in good spirits and retain his presence, sacrificial purification rites are performed to clean the divine dwelling. Parts of these sacrifices (e.g., the fat) may also be given as gifts to appease the deity.

General Overviews

Boda 2009 is a primary reference for details about different views in books and traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Miller 2000 provides a summary of work on the cultic mode of purification from sin. Knierim 1965 is a foundational though technical study of terminology for sin in the Hebrew Bible. Johnston 2004 contains a wide variety of articles dealing with sin in the larger ancient Near East and Mediterranean. The individual articles in the volume provide introductions to particular cultures, societies, and literary corpora. Van der Toorn 1985 gives a detailed comparative study of a variety of issues related to sin, punishment, and purification in the Bible and Mesopotamian literature. Klawans 2000 and Klawans 2006 provide study of sin and related concepts in post–Hebrew biblical Judaism and Christianity and have bibliographies for these religions and periods. Segal 2012 offers a historical contextualization of various stories about sin in the Hebrew Bible.

  • Boda, Mark J. A Severe Mercy: Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament. Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures 1. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009.

    The most comprehensive recent work on the topic of sin in the Hebrew Bible. It goes through the books and corpora of the Hebrew Bible treating the differing views of each book. It contains an extensive bibliography on the topic at large and as it relates to each individual book. Detailed but good for all students.

  • Johnston, Sarah Iles, ed. Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004.

    Contains articles on sin in the Hebrew Bible, Near East, and Mediterranean world. The essay by Harold Attridge, “Pollution, Sin, Atonement, Salvation” (pp. 71–83) provides a valuable overview. Other short articles treat sin in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria-Canaan, Israel, Anatolia, Iran, Greece, Rome, and in Christianity (pp. 496–513). For all audiences.

  • Klawans, Jonathan. Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195132908.001.0001

    Examines the relationship of impurity and sin from the Bible and how conceptions develop into early Judaism and Christianity. Distinguishes between ritual and moral impurity. Addresses the question of whether the use of impurity language for sin is only metaphorical. Detailed but useful for undergraduates.

  • Klawans, Jonathan. Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Argues that the practice of sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible had a symbolic import and could thus remain meaningful in Jewish and Christian communities even after the destruction of the temple. Examines also the relationship between sacrifice and purity. Detailed but useful for undergraduates.

  • Knierim, R. Die Hauptbegriffe für Sünde im Alten Testament. Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus/Gerd Mohn, 1965.

    An older but foundational study of the Hebrew terminology and idioms for sin and related concepts. Study of the individual terms may be followed up by articles on individual Hebrew terms in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. This is a technical study.

  • Miller, Patrick D. The Religion of Ancient Israel. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000.

    Summarizes much of the recent work on sacrifice in the Priestly Holiness writings of the Pentateuch (see pp. 106–161) and puts it in a larger cultural-historical framework. See Impurity. Good for undergraduates.

  • Segal, Alan F. Sinning in the Hebrew Bible: How the Worst Stories Speak for Its Truth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

    This examines a number of stories about sin from narrative texts of the Hebrew Bible to show how they function in their historiographical contexts. It looks at stories about deceit, idolatry, illicit worship, murder, sexual dalliance and violence, and human sacrifice. Particularly helpful in identifying thematic connections between diverse texts. Good for a wide range of audiences.

  • van der Toorn, Karel. Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia: A Comparative Study. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1985.

    Studies the nature of ethics and religious and social behavior, and their relationship to sin and punishment in ancient Israel and Mesopotamia, with chapters on ethics and etiquette in the two cultures, human and divine enforcement of the moral order, the nature of misfortune and divine wrath, and the notion of offenses committed unknowingly. Technical but useful for undergraduates.

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