Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible

Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept

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Joseph Lam
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     2016.
     328 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199394647.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Joseph Lam analyzes the concept of sin across the Hebrew Bible using four primary metaphors: sin as burden; the accounting of sin; sin as path or direction; and sin as a stain or impurity. Following the introductory chapter, each of these metaphors enfolds in a dedicated chapter. A conclusion consists of two short sections: a summary of each metaphor, and a very brief description of how the concept of sin was understood after the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Mishnah.

In the introduction, Lam helpfully and succinctly explains the importance of metaphor as a concept before outlining the specific categories used to explicate the idea of sin in the Hebrew Bible. Rather than being tied to linguistic or etymological explanations for the language of sin he provides numerous examples of each metaphor from the biblical text, illustrating its depth and breadth. In contrast with many other studies of sin, Lam consistently moves through these texts without attempting to privilege one over the other, or arguing for priority either in terms of chronology or theological value. Each metaphor is discussed and appreciated on its own terms. The four distinct metaphors for sin are reflected in a cadre of biblical texts through which Lam guides the reader in straightforward and accessible language.

In the introduction, Lam quickly provides an overview of the three primary terms used for sin in the Hebrew Bible—awon (“inquity”); chata (“to sin”); and pesa (“to rebel/transgress”)—and the need to move beyond reductionistic explanations for their meanings (3-4). Instead, he argues, persuasively in my view, for a wider investigation of the concept of sin, using the metaphors contained within the biblical text itself as the categories of inquiry.

The second chapter examines the idea of sin as burden. The Hebrew verb nasa (in conjunction with a noun) can indicate either “bearing” the consequence of sin, or its “forgiveness” (21). Lam argues in a rather lengthy discussion that the former meaning is best understood as a central theological concern of the priestly circles, a view promulgated during the exilic and postexilic periods with lasting influence in both Jewish and Christian interpretative traditions. Lam concludes that one significant theological claim of the “sin as burden” metaphor is that divine involvement alone is able to provide a solution to this problem. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, human effort is understood to be futile in this endeavor (86).

The third chapter addresses the accounting of sin: especially sin as debt. This metaphor emphasizes the reality of sin, not as something ephemeral but rather, as something which can be counted—as in an “administrative record” by a bureaucracy (87). Lam relates this to the pervasive depiction in the Hebrew Bible of God as both a monarch and a judge with ultimate authority. In this metaphor, sin is not easily forgiven or forgotten, but must be either removed, or “paid” in like kind, as a means of balancing accounts.

The fourth chapter presents the view that sin is a path, particularly one of moral and ethical choices, which can either be ignored or abandoned to one’s own harm. This metaphor has a particular concentration in the Wisdom Literature, but also appears in the legal and prophetic corpora. Further, the dualistic understanding of good and evil—with little shades of grey—is common when the metaphor is invoked. However, the action does not have to be willful rebellion; there are numerous instances in the biblical texts that use this language of “path” to describe an individual or group “wandering,” or “getting lost,” along the way.

The fifth chapter discusses sin as stain or impurity, with an emphasis on defilement, contamination, and the need for purification. This view can be found in both the legal materials and the prophetic literature. Lam does correctly note that not all sin causes impurity, and that all impurity is not caused by sin, two overly simplistic views that are not supported by the biblical texts (180-181). He emphasizes that this metaphor reflects a thoroughly negative view, one in which sin causes revulsion—often with visceral language and images—so that it must be contained and purged with equal intensity (205-206).

The brief conclusion provides a helpful summary of each the metaphors, how they are unique, and how they may relate to one another. The reader may wish to read the opening section of the conclusion (207-211) first before turning to the rich and substantial examples enlisted in the previous chapters to illustrate these conclusions.

Lam is to be commended for this coherent and concise treatment of a complicated topic. His attention to the text itself is appreciated. His four categories seem appropriate—if not obvious—and the analysis is cogent.

One criticism that I would offer is his almost complete dismissal of the statement in Genesis 4:3 that sin is “a crouching animal at the door,” as spoken by God to Cain just prior to the first murder in the Hebrew Bible. Lam notes this verse only once—calling it a “conception of a particular biblical writer” (5)—without additional discussion. It does not appear again in the book and is even (somewhat strangely) missing from the Scripture index. While this “sin as power” metaphor is atypical in the Hebrew Bible, it happens to be the first occurrence, narratively, of the word “sin.” Also, this text has a long afterlife in the interpretative tradition, both ancient and modern. The concept of “sin as power” has been particularly important for the Pentecostal and Charismatic scholars and theologians who, over the last century, have emphasized its importance as a theological and spiritual idea. This particular text does not fit any one of Lam’s four primary categories, but perhaps it should have been discussed at some point—even in an excursus—to highlight its distinctive and yet marginal contribution to the scope of the metaphors of sin in the Hebrew Bible.

The above criticism notwithstanding, this is an excellent book, portraying clearly and carefully both the landscape of the Hebrew Bible on this topic as well as helpful approaches to elucidating its meaning.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schweitzer is academic dean and professor at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana.

Date of Review: 
April 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph Lam is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and civilizations from the University of Chicago. His articles have appeared in Vetus Testamentum and the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions.

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