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Religion
Scriptural Concepts

Iniquity
עון

Hebrew Word

The Hebrew word avon, translated "iniquity", refers to how our heart (temperament, disposition, inclination, loyalties) falls short of God's standards. We are imperfect and flawed, irregardless of if we have committed any offenses in God's eyes or are set apart for God.

Since iniquity was internal and not about actions there were not offerings an Ancient Israelite could do to deal with iniquity.

Iniquity could not be forgiven or atoned for. It could only be "borne away" (a phrase never used about evil actions). The only way to rid the world of iniquity is to bear it to Sheol.

The most spiritually significant part of iniquity is what the Apostolic Writings calls "slavery to sin", describing how people who know what is good will sometimes do what as evil even when they do not want to.

Meaning in Ancient Israel

The ancient Israelites knew that the Tabernacle was only a copy of the true, heavenly Tabernacle. It was very holy (set apart for God) but still a flawed and imperfect copy. To deal with this the High Priest wore on his turban a golden plate that bore the iniquity of the Tabernacle and its offerings throughout the year (Exodus 28:38).

(If this sounds strange then picture an immaculate house with museum-quality artwork on the walls, whose refridgerator is covered with the family's children's artwork. That artwork would not fit anywhere else in the house. But on the refridgerator it is cherished and appropriate.)

Once each year the rituals of Yom Kippur allowed the community's iniquity to be borne away. Both the iniquity of the Tabernacle stored up on the High Priest's turban and the people's iniquity would be carried to Sheol by a goat (Leviticus 16:21-22). This goat that suffered a terrible death in the wilderness. It was called "the goat that departs" (in Hebrew azazel, a contraction of the words aiz azel, "goat that departs"). Azazel was also the name of a cliff near Mount Sinai.

(According to Jewish tradition there were two miracles associated with this goat. The first was that the goat would be guided by God within one day to wander through the wilderness to that specific cliff, fall off, and die a slow, painful death. The second is that a scarlet thread used to confirm the goat's death (it was broken in half: one piece was tied to the goat's horns and the other was kept with the priests) would turn white so that the people knew the goat was dead. The Talmud records that, in later years, the Israelites lost faith and changed the ritual to pushing the goat off a cliff twelve miles from Jerusalem. It also says that the scarlet thread stopped turning white forty years before the Second Temple was destroyed.)

This dramatic cleansing is described as being "purified from all their offenses" in Leviticus 16:30. This type of cleansing happens nowhere else in the Tenach; the phrase appears only appears elsewhere in Proverbs 20:9, which laments that repentance cannot achieve this state.

Unfortunately, this annual cleansing from iniquity did not last long. The ancient Israelites had old habits and perspectives which would soon lead them into evil. They would again enter "slavery to sin" (John 8:34). So without a complimentary protection from evil being cleansed from iniquity was temporary.

God told Isaiah that the inquity of the Israelites was causing him to ignore them. In Isaiah 1:13-15 we read:

"Bring your vain gifts no longer,
Incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies--
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.

Isaiah repeats more poetically in verses 59:1-2 that iniquity separates people from God just as offenses prevent prayers from being answered:

Behold, the Lord's hand is not so short/ That it cannot save;
Neither is His ear so dull / That it cannot hear.
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your offenses have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear.

Isaiah also prophesied (Isaiah 53:5-6) that the suffering Messiah would, like the goat that departs, bear away iniquity.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon him,
And by his scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on him.

Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 31:33-34) about a future Messianic covenant in which inquity would no longer be an issue.

"But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the Lord, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the Lord, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their offense I will remember no more."

Meaning in the First Century

Jewish culture in the first century tried to understand iniquity. In many writings it was described as "the evil inclination" (yetzer ha'ra) although these two concepts are not quite identical (iniquity includes the evil inclinatoin as well as many other ways we fall short of God's standards).

Sages of that era wondered what iniquity caused God to allow Roman rule over Israel. This was the main issue dividing the Jewish sects of that time. The Pharisees believed the cause was the general population not taking the commandments seriously enough. The Zealots believed it was acceptance of Roman sovereignty when only God should rule his people. The Essenes believed it was the lack of a faithful enough remnant, which they strove to create.

Since Jewish culture knew of no way for iniquity to be permanetly removed from people, writings about iniquity urged the pious to subdue or redirect their iniquity. For example, greed could be chanelled into caring well for a family, and sexual desires into cherishing your spouse.

Yeshua preached a shocking message about being reborn into a new kind of life that was empowered by God's Spirit and free from iniquity. Not only would those with this new kind of life have their iniquity removed but the indwelling of God's Spirit would provide the previously missing protection from evil to guard against re-entering "slavery to sin".

Paul summarized this more effective purification in Acts 13:32, 38-39:

We tell you the Good News: What God promised our fathers he has made complete for us, their children, by raising up Yeshua... through Yeshua the forgiveness of offenses is proclaimed to you, and through him everyone who believes is made innocent from everything you could not be made innocent from by the Law of Moses.

Yeshua did not explain the details of what would happen during his earthly ministry. But after his resurrection he explained more and his followers recorded those details. In Hebrews 9:28 we read that Yeshua's sacrificial death allowed him to bear all iniquity to Sheol. In Hebrews 9:11-14 we read that Yeshua then performed in heaven the genuine priestly duties at the heavenly Tabernacle of which the Yom Kippur rituals were an earthly image: he sprinkled his blood in the heavenly Tabernacle to cleanse our inclination (the Greek word suneidesis, usually mistranslated "conscience" in verse 9:14 because of how Paul uses that word) even more thoroughly than the Yom Kippur rituals could do. Only with both these steps could Yeshua ready his followers to be filled with God's Spirit in a new way (John 7:39), through their faith in him (Acts 2:38), through prayer (Acts 8:16-17) and identifying with him (Romans 6).

Thus was fulfilled the prophecy that Yeshua would "provide victory for his people over their iniquities" (Matthew 1:21).

Meaning for Yeshua's followers in Modern Times

Unfortunately, Biblical Greek has only one word, hamartia, used to refer to both offenses and iniquity. This linguistic issue has led many Gentile followers of Yeshua to neglect thinking about iniquity.

This blurring of offensses and iniquity as "sin" does not matter too much, for as we read Yeshua dealt with both and and in the new covenant God no longer remembered both offenses and iniquity. However, for explaining the good news clearly the distinction between offense and iniquity is important.

For example, many people do not think they have a "sin" problem because they do not lie, steal, murder, and so forth--but these same people would readily admit that within their hearts they do not meet God's standards.

Similarly, Yeshua is unique for living without iniquity. Scripture describes other people such as Noah or Job who perhaps never acted contrary to God's commandments, but these did have iniquity.

A third, related, potential linguistic problem is the concept called "original sin". This confuses people who wonder how an infant could have sinned before birth. What is called "original sin" actually describes iniquity, not offenses.