Most people assume the Bible has a lot to say about how messed up humans are, and that’s true. It’s also true that the Bible’s vocabulary about this topic sounds odd to modern people, using words like sin, iniquity, or transgression. And so the Bible’s perspective on the human condition is often ignored or treated as ancient and backwards.
This is really unfortunate because through these words, the biblical authors are offering us a deeply profound diagnosis of human nature. Iniquity refers to behavior that’s crooked, while sin refers to moral failure. And transgression, this is a fascinating word that you for sure haven’t used in conversation recently. So let’s focus on it for a few minutes.
The Hebrew Word Pesha [00:44-03:26]
In Old Testament Hebrew, the noun is pesha and the verb is pasha. In the New Testament, the Greek word is paraptoma. They’re usually translated as “transgression,” sometimes as “rebellion,” and in older translations as “trespass.”
These words refer to ways that people violate the trust of others. Pesha describes the betrayal of a relationship. And since there are many kinds of relationships, a lot of different behaviors can be called pesha.
Like if two nations are in a relationship, we would call that a treaty. And pasha’ would describe the breaking of that agreement. In the biblical book of 2 Kings, we read, “After the death of king Ahab, Moab pasha'd with Israel.”1 Now this is usually translated, “Moab rebelled against Israel.” But in biblical Hebrew, you don’t pasha against someone, you pasha with them, that is, you break trust with that person.
The same idea appears in an Old Testament law about theft2. If an Israelite is away on a trip and somebody sneaks into their house and steals something, that’s robbery. But if the thief was your neighbor, it’s pesha because they’re someone you should be able to trust.
Or there’s a story about Jacob running away from Laban, his uncle. Laban accuses Jacob of stealing some idol statues. He searches all of Jacob’s belongings, and he finds nothing. So Jacob shouts, “What is my pesha?!”3. How have I violated your trust? But the sad irony is that the statues were stolen by Jacob’s wife, who is Laban’s own daughter. Talk about breaking trust!
So pesha involves one person or group violating a relationship of trust with another. And this is a really common word in the Bible because it’s one long story about a broken relationship between God and the Israelites. At Mount Sinai, they agreed to worship only their God and to care for the poor among them, but they didn’t. And so God raised up prophets to confront them, like Micah who said, “I am full of power, with the Spirit of the Lord and with justice and courage, so I can declare to Jacob his pesha.”4
Or the prophet Amos, he accused the Israelites of pesha, specifically for idolatry and “selling the poor for a pair of sandals.”5 He also accused other nations, like Tyre who profited from capturing whole towns and then selling them into slavery6, or the Ammonites for murdering the innocent to enlarge their borders7.
For Amos these are all acts of pesha. They violate the universal trust that exists between all humans who are made in the image of God. He watched these leaders ignore or justify the mistreatment of humans in the name of national security or a strong economy. But for Amos, it was a betrayal of humanity. And it makes perfect sense why these prophets associate pesha with words like treachery8 or falsehood9.
The Greek Word Paraptoma [03:27-04:35]
In the Greek New Testament, the apostle Paul develops this portrait of humans as trust-breakers using the word paraptoma. He recalls the story in Genesis about adam [it means “humanity” in Hebrew]. And in that story, humanity breaks trust with God and seizes authority to discern good and evil on their own terms. Paul calls this the paraptoma of adam, humanity’s violation of trust with God and with each other. And it leads to a complicated web of betrayed and broken relationships, leading toward violence and death.
But for Paul, that is not the last word. He said, “If death came to all by the paraptoma of a human, how much more will God’s gracious gift overflow to many by means of a human, Jesus the Messiah.”10
Instead of letting humanity destroy itself in treachery, God raised up a human who would allow our pasha to do its worst to him. Here Paul is drawing on the prophet Isaiah’s portrait of the suffering servant, the one who would “commit no violence, or have any treachery on his lips,” yet he would be “counted among those who pasha... bearing their failures, and interceding on their behalf.”11
Jesus Takes on Our Pesha/Paraptoma [04:36-05:15]
And this is the surprising story of the Bible, that God’s response to humanity’s pasha and paraptoma was to be trustworthy on our behalf. The apostles claim that, in Jesus, God took responsibility for our betrayal, so that he could open up a new future and a new way to be human, the way of faithfulness, trustworthiness, and integrity. That’s the kind of human Jesus was and is. And it’s the kind of humans he wants to create as he faithfully guides our world into the new creation.
And that’s the fascinating story behind our biblical words for transgression.