Sin anyone? What is it, and do we really understand it?

Author: Thomas Chavez

When I was a kid of 12 or 13, I was first introduced to the world of Classical Greek Drama. Central to many of those fascinating Tragedies was a concept that I heard explained as a hero’s “Tragic Flaw.” Later on, I heard this idea expressed as “Fatal Flaw.” But no matter how it is referred to, the import and outcome remained the same. Sometimes, that flaw was portrayed as simple ignorance, as in the story of Oedipus, and other times it was expressed as the madness of “Hubris”, as in the tale of Jason and Medea.

Well, to young minds, such as my own, Hubris seemed a bigger deal and a greater fault than mere ignorance. Aren’t we all ignorant about lots of things? Then I learned that the fault implied by Ignorance was in the word itself. When I am ignorant, I am ignoring some truth that I could have learned had I possessed the wit to want to learn it. So “Ignorance” is indeed a flaw, and it can indeed prove nastily fatal. What is more, it is woefully common.

Hubris is different. We don’t have a comparable concept packed into any one English word. So when some smarty-pants (like a younger me perhaps) wants to accuse someone of Hubris, they have to pretend to be an ancient Greek aristocrat – pointing at the accused with their right hand and holding the front of their broachless chiton closed with their left hand. Then, having pronounced the word, that accuser would have to explain that the accused fool was being ridiculously, over-the-top, prideful about their own cleverness, not to mention their understanding of how the whole of reality works. They were being so prideful that they were tempting God (or the gods if one prefers) to step in and cut them down to size, and show them what they and their understanding were really worth.  

Recently I was knocked flat to discover that the Greek word that is translated as “Fatal,” or “Tragic” flaw is hamartia. Why did I find this unremarkable thing so shocking? Every Greek word has to mean something, right? 

Simple, of the several words that all get translated and therefore conflated into the English language idea of “Sin,” hamartia is the most common. And when Biblical scholars try to explain the particular meaning of this word they say nothing of flaws, fatality, or tragedy. They speak of “Missing the mark.” As in landing an arrow to one side of a bullseye while practicing archery.

In the vernacular of my own delightfully misspent youth, this was called a “blow it.” And many is the time I blew it, and so did everyone around me. It was just a factor of life on planet Earth. I, at least, never expected myself to be consigned to eternal damnation as a result of having blown it. I would just have to pick up my bow, nock my next arrow, and try again.

Biblically thinking, there are four separate classes of things that are all called sin. The most vital of these things to most of us are synonymous with crime. Stealing, killing, bearing false witness, lusting after another man’s lands, livestock, or wife, breaking faith with the community.

Then comes “Ritual impurity.” These include things like wearing clothing made from two kinds of fiber, touching a pig or anything made from a pig’s body parts such as a football, reading a Torah scroll if you need glasses, eating a calf’s flesh if it has been boiled in its mother’s milk (which later became eating no beef if butter is served on the same plate), masturbation which was equated with abortion, having sexual relations with your in-laws, being a warrior and taking sexual advantage of your shield-bearer, or in special cases touching or even letting your shadow fall upon a dead body. These and many more are all listed as “Abominations”. 

Because “Abomination” sounds so unforgivably horrible, it is common to find its pronouncement cited as the reason why people who sin in this way should be persecuted relentlessly, or even murdered. Though of course we all know that most of these abominations are simply ignored as being senseless in modern terms, while a few, pertaining to sexuality are held up as irrevocable. There is something disingenuous in this coincidence, and this lack of honesty shows up clearly when specific sexual behaviors are looked at closely.

I cited “being a warrier and taking sexual advantage of your shield bearer,” deliberately because this is the most often cited law for persecution of homosexuals. It seems, to those who excuse their hateful behavior behind it, so clear cut and incontrovertible. If you wish you can go to the Book of Leviticus and look up verse 17 where this is written down. Then read the verses that show up before and after, pretending as you do that you are examining what is being said for the first time, with no preconceptions.

When you do this, you may be startled to notice that even though the specific act prohibited is indeed sexual in character, the prohibition is not about this, but about taking advantage of an inevitable power differential. A warrier is an armed adult. A shield bearer is an unarmed youth serving as an aid. It is theft of sexual favor by domination that is being condemned here, not homosexuality itself. This, in large part because homosexuality as we picture it today did not exist in the ancient world. The reasons why this is so would require an entire essay of its own to make clear. Perhaps I will take the trouble to go through this in a later post, but not today.

Then there are directives about social order, such as the directive that a child up to the age of 13 can be killed by his or her father for active defiance, and the prohibition against voluntary adultery distinct from rape, a practice that puts clear lines of family inheritance at risk. In this category are the laws dealing with divorce, which Jesus turned on their head by prohibiting it altogether because it unfairly destroyed the lives of women. In this category is also the constant theme of being welcoming and kind to the stranger, the outsider, the landless.

Finally we have a lack of relationship with YHWH. YWH is the symbol for the never-to-be-pronounced “Name” of God (which by the way was never anybody’s name). An observant Jew from earliest times right up to now will, if reading the Torah aloud, mark this name by intoning the substitute word, “Adoni”, which means “Lord.” “I am the lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” This is a prime example of this category, and is the very first of the famous Ten Commandments, which is in turn the most famous summary of the 613 “Laws” found in the Torah. This is also the point of the “Shemah,” which every Jewish believer from the time of Moses onward has uttered out loud every single day. “Know o Israel, the Lord is one!”

When viewed altogether in light of the central importance of this last named category, a new pattern emerges. Suddenly we see that the Biblical idea of sin, is in all cases, some reflection of the idea of separation, division, fragmentation. This is separation from God, but also from other humans, community, and from nature as well. Creation is all one. All of creation is one because all is the result of God’s love, and when we break this oneness up in preference to our personal advantage, whether by being uncivil, grasping, hating our neighbors or even our supposed enemies, cruel to each other or animals, or by committing murder, we violate God’s love.

What distinguishes Christianity from its honored Hebrew roots, is that this is the principle that Christ, as Jesus, based all of his teachings and life actions upon. Jesus was a living, breathing, and finally dying and resurrecting billboard for this understanding of reality. Just to put the words on the record in this string of posts early, Jesus called this condition of love, “The Kingdom (or Kin-dom) of Heaven.”

Jesus’ last “Commandment” was simply, “Love one another.” Whenever we fail to do this in any measure, in any dimension of life, we “blow it.” We are committing hamartia…sin.

Not only that, but we have sinned because we have let our inevitable human need to triumph overwhelm our commitment to our spiritual connection to God’s love. We have missed the mark. Instead of condemning each other to Hell over these all too frequent infelicities (which merely doubles the width of our missing the mark), let us, each and all, pick up our figurative “Bows” and try again.