And on the next day Moses said to the people “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Exodus 32:30
Sin – Not all sin is the same. Yes, I know that we often speak as though every sin has the same forensic result, that is, every sin breaks the relationship with God. That’s true. On that scale, sin is sin. But there is more than one kind of sin, and I don’t mean the differences in sinful actions. You see, Hebrew has several derivatives from the basic root chata that require careful distinction. For a concept that is so important in the Hebrew understanding of life, it’s a shame that our language blurs them all. Let’s see what happens when we separate two of them.
Koch points out that chata’ah differs from chatta’th in the following way. Both are translated “sin,” but the first refers to individual actions while the second refers to the continuing “sphere of conduct observed by Yahweh, which he will one day punish.” In this verse in Exodus, the first occurrence of “sin” is chata’ah (the sins of the individuals) but the second occurrence is chatta’th (the realm of conduct seen by God which must either be punished or atoned). We have only one word for both, so we don’t see the change and the development of the two. Consequently, we never notice that Moses really says that the individual sins of the people have created an enduring sphere of evil consequence for the community that must be dealt with one way or the other. More importantly, we don’t notice that Moses is not going to make atonement for their individual sins but rather for the communal consequences that followed from their individual acts. Each individual confesses and repents, but the community as a whole needs atonement before God. Moses declares to the people that their individual actions have created a corporate guiltiness and both must be dealt with. When Moses pleads for the people before God (just two verses later), he acknowledges their individual sin (chata’ah) but he asks God to carry away (lift up) their chatta’th, that is, their communal guilt.
When we read these verses, we often think as individuals. We assume that Moses is pleading for the individual forgiveness of each person in the congregation. But that isn’t what’s happening here. Moses is a Hebrew. When he comes before God, it is the community guilt that is on his mind, not the individuals who caused that guilt. In other words, Moses is asking God to lift away the inevitable punishment that will necessarily fall upon the entire community as a result of individual actions. Wow, do we need to change our view of the impact of sin!
You and I are individuals within communities. Unless you live in a cave or on a deserted island, you have relationships with others. Some are deeply personal. Some are simply acquaintances. But they are all affected by our sins. Atonement isn’t just for me. It’s for my interconnectedness with you. It’s for the spill-over factor. When was the last time you (plural) were wholly forgiven? When was the last time your congregation made atonement for the sins of a particular individual? When was the last time you (singular) asked the community for forgiveness?
Topical Index: Sin