Every Bible reader knows that human beings feel the consequences of their sins: Cain’s “iniquity” (Genesis 4:13) leads to his estrangement; the “wickedness of humanity” (Genesis 6:5) causes earthly corruption that ends with the flood; and Paul says that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The negative influence of sin is a huge problem for people. But is human sin also a problem for God? In Scripture, sinful actions generate physical burdens that weigh down human beings. These sins can become so heavy that people alone cannot carry them, and God takes on the burden in heaven. This divine sin-bearing provides the precedent for Jesus shouldering the weight of sin on behalf of humanity.
Cain is the first biblical figure to experience sin as a burden. After murdering Abel, “Cain said to the Lord, ‘My inquity (עון; avon) is too great (גדול; gadol) to bear (נשא; nasa)” (Genesis 4:13). Though most moderns might interpret Cain’s problem as a psychological one—akin to stress or grief being “too much to bear”—the Hebrew describes a physical reality: rendered literally, Cain complains that the weight of his “sin is too big to carry.” Even the stubborn Pharaoh of the exodus knows that transgression engenders a life-threatening burden. When God sends the plagues against Egypt, Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron, “Carry (נשא; nasa) my sin (חטאתי; hatati)… and plead with the Lord your God to remove this death from me” (Exodus 10:17). Sin is a death-dealing force that enters the world and overloads humanity.
When iniquities become too numerous for human shoulders to hold, God feels the impact. When Ezra tells God that “our iniquities have risen higher than our heads and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6), he’s not speaking hyperbolically. The build-up of human sin can become so substantive that God must intercede to lift the load. In Isaiah, God declares, “I cannot endure iniquity (און; aven) and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts… have become a burden (טרח; torach) to me [that] I am weary (נלאיתי; nileti) of carrying (נשא; neso’)” (Isa 1:13-14). According to Jeremiah, the Babylonian exile occurs because “the Lord could no longer carry (לשׂא; laset) your evil deeds and abominations…. therefore, your land has become a desolation” (Jer 44:22). The prophetic imagery suggests that the weight of human sin falls from God’s shoulders in heaven and scatters God’s people on earth.
Based on this divine willingness to take on the burden of sin, it should be no surprise that God’s son, Jesus, confronts this same problem on the cross. In an allusion to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, 1 Peter says that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24; cf. Isa 53:4-5). The Petrine theology follows God’s experience of bearing iniquity in Israel’s Scriptures: sin kills, and the sins that Yeshua carries on the cross cause his own death. At Golgotha, the crushing weight of iniquity does its worst but, through Jesus, God defeats sin at its own game.