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.

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39 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article Nico. 722 BC and 586 BC came and gone. Sinning caused Israel to go to exile. Granted, Yeshua had not come yet to bore their sins. 70 AD came after Yeshua’s death, but Jews were punished and sent away because they sinned. Why?
    • Good question, Thandu. For the Gospel writers, the destruction of Jerusalem is a foregone conclusion; Jesus alludes to it before he bears sins on the cross (see Mk 13:2; Matt 24:2; Lk 21:6). Jesus death is not meant to stop this destruction (Jewish theology holds that sins in the land cause its pollution, and that pollution needs to be expunged; e.g., Noah's flood). According to the Gospel writers, is because of this loss of the temple (and the animal sacrifices) in 70 CE that Jesus must die to make atonement for Israel. For Luke, Jesus is what's called a "proleptic" sacrifice insofar as the atonement he provides kicks in after the fall of the temple. For Matthew, the temple is already polluted to the point of ineffectiveness before 70 CE (thanks to scribal-Pharisaic bloodshed; see Matt 23:29-38), so Jesus "pours out his blood for the remission of sins" (26:28) as a stand-in for the temple sacrifices.

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    • The sacrifice of Jesus/or yeshua doesn't justify us to continue in willful sin. Big difference between wanting to sin and struggling to fight off your sin.
  2. O fato de Jesus ter vindo a terra, já é uma prova inevitável, de que Deus precisou sair do seu lugar para reparar o estrago causado pelo peso do pecado sobre a humanidade.
  3. Is there not a legitimate argument that the "weight of sin" is almost universally idiomatic, since the idea shows up in ancient literature outside the Bible? The story of Atlas punished for (the sin of?) rebellion by having to hold up the sky is known from at least the 8th century BC. Similar phrasing seems not uncommon in other cultures today, comparing difficult tasks or responsibilities to a "heavy load" or even a "crushing load" to bear or take upon oneself.

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    • Likewise, we have Yeshua discussing the "weightier" matters of the law. Granted, this is NT language and written (at least, as we have it) in Greek, but it came from the mouth and mind of an extremely Hebraic speaker and author. Yet, I don't think anyone seriously believes that there is physical weight (and, therefore, mass) to the matters of the law. If sin's seriousness is a consequence of it's actual weight, then we could achieve some lessening of our sin burden by traveling to a different planet. Or our moon, where we would only have to carry 1/6 of the sin burden.

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  4. "What is "sin" in biblical thought....?" as per promo email. I'm not seeing any answer here. Would love to know as I suspect it's very different to what's taught in western churches.
  5. As I believe that GOD created man to be His True friend, if that True friend smashes that bond by disobedience the bond physically tears GOD and His friend Apart! A True friendship takes years of careful bonding to creatE and is physically disabling when broken.
    True friendship is akin to and an aspect of LOVE!
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