When we think of “sin,” we might imagine an abstract concept that affects the sinner psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. While sin can impact us in these ways, in Hebrew thought, sin is a much more concrete thing. According to the ancient Israelites, sin is an actual, physical weight—a heavy burden that the sinner must carry.
The idea of sin as a burden to bear appears first when Cain murders Abel. After committing this crime against his brother, “Cain said to the Lord, ‘My sin (עון; avon) is too great (גדול; gadol) to carry (נשא; nasa)” (Gen 4:13). Sin has manifest itself as a heavy weight upon Cain’s shoulders, and since the murder of another human being is among the gravest of all sins because we are made in God’s image (Gen 9:6), Cain complains that the sin that has attached itself to his back is too big and weighty for him to bear.
The understanding of sin as a burden makes sense of Israel’s sacrificial ritual on the Day of Atonement: “Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities (עונות; avonot) of Israel… putting them on the head of the live goat…. The goat shall carry (נשא; nasa) on itself all their iniquities (עונות; avonot) to a barren region” (Lev 16:21-22). The goat takes Israel’s sins upon itself and physically carries those sins away from the people. This method of removing sin by bearing it away foreshadows Yeshua bearing our sins on the cross: “He himself bore our sins on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24).