Word Study: Pesha - "Transgression" - The Bible Project

Published in The Bible Project
Tuesday, 23 November 2021 08:44

The Bible Project - Word Study: Pesha - "Transgression". "Transgression" is one of those Bible words that seems clear until you have to explain it to somebody. In this video, we'll explore the fascinating and sophisticated meaning of this biblical "bad word." Get ready for a sobering reflection on human nature.

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Most people assume the Bible has a lot to say about how messed up humans are. And, that is true. It is also true that the Bible's vocabulary about this topic sounds odd to modern people, using words like "sin", "iniquity" or "transgression". So, the Bible's perspective on the human condition is often ignored or treated as ancient and backwards. This is really unfortunate because, through these words, the biblical authors are offering us a deeply profound diagnosis of human nature. Iniquity refers to behavior that is crooked. Sin refers to moral failure. Transgression is a fascinating word that you for sure have not used in conversation recently. So let's focus on it for a few minutes. In Old Testament Hebrew, the noun is "pesha" and the verb is "pasha". In the New Testament, the Greek word is "paraptoma". They are usually translated as "transgression", sometimes as "rebellion" and in older translations as "trespass". These words refer to ways that people violate the trust of others. Pesha describes the betrayal of a relationship. Since there are many kinds of relationships, a lot of different behaviors can be called "pesha". Like, if two nations are in a relationship, we would call that a "treaty". "Pesha" would describe the breaking of that agreement. Like in the biblical book of 2 Kings we read, "After the death of King Ahab, Moab peshad with Israel."

This is usually translated, "Moab rebelled against Israel." But in biblical Hebrew, you don't pesha against someone, you pesha with them. That is, you break trust with that person. The same idea appears in an Old Testament law about theft. If an Israelite is away on a trip and somebody sneaks into their house and steal something, that is robbery. But, if the thief was your neighbor, it is pesha, because they are someone you should be able to trust. Or, there is a story about Jacob running away from Laban, his uncle. Laban accuses Jacob of stealing some Idol statues. He searches all of Jacob's belongings and finds nothing. So Jacob shouts, "What is my pasha?" "How have I violated your trust?" But the sad irony is that the statues were stolen by Jacob's wife who is Laban's own daughter. Talk about breaking trust. So, pesha involves one person or group violating a relationship of trust with another. This is a really common word in the Bible because it's one long story about a broken relationship between God and the Israelites. At Mount Sinai, they agreed to worship only their God and to care for the poor among them. But they did not. So God raised up prophets to confront them. Like Micah, who said, "I'm full of power, with the Spirit of the Lord and with justice and courage so I can declare to Jacob his pasha." Or the Prophet Amos.

He accused the Israelites of pesha. Specifically, for idolatry and selling the poor for a pair of sandals. He also accused other nations, like Tyre who profited from capturing whole towns and then selling them into slavery. Or the Ammonites for murdering the innocent to enlarge their borders. For Amos, these are all acts of pasha. They violate the universal trust that exists between all humans who are made in the image of God He watched these leaders ignore or justify the mistreatment of humans in the name of national security or a strong economy. But, for Amos, it was a betrayal of humanity. It makes perfect sense why these prophets associate pesha with words like "treachery" or "falsehood". In the Greek New Testament, the Apostle Paul develops this portrait of humans as "trust breakers" using the word "paraptoma". He recalls the story in Genesis about "Adam", that means "humanity" in Hebrew. In that story, humanity breaks trust with God and seizes authority to discern good and evil on their own terms. Paul calls this the "paraptoma of Adam", humanity's violation of trust with God and with each other.

It leads to a complicated web of betrayed and broken relationships leading towards violence and death. But, for Paul, that is not the last word. He says, "If death came to all by the paraptoma of a human, how much more will God's gracious gift overflow to many by means of a human, Jesus the Messiah" Instead of letting humanity destroy itself in treachery, God raised up a human who would allow our pesha to do its worst to him. Here, Paul is drawing on the Prophet Isaiah's portrait of the suffering servant, the one who would commit no violence or have any treachery on his lips. Yet, he would be counted among those who pasha, bearing their failures and interceding on their behalf. This is the surprising story of the Bible, that God's response to humanity's pesha and paraptoma was to be trustworthy on our behalf. The Apostles claim that in Jesus, God took responsibility for our betrayal so that he could open up a new future and a new way to be human: the way of faithfulness, trustworthiness and integrity. That is the kind of human that Jesus was and is. And, it is the kind of humans he wants to create as he faithfully guides our world into the new creation. That is the fascinating story behind our biblical words for transgression. 


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Word Study: Pesha - "Transgression" - The Bible Project
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