Weight or Debt?

Book cover
Sinby By Gary A. AndersonYale Univ. Press. 272p $30

When I teach the section of my moral theology course that deals with sin, one of my goals is that students come to a clear understanding of their governing metaphor for sin and the implications of that metaphor. Some favor the forensic concept of “breaking the law.” Others stand with relational notions, such as “selfishness” or “misuse of power.” No one has ever spoken in the economic idiom of “debt.” Yet sin as debt is the metaphor this work of biblical theology examines.

Gary Anderson, a professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame, argues that sin has a history. But “history” here is rather narrowly conceived. Anderson does not give an analysis of the various ways we have understood sin over the millennia, and he restricts his sources to Old Testament literature, rabbinic literature and some of the early Christian sources.


When Anderson says that sin has a history, he means that there are shifting metaphors for sin in the Bible. Though they abound, the first stage that Anderson describes in his history is the dramatic change from the metaphor of weight or burden that dominated the older books to the metaphor of debt prominent in the younger books. Anderson compares the ritual of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus, where sin is like weight on one’s back, with the understanding of sin as debt that must be repaid, as found in the famous line in Matthew’s version of the Our Father, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He attributes the shift from weight to debt to the rise of Aramaic as the official language of law and commerce. Its word for “debt” in a commercial context became the word for “sin” in a religious context. In this stage, he lays out thoroughly the biblical roots of the debt metaphor by careful use of philology and by comparing biblical and rabbinic literature. This material makes up most of the book and should be of interest to any student of the Bible.

In the second stage of his history, Anderson traces the cultural implications of understanding sin as debt as this idiom works its way into Jewish and Christian thought, eventually showing up as central to Anselm’s atonement theory. Anderson examines the semantic and theological links behind the notion of sin as debt and virtue as credit. He shows how the spiritual practice of giving alms to the poor developed in a dialectical relation with the debt metaphor.

Concern for the poor is found throughout the biblical tradition, but seeing sin as debt contributed significantly to a brisk business in almsgiving in the early Christian period. After the Temple’s destruction in A.D. 70, almsgiving replaced making sin offerings at the altar of sacrifice as a direct conduit to God. Such an exalted understanding of almsgiving later became a stumbling block for the Reformers, who took it as humans saving themselves by good works. But through the judicious comparing of texts, Anderson shows that almsgiving was seen as humans expressing their faith in God’s promise of grace found in the hands of the poor. Giving alms was a public testimony of faith that this is the same type of treatment we hope to receive from God. It is not an act of self-redemption.

In addition to the valuable textual studies that make it a great resource for biblical students, Sin: A History appeals to a broader audience in the way it shows the relation of a particular understanding of sin to the meaning we give to associated concepts, such as atonement, penance, punishment, forgiveness, virtue and God. The temptations that come with thinking about sin as debt are many. This metaphor can give rise, for example, to a moral vision of rigid obligations that we must fulfill to earn God’s mercy. It can make God a meticulous accountant whose sole task is to extract every penny owed. Penances become penalties, the price we have to pay for our misdeeds. Virtue is reduced to merit winning our salvation. Christ’s suffering and death become the way to repay God for our sins.

Do these narratives have to follow from the metaphor? Anderson’s great contribution is to show that they do not. He draws on Paul Ricoeur’s idea that symbol gives rise to thought to demonstrate that metaphors do not lock us into one and only one narrative expansion. (It would have been another book to delineate criteria for judging the fidelity of the narrative to the metaphor.) In the end, Anderson holds that context always makes a difference in the way we interpret a metaphor. God does not have to be reduced to a lending officer demanding every penny. The idiom of debts and credits can fit within the framework of belief in a gracious and loving God.

Sin: A History makes a valuable contribution to biblical studies in its investigation of changes in our understanding of sin, and it will be useful to theology students who are interested in retrieving the biblical roots of Anselm’s theology of atonement. But Anderson’s demonstration of how symbol gives rise to more than one narrative should interest anyone who wants to know more about the power of metaphors to shape beliefs.

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