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Sin as Rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible: The Framing Power of Metaphor

Consider the idea of sin—a notion familiar from theological discussions and often understood as a violation of divine will. No doubt for many, the (Hebrew) Bible is viewed as the source from which one might derive a definition of what constitutes sinful action. Beyond merely enumerating the individual varieties of sin, however, the texts of the Hebrew Bible also employ the language of ‘sin’ as a rhetorical mode, articulating sin’s consequences and implications, calling for urgency of action where it might otherwise be lacking, and providing ways through which to conceptualize the relationship between the human and the divine.

See Also: Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

By Joseph Lam
Department of Religious Studies
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
June 2016

The philosopher Richard Moran once observed that, “if someone is described as having all the charm of a damp kitchen sponge, it’s no good simply to deny it, after he or she has registered an appreciation of the phrase” (1989: 91). In this clever and humorous formulation, Moran offers a profound insight into how metaphors work. One of the characteristics of an effective metaphor is its capacity to align the hearer with the perspective of the speaker, however challenging or unexpected that perspective may seem. Because a metaphor invites us to see one thing as something else, we are drawn into the frame of reference offered by the metaphor in the very process of interpreting it (see Stern 2000: 286–288). The unfortunate target of the kitchen sponge insult might protest, but the damage has already been done.

Metaphors, in turn, are powerful tools in the construction of rhetoric—the language of persuasion. All great rhetoricians understand this. Often the most persuasive speeches are effective precisely because of the metaphors they employ, which frame the topic in ways that are memorable, novel, and even provocative. This creative re-framing by means of metaphor in turn makes possible new ways of understanding and action. To give but one example, even a cursory look at Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech reveals that it is pervaded by a host of potent metaphors—from the “manacles” and “chains” that racial discrimination imposes, to the “promissory note” that must be paid back, to the need “to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice”—and it is these metaphors that help to make the speech so enduring.[1]

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Hebrew Bible, as a text characterized by rhetorical concerns, makes ample use of metaphor. The (mostly anonymous) writers of the Hebrew Bible, in efforts to articulate certain ideals of righteous behavior and to prescribe the bounds of proper worship of YHWH, the God of Israel, frequently employed metaphor in conveying their ideas, whether this was done consciously or not. Indeed, attention to metaphor allows us to recognize the subtle yet profound ways in which biblical language affects its readers and hearers. Biblical metaphors reflect the implicit perspectives from which these writers interpreted the situations they confronted, perspectives that continue to frame our modern engagements with the biblical texts.

Consider the idea of sin—a notion familiar from theological discussions and often understood as a violation of divine will. No doubt for many, the (Hebrew) Bible is viewed as the source from which one might derive a definition of what constitutes sinful action. Beyond merely enumerating the individual varieties of sin, however, the texts of the Hebrew Bible also employ the language of ‘sin’[2] as a rhetorical mode, articulating sin’s consequences and implications, calling for urgency of action where it might otherwise be lacking, and providing ways through which to conceptualize the relationship between the human and the divine. Consequently, the biblical language of sin is characterized by a number of pervasive yet distinct metaphors that encapsulate these perspectives. In what follows, I offer three representative examples of biblical sin-metaphors, drawing out the implicit messages they carry and the rhetorical ends they serve. My goal is to illustrate how the language of sin can function as rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible, as enabled by the framing power of metaphor.

Walking in Sin

“He [Abijam] walked in all the sins of his father…” (1 Kings 15:3)

A notable refrain in the book of Kings is the statement that various kings of Israel or Judah “walked in the sin(s) of” (Hebrew halak + be + hatta’t/hatto’t) a royal predecessor (see, e.g., 1 Kings 15:3, 15:26, 15:34, 16:26, 22:52 [22:53]; 2 Kings 13:2, 13:6, 13:11)—particularly Jeroboam son of Nebat, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel who is singled out in the biblical text as an epitome of disobedience to divine command. The metaphor in question occurs as part of the annalistic descriptions of individual kings in the book, in which the biblical writer provides an overall evaluation of the success or failure of a given reign. To “walk in the sin(s) of” a predecessor is to follow in that predecessor’s pattern of actions, with the verb halak (“walk”) denoting life conduct (as it often does in Biblical Hebrew) and the prepositional phrase be + hatta’t/hatto’t (“in [the] sin(s) [of]”) either indicating the abstract manner of the walking or elaborating (more vividly) the metaphorical path on which the successor king is traveling.

The apparent simplicity of this metaphor conceals its powerful framing effect. For one, the use of the term “walk” (halak) as a metaphor implies not only the mimicking of behavior but also persistence in doing so: walking presumes a path, a prolonged journey in a defined direction, and since the model in this case is a deceased king, the implication is that of a lifelong pattern on the part of the successor. Furthermore, when understood alongside other recurring directional metaphors in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua–Kings), such as injunctions “not to turn aside to the right or to the left” (Hebrew lo’ sar yamin usemo’l; e.g., Deut 5:32 [5:29], 17:11, 17:20, 28:14; Josh 1:7, 23:6; 2 Kings 22:2) or the range of expressions containing the Hebrew term shub (“to turn, return”—that is, turning to YHWH or away from sin; see Lam 2016: 167–168, 171–173, 265 n. 53, 267 n. 65), what emerges is a metaphorical landscape in which defined paths lead a moral agent toward or away from the stipulations of divine command. Sin is imagined as either straying from the correct path or traveling on the wrong one; to persist in walking on the wrong path represents a stubborn refusal to obey God. In the context of the book of Kings, this language serves an important rhetorical purpose: to offer an explanation for the eventual downfall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. As Marvin Sweeney observes: “First and Second Kings must… be recognized not simply as a work of history, but as a work of theodicy as well, insofar as it defends the notion of divine righteousness by arguing that the people and especially its kings—and not YHWH—were at fault for the destruction and exiles of Israel and Judah” (2007: 3; emphasis mine). The disaster that befell the two kingdoms thus becomes a direct consequence of rejecting the path of obedience to YHWH.

Given the general translatability of the metaphor of “walking in sin” into English, it is somewhat surprising that the phrasing is obscured in many popular Bible translations. Both the NRSV and the NIV (1984 and 2011 versions) render 1 Kings 15:3 as “he committed all the sins…,” which completely detaches the phrase from its metaphorical roots and offers a literal replacement that unfortunately fails to capture the sense of persistence inherent in the Hebrew original. The NJPS is better in this regard with its rendering of the verse as “he continued in all the sins…,” but still the abstract formulation makes it difficult for the reader to connect the phrase to other metaphors of direction and path that recur in the Deuteronomistic History and the rest of the Hebrew Bible. While these sorts of translations might give the impression of philological precision in their preference for literality, they in fact diminish the power of the original phrase, curtailing the ability of these and other recurring directional metaphors to subtly conform the reader to a certain moral interpretation of Israelite and Judean history. When encountered in the Hebrew, these directional and path-oriented metaphors “align” the reader’s perspective in more ways than one.

Israel Stained and Defiled

“For though you wash with natron and use for yourself much lye, your iniquity is a stained object before me, declares Lord YHWH. How can you say, ‘I am not defiled; I have not gone after the Baals?’” (Jer 2:22–23)

Jeremiah 2:22–23 contains a different pair of metaphors for sin: namely, those of stain and defilement. Despite their contrast with the directional metaphors just discussed, they exert an equally significant rhetorical effect. In verse 22, the iniquity of Israel is portrayed as a garment that is stained beyond the ability of the strongest cleansing agents to eliminate. Then, in verse 23, a kind of defilement is directly attributed to Israel itself (“How can you say, ‘I am not defiled…?’”), which is connected to the illicit worship practices of the people (“the Baals;” see also Jer 2:8, 11). Whether one takes these as two versions of the same metaphor or two slightly different metaphors in close juxtaposition, the images build on each other in the text as a description of Israel’s predicament.

Paul Ricoeur, in his classic work The Symbolism of Evil, asserts that “with [the symbol of] defilement we enter into the reign of Terror” (1967: 25). By this he means that defilement, as a symbol of fault, is “irrational” (Ricoeur 1967: 26)—or (perhaps better) non-rational—in its character. To speak of sin as a stain or defilement is to elicit dread, not rational reflection; the metaphor works by appealing to our intuitive aversion to that which intrudes, contaminates, corrupts. The anthropologist Mary Douglas’s famous formulation of “dirt as matter out of place” (1980 [1966]: 35) also highlights the extent to which such a concept is embedded in our deepest systems of categorization, largely hidden from conscious awareness. So, from a rhetorical point of view, the language of defilement calls forth an immediate, even urgent, response.

In Jeremiah 2, the metaphor describes the sin of idolatry in particular. All the illicit practices that the prophet names—from the veneration of foreign gods and the idols that represent them (vv. 11, 23, 27–28), to the visiting of the unsanctioned places where these practices take place (v. 20)—are regarded as a stain, a contamination of the pure state of true YHWH-worship. This is reiterated elsewhere in Jeremiah: “Your adulteries and your neighings, the infamy of your fornication; on the hills, in the countryside, I have seen your abominations! Woe to you, O Jerusalem! You are not pure; how long will it be?” (Jer 13:27). The interweaving here (as elsewhere in Jeremiah 2) of the metaphors of impurity and fornication signals a sharp condemnation on the part of the writer. Indeed, the force of this critique is perhaps a reflex of the pervasiveness of these practices in ancient Israel. It is precisely because this “idolatry” was so widespread in the eyes of the biblical writers that they turned to such strong rhetoric to articulate their views. From the perspective of the writer, these practices are not innocuous; rather, they are a stain, a defilement, and Israel has been so indelibly marked that it is doubtful whether they can become clean again.

Reckoning Sin

“You must not bown down to [other gods] or worship them, for I am YHWH your God, a jealous God, one who reckons the iniquity of fathers against sons to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me…” (Exod 20:5)

This verse comes from the Decalogue, and the phrase translated “one who reckons the iniquity of fathers against sons…” (Hebrew poqed ‘awon ’abot ‘al banim) seems to represent an ancient liturgical epithet for YHWH (e.g., Exod 34:7, Num 14:18, Deut 5:9). Here we find another instance in which the translational history of the verse has obscured the underlying metaphor. The KJV (following the 14th-century Wycliffe Bible) rendered it “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children…,” which strikes the contemporary ear as an archaic way of speaking of divine punishment;[3] this rendering has exerted its influence on a number of modern translations (e.g., NJPS, NASB, ESV). Most other modern versions go with some variation of “punishing children for the iniquity of parents” (NRSV; compare NIV 1984/2011, NJB), making the idea of punishment explicit—but note in these cases the need to modify the English phrase structure (“punishing children…” vs. “visiting iniquity…”). In either case, the term is understood to express the inflicting of a penalty for the faults of another.

What these translations fail to capture is that poqed (from the verb paqad) is actually an administrative word—a term of record-keeping. The census-taking that gives the book of Numbers its name is denoted in Hebrew by the verb paqad (Num 1:3 et passim; 22 times in Numbers 1, 3, and 4 alone). In other contexts, the phrase paqad+‘al refers to the “assigning” of a task “to” a person or vice versa (e.g., Num 4:27, 4:49; Jer 49:19, 51:27; Job 4:13; 2 Chr 36:23). The related noun mipqad can mean “census,” and in fact this very word is found on a pre-exilic Hebrew ostracon from Tel ‘Ira (see Beit-Arieh 1983) with the apparent meaning of “census,” followed by a list of names. In light of these usages, I would argue that the application of this term to the realm of sin is a metaphorical extension of the idea of record-keeping: the notion is that of “reckoning” (paqad) a sin “to”/“against” the (written) account of a person. If the Israelite deity YHWH is imagined as a ancient Near Eastern king who keeps records to administer his rule, then sin is the quintessential object of divine accounting—wicked deeds are reckoned to the sinner’s account, while righteous deeds are attributed to those who do good. (Living as we do in a highly literate world, it is easy to forget that writing in the ancient Near East was predominantly a technology of royal administration.) Though this “reckoning” of a sin to a person’s account might imply eventual punishment if that sin is not eliminated, the phrase does not denote the act of punishment in the first instance. The emphasis is rather on YHWH’s righteous exercise of his responsibility as a king who judges.

In term of its framing effect, this metaphor emphasizes notions of both authority and memory. On the one hand, the metaphor implicitly asserts divine authority and sovereignty—YHWH is king, the sinner is royal subject. It is YHWH who has authority over the record and who determines the consequences for the sinner. At the same time, the connection to writing serves to express the potential permanence of sin, even across generations. (After all, one of the chief results of the invention of writing as a technology was that it allowed information—of vast amounts and of the most mundane sorts—to be preserved beyond an individual’s lifetime.) The idea that sin are “reckoned” implies that they endure. The metaphor also offers a way of reconciling how God would delay in punishing certain sins while also allowing the consequences of other sins to accrue to children and the children’s children.

The examples here discussed offer only isolated glimpses into the variety of effects that metaphors make possible, a variety that Elisabeth Camp has encapsulated in the phrase “that certain je ne sais quoi” (2006). Yet I hope they make clear how the metaphorical language for sin in the Hebrew Bible functions as rhetoric, as a concealed but powerful means of inculcating perspectives on matters of deep concern to the biblical writers. Insofar as these metaphors are distinct—after all, the perspective that any single metaphor offers is necessarily partial—they illustrate the flexibility, and indeed the malleability, of any abstract religious concept such as sin.


Beit-Arieh, Itzhaq. 1983. “A First Temple Period Census Document.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 115: 105–108.

Camp, Elisabeth. 2006. “Metaphor and That Certain ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’.” Philosophical Studies 129: 1–25.

Douglas, Mary. 1980 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lam, Joseph. 2016. Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moran, Richard. 1989. “Seeing and Believing: Metaphor, Image, and Force.” Critical Inquiry 16: 87–112.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1967. The Symbolism of Evil. Translated by Emerson Buchanan. Boston: Beacon.

Stern, Josef. 2000. Metaphor in Context. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Sweeney, Marvin A. 2007. I & II Kings: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.


[1] For the text of the speech, see

[2] As primarily expressed in the Hebrew nouns ‘awon (“iniquity”), het’/hatta’t (“sin”), and pesha (“transgression”). For a defense of this approach, see Lam (2016: 1–9).

[3] Though I claim no expertise in the historical development of English, I suspect that this may have been an attempt to deal with the difficult Hebrew verb paqad by importing its translation value in a different set of contexts; the latest online Oxford English Dictionary cites no example of English visit with the meaning of “to inflict hurt, harm, or punishment upon (a person)” before the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.

Comments (1)

Thank you for this thought-provoking and well-written article!
#1 - Carmen Imes - 06/03/2016 - 03:22

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