There are about two dozen words for sin in the Bible, depending on how you count. Each underscores a different aspect of sin—sin as wandering away from the straight path, sin as rebellion, and sin as a distortion of our nature, to name a few. We ought to contemplate these words—not to wallow in despair—but in order that we might be especially on guard for the many ways in which it is possible for us to stray from God and the good life He intends for us.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, sources are Strong’s Concordance and Douay-Rheims. The definition and pronunciation are provided for each word in the first citation.
Sin as Being Broken: One of the most common biblical words for sin is the Hebrew word ra`, which has the basic meaning of bad or evil and appears over 600 times. It comes from another verb, ra`a, which can mean essentially the same thing, but also refers to something broken, or, more specifically, broken into pieces. This helps us to see one way that something can be said to have gone “bad.” A broken chair is a “bad” chair—it can no longer perform its intended function of bearing the weight of a person sitting on. The same goes for food that has gone bad—it is no longer suitable for eating. Ra` is still used in this literal sense in the Old Testament. For example, in 2 Kings 2:19 we read that the waters of Jericho had “gone bad.” Truly sinners are broken people, unable to live the rich life of communion with God for which we were created.
Sin as Being Blemished: Ra` can also refer to blemished cattle that are unsuitable for sacrifice (for example, in Leviticus 27:10 and Deuteronomy 17:1), which offers us yet another metaphor for sin. A blemish is a mark or defect that ruins the perfection of something. Something that is blemished has been deformed in some way. Truly this is what sin has done to us: Man was made in the image of God, but that image became deformed as a result of original sin. That broken image could be repaired only through the incarnation—God became man to “reform” him.
Sin as Missing the Mark: Another standard Old Testament word for sin is chatta’ath, which simply means sin or sinful. (It also refers to the offering made to atone for that sin.) But the word has a rich origin, coming from the verb chata’, which among other things, means to miss, miss the mark, miss the way. In the New Testament its Greek counterpart is the verb hamartano, meaning to miss the mark as well as to wander from the path (the two noun versions are hamartia and, less commonly, hamartema). In the literal sense, hamartano could be used in two contexts. First, we could speak of missing the mark when you throw a spear or shoot an arrow. Second, you could miss the road you were supposed to take (like missing a turn). This reflects a common circumstance of sin: we have good intentions, we aim for virtue, but we still fail to reach it. As St. Paul wrote in Romans 7:15, For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate.
Sin as Wandering from the Path: Faith, in both Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, is often depicted as a journey to God. But sometimes we wander from the path of righteousness, either intentionally or not. This is suggested in the Hebrew adjective, rasha`, which means wicked or criminal—specifically, in the sense of departing from the right path, according to the Ancient Hebrew Resource Center. The word is used in this sense in Psalm 18:21, “Because I have kept the ways of the Lord; and have not done wickedly against my God.” But many other translations flesh out the literal meaning with the phrase “wickedly departed.” A similar idea is conveyed in the Greek verb, planao, which has a basic meaning of to cause to stray, to lead astray, lead aside from the right way.
Sin as Crookedness: Used more than 200 times in the Old Testament as a word for sin, the Hebrew noun `avon refers to perversity, depravity, iniquity. Its root is the verb `avah, defined as to bend, twist, distort, or to make crooked. This reinforces two metaphors for sin mentioned above: sin makes our paths to God crooked and it also distorts and twists our nature into a contortion of what we were created to be.
Sin as Rebelling: Fundamentally, sin is a rebellion against God and His authority. This is denoted in the Hebrew noun pesha` and its verb counterpart, pasha`, both referring to rebellion. Put simply, rebellion is (usually violent) resistance to some authority. Certainly this is what the first sin was: resistance to the highest source of authority possible—God. There is even a subtle element of violence in the story, implied in the ‘eating’ of the apple, which the Christian mystic philosopher Simone Weil saw as emblematic of all sin.
Sin as Trespassing: Appearing about 30 times in the Old Testament, ‘asham is a verb that refers to sin in the sense of offending, being guilty, and trespassing. A similar New Testament Greek word is parabaino which can be defined as to go by the side of and to go past or pass over without touching a thing—or, more specifically, to overstep, neglect, violate, transgress (the related noun is parabasis). This is metaphor for sin instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever said the Our Father: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. Indeed, was not the original sin, in which Adam and Eve tasted of the ‘forbidden fruit,’ a form of trespassing?
Sin as Debt: It’s worth noting that the actual Greek words in the two gospel versions of the Our Father do not literally mean trespassing. The one in Matthew is the ancient Greek word for debts, opheilema. (It’s used only one other time in the New Testament, in Romans 4:4, in a similar context.) In the version of the prayer in Luke, a form of this word for debts and hamartia are used, so literally the verse would read: Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us.
Sin as Desolation: One secondary definition of ‘asham refers to the ultimate consequences of sin: utter desolation. This is how it’s used in Isaiah 24 in haunting imagery: “See! The LORD is about to empty the earth and lay it waste; he will twist its surface, and scatter its inhabitants. … Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants pay for their guilt”—or, as some translations put it, the inhabitants are desolate (New American Bible, Rev. Ed.).
Sin as Drunken Swerving: When we wander off the path, we often are not in our right minds when we do so. This is conveyed by two Hebrew verbs that have almost identical meanings in Strong’s Concordance—ta`ah and shagah. Both can be defined as to err, to go astray. Digging deeper, the additional meanings tell us something about the corresponding state of mind: Shagah can be defined as to swerve, meander, reel, roll, be intoxicated, err in drunkenness. Likewise, ta`ah can mean to be made to wander about, be made to swagger like a drunkard. In Proverbs 5:20, shagah is also used to describe a young man’s physical “intoxication” with a prostitute. Keep this idea of intoxication in mind when you read “stray” in this petition of Psalm 119:10,
“With my whole heart have I sought after thee: let me not stray from thy commandments.”
Sin as Oppressive Toils: One New Testament word for evil or bad is the adjective poneros, which literally means full of labors, annoyances, hardships, or pressed and harassed by labors. This is the word Hesiod used to described Heracles, the mythic hero who was assigned nine superhuman tasks in order to atone for murdering his children. These tasks included slaying the many-headed hydra, capturing the cattle of the monster Geryon, and killing the Nemean Lion, which was reputed to be shielded by golden fur and had sword-sharp claws that could pierce iron. Surely sin is an oppressive toil for us—one humanity could never complete on its own, not even a hero like Heracles.
Sin as Impiety: Another word for sin in the New Testament is asebeia, a classic ancient Greek term for impiety, which referred to a lack of reverence and respect for the gods. For the Greeks, the attitude of piety implied distance from the gods. For us, our relationship is a much closer one: God is not some sky spirit who hurls down thunderbolts from Olympus, instead, he is as close to us as imaginably possible, He became man and invites us to share in His being through the sacraments. Nonetheless, it is still healthy to maintain a holy fear of God, something affirmed in the Bible. As Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Sin as Lawlessness: Aside from the laws that govern any particular society, there is the natural law that is written on the hearts of all men, as St. Paul said. Hence, some wrongdoing may not be against the law of a particular society, but it still crosses God’s laws. In this context, it makes sense that the New Testament writers also spoke of sin in terms anomos, the Greek antonym for nomos. This was one of the most important words in ancient Greece. It did not mean simply the law, but the law in the sense of rules and established norms of behavior that have been established through custom and tradition. Surely this is a fitting description of the law revealed to the Israelites, which had been handed down over the centuries and remained a decisive force in the spirituality of Jews in the time of Jesus. Nomos, then, reflects the fact that God works in history and over time to teach His people in how to follow His precepts.
Sin as Injustice: Another key word that is related is dike, the ancient Greek word for justice. Its antonym, adikos, is used to describe unrighteous and unjust people the Bible. Whereas anomos, or lawlessness, highlights the offending act, adikos draws attention to the person who commits it: an unjust person is one who breaks the law.
Sin as Intrinsic Evil: While sin is often described in terms of its consequences for us and others, it’s important to remember that sin is an intrinsic evil. This is conveyed in the Greek word kakos, an adjective which simply refers to something of a bad nature or something that is base, wrong, and wicked.
Sin as Bound to Punishment: It’s also important to remember that sin not only has consequences—a broken humanity, a fallen world, a disordered creation—it also makes one liable for punishment. This idea is conveyed through the New Testament Greek word enochos, defined as bound, under obligation, subject to, liable. According to Strong’s Concordance, it can be used in a technical sense, “denoting the connection of a person either with his crime, or with the penalty or trial, or with that against whom or which he has offended.” This is the sense in which Jesus uses the word in Matthew 5:21-22, “You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not kill. And whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment.”
PLEASE NOTE: Not every biblical word for sin is included in this article.