(A very good online article about the theme of “forgiveness” in Judaism. I’ve separated into two parts, the second to appear in the subsequent post.) [1]

FORGIVENESS: the act of absolving or pardoning; the state of being pardoned.

In the Bible

The biblical concept of forgiveness presumes, in its oldest strata, that sin is a malefic force that adheres to the sinner and that forgiveness is the divine means for removing it. This is demonstrated by the vocabulary of forgiveness which, in the main, stems from the cultic terminology of cleansing, e.g., tiher (“purify”; Jer. 33:8); maḥah (“wipe”; lsa. 43:25); kibbes, raḥaẓ (“wash”; Isa. 1:16; Ps. 51:4, 9); kipper (“purge”; Ezek. 16:63; Ps. 78:38). Even the most common verb for forgiveness, salaḥ, probably derives from the Mesopotamian cult where it connotes sprinkling in purification rites. More significantly, the most prominent epithet of God in His role of forgiver is noseʾ ʿavon/ ḥeṭ/ peshaʿ (lit. he who “lifts off sin”; e.g., Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Hos. 14:3; Micah 7:18; Ps. 32:5).

In the religion of ancient Israel, in contrast to that of its neighbors, rituals are not inherently efficacious. This point is underscored by the sacrificial formula of forgiveness. Whereas the required ritual is carried out by the priest, its desired end, forgiveness, is granted solely by God, e.g., “the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin and he shall be forgiven,” i.e., by God (Lev. 4:26, and passim). Another limitation placed upon sacrificial means of obtaining forgiveness is that it can only apply to inadvertent errors (Num. 15:22–29). Blatant contempt of God cannot be expiated by sacrifice (Num. 15:30–31; I Sam. 3:14) or any other means (Ex. 23:21; Josh. 24:19). Moreover, contrition and compassion are indispensable coefficients of all rituals of forgiveness, whether they be expiatory sacrifices (Lev. 5:5–6; 16:21; Num. 5:6–7) or litanies for fasting (Joel 2:12–14; I Sam. 7:5–6).

Indeed, man’s involvement both in conscience and deed is a sine qua non for securing divine forgiveness. It is not enough to hope and pray for pardon: man must humble himself, acknowledge his wrong, and resolve to depart from sin (e.g., David, II Sam. 12:13ff.; Ahab, I Kings 21:27–29). The psalms provide ample evidence that penitence and confession are integral components of all prayers for forgiveness (Ps. 32:5; 38:19; 41:5; Lam. 3:40ff.). The many synonyms for contrition testify to its primacy in the human effort to restore the desired relationship with God, e.g., seek the Lord (II Sam. 12:16; 21:1), search for Him (Amos 5:4), humble oneself before Him (Lev. 26:41), direct the heart to Him (I Sam. 7:3), and lay to heart (II Kings 22:19). The rituals of penitence, such as weeping, fasting, rending clothes, and donning sackcloth and ashes (II Sam. 12:16; Joel 1:13; Ezra 9:3ff.; 10:1, 6), are unqualifiedly condemned by the prophets if they do not correspond with, and give expression to the involvement of the heart (lsa, 1:10ff.; 29:13; Hos. 7:14; Joel 2:13).

At the same time, inner contrition must be followed by outward acts; remorse must be translated into deeds. Two sub-stages are involved in this process: first, the negative one of ceasing to do evil (Isa. 33:15; Ps. 15; 24:4) and then, the positive step of doing good (Isa. 1:17; 58:5ff.; Jer. 7:3; 26:13; Amos 5:14–15; Ps. 34:15–16; 37:27). Again, the richness of the biblical language used to describe man’s active role in the process testifies to its centrality, e.g., incline the heart to the Lord (Josh. 24:23), make oneself a new heart (Ezek. 18:31), circumcise the heart (Jer. 4:4), wash the heart (Jer. 4:14), and break one’s fallow ground (Hos. 10:) However, all these expressions are subsumed and summarized by one verb which dominates the penitential literature of the Bible, שוב (shuv, shwv;“to turn; to return”) which develops ultimately into the rabbinic doctrine of teshuvah (“repentance”). This doctrine implies that man has been endowed by God with the power of “turning.” He can turn from evil to the good, and the very act of turning will activate God’s concern and lead to forgiveness.

What is the source of the biblical optimism that man’s turning will generate divine movement to pardon him? This confidence resides in a number of assumptions concerning the nature of God, as presumed by the unique relationship between God and Israel, the bond of the *covenant. Covenant implies mutuality of obligation, that Israel’s fidelity to God’s demands will be matched by God’s response to Israel’s needs, particularly in his attitude of forgiveness (e.g., II Sam. 24:14, 17; cf. Ps. 25:10–11; 80; 103:17–18; 106:45). That is why in the wilderness traditions, Moses can continue to plead with God despite the lapses of his people, because of his certainty that God’s forgiveness is a constant of his nature (Num. 14:18–20; Ex. 32:11ff.; 34:6ff). Again, the profusion of idioms expressing divine forgiveness (in addition to the cultic expressions, mentioned above), e.g., overlook sin (Micah 7:18), not reckon it (Ps. 32:2), not remember it (Ps. 25:7), hide his face from it (Ps. 51:11), suppress it, remove it (Ps. 103:12), throw it behind his back (Isa. 38:17) or into the sea (Micah 7:19), points to the centrality of this concept.

Another covenant image which invokes God’s attitude of forgiveness is his role of Father and Shepherd. A father’s love for his children (Ex. 4:22; Num. 11:12; Deut. 32:6, 19; lsa. 64:7) can lead them to hope that their sins will be forgiven (Jer. 3:19; 31:19; Hos. 11:1ff.). Furthermore, this parental relationship shows that Israel’s suffering is not inflicted as retribution for their sins but as corrective discipline – “afflictions of love” so that Israel may correct its way (Deut. 8:5; Prov. 3:12).

Another component of the covenant is that God will accept the mediation of an intercessor. He is not bound to comply – in contradistinction to the coercive claims of the pagan magician – for God will reject even the mediation of the most righteous when Israel’s sins have exceeded the limit of His forbearance (Jer. 15:1; Ezek. 14:13–20). Intercession is, first and foremost, the function of Israel’s prophets. Indeed, the only time Abraham is called a prophet is at the precise moment when his intercessory powers are invoked (Gen. 20:7). Moses’ main concern, to judge by the narratives of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness, is to intervene on behalf of others (e.g., Ex. 9:27ff.; 10:16ff.; 34:8–9; Num. 12:11ff.; 21:7ff.; Deut. 9:16–10:10; Jer. 15:1). The psalmist singles this out in his eulogy of Moses: “He (God) said He would have destroyed them, had not Moses, the chosen one, stood in the breach before Him” (Ps. 106:23). To “stand in the breach” is for Ezekiel the main function of the prophet (Ezek. 13:5; 22:30).

An equally significant concomitant of God’s covenant is His promise to the forefathers that the people of Israel will exist forever and that they will be in eternal possession of Ereẓ Israel. This aspect of the covenant is constantly invoked in pleas for forgiveness (Ex. 2:24; 3:6; 15–16; 4:5; 6:3–5; Lev. 26:42; Deut. 4:31, 37; 7:8, 12; 8:18; 9:5, 27; 13:18; 29:12; Josh. 18:3; 21:44; I Kings 18:36ff.; II Kings 13:23; Isa. 41:8; 51:2; Micah 7:20; Ps. 105:9; Neh. 9:7; II Chron. 30:6).

This promise to the forefathers bears a final corollary. Because of the covenant, God’s honor is at stake in the world. Israel’s woes will not be comprehended by the nations as divine punishment for its covenant violations but as God’s inability to fulfill His covenant obligations. This argument features prominently in Moses’ intercession (Ex. 32:12; Num. 14:13–16) and is mentioned repeatedly in subsequent prayers for Israel’s pardon (Josh. 7:9; Ps. 74:10, 18; 83:3, 19; 92:9–10; 109:27; 143:11–12). Conversely, the argument continues, it is important for God to redeem Israel for the glorification and sanctification of His name throughout the world (Ps. 79:6; 102:16; 115:1; 138:3–5) even if Israel itself is undeserving of forgiveness (Isa. 48:9–11; Ezek. 36:22ff.).

[Jacob Milgrom]

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

C.R. Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Sin (1953);
E.F. Sutcliffe, Providence and Suffering in the Old and New Testaments (1955);
W.L. Holladay, The Root šûbh in the Old Testament (1958);
W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 (1967), 380–495;
J. Milgrom, in: JQR, 58 (1967), 115–25.

[1] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0007_0_06619.html