Hebrew Word Study of פשע

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Hebrew Word Study of פשע

By Mu-tien Chiou

I. Introduction

The Hebrew root פשע/ פשע occurs 43 times as a verb and 94 times as a noun. Two different roots share this same unpointed form פשע, distinguished by the Masorites by the pointing of שׁ and a שׂ. The root פשׂע occurs only two times as a verb and once as a noun, with the respective meaning of “to step/march” as a verb and “step” as a noun. It will not be the focus of this paper. The other root, פשׁע, is, since it occurs 41 times as a verb and 93 times as a noun. The verb is often translated “to transgress” and the noun as “transgression.”

II. Secular usage of the verb in the Hebrew Scripture

The verb פָּשַׁע occurs in both secular and religious contexts. In secular usage it occurs almost exclusively in political contexts and refers to the rebellion of a country against a hegemonic nation of which it was a vassal.  It involves breaking the agreement between the two nations and removing the yoke of the controlling nation.  Israel is often the nation against which another nation is said to [v;p’. For example, 2 Kings opens with “After the death of Ahab, Moab rebelled (וַיִּפְשַׁ֤ע) against Israel (2 Kings 1:1, NIV).  The same is said about Edom (2 Kings 8:20) and Libnah (2 Kings 8:22). The verb is also used to denote the breach between Israel and Judah.  In 2 Chronicles 10:19 the chronicler writes: “So Israel has been in rebellion (וַיִּפְשְׁע֤וּ) against the house of David to this day” (NIV).  The hierarchical relationship between the nation that has been rebelled against and the nation that rebelled is barely a focus, though still present. Jeroboam led a rebellion against Rehoboam who was at that time the anointed King. This usage occurs exclusively in 1 and 2 Kings and the parallel passages in Chronicles. The only non-political secular use of פָּשַׁע is a reference to personal offense in Proverbs 18:19: “An offended (נִפְשָׁ֥ע) brother is more unyielding than a fortified city”. This is the only occurrence of the verb that is not in the Qal stem (Niphal) and it is questionable according to BDB since the LXX seems to have a different text.[1] This example shows the use of פָּשַׁע that presumes no hierarchical relationship between the parties involved.

III. Religious usage of the verb in the Hebrew Scripture

In religious usage the subject is distinctly human, for in Jewish monotheistic belief system there is no hierarchical relationship among the deities for one to פשע against another.[2] In the Old Testament religious contexts it is always directed against God and the subject is almost exclusively Israel as a people. The nation of Israel (Ezra 10:12, Isaiah 1:2), the Southern Kingdom (Jer 3:13, 33:8, Lam. 3:42, Ezk. 18:31, Zeph. 3:11), the Northern Kingdom (1 Kings 8:50, 12:19, 2 Chr. 10:19, Hos. 7:13, 8:1, Amos 4:4), Israel’s “spokesmen” (מֵלִיץ) and first father (אָבִ֥יךָ הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן  Isa 43:27 WTT), and Israel’s “shepherds”/rulers (Jer 2:8 ESV) and forefathers (Ezk. 2:3) are all guilty of this. There are two primary contexts in which it is used. Israel uses it to admit their wrongdoings and ask God for forgiveness such as Ezra 10:13: “We have sinned (לִפְשֹׁ֖עַ) greatly in this thing.”  God uses it to remind Israel of their sinfulness as a cause of their impending destruction and as an exhortation to repentance.  To warn Israel of their impending judgment the Lord declares in Hosea 7:13: “Destruction to them, because they have rebelled (פָ֣שְׁעוּ) against me!” As a call to repentance the Lord exhorts the nation of Israel in Ezekiel 18:31: “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed (פִּשְׁעֵיכֶם), and get a new heart and a new spirit.”

Regarding its deployment in religious contexts, it is exclusively limited to prophetic sayings with only one exception in 1 Kings 8:50. The exception seems to be based on an analogical reference to its secular employment and still shares its primary characteristics. 1 Kings 8:50-51 is representative of its meaning and makes clear its connection with its secular use. The author writes: “And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed (פָּשְׁעוּ) against you, and cause their conquerors to show them mercy; for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace.” The strong political overtones of this passage show the close connection of פָּשַׁע with its secular usage. Solomon foresees a time when Israel will be conquered and asks the Lord to forgive them because it is the Lord who brought them out of Egypt and is therefore their rightful ruler.  In this way the Lord’s rule of Israel is understood in parallel to that of other nations.  In this way the primary meaning of the verb appears to be rebellion against the ordinances of the Lord their ruler. The common element between its use in secular and religious contexts is the idea of breaking an agreement with one’s ruler as an act of rebellion in an attempt to liberate oneself from the ruler’s control. One additional proof of its political connotation is that the verb does not appear any book of the OT that reflects a context before Israel’s monarchy (Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel).[3]

IV. Use as a noun in the Hebrew Scripture

A survey of the use of פֶּשַׁע as a noun confirms this basic meaning but seems to expand its semantic range to many contexts that do not require the notion of rebellion. The most common English translations are “sin,” “offense” and “transgression,” and it is usually used to denote an action done against God, and less frequently, against individuals or a community. The few appearances of the noun in secular contexts are where violations of personal and property rights are being referred to. In Genesis 31:36, for example, after Laban pursues Jacob and accuses him of stealing the household gods, Jacob responds by saying: “What is my offense (פִּשְׁעִי)?” As is just being said, the overwhelming majority of uses are in religious contexts and God is always the person being wronged against. The content of the offense can be the involvement in fertility cults (Isa. 57:4), mischievous schemes against God’s people (Psalm 5:9 [10]), and sinful speeches (Prov. 12:13). TWOT concludes the meaning of the noun as: “Rebellion against God’s law and covenant…a collective which denotes the sum of misdeeds and a fractured relationship.”[4]

V. Synonyms and antonyms

Because of the deuteronomic nature of many OT books dedicated to speak against Israel’s sinfulness against God, there is an abundance of words used to denote this type of action and may be considered at least partial synonyms of פֶּשַׁע. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew lists eight synonyms for the verbal form and fifteen synonyms for the substantival form.[5] Two of the more common synonyms are חַטָּ֣את;/ חָטָֽאָה (sin/sinner), and עֲוֹ֥ן’/ עַוָּ֥ה (iniquity/commit iniquity).  Others include מְשׁוּבָה (rebellion), רָעָה (evil), נַעְַוִיּה (perversity), שִׁקוּץ (abomination), and בּמָה (high place). One verse illustrative of two of these synonyms used in parallel is Exodus 34:7: “…and forgiving wickedness (עָוֺן), rebellion (וָפשע) and sin (חֲטָאָ֣ה.  Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin (עָוֺן) of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” The possible antonyms include שָׁמַ֥ע (obey), צַדִּ֛יק (righteous), צֶ֙דֶק/ צְדָקָֽה (righteousness), and ט֑וֹב (good).

VI. LXX and Other cognate languages

What has been discussed so far about the meaning of about פֶּשַׁע thus is being confirmed by these synonyms and antonyms with little elaboration. The only cognate is from Ugaritic and only occurs once: pšʿ, which means “sin”.[6] Its rare occurrence is primarily because of the nature of our Ugaritic documents, but it could also be owing to the fact that the word’s widespread distribution is only a relatively late matter. Here again, not much can be discovered or corrected.

The LXX’s translation פֶּשַׁע is like a display of the full spectrum of Greek vocabularies for sin: ἀσεβεῖν (to be ungodly), ἀφίστημι (to fall away, cause to rebel), ἀνομέω (to act lawlessly), ἀδικία (unrighteous deed), ἁμαρτία (sin), ἀνομία (lawlessness) παράπτωμα (trespass). They all confirm the basic meaning of transgression.

  1. VII. Summary and Conclusion

TWOT states the fundamental idea as “a breach of relationships, civil or religious, between two parties.”  HALOT lists “break with [people/state/God], break away from, and behave as a criminal or being disloyal” for the verb, and “offence concerning property, criminal actions” as the primary meaning for noun.[7] TDOT asserts that “the noun means ‘offense, transgression, » and is a general term for various offenses arousing outrage or indignation, and that the verb means ‘commit an offense’ or something similar.” These definitions seem to have a consensus on the basic meaning as “a breach of relationships”, but TDOT adds the idea of outrage on the part of the one transgressed. This basic meaning agrees with what this study discovered by examining the occurrences of  פֶּשַׁעin the OT. The additional idea of outrage seems at times to be present but is not a necessary part of the word, especially HALOT lists a significant amount of examples where פֶּשַׁע is closely associated with the idea of forgiveness.[8] Moreover, since the word almost always occurs in the context of one party under the control of the other, we can better conclude the basic definition of פֶּשַׁע as « a breach between two parties in a hierarchical relationship caused by the subordinate’s rebel against the controlling group. »


Botterweck, G. Johannes, and Helmer Ringgren, eds.  Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 13 vols., trans. David E. Green. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs ed. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Clines, David J. A., ed. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 8 vols. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994-present.

Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer and Bruce Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.

Kohlenberger III, John R. and James A. Swanson, The Hebrew-English Concordance to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.

Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner., eds.  Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 5 vols., rev. Walter Baumgartner and Johann J. Stamm. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1994-2000.

[1]. Francis Brown,  S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs ed. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) 1344.

[2]. R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980) 2.742.

[3]. Botterweck, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 12.135.

[4]. Harris, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2.741.

[5]. David J. A. Clines, ed., The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994-present) 6.793.

[6]Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M., & Stamm, J. J. (1999, c1994-1996). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament. Volumes 1-4 combined in one electronic edition. (electronic ed.) (981). Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.

[7] Ibid. It also lists misdemeanor, wantonness, and wrongdoing as possible translations.

[8].i. with נָשָׂא  Gn 5017 Ex 2321 347 Nu 1418 Jos 2419 1S 2528 Ps 321 Jb 721; with מָחָה Is 4325 4422 Ps 513; with כִּפֶּר Ps 654; with סָלַח 1K 850; with עָבַר עַל Mi 718 Pr 1911 (with העביר Sir 4711); with הִרְחִיק Ps 10312; with כִּסָּה to cover offences Pr 1012 179; with לֹא נִזְכַּר Ezk 1822 Ps 257; —ii. with הִטַּמֵּא Ezk 1411 3723, with נִקָּה Ps 1914; with שׁוּב מִפֶּ׳  Ezk 1828.30, cf. שָׁבֵי פֶ׳ Is 5920 (see 2 e vi). Ibid.


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