What do we mean when we say we should repent? The concept of repentance appears throughout the Bible, yet when its theme returns the accents and the texture often change. The topic of repentance in the Bible requires careful translation and an openness to ancient ideas of repentance. We cannot assume that if we were to discuss repentance with a farmer in Josiah’s kingdom or a peasant in the Galilean countryside of the Roman province of Judea, and understand each other’s words, that we would be talking about the same kind of repentance. In this article we will briefly explore three views of repentance in the Bible: priestly repentance, prophetic repentance, and preaching repentance.
The practice of ritually enacting repentance may seem foreign to us, but the oldest strain of what we may call repentance in the Bible comes from the Priestly source in Leviticus. When we look at repentance as these ancient Hebrews understood it, we need to keep a couple things in mind. Categories of clean and unclean were not figurative: they were real and socially enforced. An unclean person could cause the presence of God which exuded from the temple to turn off like a light switch. With this in mind, we read about two kinds of personal offerings in Leviticus, the sin offering , the ḥatta’t, and the guilt offering, the ’ašam.1 A sin offering was made essentially for “the things I have done” whereas the guilt offering repented for “the things I have left undone,” and also, “the sin I have done yet not understood as sin.” When the Israelite felt remorse, she would confess her sin that caused this anxiety and then make the ḥatta’t sacrifice. If she felt remorse and was unsure of what exactly to confess – she may have contaminated sacred space without knowing it – then she would make the ’ašam sacrifice. In the religion of Israel’s priests these sacrifices constituted the doctrine of repentance.2 Regret and confession were insufficient to remove the guilt of sinning against the holy God, a sacrifice had to be made. Once this offering was made, the Israelite returned to a state of cleanliness and freedom from the anxiety of guilt which allowed the holiness of God to dwell with her once more.
Categories of clean and unclean were real and socially enforced. An unclean person could cause the presence of God which exuded from the temple to turn off like a light switch.
The prophets contested this belief that a sacrifice could heal a relationship with God. Perhaps they had seen too many insincere sacrifices, or the sacrifices did not seem to change their country’s political situation.3 The prophets never use the priestly word ’ašam, to feel guilty. Instead of a prescribed ritual for repentance Kings, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and especially Jeremiah all use the word šwb, “to turn.” Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the word šwb appears as a verb of motion, to turn, turn around, or return often in the context of a journey. Yet, when ‘repent’ appears in the NRSV translation of the Old Testament, the original word is most frequently šwb.4 For example, the author of 2 Kings grapples with why the kingdom of Israel fell and rests on the issue of repentance, “The LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer saying, ‘Turn (šubū, 2nd person, plural, imperative form of šwb) from your evil ways (literally roads) and keep my commandments and my statutes,’…” This verse embedded in the language of a pilgrimage: Israel has gone in the wrong direction in her journey with the LORD because her people worship Canaanite and Phoenician gods. In order to once more walk with God, the people of Israel must reorient their lives.
Jeremiah uses language of fidelity to express this view of repentance. In Jeremiah 3, the LORD asks a rhetorical question: would a husband take back a wife after she has married another? The marital practices described in this verse are not fair by our standards but the audience would know the correct answer to this question: No the husband would not return to her. When the Lord tells Jeremiah to say, return faithless children, the reader is left hanging. Will these children return, even though they are so guilty? One commentary compared the moment this passage describes to the final moment in Luke’s parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:29-32. The older brother, feeling estranged and annoyed, is confronted by the father and asked to return. Will he return? The text does not tell us.5 The prophets, exemplified by Jeremiah employ this word, šwb, with a rich variety of meanings and poetic ambiguity. The multiple meanings of šwb often come across: repenting is returning to God, turning towards God, turning towards God and turning away from the paths of sin and false gods is the way of repentance. Beyond confession and remorse, repentance is altering one’s life and renewing one’s commitment to the LORD.
In the New Testament, repentance is most often found in preaching. In Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptizer’s ministry is a baptism of repentance, and Jesus’ initial message is: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In Matthew’s Gospel John proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!” The word used in all three of these statements is the Greek word metanoeō, I repent or I change my mind. In ancient Greek, this word can mean to have second thoughts about something in a negative light, but it can also mean to regret a previous, harmful, or disadvantageous, or simply wrong course of action.6 In the New Testament, metanoeō also derives its meaning from the Hebrew word, šwb, discussed above, and another Hebrew word nḥm, to feel regret or remorse.7 When the authors of the New Testament use this word, metanoeō, repent takes on all these meanings. It becomes a feeling of deep remorse, a reorientation, a changing of one’s mind and life, a response to sin, and a response to Jesus as the Christ.
In Luke and Acts, more so than any of the other writings of the New Testament, repentance is central to God’s plan for salvation
In Luke and Acts, more so than any of the other writings of the New Testament repentance is central to God’s plan for salvation: repentance and the forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Christ’s name beginning in Jerusalem and then to all nations.8 Parables found only in Luke’s Gospel paint scenes of repentance. Return to the younger son in the parable of the prodigal son. The wasteful son says, “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”9 We find a young man who admits his guilt, who has resolved to change his ways of looking for pleasure for fulfillment, and has now returned to the house of his father to serve. When Peter preaches to the Israelites, they ask what can we do? He responds, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven.”10 Luke shows us repentance with the criminals on the cross. One mocks Jesus, but the other says: “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong… Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”11 For the author of Luke and Acts, repentance is an opportunity extended by God to all humanity through the preaching of the kingdom of God and Christ crucified.
Repentance: Where Are We?
As a turnaround synod, what kind of repentance are we looking for? Do we need to ritually enact our feelings of remorse as conveyed in Leviticus? What do we need to do to be a turnaround synod? Do we need to turn from a direction we have been going and return to a state where we once were? Are we being led into a new promised state to which we must turn, like the prophets proclaim? Will we change our minds, our lives, and our orientation when we have been gripped by the proclamation of Christ, as Luke portrays? The Bible has powerful portraits of repentance yet ultimately through us God must translate repentance to the world. How will we translate it?
For more information see Jacob Milgrom, Cult and Conscience: The Asham and the Priestly Doctrine of Repentence, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976.
Psalm 51 famously denounces burnt offerings and sacrifices as methods for pleasing God, yet these practices, the ‘lh and the zbḥ, are different sacrifices than either the ḥatta’t or the ’ašam, the reparation or repentance offerings. The ‘lh, in particular, was a national sacrifice that Psalm 51 questions. While these distinctions should be noted, Psalm 51 still articulates repentance along the lines of prophetic repentance.
Transliterated Hebrew can be frustrating unless someone has taken Hebrew especially with the letter “waw” in the middle of this word. If you were to say he repented it would be pronounced shāv, she repented, shavāh. Whenever šwb appears in this article you are invited to read it as shāv.
Jack R. Lundbom “Jeremiah 1:20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commetary” in the Anchor Bible Commentary New York, ed. William Foxwell Albright, David Noel Freedman
Nave cites examples from Xenophon, Dio Chrysostom, and Plutarch. In addition, he finds that Hellenistic Jewish authors, Philo and Josephus, both use metanoeō to express both regret and a change in one’s ways.
The motion and phrase of turning was emphasized when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. Translators almost always used a literal translation for šwb: epistrephō, I turn. The question is up for debate on why these translators adopted a literal translation rather than a translation that may have more fully expressed the meaning of the text. Every translation is an interpretation. This other word, nḥm, is almost exclusively used with God as the subject. Nḥm is most often translated into Greek as metanoeō in the Septuagint, the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This is the word that the Jewish Hellenistic authors and later the New Testament use for “repent.” The KJV of the Bible often translates this word nḥm as repent, which has raised the question of whether or not God repents. The NRSV renders nḥm as relent or regret usually.
Acts 2:38. A few verse later, Luke draws upon the Hebrew Bible notion of turning and combines it with repentance. Peter proclaims, “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out!” Acts 3:19.