I have a question about the following words:

  • רשע (rasha`), generally translated as "wicked" or "ungodly". 263 occurences in the OT.
  • חטא (chatta'), generally translated as "sinner". 256 occurences in the OT.

For example, both these words appear in Ps 1:1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked (rasha`, רשע), nor stands in the way of sinners (chatta', חטא), nor sits in the seat of scoffers [ESV];

In this and other contexts, both these words appear to include strong moral condemnation (guilt) as part of their meaning. My question is: for which of these two words is this the strongest ? In other words, when the goal is to express moral condemnation in the strongest possible terms, which of the two words is going to be used in the OT ?

My perplexity regarding this issue comes from the fact that chatta' litterally means "missing the mark" (like with a bow or sling) and therefore seems to connote failure rather than evil. Yet, in many cases, like in Ps 1:1 where there is apparently a progression from bad to worse, according to a number of exegetes, it seems that the word chatta' connotes even stronger condemnation than rasha`.

  • I had already asked a similar question two days ago but I was told it was not properly worded. So I decided to start form scratch. – fi11222 Oct 22 '15 at 11:39
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    Probably the least controversial way to do this here would be to ask whether there is indeed a progression from bad to worse in Psalm 1:1. That should get at (and you could even specify that an answer must get at) the relationship between these ideas. Even setting aside this site’s uneasiness with questions not focused on a specific text, this question asks for a lexical study of two of the most common and theologically loaded terms in the Hebrew bible. Understanding both of them in all of their contexts well enough to formulate a comparison might just be too much for an answer here. – Susan Oct 22 '15 at 12:28
  • @Susan. Hi. Thanks for the answer. I did not know these words were theologically loaded, sorry about that. Why is that so ? Also, what do you mean exactly by "a specific text" ? Do you mean just a passage or a whole book of the OT ? – fi11222 Oct 22 '15 at 12:52
  • I don’t mean “loaded” in a way that should cause you to apologize :-) - only that they are both used to represent ideas that are important in the theology of the OT. “A specific text” - here I meant just that verse, which of course should be interpreted in answers in context of the Psalm. I don’t find that 'progression of evil’ obvious, and I think it’s an interesting question as to whether it should be interpreted that way. If nothing else, it would give you a feel for how that type of Q&A can work. You can always ask additional questions if you don’t get the whole answer you want that way. – Susan Oct 22 '15 at 13:25
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    Also (in addition to “theologically loaded”) the meaning of each of those terms varies considerably based on context. I’m not even sure a general answer comparing them sans context is possible, though I may be wrong about that. – Susan Oct 22 '15 at 13:31

I agree, based off a broad study of the Hebrew Bible, that רשע (rasha`) is stronger than חטא (chatta'), that wickedness is stronger than sinner, where the former is a more active pursuit of doing wrong, the latter doing wrong, perhaps by accident or perhaps with purpose, but "missing the mark" either way. So I am not going to dispute the evidence on that account.

But notice that the progression in Psalm 1:1 is not based on those words, it is based on the words associated with them:

  • walks
  • stands
  • sits

The blessed one does not go down a path that leads to settling into wrong ways.

The reason rasha` is noted first in Psalm 1:1 is because it is those who are actively being wicked who "counsel" others to do so, and so are the recruiters of people to "walk" in their ways. Once recruited to do wrong, one begins to stand still in that "way" of doing things, missing the mark of where they should be (by choice). Then one settles down and sits in the place of those that scorn the way of righteousness (v.6), becoming themselves promoters of the way of the ungodly—new counselors of wickedness to follow the ungodly way.

  • Hi. Thanks for the answer. One think still puzzles me though. If rasha` is stronger than chatta', how is it that, in the subsequent Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the work corresponding to chatta' ("sin") that became symbolic of man's misbehavior? It seems as if people thought that "sin" was not so bad after all ... But if so why did it become something which leads to Hell? Some change in the original meaning must have happened along the way, don't you think? – fi11222 Oct 23 '15 at 16:44
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    In my theology, mankind was created to be like God, including fully righteous. Sin misses that mark by any failure to be righteous, and leads to God's displeasure. But wickedness is more active than just failing to be righteous, it is purposefully against righteousness. So sin is bad, wickedness is more purposefully bad as a way of life. All rasha' is chatta', but not conversely. A person may commit an act of man-slaughter (chatta') or be a serial killer (rasha') or kill no one, but encourage others to commit murders (also rasha'). That's my rough theological distinction. – ScottS Oct 23 '15 at 17:10

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