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Old Testament Foundations: A Biblical View of the Relationship of Sin and the Fruits of Sin: Sickness, Demonization, Death, Natural Calamity, by Peter H. Davids

A specific fruit of sin which is also a social dislocation in the Old Testament is poverty. In Deut 15:4-5 we read, “However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God … .” (NIV) A better translation is, “There will, however, be no one in need among you …” (NRSV) In other words, just as in Eden the land supplied the needs of the first human beings, so Palestine will supply the needs of the Israelites. None will suffer want, so long as they obey. The failure to obey God, of course, is sin. The fruit of sin is the abrogation of the promise.5 One way in which this is worked out is through injustice, the legal oppression of the weaker Israelites by the more powerful, such as Amos speaks out against, e.g. Amos 2:6-7; cf. 4:1. Another way in which poverty came about was through famine (i.e. natural disaster), which was often viewed as a direct punishment from God. A third way in which poverty came about was through personal misfortune, which is the presumed situation of Job, but may form the actual background for the sudden coming of the Lord to judge His people in Mal 3:8-11 (assuming that this is not simply a collective promise).


Sin Can Lead to Sickness

Another specific mark of sin is the presence of disease. On the positive side Exo 15:26 (NIV) states, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord … I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (cf. Deut 7:12-16, which expands upon this theme). On the negative side the other end of the Pentateuch states, “If you do not obey the Lord your God … The Lord will plague you with diseases… . The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish” (Deut 28:15, 21-22).6

This concept is illustrated throughout the Exodus narrative. Miriam develops leprosy when she opposes Moses (Num 12:10). Those who brought a negative report about Canaan died of plague (Num 14:37). The sin at Baal-Peor resulted in a plague in which 24,000 die (Num 25:9). Such examples could be multiplied and they continue throughout the Old Testament. While in the Deuteronomic history most of the examples are about sin leading to death through defeat, there are examples of sin leading to sickness, such as the plague in 2 Sam 24:15 which kills 70,000 people because of David’s sin. Azariah (Uzziah) personally contracted leprosy (2 Kings 15:5; cf. 2 Chron 26:16-20, which attributes this to his sin). The Elijah-Elisha cycle also connects sin to illness, at least in the minds of others (1 Kings 17:18).

The significant issue in each of these instances is that the sickness comes prior to the completion of a full life. Presumably all of the people in Scripture die of what we would call sickness or natural death, but the issue for the Hebrews was that any final illness come at the end of a full life and not be of a type which separated the person from their community (such as leprosy, which because it made the person taboo7 could never be considered a normal illness). Thus Hezekiah, when informed that his illness is terminal, implores God for a longer life because he has “walked before [the Lord] in faithfulness and with a whole heart,” so his premature death would have been quite inappropriate (2 Kings 20:3, NRSV; repeated in Isa 38:3). The promise of 15 additional years apparently gave him what he thought was a reasonably long life, so it is received without complaint.

The deathbed scenes of Old Testament folk who are “old and full of days are relatively peaceful in the sense that they accept death as appropriate and are not asking for longer life, but instead are passing on instructions to others (e.g. Elisha in 2 Kings 13:14). On the other hand, Ahaziah dies a premature death due to his injury because of his sin (2 Kings 1:16) and Abijah son of Jeroboam I dies because of his parent’s sin (1 Kings 14:1-18; yet God finds “something pleasing to the Lord” in the child so he will get an honorable death and burial, unlike the rest of the family which will die violently and not be buried).

The latter prophets also give us examples of this perspective. For example, Jeremiah prophesies the death of Hananiah the prophet because of his lying prophecy (Jer 28:15-17). While this could have occurred due to an accident or other violence, the simple term “died” most naturally indicates that he became ill and died. In the “writings,” the third division of the Old Testament (divided into the law, the prophets, and the writings), the Psalms picture illness as the result of sin (Ps 32:3-4; 38:3,5; cf. Ps 31:10, which calls for healing because his illness was not a result of sin). Sin, then, is closely connected with illness, especially with premature illness or those which made a person taboo.


Sin Can Lead to Demonization

A last result of sin in the Old Testament is demonization. There is not a lot to be said about this from the Old Testament point of view, for references to the demonic in the Old Testament are scarce. There is, however, one example, which is Saul. That Saul lost the kingdom due to disobedience is clear enough (1 Sam 13:13-14; 15:17-19, 22-23, 26). It is after this that “an evil spirit from the Lord tormented [Saul]” (1 Sam 16:14, NRSV). While the connection is not developed, the progression in the narrative suggests that the loss of the divine Spirit and the presence of a demonic spirit is a fruit of Saul’s sin.8 The final consequence, of course, is his consultation of the medium in Endor (1 Sam 28:3-25).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2006

About the Author: Peter H. Davids is a visiting professor of Christianity at Houston Baptist University and part-time professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology. He has taught biblical studies at Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia) and Canadian Theological Seminary (Regina, Saskatchewan), and he continues to teach in theological schools in Europe. He is the author of commentaries on James and 1 Peter. He is the New Testament editor of the Word Biblical Commentary series, the translator (from German) of Reinhard Feldmeier, 1 Peter (Baylor, 2008), and has also been part of several Bible translation projects (including The New Living Translation, The Voice, and The Common English Bible). Davids’ passion for the church has been expressed in his deep church involvement. He served as a Plymouth Brethren US Army Chaplain for 5 years, then an Episcopal priest for 34 years. He is presently a Catholic priest in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. Faculty page Ministry page

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