Part of the Repentance and Reconciliation in Scripture series

“And God Saw Their Deeds”: Biblical Repentance in Action (and Less So in Feeling)

Much of our modern culture privileges the feelings of the heart over actions and ritual. This is arguably true of Christian doctrines opposing faith to works, given certain definitions of “faith,” especially in the versions stemming from Luther. It is true of the secularized teachings about the value of pure intentions stemming from Kant and the culture of feeling we associate with Rousseau, who forgives himself many shameful actions because he felt badly about them. This tendency toward inwardness overlaps with some biblical themes. At the same time, it makes it more difficult to grasp the substance of biblical repentance, which does insist upon actions rather than gestures (Jonah 3:10: “God saw their actions, that they had turned from their evil ways”) and which defines repentance in terms of appropriate conduct. 

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If we want to understand the interaction between behavior and inner experience with reference to the Hebrew Bible and its Jewish elaboration, it is necessary to beware of the modern one-sided valuation of inner intention and to pay more attention to behavior, which includes both external actions and verbal performance, while inwardness is often invisible to observers. Jewish understanding of the Bible thus necessitates some familiarity with rabbinic legal and philosophical thought over the past two millennia. This can best be done by examining the discussions among classic Jewish thinkers. 

Exploring Concepts of Repentance

To think about our question requires knowledge of some basic ideas regarding repentance.

Repentance for sin is central to Judaism. Apart from being a divine commandment, it is an existential necessity: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of our sins, who would stand?” (Psalm 130)  “Return O Israel to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your sin (Hosea 14)”; “Return to me and I will return to you” (Zachariah 1:3) are only two among many summons to repent and renew our relationship to God. 

The Hebrew verb la-shuv, from which the rabbinic noun for repentance, teshuva is derived, means to turn. It means to turn away from sin, as in Ezekiel 33:11: “Turn away from your evil ways.” It also means turning to God: “Return to me for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22). In our lives, there are moments when repentance is about rejecting evil and moments when the stress is on reconnecting with God. 

It is necessary to beware of the modern one-sided valuation of inner intention and to pay more attention to behavior.

Sometimes what we regret and forswear is not so much sin itself as its baleful consequences, whether to our happiness, our health, our social standing, or its effect on those we love. The ideal repentance is driven by the desire to live wholesomely and obediently in the presence of God. However, the true or deepest motivation for repentance is not always visible to the eyes of man, not even to the penitent himself or herself. The rabbis distinguished between repentance deriving from fear and repentance deriving from love, the former mitigating the consequences of sin, the latter transforming one’s actions totally.  

Repentance is also biblically mandated, that is, commanded by God. One who repents is obeying a divine commandment, just as one would in fulfilling any of the other commandments. The textual basis in the Torah for this obligation is open to discussion. 

It may be useful to focus on Maimonides’ “laws of repentance” in his twelfth-century Mishneh Torah code, as his work is widely studied and influential. Analyzing his formulations may help us to focus on the relation between the external acts tied to repentance and the inner change that accompanies and defines repentance. 

Maimonides’ source for the biblical commandment of repentance is Numbers 5:5f. This passage describes the offerings brought by various offenders for stealing and swearing falsely. Together with the sacrifices and the prescribed monetary penalty, confession of sin is part of the atonement. In the preface to the treatise, where Maimonides lists the biblical commandments, he identifies repentance entirely with the act of confession. This could be taken to imply that verbal acts, and not merely intention, are essential to fulfill the divine command.

In the body of his text, Maimonides, like other medieval authorities, lists several normative components of repentance. The formula of confession in Maimonides includes acknowledgement of the sin before God, expression of regret and shame and resolve not to repeat one’s sin. Later in the opening chapter of the tract on repentance he emphasizes that expressing verbal repentance, without intending to forsake the sin, invalidates the performance. It would thus appear that repentance is an expression of inner life, not merely an external action. 

This is not the place to explore the rabbinic analysis of this apparent tension between Maimonides’ prefatory remark about confession and the more inward account he offers later. One popular solution, identified with my revered mentor Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, is pertinent to our question. Rabbi Soloveitchik held that repentance, like several other commandments, has both an inner and outer dimension. The inner meaning of repentance is turning away from sin and turning to God. An individual who has made that move, even if he or she has not verbalized it, is a penitent person.

Biblical Repentance as Revealed in the Torah

At the same time, the Torah insists that fulfilling the commandment to repent specifies an externalized confession; one is obligated to put into words, as part of one’s dialogue with God, one’s past, one’s regrets, and one’s resolve for the future. This is one insight into the interplay of feeling and action in the process of repentance. 

Let me turn your attention back to the verse about confession in Numbers 5. At first blush, it does not seem to define the general act of repentance; rather it seems to be a detail, albeit a significant detail, defining the sinner’s offering of the sacrifice. If that is the source for the commandment of repentance, as it is according to Maimonides, one must conclude that he did not have at his disposal a more straightforward, inner-oriented prooftext for the divine command to repent. That means that in some biblical texts—specifically Numbers—the inner aspect of repentance is inseparably intertwined with the verbal performance. Why might this be so? 

One reason that the Torah insists on the externalization of verbal confession is that pious velleities, when not accompanied by actions, are usually spiritually cheap. Regrets and resolutions that are not pronounced verbally usually are not fully formed. Proper repentance requires us to bind our thoughts and feelings to actions and to spell them out in real words said to God, not only via interior monologue. In preaching repentance, the rabbis say that God did not remit the punishment of Nineveh because He saw their sackcloth and fasting, but because “He saw their deeds, that they had turned from their evil ways” (Jonah 3:10). The necessity of behavioral change is reinforced by the need to express the desire to change through verbal and practical performance. 

The rabbis say that God did not remit the punishment of Nineveh because He saw their sackloth and fasting, but because “He saw their deeds, that they had turned from their evil ways” (Jonah 3:10).

In Deuteronomy 30:5ff, Moses states that “you shall return to the Lord your God.” The verse can be read two ways: either as a command or as a promise. Nahmanides, a towering authority in thirteenth-century Spain, held that both possibilities are intended. In the context of Moses’ outline of the eschatological future, God assures Israel that their eventual repentance is divinely ordained. For Nahmanides, however, the Torah also implies the imperative: repentance is here presented as a commandment.

In contrast with Maimonides, this view defines the commandment to repent independently of the actions specified in atonement ritual and associated actions. Maimonides cites the verse “and you shall return” in chapter 7 of the laws of repentance, interpreting it as a promise. Although, as we have seen, he derives the command to repent from Numbers 5, the fact that he mentions the Deuteronomy promise in the context of his legal treatise is worthy of notice. 

To revert to Jonah, it is not only that God accepts the repentance of Nineveh, an exercise of mercy that Jonah is not wholly happy with. God also feels concern, as it were, for his creatures, as He intimates to the prophet in the rhetorical question that closes the book: “You were concerned for the gourd for which you did not toil. . . . Shall I not be concerned for the great city Nineveh?” The point here is not only that God accepts repentance but also that the reconciliation between sinful human beings and God is, in some sense, integral to the entire relationship of Creator and creature.

Our discussion of repentance has concentrated on the dialogue between human beings and God. When one has offended another person, repentance requires the attempt to propitiate the injured party. Of course, every sin against others is also a sin against God. Repentance thus includes confession and resolution before God. But halakha (Jewish law) mandates that these gestures of repentance must be conjoined with the effort to mend fences with one’s neighbor. Again, feelings of regret and remorse gain their religious validity through their integration in the world of action.  

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Image created by Rubner Durais