What Repentance Really Meant in the Torah—and Why It Matters Today

This essay is drawn from selections from Dr. Unterman’s Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics (Jewish Publication Society & University of Nebraska Press, 2017), pp. 109-132.

An entirely new approach to human suffering is presented in God’s laws in the Torah. To look at it in context, in the ancient Near East, a person knew that the cause of suffering was divine, but one could never be sure why he or she was suffering—because the gods were capricious, or some trespass had occurred since the gods’ intentions were unfathomable, or human character resulted in sinning. Additionally, the gods never revealed their will and never promulgated a law code to the people at large (and rarely sent messages, even to kings).

That was not the case in the Torah. The Torah’s assumptions were categorically opposed to those of ancient Near Eastern polytheism. The sole God was both good and an ethical judge. Due to revelation of the commandments, God’s will was known and addressed to all Israel. Humans, by dint of their free will, could decide to be continually obedient to God. Thus, to the extent that suffering was due to Divine punishment, that suffering was justifiable, for people knew if they had transgressed God’s will.

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It must be remembered that God’s laws were directed both to the individual Israelite and the people as a whole. The commandments were the stipulations of the Lord’s covenant with Israel. Obedience or disobedience would not only affect the individual but also the whole community. Thus was created the idea that individuals were not only responsible to themselves and their families but for the entire community, and the community was responsible for the individual.

Repentance in the Torah: For the Individual and the Community

This new approach was the foundation of the Torah’s laws on repentance which focused on two levels—the immediate social–religious context of the individual, and the destiny of the entire community. The latter was addressed, for example, in the rituals associated with the “Day of Atonement” (or “Day of Purgation,” yom kippur), including the sincere remorse of the people as evidenced by the communal fast and the rituals of cleansing the sanctuary (accompanied by the high priest’s confession) of the pollution caused by the people’s sins (Leviticus 16).

And what of the individual’s role in repentance? According to the Torah, no remorse or confession is acceptable once a perpetrator has already been apprehended—for the Bible’s innate and wise psychological assumption is that such an expression of regret would be insincere and simply a ruse in order to get a reduced punishment (why such expressions are not forbidden in modern criminal trials at the sentencing phase is incomprehensible). For example, the law is straightforward concerning property-theft: “In all charges of misappropriation—pertaining to an ox, an ass, a sheep, a garment, or any other loss . . . he [who is convicted] shall pay double to the other (Exod. 22:8).

In the case of restitution as part of repentance, one’s ethical responsibility to one’s fellow human takes priority over one’s ethical responsibility to God. 

But what happens if the perpetrator, before he is caught, feels guilty over what he has done? In such cases, does the Torah make allowance for individual remorse? The answer appears in Leviticus 5:20–26 (see also verses 1–19 there and Numbers 5:5–8),

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When a person sins by committing a sacrilege against the Lord in that he has dealt deceitfully with his fellow in the matter of a deposit or investment or robbery; or having withheld from his fellow or having found a lost object he has dealt deceitfully about it; and he swears falsely about any one of the things that a person may do and sin thereby—when one has thus sinned, and feeling guilt, he shall return that which he robbed or that which he withheld, or the deposit that was entrusted to him, or the lost object he found, or anything else about which he swore falsely; he shall restore it in its entirety and add one-fifth to it. He shall pay it to its owner as soon as he feels guilt. Then he shall bring to the priest, as his reparation to the Lord, an unblemished ram from the flock, or its assessment, as a reparation offering. The priest shall effect expiation of his behalf before the Lord so that he may be forgiven for whatever he has done to feel guilty thereby.

The above two passages show that a person who has stolen from or defrauded another, but, before he or she is caught, feels guilty, must confess the crime and immediately make restitution to the victim of the object (or its value) plus a one-fifth fine (a one-fifth fine was imposed for inadvertent sins involving sacred objects—Lev. 5:15–16). Then the culprit brings a reparation offering to the sanctuary. Extremely important ethical innovations are elucidated here concerning civil misdeeds:

  • True repentance requires that the wrongdoer not only confess his or her crime but must make restitution to the victim.
  • Repentance mitigates the penalty payable to the victim—from the object plus a 100 percent fine to the object plus a 20 percent fine.
  • Thus, the repentance of perpetrators changes the legal treatment of an intentional crime to that of an accidental one.
  • A reparation offering is made by the perpetrator at the sanctuary which results in (a) cleansing the part of the sanctuary polluted by the culprit’s act, and (b) obtaining Divine forgiveness; the reparation offering was an ethical obligation, because in the Torah a crime against a human is a crime against God.
  • The restitution to the victim precedes the reparation offering at the sanctuary—therefore, compensation to the victim takes precedence over reparation to God!

This last innovation reverses the sacrificial norm in the ancient world—that offerings to the deity take priority over the needs of humans. Only in the case of repentance in the Torah’s laws do obligations to humans—in the form of restitution to victims—delay the duty to God. For the first time in the ancient world, repentance as an act of social justice is perceived as required by God and places sacrifice in a secondary position—even though that sacrifice is necessary to cleanse the contamination that one has caused in God’s sanctuary. To put it differently, in the case of restitution as part of repentance, one’s ethical responsibility to one’s fellow human takes priority over one’s ethical responsibility to God. 

In sum, the Torah’s laws concerning repentance deal both with the individual as part of the society as a whole (Lev. 16, Yom Kippur) and the individual within his or her own immediate context (Lev. 4, 5; Num. 5—inadvertent sins or sins converted from intentional to accidental). The latter context requires the guilty party not only to repent to God, but also to repent to the victim through, for example, confession and compensation. That two-pronged approach is characteristic of the Torah’s legal traditions, which view the individual’s actions as affecting both one’s own life and the destiny of the community—for the laws are also the stipulations of the Sinaitic Covenant.

The Focus of Prophetic Literature

This two-sided approach does not appear in prophetic literature. The prophets perceive each individual first and foremost within the context of the covenant, perhaps because they see destruction and/or exile threatening the entire society, on the horizon. Therefore, the prophets concentrate on repentance in terms of the impact that it can have to ward off Divine punishment on Israel as a whole. In other words, once Israel has sinned, and while the people still dwell in a divinely ordained state in the land of Israel, they must repent in order to avoid destruction and/or exile.

Unlike the Torah’s laws, the prophets do not mention the obligation of the guilty party to repent to the human victim through, for example, confession and compensation. Certainly, they accept Torah law (note the prophetic rebuke of the people for their transgressions against ethical laws such as caring for the poor and the stranger), and their silence does not indicate any opposition to it.

However, another factor is at play here. The overarching prophetic term for repentance is shuv, “return.” To whom or to what can one return? Only to God, and to His commandments/paths (that is, the way of life in accord with His revealed will), for the prophets claimed that both were abandoned by the Israelites. Because of the prophetic focus on using the term shuv in reference to a spiritual return to Godone couldn’t very well talk about a similar kind of spiritual “return” to a human.

For the prophets, “return” to God and his ways is a process consisting of four consecutive elements: (1) an act of God’s caring by giving people the option to repent in order to avoid destruction and/or exile; (2) acknowledgment of sin accompanied by remorse; (3) cessation of evil, of disobeying God; (4) return to God’s ways by obedience to His commandments. 

Of course, by fulfilling the third and fourth elements of the prophetic process of repentance to God—ceasing to do evil and obedience to God’s instructions—gain will accrue to former victims—a kind of “collateral benefit”1Rabbinic literature will maintain the importance of compensating the victim before God will accept the people’s repentance; see Mishnah Yoma 8:9.—although, surely, these are key objectives in the Divine goal of creating a just and righteous society.

In prophetic thought, if the people truly repent, God promises to respond by accepting the people back without any punishment whatsoever for their past sins, as in Jeremiah 18:6–8,

Behold like the clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in My hands, O House of Israel! At one moment I may decree that a nation or a kingdom shall be uprooted and pulled down and destroyed; but if that nation against which I have made the decree turns back from its wickedness, I will relent concerning the punishment I planned to bring on it.

This prophetic innovation goes beyond the Torah’s laws, for in those laws, repentance mitigates the punishment but does not eliminate it altogether. The prophets, however, expanded the power of repentance and, therefore, of God’s forgiveness by decreeing that true “return” abolishes the possibility of punishment. Such ethical graciousness could not have been imagined by the other peoples of the ancient Near East.

Implications of the Torah and the Prophets for Repentance Today

What then is the message of repentance in the Torah and the Prophets for today? I would suggest five implications: First, we must realize that we exist not just as individuals with our own personal cares and concerns, but that our lives impinge upon others and we must take individual responsibility for the ethical needs of our society. We must demand that when people make mistakes or do wrongful acts, that they take responsibility for what they have done, and that begins with each of us. People need to be taught to be good, helpful citizens. Without people who help others and hold themselves accountable, our society will never have good leadership.

Second, we must provide greater care for victims of crime. It’s not enough that criminals are sent to prison. Rather, they should be obligated to compensate their victims beyond the dollar value of the losses they incurred. Third, we must each set aside time to reflect on our own priorities and behavior, and acknowledge to ourselves when we have done wrong. We need to regret our bad behavior and determine how to do better.

Fourth, we must do what is right and good for the sake of others. Our world depends upon it. Fifth, it is good to believe in a just and merciful God who holds us accountable for our actions, and gives us the opportunity to do better. Let’s take advantage of it!

End Note

1. Rabbinic literature will maintain the importance of compensating the victim before God will accept the people’s repentance; see Mishnah Yoma 8:9.

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