In the Red

This wonderful and surprising book is a historical and exegetical recovery of the idea of sin as debt, and of almsgiving (and other works of mercy) as the principal means by which that debt may be repaid. Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame. He is a theologically interested interpreter of the Old Testament, fully equipped with all the philological and historical skills necessary for that task, and yet also concerned with theological questions. He has written fascinatingly on, among other things, Adam and Eve in the Jewish and Christian imagination, the human fall, and the significance of imagery about temple and tabernacle for thought about God’s presence. Sin: A History should increase his reputation, for it is a significant contribution both to scriptural interpretation and to theology proper, and an object lesson in how to do both well.

In the first seven chapters of his book, Anderson shows how deep the debt metaphor is in Scripture and in early rabbinic thought. With close attention to the language about debt forgiveness in the sabbatical- and jubilee-year regulations found in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, and to the development and use of associated terms in rabbinic thought, Anderson shows that there is in the lexicon of rabbinic Hebrew “a complete interchangeability between commercial and theological terminology,” and that understanding the latter requires understanding the former. To “satisfy” a debt, speaking both scripturally and rabbinically, is to repay it and thus to remove it from the books; and Anderson shows that this metaphor of debt and its satisfaction is scattered throughout the prophetic books of Scripture, as well as the Torah and its rabbinic interpretation. One of the best exegetical points of the book comes in the discussion of Isaiah 40:1­–2, in which Anderson shows convincingly that the Hebrew words ordinarily rendered “her iniquity is pardoned” (as in the Revised Standard Version) should be rendered “[the debt owed for] her iniquity has been satisfied.” This is one instance among many in which our English versions of Old Testament texts obscure the figure of debt and its satisfaction by overwriting it with that of forgiveness and pardon. These two figures have very different connotations.

Among the rabbis at or shortly after the time of Jesus, Anderson argues, sin is thought of almost entirely within the parameters provided by the metaphor of indebtedness and satisfaction (repayment); and this is largely true, as well, of the New Testament and of early Christian thought. Much is made of Colossians 2:14, in which Jesus is depicted as having canceled the debt of our sins, erasing the note-of-hand (cheirographon) on which that indebtedness was recorded. There is useful discussion, too, of Jesus’ use of debt language for sin in Luke 7:36–50, in the story of the sinful woman and Simon the Pharisee; and of Romans 7:14, where we are spoken of as having been “sold under sin”—which is to say, made debt slaves. Anderson shows the “slow but steady penetration of the metaphor of sin as debt into every aspect of Greek- and Latin-speaking Christianity.” And then, with special reference to the work of Syriac-using Christians from the fifth and sixth centuries, such as Narsai and Jacob of Serug (chosen in part because of the close lexical dependency of Syriac on Aramaic), Anderson shows how the fathers of the church wove sin, debt, and satisfaction tightly together.

From these exegetical and historical engagements with the idea of sin-as-debt in Scripture, the church fathers, and the rabbis, Anderson turns to analysis of the remedy for the problem of indebtedness. This he locates above all in almsgiving. This is a meritorious, credit-worthy currency by means of which sin-debts to God can be paid down or off. Proverbs 19:17 (“He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord”) is a key text here, but it is not the only one: Anderson has useful and fascinating things to say also about sin, debt, and almsgiving in Tobit and Daniel. The poor are like a bank for sin-removal; and when there are no poor, or when for some other reason giving to them becomes impossible, the result is anxiety about how one can make satisfaction for one’s debts.

There is a further element in the grammar of sin-as-debt described by Anderson. It concerns how we got into debt with God to begin with. The answer to this question is found in the pregnant and awful word “sin,” the title of Anderson’s book. Each of us is a sinner, and the range and extent of our sins, inherited or performed, is also the range and extent of the damage that makes us God’s debtors, so deeply indebted that we have no hope of repayment—unless he is generous enough to offer us interest on our pathetically small almsgiving-offerings of such magnitude that our debts are remitted, and our condition thus transformed from that of debt slaves into that of friends.

And a final point—this the most important of all: Even if it should be the case that our debts are so huge that we cannot repay them even at the generous rates of interest God grants on loans to him (perhaps we find ourselves incapable of making him even a small loan), it may still be possible for someone else to pay our debts for us by making a deposit with God in our names. One way or another, then, the debt can be paid off, no matter how large. And that it can be is God’s gift—a gift that is free in one sense, but that nevertheless takes seriously the weight of our offenses. Christians will understand this last point in terms of the work of Christ, who has given himself as alms-gift to and for us.

Describing the grammar of debt and satisfaction in this way short-circuits most of the usual objections to views of this sort. This is not a mechanistic view; it does not make God a bookkeeper. The emphasis is rather on the loving generosity of a God who satisfies our debts himself and at the same time offers us a preferred currency, almsgiving, as a means of embodying our responsive love for him in practice. Anderson’s concluding chapters, which include discussion of Ephrem the Syrian’s work and Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, show that conceiving sin as debt, and forgiveness as satisfaction, takes sin and its effects very seriously, while placing them in a divine economy that multiplies our offerings to God beyond expectation and thereby makes satisfaction for our sins in ways accountable by no ledger. The outstretched hands of the poor become, on this view, like an altar for offerings. Putting money or food in those hands becomes an instance of faith at work. As Anderson puts it, “The giving of alms is therefore not simply a good work; by giving alms one enacts the faith one claims to possess.”

For Christians, the martyr is the one in whose alms-gift all lesser forms of almsgiving participate. Martyrs give their bodies and their lives for others, and there is one such sacrificial gift, that of Christ on the cross, in which all other martyrdoms participate. Anderson’s concluding analysis of Anselm’s understanding of Christ’s offering of himself as one who satisfies all sin-debt and therefore liberates all debt slaves resonates deeply with this picture. Anselm does not depict Jesus as being punished for our sins, but rather as making satisfaction for them by an act of love. Without the idea of sin as debt and of alms-gifts as satisfying debts, Anselm’s understanding of the atonement is unintelligible, as is a great deal of Christian and Jewish thought about sin. Anderson makes that thought not only intelligible but beautiful.

The persuasive character of Anderson’s book comes in large part from the particularity of its exegesis. He provides not merely a conceptual analysis of sin-as-debt and redemption as satisfaction of sin by gift, but a detailed and textually vivid depiction of Jewish and Christian thought about these matters. He is interested in trope and figure as a necessary condition for thought, and attention to it as a necessary condition for understanding the thought of others. He eagerly pursues trope patterns as a historian and philologist, attending to minute textual particulars and to the extension and development of tropes through time in particular textual traditions. In doing all this, he brings the traditions he interprets alive and shows how Christianity and Judaism each provides a thread in a single figural fabric. The richness and precision of Anderson’s engagement with the texts he treats cannot be adequately conveyed in a short review, which is why you should read his book.

Published in the ??? 2010 issue: 

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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