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Joseph Lam





Sin Is a Debt that Must Be Repaid



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Joseph Lam





Sin Is a Debt that Must Be Repaid






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Sin Is a Debt that Must Be Repaid

What do the curses in Leviticus 26 mean by saying that Israel will רצה ratzah their sins and the land will רצה ratzah its Sabbatical years?


Sin Is a Debt that Must Be Repaid

Leviticus 26 in a 1509 Yemenite manuscript, CAJS Rar Ms 242, f. 41b. University of Pennsylvania Library

The Land Will Ratzah

Leviticus 26 describes in detail the rewards אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ “if you follow my laws,”[1] (vv. 3­–13) and the negative consequences of disobedience (vv. 14–45).[2] As part of the description of punishment, the passage explains that once the Israelites are exiled, the land will be allowed to rest as a consequence of its abandonment and desolation.

The latter part of the text uses the root ר.צ.ה/י several times; and its meaning in context is not easily determined. The first two instances are about the land:

ויקרא כו:לד אָז תִּרְצֶה הָאָרֶץ אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתֶיהָ כֹּל יְמֵי הֳשַׁמָּה וְאַתֶּם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיכֶם אָז תִּשְׁבַּת הָאָרֶץ וְהִרְצָת[3] אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתֶיהָ. כו:לה כָּל יְמֵי הָשַּׁמָּה תִּשְׁבֹּת אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא שָׁבְתָה בְּשַׁבְּתֹתֵיכֶם בְּשִׁבְתְּכֶם עָלֶיהָ.
Lev 26:34 Then shall the land ratzah its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and ratzah its sabbath years. 26:35 Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.[4] 

What does it mean that the land will ratzah its sabbatical years?

Take Pleasure In

The verb ר.צ.ה/י appears numerous times throughout most of the Tanakh—including a number of places elsewhere in Leviticus—with the basic meaning of “to take pleasure in” or “to accept favorably.” For instance, describing the burnt offering, Leviticus states:

ויקרא א:ד וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ הָעֹלָה וְנִרְצָה לוֹ לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו.
Lev 1:4 [The person bringing the offering] shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted favorably for him, to make atonement on his behalf. [5]

The Haʾazinu poem in Deuteronomy uses the verb in an active sense:

דברים לג:יא בָּרֵךְ יְ־הוָה חֵילוֹ וּפֹעַל יָדָיו תִּרְצֶה.
Deut 33:11 Bless his wealth, O YHWH, and may you take pleasure in the work of his hands.

This sense of the term could be applicable to the uses of the term regarding the land in our chapter, yielding something like “the land will take pleasure in her Sabbaths.” It would imply that the non-observance of the Sabbatical years caused the land pain, and it can now enjoy being left fallow and catching up on the rest it was supposed to be granted.

The Israelites Will Ratzah

Later in the passage, the term ratzah comes up again as something the Israelites themselves will do. This time, “take pleasure” simply does not work as a translation:

ויקרא כו:מ וְהִתְוַדּוּ אֶת עֲו‍ֹנָם וְאֶת עֲו‍ֹן אֲבֹתָם בְּמַעֲלָם אֲשֶׁר מָעֲלוּ בִי וְאַף אֲשֶׁר הָלְכוּ עִמִּי בְּקֶרִי. כו:מא אַף אֲנִי אֵלֵךְ עִמָּם בְּקֶרִי וְהֵבֵאתִי אֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם אוֹ אָז יִכָּנַע לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל וְאָז יִרְצוּ אֶת עֲו‍ֹנָם.
Lev 26:40 And [if] they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, in that they trespassed against Me, yea, were hostile to Me. 26:41 When I, in turn, have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and then they will ratzah their iniquity.

Since the passage is speaking about what will happen after the obdurate hearts of the Israelites are humbled, it makes no sense to say, “they will take pleasure in their iniquities” or “their iniquities will be accepted favorably”!

What does the word mean in this context? According to the commentator Jacob Milgrom, “scholars are at their wits’ end to render this word.”[6]

Another Meaning of Ratzah: To Repay

Some interpreters resolve the problem by positing that the root ratzah masks two distinct terms:

  • רצה (I)—to take pleasure in, accept favorably.
  • רצה (II)—to pay back, repay.

The possibility of multiple homonymous roots for רצה makes sense considering that the Hebrew letter צ corresponds to three distinct consonants in earlier Proto-Semitic. Scholars have pointed to terms in other Semitic languages as possible cognates to this second root in Biblical Hebrew:[7]

  • raṣûm “to give in payment” (Akkadian)
  • rḍym “negotiable currency” (Old South Arabian, from the root rḍy)[8]

The existence of a distinct root רצה (II) with the meaning of “repay” resolves the semantic difficulties of Leviticus 26: The people are repaying their sin by undergoing exile and punishment from YHWH. Once it is repaid, YHWH can renew the covenant.

Ratzah as “Repay” in other Biblical Texts

This second meaning of ratzah appears in a handful of other places in the Bible. For example, in Job 20, Zophar describes the fate of the wicked:

איוב כ:י בָּנָיו יְרַצּוּ דַלִּים וְיָדָיו תָּשֵׁבְנָה אוֹנוֹ.
Job 20:10 His sons pay back the poor; His own hands must give back his wealth.[9]

The declaration in the second half of the verse that the evildoer will have to give back his wealth suggests that רצה in the parallel first half should carry a similar message.

Similarly, Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40–55) opens with the use of this term:

ישעיהו מ:ב דַּבְּרוּ עַל־לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְ־הוָה כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל־חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.
Isa 40:2 Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and proclaim to her, that her hard service has been completed, that her iniquity has been repaid, that she has received from the hand of YHWH double for all her sins.

Notably, the use of the phrase נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ (“her iniquity has been repaid”) represents the same underlying concept as in Leviticus 26, not only in the meaning of רצה, but also in the notion of sin understood as a debt that is to be repaid.

Reversing a Metaphor

The idea that Israel will pay back their iniquity works with a metaphor found in other biblical texts, according to which YHWH repays individuals for their good and bad deeds. This metaphor uses a variety of economic terms.  For example, in Jeremiah, YHWH declares his intention to punish sinners for their sin:

ירמיה טז:יח וְשִׁלַּמְתִּי רִאשׁוֹנָה מִשְׁנֵה עֲוֹנָם וְחַטָּאתָם עַל חַלְּלָם אֶת־אַרְצִי בְּנִבְלַת שִׁקּוּצֵיהֶם וְתוֹעֲבוֹתֵיהֶם מָלְאוּ אֶת־נַחֲלָתִי.
Jer 16:18 I will repay (שׁלם) them in full—nay, doubly for their iniquity and their sins—because they have defiled My land with the corpses of their abominations, and have filled My own possession with their abhorrent things.[10]

Whereas in these passages, it is YHWH who repays iniquity to the person, in Leviticus 26, it is the sinner who repays (ratzah) the debt to YHWH accrued by having committed the iniquity.[11] The same is true of Isaiah 40:2, in which this “repayment” comes in the form of the “hard service” of exile that the people endured.

Is the Land Paying Back Its Sabbaths?

It is possible that Leviticus 26 is making use of both meanings of ratzah, one for the land “taking pleasure in its sabbaths,” and the other for the people “repaying their iniquity.” Nevertheless, it would be confusing to use the same word in the same passage with different meanings. See, for instance, verse 43, in which ratzah is used about both Israel and the land in parallel:

ויקרא כו:מג וְהָאָרֶץ תֵּעָזֵב מֵהֶם וְתִרֶץ אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתֶיהָ בָּהְשַׁמָּה מֵהֶם וְהֵם יִרְצוּ אֶת עֲו‍ֹנָם יַעַן וּבְיַעַן בְּמִשְׁפָּטַי מָאָסוּ וְאֶת חֻקֹּתַי גָּעֲלָה נַפְשָׁם.
Lev 26:43 For the land shall be forsaken of them (i.e., the people), and it will ratzah its sabbath years by being desolate of them, while they ratzah their iniquity; for the abundant reason that they rejected My rules and spurned My laws.

The juxtaposition of the two statements suggests that both are using the term according to the second definition of “repay.” The deliberate repetition of the term רצה sets up an explicit parallel between the action of the land and the experience of the people, a parallel that is often obscured in modern English translations.[12] If this is the intent, then the land would be “paying back” the Sabbaths that it lost.

This seems to be the meaning in the Book of Chronicles, which narrates that the exile of the people from the land, which lasted until the Persian period, gives the land the opportunity to pay back its sabbaths:  

דברי הימים ב לו:כא לְמַלֹּאות דְּבַר יְ־הוָה בְּפִי יִרְמְיָהוּ עַד רָצְתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת שַׁבְּתוֹתֶיהָ כָּל יְמֵי הָשַּׁמָּה שָׁבָתָה לְמַלֹּאות שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה.
2 Chron 36:21 In fulfillment of the word of YHWH spoken by Jeremiah, until the land ratzah (paid back) its sabbaths; as long as it lay desolate it kept sabbath, till seventy years were completed.

The idea here appears to be that the people must remain outside the land long enough for the land to pay back all the fallow Sabbatical years they stole from the land. Ostensibly, each year that the land sits fallow on account of the exile, repays one of the sabbatical years that was skipped.

The Parallel between the Land and Its People

The twin statements of “the land repaying (רצה) its Sabbaths” and “the people repaying (רצה) their iniquity” in Leviticus 26 represent two components of the same process of restoration articulated in the final section of the chapter. Just as the apparent neglect of the Sabbatical years before the exile (v. 35) requires repayment on the part of the land in order to fulfill the promise of restoration, so the iniquity of the people requires repayment—most likely in the form of the confession of sin (v. 40) and humbling of heart (v. 41) that are mentioned alongside the repayment as actions incumbent upon the people themselves.

Both the non-observance of the Sabbatical years and the iniquity of the nation represent “debts” that necessitate remission, and this is achieved, somewhat paradoxically, through actions that are in some sense non-actions: rest for the land and humble acknowledgement of iniquity on the part of the people.

The use of ratzah with the meaning of “repay” appears only here in Leviticus 26 (H), and in Deutero-Isaiah, Job, and Chronicles. All four of these are post-exilic texts.[13] It would seem, therefore, that this meaning of the root was introduced at the time when this view of repaying sin developed in Judean thinking. Use of this term here for both land and people highlights the explicit debt-like nature of the predicament to be resolved. It links the fate of the land with that of the people in the restoration envisioned by the author(s) of Leviticus 26.


May 6, 2021


Last Updated

April 10, 2024


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Prof. Joseph Lam is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. He is the author of Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious Concept (Oxford University Press, 2016) as well as a number of scholarly articles in the fields of Hebrew Bible and Ugaritic studies. His research interests include ritual and cult in the ancient Near East, metaphor in religious language, and the philological study of Hebrew and other Semitic languages.