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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

Trespass

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A. Verb.

Mâ‛al (מָעַל, Strong's #4603), “to trespass, act unfaithfully.” This verb is not very common in Hebrew, biblical or rabbinic. It occurs 35 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, particularly in late Hebrew. Translations may give a separate translation of the verb and the noun mâ‛al, but most combine them into one phrase in which the verb takes the meaning of “to act” or “to commit”—e.g., Josh. 7:1: “But the children of Israel committed [mâ‛al] a trespass [mâ‛al] in the accursed thing …” (KJV); “But the Israelites acted unfaithfully” (NIV). Some versions give the sense more freely: “But the people of Israel broke faith” (RSV); “But the Israelites defied the ban” (NEB).

The first occurrence of the verb (together with the noun) is found in Lev. 5:15: “If a soul commit a trespass, and sin through ignorance.…” The sense of the verb is similar to the verb “to sin.” In fact, in the next chapter the verb for “to sin” and mâ‛al are used together: “If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the Lord, and lie unto his neighbor …” (Lev. 6:2). The combining of these two usages in Leviticus is significant. First, it shows that the verb may be a synonym for “to sin.” Mâ‛al has basically this meaning in Lev. 5:15, since the sin is here out of ignorance instead of a deliberate act of treachery. Second, the meaning of mâ‛al is further expressed by a verb indicating the intent of being unfaithful to one’s neighbor for personal profit (“commit a trespass against the Lord, and lie unto his neighbor …”).

The offense is against God, even when one acts unfaithfully against one’s neighbor. In 2 Chron. 29:6 we read: “For our fathers have trespassed, and done that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord our God, and have forsaken him …”; and Daniel prayed: “… Because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee” (Dan. 9:7; cf. NIV, “… because of our unfaithfulness to you”).

In view of the additional significance of “treachery,” many versions translate the verb “to act unfaithfully” or “to act treacherously” instead of “to transgress” or “to commit a trespass.” Both the verb and the noun have strongly negative overtones, which the translator must convey in English. When God spoke to Ezekiel: “Son of man, when the land sinneth against me by trespassing grievously, then will I stretch out mine hand upon it, and … cut off man and beast from it” (Ezek. 14:13), He communicated also His displeasure with Israel’s rebellious, treacherous attitude. This is communicated in other versions: “Son of man, if a country sins against me by being unfaithful …” (NIV); “Son of man, if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness …” (NASB).

The verb mâ‛al generally expresses man’s unfaithfulness to God (Lev. 26:40; Deut. 32:51; 2 Chron. 12:2; Ezra 10:2; Ezek. 14:13). The word further signifies man’s unfaithfulness to his fellow man; particularly it is illustrative of unfaithfulness in marriage: “If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, And a man lie with her carnally …” (Num. 5:12-13). In this sense also must Lev. 6:2 be understood: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving his neighbor about something entrusted to him …” (NIV)

In the Septuagint we find these translations: athetein (“to nullify; reject; commit an offense”); asunthetein (“to be faithless”); and aphistaveiv (“to mislead; withdraw”). Modern versions set forth more explicitly the overt nature of the sin than the KJV (“trespass; transgress”): RSV, NASB, NIV, “act or be unfaithful; RSV, NASB, “to break faith.”

B. Noun.

Ma‛al (מַעַל, Strong's #4604), “trespass; unfaithful, treacherous act.” This noun is used 29 times in biblical Hebrew. In addition to the primary sense of “trespass,” given in KJV, there may be an indication of the motivation through which the sin was committed. Most of the usages support the idea of “faithlessness, treachery.” It is an act committed by a person who knows better but who, for selfish motives, acts in bad faith. The story of Achan bears out the attitude of treachery (Josh. 7:1). Joshua challenged Israel not to follow the example of Achan: “Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit [ma‛al] a trespass [ma‛al] in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on all the congregation of Israel?” (Josh. 22:20).

In 2 Chron. 29:19 the “faithlessness” was committed against God: “Moreover all the vessels which king Ahaz in his reign did cast away in his transgression.…” Ma‛al also appears in Ezra 9:2: “… Yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass.”

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Trespass'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/vot/t/trespass.html. 1940.

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