The Old Testament is filled with stories of forgiveness both from God (David and Bathsheba) and forgiveness between man (Joseph and his brothers). The concept of forgiveness as Christians perceive is not the sense in which the Hebrew Scriptures portrays it. The Hebrew word (verb) meaning to forgive (calach) actually undergoes no change throughout the Old Testament and basically carries the same meaning throughout (Vine’s Dictionary). Calach is the primary word for forgiveness in the Old Testament but other words (e.g. ‘awon, naca’ and kapar) can convey the meaning of forgiveness but the primary word throughout is calach.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary states that most of the occurrences of the word are found in the sacrificial laws of Leviticus and Numbers. If a person (or, persons) sinned then they would go to the priests with animals (a bull) to make an offering. The priests (acting as mediators) would offer up the animal and this would be atonement (a price paid) for sin (see Lev. 4:1-35). So you could imagine the priests were very busy killing animals and offering up sacrifices to God because of the sin of the community. If you have your New Testament lenses on then this is all familiar to you as the Hebrew author said there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:20). Not long after this the temple was destroyed and sacrifices were impossible but God still said he would bring Israel out of exile and would forgive them of their sins (Jer. 31:34).
This would apply even if people sinned against each other. They still were to go to the priest (Lev. 5) and offer up animals as atonement for their sin. If they couldn’t afford a bull they would get a lamb. If they could not afford a lamb get two doves or pigeons. If they could not afford two doves then they would get a “tenth of an ephah of the finest flour” so the priests could burn it on top of the altar. There are different aspects of forgiveness that Psalmists share with the readers:
- Forgiveness can happen even with the deepest of sins. “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12; cf. 25:11).
- With forgiveness comes peace of mind. “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1).
- There is totality in God’s forgiveness. “Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:2-3).
- Forgiveness is a starting point for a relationship of God. “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you” (Psalm 130:4).
The Old Testament picture of forgiveness, by way of summary, is something only God can do. The priests were nothing more than mediators of something that God was doing. Forgiveness is something FREELY done by God to those who are genuinely seeking him. The Old Testament seems to point to a time where forgiveness could be realized in its fullest sense where restoration, peace and a return to the Garden of Eden is inevitable. It points to Jesus.
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18).