[Note: This blog is part of a series .]
Whether we look at the Greek or the Hebrew scriptures we are faced with words like ma’al (Hebrew) or paraptóma (Greek), which are translated as trespasses, unfaithful or treacherous acts, or false steps and falling away. The first aspect of moral topography that we need to be aware of is the fact that this moral and spiritual terrain is full of boundaries. Even a cursory examination of biblical law will demonstrate the sort of boundaries that God sets around different aspects of the world in which we live, and even those of us who believe that everything is permitted unless it is prohibited must still concede that if we place the Word of God as the deciding factor for God’s will in our lives, that a great deal of that which we are drawn to do by our own longings and inclinations are in fact forbidden by God. Even aside from the penalty for violating these prohibitions, it is worth pointing out at the start of our examination of moral topography to note that the boundaries of what is proper and what is improper conduct were among the first laws pointed out by God, and the first ones flagrantly violated by mankind, similar to the way that in order to understand geography we are quick to teach children the physical and political borders of that land, so that we know where we are at any given time, and within whose borders we are.
The importance of the matter of trespass strikes us forcefully along many approaches of understanding biblical material. Let us begin with the first boundary set by God recorded in scripture, in Genesis 2:15-17: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”” Not surprisingly, if we know anything about humanity, we see mankind violating this boundary, and being thrown out of the garden as a result, with an angel with a flaming sword guarding the tree of life from trespassers. When mankind’s thoughts are directed only on evil continually, in giving Noah his instructions on how to save a very small righteous remnant, clean and unclean animals are distinguished, marking a boundary between them. When Joseph seeks to discourage the inappropriate adulterous longings of Potiphar’s wife, he notes that adultery is a trespass against God, who has put the spouses of other people across a boundary line that we are not to cross. Within the ten commandments, quite a few of them are obvious boundary conditions that set certain areas across boundary lines—we are not to murder, we are not to bear false witness, we are not to steal or even to covet what belongs to others.
Lest we think that the Bible views women as the mere property of their husbands, as is the case in the wicked and backwards areas of our contemporary world, it is useful to read Paul at face value in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4: “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his body, but the wife does.” We are bluntly reminded here, if the point escaped us elsewhere, that the boundary lines that God has set do not mark people off as the property of other people, to be used however is wished by those who fancy themselves lords and masters, but rather that as beings created in the image and likeness of God, we are to respect other image bearers like ourselves, and to respect and honor the covenants that others have made, so that we may learn through that respect the honor we ought to have towards our covenants with God and the covenant relationship others have. By respecting boundaries we learn self-restraint, and we learn that some behaviors and some areas are off limits, in large part because we live in a world full of minefields, and it is best for our own well-being not to go waltzing around on them heedlessly, at the cost of a limb, or even perhaps of our life.
Trespass was not a matter to be taken lightly. As Solomon writes in Proverbs 7:21-23: “With her enticing speech she caused him to yield, with her flattering lips she seduced him. Immediately he went after her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks, till an arrow struck his liver. As a bird hastens to the snare, he did not know it would cost his life.” One of the five types of sacrifice offered in the Levitical system was the trespass offering, and it was not an offering whose aroma was pleasing to God (see, for example, Leviticus 5:1-6:7). It was required, though, of ancient Israelites in order to demonstrate an awareness that one had crossed a forbidden line and that one desired to be reconciled to God and to others through an admission of the truth and a payment of restitution for the trespass done. This trespass offering, of course, was symbolic of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5).
It is therefore of the utmost importance that we realize that we live in territory full of boundaries to respect, full of lines that we can cross. The laws of God are very strong on this point in every dimension. Deuteronomy 19:14 tells us: “You shall not remove your neighbors landmark [boundary stone], which the men of old have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.” Even animals were to be restrained to avoid trespassing on the property of others, as it is written in Exodus 22:5: “If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed, and lets loose his animal, and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard.” Boundary lines were to be respected in perpetuity, and not only by people but by animals as well. It is for this reason that the Bible speaks often of boundaries even on a physical level, giving a boundary to the land that Israel was to inherit between the brook of Egypt and the Euphrates River (Genesis 15:18-19). A precise marker of boundaries made it possible for all people to understand where they stood, and in whose ground they were, and was intended to lead others to respect what belonged to others, seeing as God was giving an inheritance to all of his people.
This point is worth dwelling upon at some length. Our respect for the boundaries of others springs out of the reality that we all have boundaries of our own that others must respect. It is not that some people have property rights that all others must respect as a point of privilege, but rather that all are holders of property rights that everyone else must respect and honor, even if the precise boundaries of those property rights will differ. Even the Sabbath itself is a reminder of this universality of property rights setting aside dignity and rest and leisure for all people and all animals. As it is written in Deuteronomy 5:12-15: “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do not work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” Here we are reminded that a boundary was placed on the labor we could demand of others, to avoid exploitation. When we look at the debt forgiveness and land Sabbath laws of Leviticus 25, and the periodic restoration of ancestral lands to their original families, we see the same goal of preventing exploitation, whether that was of people, animals, or the land itself.
Let us also note, at least briefly, that the property rights of people had some limits. Leviticus 23:22 reminds us: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” We are reminded of this sort of limit as well in Mark 2:23-Mark 3:5, where we see the disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath and then we see Jesus heal a man with a withered hand, reminding us that the purpose of the Sabbath was not to consign some people to hunger because they had no food supplies, nor to let people suffer without aid (we will come to this point again later), but rather was to serve the interests of mankind. The laws of God were not made to be oppressive to others, but were made for the benefit of mankind. Property is to be respected not so that the wicked and corrupt and unscrupulous are to turn everything into their own property, but is designed to allow all people the chance to experience ownership and to have a stake in society, or at least to be able to make a decent and honorable living if one was a resident foreigner, free of exploitation and abuse. The fact that laws have often been perverted by those who enjoy exploiting others does not in any way make the law itself wrong, but merely points out where people have trespassed against God by corrupting His ways.
As we have seen that boundaries include physical boundaries of place and time, boundaries of behavior, boundaries of propriety that respect relationships, that boundaries are mutual rather than one-sided, and that they are designed to serve the best interests of the world and the dwellers in it, let us stop to ponder what this ought to lead us to understand about the moral topography of sin . 1 John 3:4 reminds us that whoever commits sin transgresses the law, and James 2:10 reminds us that whoever stumbles in one point of the law is guilty of all as a lawbreaker. We have been placed in a world that has many boundaries, and we are to learn and respect these boundaries. We also, as a result of being born into a world of sin and corruption, have longings and pulls that lead us to want to cross different lines for different people among us at different times. We try to convince ourselves that the lines we want to cross are not important, that they were drawn in the old days and that those lines are not valid anymore, if they were ever valid in the first place. We try to blame God for putting so many attractive nuisances across those lines that tempt us to cross over those lines, or for giving us longings in the first place that put us in places where we feel a pull to cross lines. We look enviously at those who have territory larger than we ourselves, whose boundaries we are commanded to respect. We live in a world where those who are powerful and wealthy do not respect the boundaries of others even as they demand that others respect their own boundaries, and in a world where those who break some lines look down on those who happen to break different lines. Yet we are all trespassers together, all of us in need of mercy, for the penalty of our trespasses is death, and also in need of practical learning in how to respect boundaries. Fortunately, God has not left us without His word to remind us what lines we are not to cross, and for those who repent and turn to Him, He gives us His Spirit to help us orient our way so that we respect the borders and boundaries and lines that He has placed over creation to protect us from disaster and difficulty, if we will only respect those lines ourselves.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: