In the Bible, iniquity is a type of sin that includes a conscious decision to hurt someone else or to rebel against God’s law. From an etymological perspective, scholars relate the Hebrew word עָוֹן (avon) meaning literally "crookedness," "perverseness," i.e. "evil regarded as that which is not straight or upright, moral distortion." The Oxford Dictionary captures the meaning of iniquity through synonyms like wickedness, immorality, impropriety, vice, evil, sin, crime, heinousness, nefariousness, knavery, obscenity, and ungodliness.

In Genesis 44:16 Judah used the word “iniquity” to describe their premeditated choice to sell their brother as a slave. “And Judah said, ‘What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants.’”

What does iniquity mean, and how does it relate to sins?

All iniquity is sin, but not all sin is iniquity. Sin is any action that misses the mark of God’s perfection. The biblical concept of sin includes iniquity, but it also includes unconscious actions and unintentional mistakes.

For example, if a young driver accidentally doesn’t see a stop sign and kills a pedestrian, the driver has sinned. It was unintentional and an accident. In contrast, iniquity occurs if someone carries out the murder of another person in a willful and premeditated fashion. We would describe the death of the pedestrian as an accident, we wouldn’t use the words evil or wicked to describe it. But we would call a premeditated murder immoral, heinous, and evil.

Micah 2:1-2 captures the idea of premeditated harm of iniquity. “Woe to them that devise iniquity and work evil upon their beds! When the morning is light, they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.” (KJV)

Is iniquity a specific type of sin?

In the Bible, iniquity is a type of sin linked to guilt. Guilt is the result of breaking God’s law and harming others. In the Amplified version of the Bible, the word “guilt” is often added to elaborate on the meaning of iniquity.

“For I do confess my guilt and iniquity; I am filled with anxiety because of my sin.” Psalm 38:18 (AMP)

In Leviticus, God explained the process of making a guilt offering after breaking the commandments. “If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, though he did not know it, then realizes his guilt, he shall bear his iniquity. He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him for the mistake that he made unintentionally, and he shall be forgiven. It is a guilt offering; he has indeed incurred guilt before the LORD.” Leviticus 5:17-19 (ESV)

How does God view iniquity?

God does not approve of iniquity. Iniquity damages relationships between people and God. Guilt creates a barrier in our relationships with God and other people.

The Lord said in Isaiah 57:17, “Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry, I struck him; I hid my face and was angry, but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart.”

Though iniquity causes harm to our relationships with other people and God, God forgives iniquity along with other sins. “The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.” Numbers 14:18-19 (ESV)

Where is iniquity mentioned in the Bible?

Depending on which translation of the Bible you prefer, "iniquity" is mentioned over 250 times in the King James, American Standard, and WEB versions, but the New International Version only uses it 13 times, and the New Living translation included it 3 times. The English Standard Version finds a middle ground with 156 uses of iniquity.

Why do some translations use iniquity hundreds of time and other translations rarely at all?

Bible translators strive to communicate the meaning of the biblical text using words that readers are familiar with. Iniquity is not a word that most of us use in everyday language even when we are trying to describe wicked and evil things. Some translations use words like sin, crime, guilt, guilty, wickedness, punishment, and bear a responsibility to capture the meaning of iniquity in modern day usage. 

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Penny Noyes, M.Ed. is the author of Embracing Change - Learning to Trust God from the Women of the Bible and two books about Hezekiah. You can follow Penny on her blog and on Instagram @pennynoyes.

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