Why sin is not “missing the mark” (Genesis 40:1)


Does this sound odd to you?

Genesis 40:1 (a literal translation)
After these things, it transpired that the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker sinned against their lord, the king of Egypt.

We speak of sinning against God, but in Hebrew, you can sin (ḥā·ṭāʾ) against others too. It got me wondering whether our understanding of sin matches what the Bible says.

I was taught that ḥā·ṭāʾ means “to miss the mark.” That’s in the lexicons (HALOT, 305). But dig deeper and it doesn’t hold up. The 16-volume Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament says:

Scholars commonly postulate a ‘concrete’ basic meaning ‘miss (a mark),’ citing Jgs. 20:16; Prov. 8:35f.; 19:2; Job 5:24. But this is scanty evidence … Is it not more likely that the four passages cited contain a “metaphorical” usage? (4:311)

For us, missing the target means financial shortfall. It’s not an ethical issue — unless the target represents our greed, so reaching the target could be sin. A robot missing the mark on a shooting range isn’t sinning. The analogy doesn’t work in our mechanistic world.

ḥā·ṭāʾ has little to do with an individual failing to live up to some Platonic ideal of perfection. It’s a relational word, an offence against a relationship. Most often in Scripture the offence is against God, but it can be an offence against others (antisocial conduct).

In Genesis 40:1, the royal cupbearer and baker committed an offence against Pharaoh (ESV). It’s a bit more than offended (NIV, NRSV, KJV), but the lines get blurry when a ruler has absolute power to define offences. You live in constant fear if even approaching the king can be deadly (Nehemiah 2:2; Esther 4:11).

Maybe the offence existed purely in the mind of a Pharaoh paranoid of being poisoned. The king of Egypt had the power to classify any behaviour as an offence (ḥā·ṭāʾ), to detain anyone at his pleasure, to destroy or restore them without explanation (40:21-22). Human rulers are quick to react to any perceived offence against them, always fearing that someone is trying to take their power (compare Exodus 1:9-16).

By contrast, earth’s true sovereign is absurdly patient. The brothers have sinned (ḥā·ṭāʾ) against Joseph (42:22), but God has not acted against them. Joseph is in Pharaoh’s prison for refusing to commit an offence (ḥā·ṭāʾ) against God (39:9). If God was quick to judge offences (sins), the brothers would be locked up and Joseph would be released. Fortunately, God is far more patient with the brothers than they were with judging the Shechemites (34:25). When Joseph finally gets the power to repay his brothers for their sin against him, he refuses to. He sees that God is doing something more meaningful than retribution for offence (45:4-5; 50:15-21).

Don’t misunderstand. Sin (offence) against God devastates relationship with him. It’s an existential threat to his people (Exodus 32:30-33). God is not a sovereign who leaves evil with us long term. Yet even our offences reveal the astounding heart our heavenly sovereign has for his subjects: compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin (Exodus 34:6).

Dealing with the offence

Because ḥā·ṭāʾ is relational, it’s not only about committing offence. It’s about dealing with it too. Counterintuitively for us, ḥā·ṭāʾ can mean to bear an offence for the sake of the relationship:

  • Jacob’s relationship with Laban was difficult. Laban kept changing the terms of employment and accusing Jacob of cheating. Jacob’s defence was that he bore the offence. (31:39). It’s the same word: ḥā·ṭāʾ.
  • Joseph (incognito) told his brothers they could buy no more grain unless they brought their youngest brother. Jacob didn’t want Benjamin to go, so Judah said, If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the offence (ḥā·ṭāʾ) before you all my life (43:9; 44:32).

Ḥā·ṭāʾ is more than committing or bearing an offence. It can also mean to remove an offence. Priests were offensive to God (unable to serve in his presence) if they had touched a dead body. After burying a dead relative, they needed to ḥā·ṭāʾ themselves — to remove the offence in the prescribed manner:

Numbers 19:12–13 (NIV)
12 They must purify (ḥā·ṭāʾ) themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean. But if they do not purify (ḥā·ṭāʾ) themselves on the third and seventh days, they will not be clean. 13 If they fail to purify (ḥā·ṭāʾ) themselves after touching a human corpse, they defile the Lord’s tabernacle.

It seems strange to us to use the word “sin” to mean dealing with offence. It makes no sense unless you see that ḥā·ṭāʾ is all about relationship.

Conclusion

This is just one of the Bible’s words for sin, but the point is that sin is less about breaking rules than breaking relationship.

Sin is not an individual missing an ideal; it’s an offence against a person. As sovereign, God defines good and evil. We dishonour God when we reject his decrees to do as we please. Sin is about how humans live in relation to God and to each other, relationships damaged by offences or restored by dealing with it.

That’s where Jesus comes in. The Son restores relationship between the heavenly Father and his earthly realm, reconciling the world with God’s reign. Such good news!

What others are saying

Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 668–670:

Missing the mark (Heb. ḥāṭāʾ; Gk. hamartēma, harmatia, hamartanō). Probably the most common and well-known concept for sin is “missing the mark.” It is obviously analogous to missing a target in archery (e.g., Judg 20:16), though the archery metaphor breaks down because sin is not merely accidental, but a deliberate decision to fail, a voluntary and culpable mistake. …

Sin means a despising of God and an attempt to dethrone God. … Sin is the quest to be free from God’s authority and accountability and to replace it with a God-free autonomy.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

3 thoughts on “Why sin is not “missing the mark” (Genesis 40:1)”

  1. It is often interesting Allen, to see when a word or concept is first used in Scripture and does its first use give us any insight into it. (ḥā·ṭāʾ) In this form it is first used in the story of Cain and Able.

    sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Gen 4:7.

    Here the writer seems to give ‘sin’ a human type sense. It has desire and its desire or longing is not what is good for Cain. Sin’s aim is against God’s aim for humanity. Even this early in the story it would seems that ‘sin’s’ aim is to continue to destroy relationships, while God’s aim is restored relationships. It would seem as we work our way through the use of ḥā·ṭāʾ, that it very often is used in situations in which relationships are being discussed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Graham. Always good to hear your contributions. Was thinking of you as I posted this.
      Yes ḥǎṭ·ṭāṯ is personified in its first use (Gen 4:7) as a power seeking to grasp the one who rejects what God says. It’s all relational, this story of moving away from the presence of the Lord to live somewhere else (4:16).

      Like

  2. However there may be some help in understanding the idea of ‘missing the mark’, if we see the life example of Jesus and his relationship with both those around him and his Father as where the ‘mark’ should actually be.

    Liked by 1 person

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