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57. Job 6:24-30, Teach Me How I Have Erred In This Case!


24 “Teach me, and I will be silent;

    make me understand how I have gone wrong.

25 How forceful are honest words!

    But your reproof, what does it reprove?

26 Do you think that you can reprove words,

    as if the speech of the desperate were wind?

27 You would even cast lots over the orphan,

    and bargain over your friend.

28 “But now, be pleased to look at me;

    for I will not lie to your face.

29 Turn, I pray, let no wrong be done.

    Turn now, my vindication is at stake.

30 Is there any wrong on my tongue?

    Cannot my taste discern calamity?


Job now turns to what seems to be a real, and not merely a rhetorical question. He asks his three friends to show him how he has gone awry. As I will argue here, Job’s use of the important term for “negligence” in Israelite law in 6:24 (shagah/shegagah) will turn this into a discussion of hidden vs open or intentional sins. We may further divide this passage into 6:23-27 and then 6:28-30, in the former of which Job asks his friends to show or teach him something, and in the latter of which he asks them to look closely at him.


Psalm 19 provides some interesting intellectual background for verse 24. In that Psalm the author sings the glory of God in creation (vv 1-6) and then in the divine law (vv 7-12). This double-glory exploration also has the purpose of revealing to the author, a mere human, the great gap between humanity and God. So, in 19:13-14, he becomes conscious of his shortcomings and asks for divine forgiveness.The Psalm then concludes with the rousing and familiar request by the Psalmist for the words of his mouth and the meditation of his heart to be acceptable to God (v 15).  


The language of sin and forgiveness in Psalm 19:13-14 is relevant to our understanding of Job 6:24. “Who can discern his shegiah?” the Psalmist asks. Shegiah, as well as shegagah, are related to the verb shagah, a 21x-appearing verb whose basic meaning is “to err/go astray.” Its three appearances in Isaiah emphasize a slightly different take on the verb (“to reel with drunkenness—3x in Isaiah 28:7), but in many instances it means “to wander from the divine statutes” (Psalm 119: 10, 21, 118) or, more specifically, to violate a law unwittingly. By asking the question, “Who can really discern (bin) his negligence?,” the Psalmist is asking a probing question: often we need sources of illumination outside of us to show us where and how we have sinned.  


Leviticus 4 provides the basic discussion of both the verb shagah (4:13) as well as the noun shegagah (4:2, 22, 27). Leviticus 4 requires a sacrifice if the anointed priest sins unwittingly (4:2-12), if the entire congregation of Israel errs in this way (4:13-21) or, finally, when the ruler sins inadvertently (4:22-35). Forgiveness for the shegagah, the unwitting sin, is thus considered an essential provision of Israelite law.


The law of Leviticus 4 never specifies the precise contours of the the Biblical concept of negligence but as Jacob Milgrom, the great scholar on Leviticus, argued it seems to include two concepts: that of unawareness that you did something sinful (e.g., when you unknowingly came in contact with a tainted garment or even a dead body) or unawareness that what you did fit into the category of legal violation (e.g., you do something you think is right but then later discover is wrong). The first category would also include those acts which you were aware were sinful but you did them because of inattention or inadvertence (e.g., you weren’t aware that the axe handle was loose, and it flew off the handle and injured someone while you were swinging the axe).  

The key to understanding the ancient Israelite concept of negligence, then, is that it is an act where intention to sin is absent. It may include a very broad catalogue of acts, but one needs to be “covered” for these acts even if one is unaware that one performed them.  


Let’s return to the language of Ps 19:13-14 for a moment. The Psalmist asks, “Who can understand/discern his negligence?  The wisdom verb bin, which appears both at the beginning and end of the Job passage—6:24, 30—is the verb rendered “understand/discern” in Psalm 19:13 and shegiah, a hapax but obviously occupying the same meaning space as shegagah, is translated here as “negligence.” These negligent faults are on the Psalmist’s mind both because he is aware of his limited self-understanding as well as the searching demands of God.  By the two authors’ using both the language of understanding or discernment, as well as the technical term for negligence, they show that they occupy the same intellectual world.


The Psalmist then requests God to “Clear my hidden faults” (v 13/v 12 in English).  The hidden faults are expressed through a word derived from the common verb satar, “to hide.” Forgiveness, rather than expressed through the typical verb nasa (literally, “to lift up”) is requested through the verb naqah, to “be clean/free.” Its noun form, naqiy, appears a disproportionate number of times in Job in Job’s repeated reference to “the innocent” (e.g., 9:23, 17:8, etc).  


Somewhat surprisingly, the Psalmist goes on to request restraint/curbing (chasak 27x) from “presumptuous” sins (zed). The other dozen appearances of zed in the Bible describe “arrogant” people. Thus, though the word zed is never elsewhere used to describe intentional or “high-handed” sins, it is clearly meant here to describe intentional or perhaps reckless acts, in contrast with acts of negligence. The reason I say this part of the Psalmist’s prayer is “surprising,” is that Numbers 15:30f declares that there is no personal atonement for such sins. The high priest must carry that burden on behalf of the people.  Well, perhaps that is why the Psalmist prays to be restrained from such conduct—he knows its dire consequences.

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