Word Study: Avon – “Iniquity”
Most people assume the Bible has a lot to say about how messed up humans are, and that is true. It is also true that the Bible’s vocabulary about this topic sounds odd to modern people, using words like “sin”, “iniquity”, or “transgression”. And so, the Bible’s perspective on the human condition is often ignored or treated as ancient and backwards. This is really unfortunate. Because through these words, the biblical authors are offering us a deeply profound diagnosis of human nature. Sin refers to moral failure. And transgression describes how we break trust with others. And iniquity… no one even uses that word anymore. So, what is it all about? In Bible translations, “iniquity” is one way the Hebrew word “avon” gets translated. It is also rendered by words like “wickedness,” “guilt,” or “sin”. So what does “avon” actually mean? The word “avon” is related to a Hebrew verb “avah” which means to be bent or crooked. The poet of Psalm 36 says his back is “avah’d.” That is, bent over in pain. Or, in Lamentations chapter 3, a road that isn’t straight is one that avahs. That is, it is twisty and crooked. This image of being crooked offered biblical poets a powerful metaphor to talk about people’s behavior. Like Jeremiah, who said that Israel had “avah’d” their way by violating their covenant with God and giving allegiance to idols. Or, in the book of Job, a person who morally fails is someone who “avah’s” what is right. In both cases, something that is supposed to be level or even, your choices or your conscience, has been bent out of shape, distorted. In the Bible, “avon” refers to all kinds of crooked behavior, Ten Commandments’ kind of stuff:
lying, murder, adultery… In Isaiah chapter 59 “avon” describes the corruption among Israel’s leaders who are ignoring the injustice done to the poor. The Prophet cleverly adapts the metaphor saying, “We have so much ‘avon,’ that is, crookedness, that uprightness can’t even enter our city.” Things were so morally distorted in Jerusalem that crooked was the new straight. Another fascinating thing about the word “avon” is that it refers not only to distorted behavior, but also to the crooked consequences: the hurt people, the broken relationships, the cycles of retaliation. You find this idea in the biblical phrase “to punish” which in biblical Hebrew is to visit someone’s “avon” upon them. That is, to let them sit in the consequences of their crooked choices. This is what the Prophet Jeremiah said about the Babylonians who were destroying other nations. One day those nations would destroy them in return, and so Babylon’s divine punishment would be having to live in a disfigured world of its own making. This is actually the main way biblical authors talk about God’s response to human “avon”: letting people experience the crooked consequences of their choices. This is the meaning of the common biblical phrase to “bear your iniquity” or, in Hebrew, to carry your “avon”. God gives people the dignity of carrying the consequences of their bad decision But that is not the only way God responds to “avon” in the Bible. He also offers to carry the “avon” of corrupt people as an act of sheer generosity. In fact, “carrying avon” is the most common Hebrew phrase for God’s forgiveness. Like Psalm 32 where the poet says: “I didn’t hide my ‘avon’ but confessed it and you carried the ‘avon’ of my sin.” This is actually shocking if you stop and think about it. God forgives people by taking responsibility for their “avon”. This idea reaches its high point in the Book of Isaiah where God appoints a figure called “the servant”. He will embody God’s forgiving love by carrying the “avon” of many and allowing it to crush him. This servant will absorb humanity’s crookedness, letting it overwhelm and destroy him. But that is not the end of the story. The servant will emerge out the other side of death alive and well so he can offer his life to others. When you get to the New Testament, the apostles carry these ideas forward using the Greek word “anomia”, which has a similar meaning. Like Paul the Apostle, he identified the servant as Jesus. And he said, “Our great God and Savior, Jesus the Messiah, gave his life on our behalf in order to redeem us from all of our ‘anomia’, our crooked behavior’s consequences. And so, the whole biblical story is about God’s desire to take crooked people and the twisted world that we have created and to make everything right. Through Jesus, God invites us to become whole humans once again, people who can walk upright with God and with each other. That is the story behind the biblical words for iniquity.