The Sin Offering Leviticus 4:1-5:13


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Leviticus 4:1-5:13

There were five standard offerings that made up the sacrificial system of Israel. We have considered so far three of them: the burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace offering. The last two, the sin offering (also called the purification offering, the Hebrew term itself could mean either) and the guilt offering (also called the reparation offering), despite some general similarities are significantly different and that becomes obvious in the regulations for them. They were “more specialized” offerings than the burnt offering or the peace offering. [Ross, 124] For that reason they would have been less frequently offered. In the first three offerings the attention is focused on the particular type of offering brought, whether animal or grain, and the particular steps necessary to complete the offering. But here the focus is on the nature of the particular sin for which the sacrifice is made and the status of the person bringing the sacrifice.

We learn later in Leviticus that the sin offering was also used for purification from ceremonial defilement that did not involve sin, such as childbirth or the healing of skin disease. [Lev. 12-15] The effect of the sin offering in such cases was “decontamination.” [Ross, 124] Here in Leviticus 4 and 5 the sin offering is presented as a means of purification from various sins, either inadvertent or conscious. It provided atonement and forgiveness at the same time as decontamination, especially of the sanctuary itself.

We will notice some other differences. A greater variety of animals was permitted to be used for sin offerings. Bulls, goats (male or female), female lambs, doves, and pigeons are mentioned. If the worshipper were very poor, he could offer a small measure of flour instead of an animal or bird. Interestingly, male lambs or rams, the most commonly used animal for the burnt offering, were not used for purification offerings. In this way too we are reminded that the burnt offering was the basic and most important sacrifice in the sacrificial system. [Wenham, 89-90]

“Sin offering” is perhaps not the most helpful term for this sacrifice because, in one way or another, all of the sacrifices had to do with sin and four of the five had to do with the removal of sin, that is, with the making of atonement. That is why this offering has also been called the “purification offering,” because the burden of the offering is to purify what has become unclean. The consequence of sin is often in the Bible described in terms of impurity or uncleanness. Think of David in Psalm 51 pleading with the Lord to wash away all his iniquity and cleanse him from his sin. “Wash me with hyssop and I shall be clean.” [Sklar, 108] We know that feeling, don’t we? Our sin makes us feel dirty. Sad to say, sin defiles not only the one who sins but those associated with him and, indeed, the church herself. We never sin fully and completely in isolation. We understand this as well, I think, easily enough. We hear people speaking this way, believers and unbelievers alike, all the time. Lawyers will confess that a crime committed by one of their own has tarnished the entire profession, or politicians mourn that an atrocity committed by one of our soldiers has brought shame on us all, so on. And, of course, the sins of our elected politicians involve us all, however much we may wish to deny it. Democratic electorates are past masters of refusing to admit any responsibility for the misbehavior of the people they themselves put into office. But the principle is at work much closer to home. We know the way sins committed by those who are close to us reflect on us. We parents certainly know that with regard to the sins of our children, hence the frequently defensive response of parents when someone points out their children’s sins. Well it is supremely true of the effect of our sin on the church of God and God himself. I remember a remark of Lloyd-Jones to the effect that when his congregation was out and about in London they held the reputation of God in their hands!

For example, in the description of the ritual of the Day of Atonement, in chapter 16, we read this.

“Thus he shall make atonement for the holy Place, [That is, for the first room of the sanctuary.] because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness.” [16:16]

We are going to read something about that in a few moments. The point is the sanctuary of God, itself, was defiled by the sins of God’s people. All of this hard-nosed reality, harsh and unwelcome as it may be, was reflected in the liturgy of the sin or purification offering. Sin produced a stain that needed to be removed, impurity that spread outward from the offender to the entire people and to the sanctuary of God itself.

Text Comment

v.2       Unintentional sins could be committed in one of two ways. In the first place one could be aware of the law, but unaware of his violation of it. Perhaps he did not realize that he was ritually impure when he did something — such as eating a sacrificial meal (7:20) — that only the ritually pure were allowed to do. It didn’t occur to him that he had done something or touched something or been somewhere that had rendered him unclean until after he had done something that the ritually impure were forbidden to do. Or one might not be aware of the law at all. We recognize both situations today. If you happen to miss the one-way sign and head the wrong way down a street, you have broken the law and might be given a ticket even though you didn’t set out to break the law; you did it inadvertently. On the other hand, I got a ticket this past summer in eastern Oregon because I didn’t move into the outer lane to pass a police car, parked on the shoulder.  The officer had been writing up some other offender and, alas, had just finished doing so when I passed by. I hadn’t realized that the law requires you to move over no matter that we’re out in the middle of the wilderness and the parked car is comfortably away from the lanes of traffic parked on a wide shoulder. My ignorance of the law did not absolve me of the $260 fine! Not that I’m bitter. [cf. Sklar, 110; Levine, 19] As we proceed it will become clear that inadvertent sins would also include sins that may have been conscious enough, but were only later realized to be sins. There was inadvertence but only because of a failure of moral realization. [Ross, 129]

v.3       There are four scenarios presented in chapter 4, each involving a different sinner bringing a sin offering. The regulations begin with the case of the high priest who has sinned unintentionally, something we can imagine happening easily enough, as many regulations as there were to observe and as near to people and events that might make him unclean as his responsibilities required him to be. Then we will read of the entire community bringing a sin offering, then of a leader of the community, and finally of an ordinary citizen. The order thus seems to be one of decreasing responsibility. The high priest had the most, the individual citizen the least. That is how the chapter is divided: by the identity of the one making the sacrifice. We have here a reminder of the greater responsibility of those who hold offices in the church.

The high priest represented the people, so his impurity was the impurity of everyone else. Because of his position, he must offer the very best sort of animal, the bull from the herd.

v.4       The sin offering began like the others with the laying of the worshipper’s hands on the animal and its being killed and butchered by him. But from this point the ritual diverges from the blood sacrifices we have considered so far.

v.7       The high priest took the blood into the tent of meeting itself, used some of it to sprinkle the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place or, at least, to sprinkle the blood toward that veil (he did that seven times, the number of completeness), and then put some blood on the altar of incense, one of the pieces of furniture in the Holy Place, the first room of the tent of meeting or the sanctuary. With these two actions he cleansed both rooms in the sanctuary proper (he was not allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place except on the Day of Atonement). The rest of the blood was poured at the base of the main altar in the courtyard.

v.10     So the fat will be handled in the sin offering just as it was handled in the peace offering. It will be burned on the altar with the burnt offerings that were being consumed there.

v.12     In this offering, none of the remainder of the sacrifice, beside the blood that has been sprinkled and poured on the altar and at the base of the altar, and the fat that has been burned on the altar, none of the rest of the sacrifice was either to be cooked to ashes on the altar or to be cooked so as to be eaten as the peace offering was. The carcass, including its hide, was to be taken outside the camp to a ceremonially pure location where the ashes from the altar fires were dumped and there a fire was to be lit and kept going and the carcass was to be consumed on that fire.

Interestingly, in those sin offerings, of which we will read later, where the blood was not taken into the Holy Place, the meat could be cooked and eaten by the priests. But if the blood of the animal was taken into the Holy Place, the meat had to be destroyed with the rest of the animal. [6:24-30] Perhaps the idea is in part that the high priest should not profit from his own sin. [Sklar, 112]

v.13     An example might be the people’s deception by the Gibeonites who tricked them into thinking that they had come from a great distance when, in fact, they lived nearby and were simply using a ruse to avoid being defeated in battle by the conquering Israelites.

v.15     The entire congregation, of course, could not lay hands on the bull, so the elders, representing the people, did so; no doubt just a few of them sacrifice by sacrifice.

v.20     As you see the rite is the same as in the case of the people as the high priest. But here it is explicitly said that by the sacrifice atonement is made for the people and they are forgiven. That was, of course, true in the first case, that of the high priest, but it is mentioned specifically only here. We’ve noticed that before: we get the whole picture only when we’ve read through all the regulations. Some general features of the sacrifices are mentioned here and some there; you have to add them all up at the end to get the whole ritual. In any case, it was not the ritual in and of itself that provided forgiveness, but the complex of facts: the worshipper’s sense of conviction and desire to seek forgiveness, his or her seeking to do so in the approved fashion, and then the offering itself.

v.22     A leader, or chieftain (Levine, 24) would be a head of a tribe, perhaps as well the head of a clan.

v.23     How do these people who bring sin offerings “realize” their guilt? Perhaps in any number of ways. They might simply remember something that they had forgotten or perhaps they began to suffer the Lord’s judgment in some way and put two and two together. Or, perhaps the Lord simply brought conviction of sin to their hearts. In any case they realized they needed to bring a sin offering.

v.26     In the leader’s case no blood was taken into the Tent of Meeting and so, as we learn later, the meat could be cooked and eaten by the priests.

v.27     For the common citizen the rite was as it was for the leader except that a lesser animal was used for the sacrifice.

v.31     If you are wondering why all this repetition, just imagine that you are in a world as these people were in which no one read these regulations, they only heard them. You hear about the high priest, you’re interested in what’s going to happen to him, what he has to do. You hear about the whole people and you hear about the leader, and you are now wondering, how about me? What am I going to have to do? And enough is said so that you realize precisely how the sin offering is going to be the same in your case and how it is going to be different.

5:1       The remainder of the regulations for the sin offering concerns sacrifices made for more conscious sins and enumerates the various offerings that could be brought depending on the worshipper’s means. The first sin is that of failing to testify when one has information material to a case (in particular after a solemn summons for all who have information to come forward had been issued and the person hears that summons; Levine, 26) — a failure perhaps motivated by laziness, indifference, or fear — the next is a failure to deal with ritual impurity, and the last is the making of a rash oath, whether to do evil or good. Of the last two the fact that the sin was “hidden from him” does not mean, obviously, that the sin was genuinely accidental. Elsewhere in the law we learn that “inadvertent” sins were hardly only accidental ones. One doesn’t utter an oath to do evil by accident! What seems to be in view is that the person is only later convicted of his sin. Only later did he realize the wrong he had done and confess it (as we read in v. 5). He stopped making excuses for himself. In any case, we are probably right to see these three particular sins as representatives of classes of sins, not the only such sins for which a sin offering might be made.

v.6       The ritual itself was as described before.

v.10     Precisely why the two birds were treated differently no one can say for sure, but the result was the same: atonement and forgiveness. It has been thought that since the birds had no fat the second bird was compensation for the missing fat, the best part of the offering and the Lord’s part. [Levine, 29]

v.11     This was the only purification offering that did not involve blood, and so the only exception to the rule of which we read in Hebrews 9:22: “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” It was a provision made for the very poor. God’s grace is never withheld from anyone as a result of his or her status or station in life. That amount of flour could be obtained by gleaning in someone’s field. [Ross, 131] This raises the question whether other offerings, including the burnt offering, could have been made with flour by people too poor to afford even birds. The lack of oil and frankincense distinguished this from the grain offering of chapter 2. This was not a matter of happy thanksgiving but of mourning for sin that needed to be forgiven.

The Bible’s anatomy of the sins that Christians commit is by no means obvious and uncomplicated. Every Christian struggles to get his or her head around the way the Bible speaks of our sin and sinning as Christians. Think about it. In his first letter John distinguishes Christians from non-Christians by saying that the former do not sin. The Lord Jesus himself used the term “sinners” to describe unbelievers, as if believers were not sinners. What, we wonder? Paul admitted and very candidly that he was a thorough-going sinner as a Christian; an inveterate sinner and inexcusably so. It was the thing that more than any other darkened his experience of life. All through the Bible we see believers sinning in every sort of way. Paul even commands us to confess our sins to one another and John, who says that we do not sin, in the same letter commands us to confess our sins to God and sternly reminds us that if we Christians say we have no sin we make ourselves out to be liars. We are left wondering exactly how we are to understand those two statements: that we don’t sin and that we better confess our sins, otherwise we are deceiving ourselves. Nevertheless, frequently in both the OT and the NT believers are characterized as righteous, blameless, and obedient to God and at the same time we see them sinning up a storm. Obviously, the terminology of sin is used in different ways, ways that require some careful discrimination on our part.

Some of this can be explained by the distinction made between sins or types of sins. We do not accept, of course, the Roman Catholic distinction between venial and mortal sins ; any sin unrepented of can damn the soul and sins that are characterized as “mortal” certainly can be and were in the Bible are forgiven. David was an adulterer and a murderer, both mortal sins in the Catholic calculation; Peter denied Christ, definitely a mortal sin; Paul conspired in the murder of Stephen. Murder is a mortal sin but apparently it can be forgiven. We rejoice that it can be. Still, the Bible itself teaches us to distinguish between the sins that can be forgiven and sins that cannot; between the unforgiveable sin and the rest of sins that all can be forgiven. There is throughout the Bible a clear distinction between, on the one hand, what in the OT are called “high-handed” sins — sins, that is, that reflect a contempt for God and his law, sins that amount to a repudiation of God (committed by those who have claimed to be Christians) — sins that amount, therefore to apostasy, a conscious turning away from God and, on the other hand, the sins real Christians and unbelievers regularly commit. We read of such unforgiveable sins in the Gospels, in Hebrews, and in 1 John as surely as we read of them in the OT, so it has nothing to do with some supposed distinction of the OT and NT. But the sins that men commit in the ordinary run of their lives, destructive and ugly as they may be and harmful as they may prove to themselves and to others, can be forgiven; can be forgiven if only forgiveness is sought through Christ, which is what the faithful Israelite was doing with his sin offering, little as he may have understood precisely how that offering was related to the work of the Messiah yet to come. This is what a convert does when first he comes to Christ for salvation. He or she seeks forgiveness of his or her sins because he or she realizes that only through Christ is that forgiveness possible.

Further, the Bible distinguishes between sins that are, as it were, committed against the truest and deepest commitments of a person’s life and sins that actually express the true inner man or woman. Paul famously encapsulates this important distinction between sins when he daringly says twice in Romans 7 that it was not he who committed his sins but the sin that was within him. “For I do not do the thing I want but the very thing I hate.” And in this way the believer is very different from the unbeliever who may regret the consequences of his sin but does not mourn it and fear it as an offense that has been given to God and as the repudiation of his most cherished commitments of his heart. When Paul, in Galatians, speaks of the war within the believer between the Spirit and the flesh he is describing in another way the reality of an unwanted intruder in the Christian heart, a spirit of disobedience that hangs on like a limpet and won’t let go. The experience of the unbeliever is very different. His unwillingness to face the truth of his comprehensive sinfulness gives him away.

As he lay dying on the deck of Victory, his flagship, Horatio Nelson said to those gathered around him, “I have not been a great sinner.” No Christian would say such a thing. He would know all too well how constant and unrelenting had been his struggle with sin and how often he had been defeated in that struggle. His sins would be invariably the great regret of his life and the one thing that would give him pause as he was stepping out of this world into the next however much he may trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and his saving blood. Nelson, in fact, was a man who had betrayed his wife abominably, no matter that all her married life she remained faithful to him. He conducted for some years a highly public affair with another man’s wife, deeply embarrassing to the English government and humiliating to his wife, and added insult to injury by cutting off almost all contact with his own wife. As he was dying he asked to be remembered to his mistress, not to his wife. “I have not been a great sinner.” I’d love to have Admiral Nelson explain that ridiculous remark, made at the very point of death, at the very moment when somebody ought to realize how great his sinfulness had been. Would that he had said instead, “Tell my wife that I see how evil I have been, how badly I have treated her, how deeply sorry I am for it all, and how I leave this world regretting nothing so much as the pain I have caused her. It is the thing that makes me realize how much less of a man I was than what I aspired to be.” Christians sin all the time, alas, but in a very different state of mind.

Well, in a distinctively OT form, that is the background of Leviticus 4 and 5. God’s people couldn’t stop sinning: little sins, bigger sins, still bigger sins, sins of all kinds all the time. And, like those believers in Corinth, whom Paul had brought to the recognition of their sins against one another and against God, our ancient brethren would experience contrition, sorrow for their sin, and an irrepressible urge to be forgiven and cleansed. Their godly sorrow produced zeal to clear themselves before God and others and to remove the stain of their sin both from themselves and from others who in one way or another had been affected by it, including the Lord himself. At that moment in the history of redemption it was given to them to seek and find that forgiveness by sacrifice, part of the vast system of sacrificial worship that looked forward to the great atonement for sin that would be made at the cross by the Son of God.

In these regulations for the purification offering we are reminded in sum of two fundamental truths that taken together constitute a way of looking at human life, a viewpoint on human experience that still today profoundly distinguishes the viewpoint of the believer from that of the unbeliever.

  1.  First, people are indeed sinning all the time in every conceivable way. They are sinning against God and they are sinning against one another. In the representative sins mentioned here we find the seeds of all of our sins: forgetfulness of our obligations to be holy before the Lord, selfishness, impurity, cowardice, indifference to others and on and on. We sin in such ways and others by omission and by commission; we sin in thought, word, and deed; we sin so constantly and so comprehensively, that the psalmist finds himself constrained to pray that God would forgive his secret sins. By secret sins he doesn’t mean the sins he knows about but no one else does; he means the sins even he doesn’t recognize for what they are. The line before it in Psalm 19:12 reads: “Who can discern his errors?” We don’t begin to see how sinful we are and how much of what we say and do is tainted by sin.This isn’t the way unbelievers think about sin. They are not troubled by the realization that they have hardly begun to measure their true sinfulness, how far, far short of the standard of God’s holiness they are always falling. Anyone who says — as many will nowadays — that human beings are basically good, are contenting themselves with an appallingly superficial judgment of human behavior and, of course, are leaving the holiness of God completely out of account. Someone who takes the universality of sin seriously — he doesn’t’ even have to have a Bible in his hand to do that, he just has to be honest with himself and others — is more likely to say, with Rabbi Duncan, “I’ve never done a sinless action in my entire life. I may have done actions that were righteous, but never even one that was sinless. I always fell short if only in the purity of my motives.”That is the point here in Leviticus. People were failing to toe the line through ignorance, through carelessness, through indifference — such are the sins described in chapter 4 — but also through what we have to describe as moral weakness, a want of desire, through the love of ease, from the desire to protect oneself, even through a vengeful spirit, such as the sins that are mentioned in chapter 5. It doesn’t take much thought to find our sins, all kinds of our sins, represented in those three sins mentioned here. Ignorance is certainly no excuse.I know Christian men who will live to their dying day in broken-hearted regret for the way they treated their wives, treatment that led to a lifetime of unhappy marriage or perhaps more often to a divorce. Only later did they realize how cruel, thoughtless, and indifferent they had been. It was hidden from them by their pride at the time but, as we read here, the time came when they realized their guilt.

    I read recently a biography of a famous Presbyterian minister, immensely influential, a highly successful man who, no matter his sincere commitment to the Bible, did things that strike us today as impossibly vain. But he didn’t recognize the vanity in them and, apparently, most of his congregation didn’t either. For example, successful as he was he would get calls from other congregations, calls he had no intention of taking, and he would read the letter out to his congregation, full of flattery as it was, even the terms of the call — the salary proposed and so on –; he would then explain why it was a call he had good reasons to accept; and only then would he tell them that he had decided to remain their pastor. It was bald-face manipulation and unseemly preening before others, but I suspect the man went to his grave unaware of how crudely he had sought the worship of others. [Soden, Mark Matthews, 37]

    I have regrets, deep regrets about things I said and did, or things I failed to do, only some of which I realized at the time to have been deeply sinful. Frankly, I hate even to think of how much more sin there must be still hidden from my view, given how much sin there is that I am perfectly well aware of. I’m sure you have those regrets as well.

  2. Second, not only are we here reminded of the comprehensiveness of our sins, but of their social consequences. In these regulations Israel was reminded that her sins affected others, the blood of your sacrifice was taken into the sanctuary because the sanctuary had been dirtied by what you had done, the sanctuary of God had been polluted by what you had done. Your sins had the capacity to defile the life of others as well as your own. The sins of those with the greater authority had greater power to defile and contaminate than did the sins of ordinary folk but even those sins were not committed in isolation. This is, of course, true the world over, it is true of unbelievers as it is of the sins of believers. Again here we find that the Christian life is simply human life honestly faced and experienced.We may not think about sin’s defiling effects, but we live with them surely enough. Why is the church as weak as it is, except for the dulling effects of so much sin within her? What has led to the precipitous decline in American Christianity over the past thirty years? Well, it is not unrelated to the public scandals that have brought disrepute to our faith, minister after minister who preached one thing and did another. It is not unrelated to the difficulty the world finds in distinguishing our Christian lives from its own. And it is certainly not unrelated to the sins of Christian parents that have either undermined their children’s faith or made them comfortably nominal in their pursuit of the Christian life. The Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), in explaining why he left evangelical Christianity for early nineteenth century Unitarianism, told of listening as a boy to a sermon on the “Terrors of the Lord.” Young as he was, he was nevertheless deeply moved with a sense of the horrors of hell, but upon returning home he found that his father seemed totally unconcerned about the message of the sermon. In later years he said, ‘Why, my father’s cheerful unconcern impressed me exactly as if he had joked and laughed at a funeral.’” [In D. Wray, “Family Piety,” BOT 229 (Oct. 1982) 17] The father didn’t take it seriously. Why should the son? In this case the sins of the father were visited upon the son as they are every day all over the world.We really do carry the Lord’s reputation and the Gospel’s reputation wherever we go! How often did the prophets remind Israel that her sins had made the Lord a laughing stock among the nations?  “Among the nations they profaned my holy name,” the Lord says through Ezekiel.

Fundamental as those facts are, essential as they are to an accurate view of the world and human life, they are not as important as one other fact. There is forgiveness with God that he may be feared. The whole point of the sin-offering was to secure forgiveness and the Lord stood ready to grant it to all who came to him in humility and faith. That is the greatest truth in the world and especially for anyone who admits the truth about his or her sinfulness. You’ve got loads of sin, don’t deny it; but you can be rid of it all by asking God for it in the approved way. And what is that way: no longer the way of a sin offering; now the way of the sin offering, the cross of Jesus Christ, who shed his blood for our sins. Leviticus 4 and 5 are among those texts in Exodus and Leviticus that lie directly behind this famous statement in the New Testament. Speaking of the death of Christ on the cross, the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote:

“This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you. And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.”

That was the great lesson that was being dinned into Israel’s heart and mind by this sacrificial regulation and by the constant repetition of these sacrifices in her public life. The blood has now been shed and by it the dirt, the uncleanness of our sin, has been washed away. And that is a truth greater than which there is none and never will be! And if it be true that there is forgiveness with God, then it is simply impossible that those who know that truth will live in the same way as those who do not. From the beginning of the Bible to the end knowledge of the facts makes a great difference in the way one lives his or her life.