1Then the LORD spoke to Moses and said, 2“speak to the sons of Israel, saying: if any soul incurs guilt unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done and does one of them, 3if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, he will bring near for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the LORD for a sin offering. 4He will bring the bull to the entrance off the tent of appointment before the LORD, and ay his hand on the head of the bull and kill the bull before the LORD. 5Then the anointed priest will take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of appointment, 6and the priest will dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the LORD in front of the veil of holiness. 7Then the priest will put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the LORD that is in the tent of appointment, and all the rest of the blood he will pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of appointment. 8And all of the fat of the bull of the sin offering he will remove from it all of the fat that covers the entrails and all of the fat that is on the entrails, 9and the two kidneys and the at that is on them at the loins, and the long lobe of liver that he will remove from the kidneys. 10(Just as these are lifted off from the ox of the sacrifice of the peace offerings). 11And the priest will send it up in smoke on the altar of burnt offering. But the skin of the bull and all the flesh, with its head and its shank and its entrails and its dung he will bring out—12all the rest of the bull—outside of the camp to a clean place, and will burn it on the ash heap on a fire of wood. On the ash heap it will be burned. 13If the whole congregation strays and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the commandments that by the LORD’s commandment ought not to be done, they are guilty. 14When the sin which they have sinned becomes known, the assembly will offer a bull from the herd as a sin offering, and they will bring it before the tent of appointment. 15Then the elders of the congregation will lay their hands on the head of the bull before the LORD, and the bull will be killed before the LORD. 16Then the anointed priest will bring some of the blood into the tent of appointment. 17And the priest will dip his finger into the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD in front of the veil. 18And he will put some of the blood on the horns of the altar in the tent of appointment before the LORD, and will pour out all of the blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of appointment. 19Then he will remove all the fat from it and will burn it on the altar. 20Thus will he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so will he do with this. And the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven. 21And he will bring the bull outside the camp and burn it as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly. 22If a leader sins unintentionally, doing any one of the things that by the LORD’s command ought not to be done, he is guilty—23or the sin that he has sinned is made known to him, he will bring as his offering a male goat without blemish, 24and will lay his hand on the head of the goat and kill it in the place where they killed the burnt offering before the LORD; it is a sin offering. 25Then the priest will take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and the rest of the blood he will pour around the base of the altar of burnt offering. 26And all of the fat he will send up in smoke on the altar, like the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. Then the priest will make atonement for his sin, and he will be forgiven. 27If any soul from the common people sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that the lord commanded ought not to be done, he is guilty—28or if his sin that he sinned is made known to him, he will bring as his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for the sin that he has sinned. 29And he will lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill the sin offering in the place of the burnt offering. 30Then the priest will take some of the blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and the rest of the blood he will pour on the base of the altar. 31And all of the fat he will remove, as the fat is removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings, and the priest will send it up in smoke on the altar; it is a soothing aroma to the LORD. Then the priest will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. 32If he brings a young ewe-lamb as his offering for a sin offering, he will bring a female without blemish. 33And he will lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill it for a sin offering in the place where they kill the burnt offering. 34Then the priest will take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and the rest of the blood he will pour on the base of the altar. 35And all of the fat he will remove, as the fat of the ewe-lamb is removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings, and the priest will send it up in smoke on the altar as a fire [food] offering to the LORD. Then the priest will make atonement for him for the sin that he has sinned, and he will be forgiven.
Chapter 4 deals with the effects of sin. The type of offering described herein is a חַטָּאת offering, which is derived from a root that means “to fail, to sin.” But the root, חטא, is actually used in the Hebrew “piel” case, so it carries the opposite meaning of “sin.” Literally, this word would mean ”de-sin”….or “purification.” The propitiation of divine anger is an important element in the burnt offering, while restitution is the key idea in the purification offering (Wenham). The purification offering is less important, and offered less frequently, so less valuable animals were used. It was designed to cope with the subsidiary problem created by human sin—pollution and defilement (Wenham). Interestingly, the Bible attaches greater significance to actions than we do—for us, past actions are just memories. For biblical writers, an action has enduring aftereffects (Wenham)—hence the need to purify the sanctuary.
In this chapter, sins of inadvertence are in view. This is in contradistinction to a “sin of high hand” (Nu 15.30). For example, Nu 35 speaks of homicide—but in two ways. If the homicide was deliberate, or “high-handed,” it carried the death penalty. This placed the highest possible value on human life; if you took a life, your punishment would cost you a life. If the homicide, however, was inadvertent, the offender could flee to a city of refuge, in which he would be protected by law. We will also note in this chapter that there are two types of purification: (1) regular—this was broken into two divisions: the people in covenant community and the individual; and (2) graduated. There were four classes of people in view for the purification offering: the anointed priest, the entire congregation of Israel, a prince (secular leader, rather than cultic), or any member of community. There were two basic regulations for the purification offering: the greater purification (for the priest or congregation), in which blood was brought inside the sanctuary and sprinkled on the veil, placed on the horns, and the flesh was burned outside the camp. The lesser regulation was for a prince or individual; in this case, blood was smeared on the horns and the flesh was eaten by priests.
Most interesting is the word סלח, which shows up 4 times in the chapter. It means “forgiven.” The Levitical sacrificial system didn’t just cover over sins, as some have taught. It provided for forgiveness of sins, as ordained by God. The only time the priest does not proclaim forgiveness is in his own case; perhaps it would not have been considered appropriate for the anointed priest to proclaim his own forgiveness.
Outside of verse three and Le. 6.15, the high priest is never called the anointed priest. Note that when he sins, he brings guilt on the people. The higher the position of the person who has sinned, the more costly the animal is required for sacrifice (Hartley). In verses 5-7, we see that instead of dashing the blood against the altar, the priest takes (לקח) it into the Holy Place and sprinkles (נזה) some of it 7 times before the holy curtain, or veil (פָּרֹ֥כֶת הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ). Seven was a number that typically signified completeness to the Hebrews. The top of the altar was square, eighteen inches by eighteen inches, standing thirty-six inches high. At the corners were upward protrusions called horns (Hartley). These are the “horns” of the altar. Here is a picture:
When the anointed priest sinned, the blood was sprinkled on the veil; when the secular leaders and the people sinned, the blood was smeared on the horns of the altar of burnt offering (Wenham). There is nothing from this altar that is to benefit humans (11-12). This prevents the priest from profiting from his own sins, possibly (Hartley).
The next category to be purified is the congregation, but what does this mean? It could have been a sin committed by the leaders of the group, or by the group itself when they had been poorly instructed. When the sacrifice is made, the priest makes atonement for the worshiper and the worshiper is forgiven. Hartley points out that “forgiven” (נִסְלַח) is passive, so the implied subject is God. In other words, God himself accepts the merits of the sacrifice and grants forgiveness. The Hebrew understood this, and therefore was shocked when Jesus claimed to have forgiven sins in the New Testament (Lk 7.48, for example). No one could do this unless He was God.
The final category is the “common people,” a phrase that describes the Hebrew עַ֣ם הָאָ֑רֶץ. This phrase is literally translated “people of the land.”
So how does today’s Christian apply this chapter of Leviticus? Two ideas come to mind.
First, we must remember that sin is a significant force in our lives. Israel, for example, was the chosen people, but when she sinned she no longer enjoyed the benefits of God’s presence (Ex 32, Le 10). Stan Norman paints a bleak picture in “Human Sinfulness”, page 473: “Sin must never be taken lightly. The Bible presents a horrific picture of the devastation of sin. Sin is idolatry, rebellion, missing the mark, straying from the path, treachery, lust, ungodliness, and wickedness. Sin disregards, commits willful error, brings guilt, and lacks integrity. Sin lusts, perverts, and breaks the law.” There are, in fact, only four chapters in the entire Bible that have no mention of sin—the opening story of Eden and the closing story of the redeemed creation. Simply put, the Bible is the story of man’s sin—it is the story of humanity (Mosely). Sin has terrible after-effects. There are the visible effects of sin—the natural consequences you suffer, for example, when you miss the mark. But there are also those effects that you don’t see (but of which the ancient Hebrews were painfully aware)—the pollution of your being. To atone for sin is to do what is necessary to restore a right relationship with God. Only Christ is capable of this; you don’t “get right” with God—He makes you right when you trust Him. And He is able to keep you. Purification cleansed the tabernacle of the pollution of sin. We learn in Hebrews 9.22 that EVERYTHING is purified by blood. 1 Peter 1.2 tells us that Christians are those who are “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood,” and Revelation 7.14 tells us that the saints in heaven have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. All of these New Testament references have their central grounding in this chapter in Leviticus. People sin, but God sent His Son to be the sacrifice for that sin, and He sends His Holy Spirit to draw us closer and teach us to conform to His image. While we’re at it, we might note that the sin of leaders is considered more serious than that of ordinary people. It can lead a people astray, and can definitely pollute them. Moreover, forgiveness is arranged by God. It’s on His terms, not ours.
We can also remember that the ritual of worship is not mindless or empty. There is an order of operation that in some way mirrors God’s teaching and actions. First God set His people free from slavery, then He gave them laws for living (Mosely). Worship is what happens after we’ve been set free from slavery and are being drawn closer to Him. If this is your motive, your worship is never empty. Legalism, as practiced by the Pharisees in the first century, is following rules and expecting that action to make you holy. True worship is the humility that only God can make you holy—and the acknowledgement you’re willing to submit to His process.
Finally, we can learn a very important thing about God from this chapter: He is a teacher. The sacrificial system was God teaching that we simply can’t do this at all. We can’t be holy. When God gave His Law to His people, they proceeded to fail miserably at following it. Those who became the best at following it typically had the wrong motives, moreover. Forgiveness, atonement and holiness come only from the living God. By giving them this system, He was teaching them—and all of mankind. What was He teaching them? Not only did He teach them that they were incapable of holiness, but also that sacrifice was necessary. Because He is not a liar, the penalty for sin is death. He is a just God, so He must punish sin. But Israel showed that she trusted God by following this system. Ultimately, we show that we trust God by submitting to the new covenant—the one where He has already provided the sacrifice.
The humility of a sinner who desires to be holy. The willingness to submit to the teaching of God. The acknowledgement and embrace of the sacrifice God provided for us. These are elements of this chapter that we could incorporate into our worship.