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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 5

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


The first thirteen verses of this chapter are a continuation of the divine instructions regarding sin-offerings outlined in the previous chapter. Special situations in which sin-offerings were required are listed as follows:

(1) the failure to give testimony (Leviticus 5:1);

(2) incurring uncleanness by touching an unclean object or an unclean person (Leviticus 5:2-3);

(3) making a rash vow (Leviticus 5:4). The required sin-offering is outlined (Leviticus 5:5-6).

Leviticus 5:7-13 are a kind of appendix in which special provisions were given for the benefit of persons wishing to comply with the law but who, through poverty, were unable to bring the prescribed offerings.

The trespass-offering is presented in Leviticus 5:14-19, being formally introduced by the solemn formula, “And Jehovah spake unto Moses… etc.” The principal difference between the sin-offering and the trespass-offering (which are sometimes confused) was that in the latter, restitution was required whenever possible and a twenty percent penalty was added. Another difference is seen in that confession was required. There were three particular cases where this offering was required, two of them in this chapter, and a third one in Leviticus 6:2-7. The two in this chapter are: (1) failure to discharge religious duties (Leviticus 5:14-16), and (2) unintentional, ignorant violations of God’s law in situations where no restitution was required (Leviticus 5:17-19).

The trespass-offering featured in this chapter is also called the guilt-offering, but we shall use the designation in our version (American Standard Version). The use of “trespass-offering” in Leviticus 5:7 is not sufficient reason to include that paragraph as part of the instructions beginning in Leviticus 5:14, because the formal pronouncement, “And Jehovah spake unto Moses… etc.” identifies that verse as the place where instructions on the trespass-offering actually begin. It was closely connected with the sin-offering, and the two appear together in the Word of God.

This chapter and also Leviticus 4 show how haphazard the common division into chapters and verses actually is. If any logical system had been followed, Leviticus 5 should have started at Leviticus 5:14 and ended at Leviticus 6:7. Chapter divisions, of course, are purely man-made devices that were introduced six or eight centuries ago.

Verses 1-6

“And if any one sin, in that he heareth the voice of adjuration, he being a witness, whether he hath seen or known, if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity. Or if any one touch any unclean thing, whether it be the carcass of an unclean beast, or the carcass of unclean cattle, or the carcass of unclean creeping things, and it be hidden from him, and he be unclean, then he shall be guilty. Or if he touch the uncleanness of man, whatsoever his uncleanness be wherewith he is unclean, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty. Or if any one swear rashly with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man utter rashly with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth it, then he shall be guilty in one of these things. And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that wherein he hath sinned: and he shall bring his trespass-offering unto Jehovah for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin-offering: and the priest shall make atonement for him as concerning his sin.”

“He that heareth the voice of adjuration… etc.” (Leviticus 5:1) Our version (American Standard Version) here makes the offense to be that of failure to come forward and give testimony in a court procedure following a public “adjuration” with the pronouncement of a curse upon any one having pertinent knowledge needed by the court, which knowledge is in the possession of the witness who fails to divulge it. The Revised Standard Version also follows this rendition. Noth disputed this meaning and rendered it so as to say, “He that hears someone curse publicly” is the offender.(F1) Ronald E. Clements also accepted that understanding of the passage,(F2) but Keil effectively refuted such ideas by pointing out that the word here rendered “adjuration” does not mean a curse in general, but an oath (a judicial oath equal to the oath of cursing in Numbers 5:21). The sin referred to did not consist in the fact that a person heard a curse, or blasphemy, and gave no evidence of it.”(F3) Keil is most certainly correct in this, because the N.T. usage of “adjuration” places it, not on the street, but in a court of law. In Matthew 26:63, Jesus is said to have answered Caiaphas not a word, until the high priest placed Jesus under judicial oath by the accepted formula, saying, “I adjure thee, by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou art the Christ, the Son of God.” The illegal usage of this type of adjuration by the sons of Sceva (Acts 19:13), and by the demons who addressed Jesus (Mark 5:7) does not nullify the identification of “adjuration” with court proceedings.

The principle enunciated in these verses is profoundly important. Any person having vital information regarding either the innocence or the guilt of an accused person, when placed under judicial oath, is required to divulge it under penalty of the wrath of God for failure, and, despite the fact of the old law having long ago been nailed to the cross of Christ, the moral kernel around which the law was built still exists and is binding today.

Both the old schools of commentators and modern Jewish scholars accept without reservation the position which we are attempting to maintain regarding this transgression. Jamieson wrote:

“A proclamation was issued, calling any one who could give information to come before the court and bear testimony to the guilt of a criminal. The manner in which witnesses were interrogated in Jewish courts of justice was not by swearing them in directly, but by adjuring them. The offence, then, for the expiation of which this law provides, was that of a person who neglected or avoided the opportunity to testify.”(F4)

Also, Bernard J. Bamberger, a recent Jewish writer, gives this:

Someone engaged in a lawsuit (or perhaps the court) publicly calls on those who have information about the case to appear and testify, and a curse is invoked on any one (having knowledge of it) who fails to respond.(F5)

A second specific situation in which a sin-offering was required (Leviticus 5:2-3) was that of a person who unwittingly, or without his knowledge, became polluted by touching either an unclean object or an unclean person. Some have expressed wonder as to how such violations could have occurred, but it was quite common. For example, if one stepped upon a grave unintentionally, he was unclean by virtue of that action. In those times, when graves were not to be found exclusively in cemeteries, there were many who violated without any intention of it. From this arose the custom of white-washing graves, as was done extensively in the days of Jesus Christ, a custom to which he referred when he called the Pharisees, “whited sepulchres!” (Matthew 23:27-29). Also, in the case of unclean animals, the touch could have come about through the movement or action of the animal, not by the one touched, being therefore an unintentional violation.

The third violation requiring a sacrifice (Leviticus 5:4-6) was that of failing to fulfill or discharge the obligation incurred in making a rash vow. The purpose of this was to guard the devout worshipper against the folly of loose or foolish talk, especially when accompanied by an oath. It will be remembered that in Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the great fish, he promised, “I will pay that which I have vowed” (Jonah 2:9).

The appearance of the word “trespass-offering (or guilt-offering)” in Leviticus 5:6, here, has led some to classify these regulations (Leviticus 5:1-13) with the trespass-offerings announced in Leviticus 5:14, but we believe that to be a mistake. “The Hebrew word here does not mean trespass-offering, but as his guilt (or as his trespass) and refers to the trespass or guilt of the violator, not to his offering.”(F6) This fact is noted in the American Standard Version margin, where the alternate rendition “for his guilt” is given, and despite the fact of Allis’ calling this “doubtful,”(F7) there is actually no alternative to the acceptance of it. The formal announcement of the trespass-offering in Leviticus 5:14 requires this understanding of it. Not to accept this would be to make the words trespass-offering and sin-offering (in the same Leviticus 5:6) to be understood as synonyms, “which is very unlikely, when they are immediately afterward carefully distinguished (Leviticus 5:14).”(F8)

Verses 7-13

“And if his means suffice not for a lamb, then he shall bring his trespass-offering (margin: for his guilt) for that wherein he hath sinned, two turtle doves, or two young pigeons, unto Jehovah; one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering. And he shall bring them unto the priest, who shall offer that which is for the sin-offering first, and wring off its head from its neck, but shall not divide it asunder: and he shall sprinkle of the blood of the sin-offering upon the side of the altar; and the rest of the blood shall be drained out at the base of the altar; it is a sin-offering. And he shall offer the second for a burnt-offering, according to the ordinance; and the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. But if his means suffice not for two turtle doves, or two young pigeons, then he shall bring his oblation for that wherein he hath sinned, the tenth part of an ephah of fine flour for a sin-offering: he shall put no oil upon it, neither shall he put any frankincense thereon; for it is a sin-offering. And he shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as the memorial thereof, and burn it on the altar, upon the offering of Jehovah made by fire: it is a sin-offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him as touching the sin that he hath sinned in any of these things, and he shall be forgiven; and the remnant shall be the priest’s as the meal-offering.”

In these verses, it is clear that the sin-offering is the topic and not the trespass-offering. The minimal gift of a tenth of an ephah is not a specific amount, due to the uncertainty as to the amount in an ephah, which is usually accounted as something more or less than a bushel. Meyrick calculated the amount of the minimal sacrifice as “either three pints and a half or three quarts and a half, accordingly as whether we adopt the larger or smaller estimate of the amount of an ephah.”(F9)

The regulation forbidding any oil or frankincense upon the flour distinguishes it from the meal-offering, for reasons that are not fully discernible to us. It could have been a means of further reducing the cost for a poor man, or as Bamberger believed, it meant that the offering “must not have a festive character; oil and frankincense are therefore omitted.”(F10)

Before proceeding to the study of the trespass-offering, a word about the number and diversity of all these offerings is in order. There were all kinds of sacrifices for all kinds of circumstances and sins, with different regulations pertaining to each. What a complicated mass of religious regulations were involved! No wonder an apostle called the law a “yoke of bondage” (Acts 15:10). The glory of Christianity is that Christ cleanses us from “all sin” (1 John 1:7). Clements’ noble words on this are worthy of repeating:

“Different types of sacrifices are not needed for different types of sin, nor is there need to fear that there are some kinds of sin which have not been covered by the sacrifice which God has provided in Jesus Christ. All sin is atoned for by him, so that he fulfills the O.T. demand for sacrifice as the way of atonement and forgiveness with God.”(F11)

There was a similar uncertainty to that caused by the multiple sacrifices for different kinds of sins (as in the Mosaic covenant) which marked the ancient paganism. There was a different god for every type of transgression, and even when a devout pagan had propitiated all the gods that he had knowledge of, he still feared that perhaps he might have overlooked one who would destroy him. This was the dilemma poised forever over the ancient pagans that caused some of them to erect a statue “To an Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Thus, Christianity rises far above the Mosaic law with its multiple sacrifices, and above paganism with its multiple gods! Of course, the Jews, having preserved and kept alive the conception of monotheism from the days of Melchizedek, Job, Jethro, Noah and other ancient monotheists, had a profound advantage over paganism; but the “Light that lighteth every man coming into the world” would reveal truth infinitely beyond both.

Verses 14-16

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, If any one commit a trespass, and sin unwittingly, in the holy things of Jehovah; then he shall bring his trespass-offering unto Jehovah, a ram without blemish out of the flock, according to thy estimation in silver by shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for a trespass-offering: and he shall make restitution for that which he hath done amiss in the holy thing, and shall add the fifth part thereto, and give it unto the priest; and the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the trespass-offering, and he shall be forgiven.”

The solemn formula, “And Jehovah spake unto Moses,” occurs thirty-nine times in Leviticus. We deplore the high-handed manner in which some commentators ignore this declaration, pretending not even to see it, and then dare to assign whole sections of this book to unnamed, imaginary sources dated anywhere between the times of the Judges and the days following the exile. Such writings are in no sense Biblical commentary, but merely denials of what the Word of God says. Again, and again, this formal expression introduces sections and divisions in Leviticus, and the section beginning here deals with trespass-offerings.

“If one commit a trespass… in the holy things of Jehovah” The careless neglect of paying tithes, or the inadvertent offering of an unsuitable animal for sacrifice, and other types of sins would fall under this category. The penalty was next to the largest imposed by the sacrifices, a ram of the flock being a property of considerable value.

Furthermore, the appraisal of the ram was not left to the offerer but was to be made by the priests; and the mention of “shekels” in the plural indicated that it had to be of more than ordinary value. Two conditions were imposed in connection with this type of sacrifice, these being: (1) that a confession of sin was required, and (2) that restitution including a twenty percent penalty was demanded.

Regarding the name of the sacrifice here called trespass-offering, it is called guilt-offering in some versions; and Wenham cited examples of its being called “reparation-offering” and “compensation-offering.”(F12) Although certain cases must have been very difficult to decide, as to whether a sin-offering or a trespass-offering was demanded, the vital distinction between the two sacrifices was primarily discernible in what each typified. “The sin-offering typified expiation wrought upon the cross of Jesus, and the trespass-offering typified the satisfaction for sin effected by the perfect life and voluntary death of the Saviour.”(F13) As Jamieson expressed it:

“The leading idea symbolized by the trespass-offering was not expiation, but compensation, or restitution of a debt due to Jehovah as King of Israel. Not the subjective forgiveness, but the objective wrong done to God’s possession here is under consideration.”(F14)

It should not be overlooked that the type of trespasses here was primarily sins of omission.

“After the shekel of the sanctuary” This was heavier than the ordinary shekel and of more value. All money in those days was calculated by the weight of precious metals. “Coinage did not begin in Palestine prior to the fourth century B.C.”(F15)

Verses 17-19

“And if any one sin, and do any of the things which Jehovah hath commanded not to be done; though he knew it not, yet he is guilty, and shall bear his iniquity. And he shall bring a ram without blemish out of the flock, according to thy estimation, for a trespass-offering unto the priest; and the priest shall make atonement for him for the things wherein he erred unwittingly and knew it not, and he shall be forgiven. It is a trespass-offering: he is certainly guilty before Jehovah.”

“This paragraph is vague and perplexing.”(F16) It seems that in this law a trespass-offering is required for exactly the same kind of sin that in Leviticus 4 was understood to be expiated by a sin-offering, at much less cost to the offender. The Jewish Rabbi Nachmanides gave what Bamberger called a “forced explanation” as follows:

“Why should the doubtful trespass-offering be brought when possibly no offense had been committed? while for the undoubted transgression as in Leviticus 4, a ewe, two fowls, or even a measure of flour was all that the law required. It was because a man might not take seriously the mere possibility of sinning unless the Torah had thus shown the gravity of the matter.”(F17)

In the absence of any better explanation, we shall accept this. There may be facts about this which were known to the ancient Hebrews which remain hidden from us, a view, which upon consideration must surely be correct. Allis wrote that what seems to be the difference here is that this type of transgression required restitution, thus distinguishing it from the sins recounted by the same words in Leviticus 4:2; Leviticus 4:13; Leviticus 4:22; Leviticus 4:27.(F18) Allis’ view is logical and explains fully why the heavier penalty was required here. Inherent in this also is the truth that any sin against one’s fellow man is also a sin against God. Lofthouse identified this passage as an instance of “social morality” uncommon to that portion of the Pentateuch usually identified with “P.”(F19) Thus, we have another instance in which the artificial conception of various sources for the Pentateuch breaks down completely.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Leviticus 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/leviticus-5.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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