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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Leviticus 4

Verse 1

After Moses had treated of the offerings and other sacrifices, which were testimonies of gratitude and exercises of piety, he now descends to the sin-offering ( expiationem ) which held the chief place amongst the sacrifices, inasmuch as, without reconciliation, there could never be any intercourse between men and God; for since He deservedly abominates the whole human race on account of the corruption of our nature, and because we all continually provoke His wrath, the whole hope of salvation must needs be founded on the remedies provided for propitiating Him. This principle, being established, we must remember that Moses will henceforth speak of the expiatory sacrifices which propitiate God to men by the removal of their guilt. He here shews how God is to be appeased, where a man shall have sinned through ignorance or inconsiderateness; wherein too a distinction is laid down between different persons, since one kind of victim is required of a king, another of the priests, and another of ordinary persons; whilst regard is had to the poor, that they may not be burdened by so great an expense as the rich. But, since it will appear from the context that all kinds of ignorance are not here included, we must see what the word שגגה, shegagah, (256) means, which I have preferred rendering error rather than ignorance; for Moses does not refer to those transgressions into which we are ensnared, when we are led astray by the appearance of rectitude, so as to think ourselves without blame; but to those of which we take no heed, and whereby our minds are not pricked; or to those sudden falls, wherein the infirmity of the flesh so stifles the reason and the judgment as to blind the sinner. It is of such that Paul speaks when he bids us

"restore in the spirit of meekness those who are overtaken in a fault,” (Galatians 6:1;)

for he does not mean those who are deceived by their good intentions (as they call it,) or rather by their foolish opinion, so as to be unconscious of their sin; but those who fall through the infirmity of their flesh, and whom Satan catches unawares in his snares; or who, at any rate, do not perceive the evil they have done, so as immediately to apply the remedy. This will be more clearly understood from Psalms 19:12, where David, having asked pardon for his errors, seeks to be kept free from presumptuous sins. (257) The antithesis between שגיאות, shegioth, (258) and זדים, zedim, shews that those transgressions are called errors, in which there is no criminal pride against God. “If a soul shall sin — from all the commandments,” (259) is a harsh expression; and therefore some refer it to sins of omission, but I interpret it more simply, “If he sin by turning away from the commandments,” or “if he commit any thing opposed ( alienum) to the commandments."

(256) S.M. says the word means, “a sin into which the perplexed mind has been driven under the impulse of some passion, through thoughtlessness, imprudence, or error, when inattentive to the dictates of reason and of the Spirit.” — W.

(257) “ A superbiis.” — Lat. “ De ses fiertes, et rebellions.” — Fr.

(258) Lexicographers make no distinction between the approximate roots שגג and שגה. Hence שגיאות, is regarded as meaning the same as the word used in Leviticus 4:2. By זדים, are understood sins committed with a high hand and rebellious spirit. — W.

(259) A. V., “against any of the commandments.” Ainsworth’s version is, “A soule, when it shall sin through ignorance of all the commandments,” etc.; and his Gloss. “ of all, understand, by doing any one of all the commandments. So Moses himself explaineth it in the words here following, and in Leviticus 4:13."

Verse 3

3. If the priest that is anointed. He now distinguishes between different persons, and begins with the high priest, who alone bore the high distinction of the holy unction, unless it be thought better to apply it to the whole supreme class. (260) It is probable, however, that it only refers to one. The more illustrious was his dignity, the more diligently and zealously ought his life to be confirmed to the model of holiness; and therefore the infirmity which was more tolerable in others, was more exceedingly reprehensible in him. This is the reason why it was required that he should atone for himself with a greater victim. But this in some measure related to all the Levites, inasmuch as they were chosen to be of the sacred class; and it now extends to all the ministers and pastors of the Church, not that they should ransom themselves by the sacrifice of a calf, but that they should diligently beware of every sin, and be more intent in their endeavors after holiness. The clause “according to the sin of the people,” might be also rendered “ unto the sin,” etc., as though Moses had said that the priest through sin corrupted the people by his bad example; for, since his life is the rule of holiness and righteousness, so his faults give occasion to the errors of others. The sense, however, that I have followed is simpler, i.e., that though the transgression of the priest may be an ordinary one, yet in consideration of his office it becomes more weighty, and deserving of greater punishment.

(260) “ Sur toute la maison d’Aaron.” — Fr.

Verse 5

5. And the priest that is anointed shall take. It is well known that what is here prescribed as to the sprinkling of blood, and its pouring out, as well as to the burning of the fat and the kidneys, is the same as in the other sacrifices; and the comparison in the 10 verse sufficiently proves that, the ordinary forms were observed in other particulars. But inasmuch as it might seem absurd that the priest, who was himself guilty, should come before God to perform the office of reconciliation, it was necessary to prescribe the details more accurately, to obviate all doubt. Although, therefore, he was unworthy to approach God, yet, since the law of the priesthood was inviolable, he was admitted to the discharge of his duties; for it was not lawful that more mediators should be appointed. In order, then, that more reverence should be paid to the rites of the Law, and that men should seek after no other way of reconciliation, God extended His grace to the fault of the priest. The blood was sprinkled before the Lord, that the people might learn that through the sight of the sacrifice sins were hidden and buried, so as to come no more into remembrance before God; but the rest of the blood was poured before the altar, because it was holy, and therefore ought by no means to be cast elsewhere like anything profane.

Verse 13

13. And if the whole congregation. The very same sacrifice which was enjoined on the priest is required of the people; since he who went into the sanctuary in the name of all to present all the tribes before God, represented the whole body. It seems indeed that the kind of ignorance here spoken of is different from the former kind; since it was said “if the thing be hid;” yet I think that these infirmities are comprised, in which it often happens that men are blinded for a time. (261) For many do not search into themselves, and therefore slumber in their sins; whereas if they honestly examined their doings, their conscience would straightway smite them. It might, then, happen that the whole people should fail to be aware of their sin, whilst dealing with themselves too gently and indulgently. The meaning therefore is, that although no sense of sin should at first arouse them to repentance, yet, if afterwards they should be awakened so as to begin to acknowledge their crime, God must be propitiated by sacrifices; for otherwise the people might make a cloak for themselves of their error.

(261) “ D’estre comme estourdis pour un temps, et n’y voir goutte;” are, as it were, stupified for a time, and cannot see a wink. — Fr.

Verse 22

22. When a ruler hath sinned. A peculiar atonement is also appointed for the transgression of the rulers; and, although he speaks of the ruler in the singular number, yet inasmuch as the law was not yet enacted that one individual should bear rule, he undoubtedly designates the heads and governors generally, because they who bear rule do more injury by their bad example than private persons. If, then, any of the judges or governors had sinned through error, he might indeed be set free by a lesser victim than the priest or the whole people, yet there was individually this difference between them, that they were to offer she-goats or lambs, and the ruler a he-goat; and the object of this was that those in authority should more carefully keep themselves pure from every transgression, whereas otherwise they are wont to indulge themselves more freely, as if their rank and dignity allowed them greater license. Where we have given as our translation, “If (the sin) shall have become known,” ( si innotuerit ,) translators are not agreed. (262) The word used is properly a disjunctive particle Or; (263) but it is sometimes used for the conditional particle, as we shall see in the next chapter. Those who retain the primary and genuine meaning of the word do violence to the signification of the last word of the foregoing verse, and translate it, “shall have offended” instead of “shall have felt that he has offended;” but since it appears from many passages that או, o, is equivalent to אם , im, there is no need of wresting the words to an improper sense. The word הודע, hodang, which they render transitively “to make known,” may fitly bear my translation, unless this is preferred, “if he shall have known,” ( si cognoverit) The words which Moses continually repeats, “the priest shall make an atonement for him, and his; iniquity shall be forgiven him,” some coldly restrict to external and civil cleansing, as if Moses only removed his condemnation before men; but God rather offers pardon to sinners, and assures them that He will be favorable to them, lest fear or doubt should prevent them from freely calling upon Him. And assuredly those who do not acknowledge that the legal rites were sacraments, are not acquainted with the very rudiments of the faith. Now to all sacraments, at any rate to the common sacraments of the Church, a spiritual promise is annexed: it follows, therefore, that pardon was truly promised to the fathers, who reconciled themselves to God by the offering of sacrifices, not because the slaying of beasts expiated sins, but because it was a certain and infallible symbol, in which pious minds might acquiesce, so as to dare to come before God with tranquil confidence. In sum, as now in baptism sins are sacramentally washed away, so under the Law also the sacrifices were means of expiation, though in a different way; since baptism sets Christ before us as if He were present, whilst under the Law He was only obscurely typified. Figuratively indeed what applies to Christ only is transferred to the signs, for in Him alone was manifested to us the fulfillment of all spiritual blessings, and He at length blotted out sins by His one and perpetual sacrifice; but since the question here is not as to the value of the legal ceremonies in themselves, let it suffice that they truly testified of the grace of God, of which they were the types; and so let not that profane imagination be listened to, that the sacrifices only politically and as far as regarded men absolved those by whom they were offered from guilt and condemnation.

(262) Instead of this and the following sentences, the Fr. says, “ Les expositeurs font bien ici quelques difficultez literales, mais pource que la deduction ne serviroit rien a ceux, qui ne sont point lettrez, je les passe.” Commentators certainly make some literal difficulties here, but since the statement of them would be useless to the unlearned, I pass them by.

(263) או , Or. Noldius, in his Concord. particularum, cites instances, such as 1 Samuel 20:10, in which this conjunction is equivalent to If. אשם is that last word of Leviticus 4:22 which S.M. has rendered deliquerit ; but A. V. more happily, is guilty, הודע, says S.M., is here used for נודע, the niphal of ידע, but it is simpler to regard it as a not unusual variation of הורע, the hophal, strictly meaning, caused to become known. — W.

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Leviticus 4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cal/leviticus-4.html. 1840-57.