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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-13

4. The sin offering 4:1-5:13

The sin offering was a very important offering since it was to be offered before any of the others. It also played a key role on the Day of Atonement. Ancient Near Easterners offered certain offerings before God incorporated these into the Mosaic Law. Moses previously mentioned burnt offerings in Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:4; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 22; Genesis 26:25; Genesis 33:20; and Genesis 35:1-7, and peace offerings in Genesis 31:54; Genesis 46:1. However the sin and trespass offerings were new.

They ". . . were altogether unknown before the economy of the Sinaitic law." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:269.]

The structure of the chapters dealing with the sin and trespass offerings differs from that describing the burnt, meal, and peace offerings. Also the opening words of this chapter introduce a new section. These differences help us appreciate the fact that these two offerings were in a class by themselves while sharing some of the similarities of the first three. The sacrificial victim was the organizing principle in chapters 1-3 with revelation about the more valuable animals leading off each chapter. In Leviticus 4:1 to Leviticus 6:7 the most important factor is the type of sin that called for sacrifice, and the status of the sinner is a secondary factor.

"Whereas the main issue in the burnt, grain, and fellowship offerings was the proper procedure to be followed, the main issue in the discussion in the sin and guilt offerings is the occasion that would require these sacrifices." [Note: Rooker, p. 106.]

There were two types of occasions that called for the sin offering: unwitting or inadvertent sins (ch. 4) and sins of omission (Leviticus 5:1-13). We could subdivide this section on the sin offering as follows. [Note: Wenham, p. 87.]

Inadvertent sin ch. 4

Introduction Leviticus 4:1-2

Blood sprinkled in the holy place Leviticus 4:3-21

For the high priest Leviticus 4:3-12

For the congregation Leviticus 4:13-21

Blood smeared on the brazen altar Leviticus 4:22-35

For the tribal leader Leviticus 4:22-26

For the ordinary Israelite offering a goat Leviticus 4:27-31

For the ordinary Israelite offering a lamb Leviticus 4:32-35

Sins of omission Leviticus 5:1-13

A lamb or goat offering Leviticus 5:1-6

A bird offering Leviticus 5:7-10

A flour offering Leviticus 5:11-13

The sin (purification, Heb. hatta’t) offering dealt with unintentional sins, as opposed to high-handed sins (cf. Numbers 15:22-31). The translation "sin offering" is a bit misleading since the burnt, peace, and trespass offerings also atoned for sin.

"Propitiation of divine anger . . . is an important element in the burnt offering. Restitution . . . is the key idea in the reparation [trespass] offering. Purification is the main element in the purification [sin] sacrifice. Sin not only angers God and deprives him of his due, it also makes his sanctuary unclean. A holy God cannot dwell amid uncleanness. The purification offering purifies the place of worship, so that God may be present among his people." [Note: Ibid., p. 89.]

"The root ht’ for ’sin’ occurs 595 times in the Old Testament, and Leviticus, with 116 attestations, has far more occurrences than any other Old Testament book. This section (fifty-three attestations) is the heaviest concentration of the discussion of ’sin’ in the Bible." [Note: Rooker, p. 107.]

Like the burnt and meal offerings this one was compulsory, but the Israelites offered it less frequently (cf. Numbers 28-29). The most important feature of this offering was the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice.

"The law reminds people of sin-not just the major sins, but sins that are often overlooked, like not keeping one’s word, failing to do what is right, or living in a defiled world and never considering what that does to the spiritual life." [Note: Ross, p. 144.]

Three notable distinctives stand out.

1. This offering was not a soothing aroma. It was for expiation, namely, to make amends. The offerer ritually charged the sacrificial animal with his sin (cf. Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24). The animal had to be without defect (cf. 1 Peter 2:22). The offerer executed God’s judgment for sin on the sacrificial substitute by slaying it. In every sin offering an innocent substitute replaced the sinner (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21).

A problem arises in Leviticus 4:31 where Moses referred to this non-soothing offering as a soothing aroma. One commentator suggested that a copyist accidentally transferred the statement from the discussions of the peace offering in chapter 3. [Note: A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, p. 63.] Another believed it was the burning of the fatty tissue, not the whole sin offering, that was the soothing aroma. [Note: Harrison, p. 67.] This second explanation seems more probable.

2. Smearing blood on the horns of the altar symbolized purifying the whole sanctuary. The horns represented the powerful force of the entire altar. The priest burned outside the camp the skin and other parts that he did not eat or burn on the altar. He burned the fat on the altar. God evidently regarded it as the best part of the animal. The priest ate most of the flesh (Leviticus 6:26; cf. Hebrews 13:11-13; Matthew 27:46).

3. This offering dealt with most unintentionally committed sins (cf. Leviticus 5:14-16). These oversights demonstrated a sinful nature. Any sin committed unwittingly (Leviticus 4:2; Leviticus 4:13; Leviticus 4:22; Leviticus 4:27; Leviticus 5:2-4) proved the need for this offering and demonstrated a sinful nature.

God permitted several varieties of this offering.

1. God permitted the offering of less expensive animals or flour (Leviticus 5:11) by the poor. However everyone had to offer this sacrifice since everyone committed unintentional sins. Flour did not express the cost of expiation as well as a blood sacrifice did, but God permitted it for the very poor.

"On the one hand this arrangement says that the more influential the person, the costlier the offering that had to be brought-the sins of the prominent were more defiling. But on the other hand it is also saying that the way was open to all. The poor were not excluded because their sins were not so defiling or because they had no animals. God made provision for everyone to find cleansing for reentry into the sanctuary." [Note: Ross, p. 131.]

2. People with higher social and economic status had to bring more expensive sacrifices, illustrating the principle that privilege increases responsibility. Evidently any sin that the high priest committed in private or in his public capacity brought guilt on the whole nation (cf. Leviticus 10:6; Leviticus 22:16). [Note: Wenham, p. 97.]

3. God allowed procedural differences as well (e.g., where the priest sprinkled the blood, how he burned the fat, etc.) depending on the offerer’s position in the nation.

The sin offering covered only sins committed unintentionally. This category included sins done by mistake, in error, through oversight or ignorance, through lack of consideration, or by carelessness. That is, this sacrifice covered sins that sprang from the weakness of the flesh (cf. Numbers 15:27-29). It did not cover sins committed with a "high hand," namely, in haughty, defiant rebellion against God. Such a sinner was "cut off from among his people" (Numbers 15:30-31). Many reliable commentators interpret this phrase to mean the offender suffered death. [Note: E.g., Keil and Delitzsch, 1:224; Wenham, pp. 241-2; and idem, Numbers, p. 131.] Not all deliberate sins were "high handed," however, only those committed in defiant rebellion against God.

"The sin offerings did not relate to sin or sinfulness in general, but to particular manifestations of sin, to certain distinct actions performed by individuals, or by the whole congregation." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:302-303.]

The meaning of "congregation" is somewhat obscure. Sometimes the whole nation seems to be in view (e.g., Exodus 12:3; Exodus 12:6; Exodus 17:1; Numbers 20:1-2). If this is the meaning in Leviticus 4:13-21, as seems to be the case, the "congregation" is synonymous with the "assembly." However in other passages "congregation" seems to describe a representative group within the nation (e.g., Exodus 16:1-2; Exodus 16:9; Numbers 8:20; Numbers 15:33-36; Numbers 27:2; Numbers 35:12; Numbers 35:24-25). The context helps determine the meaning.

Note the promises that the offering would atone (make amends) for these sins (Leviticus 4:26; Leviticus 4:31; Leviticus 4:35; Leviticus 5:10). Scholars have understood the meaning of "atonement," from the Hebrew root kpr, in three different ways. Most of them have believed that it is related to the Arabic cognate meaning "to cover." Another possibility is that the verb means "to wipe or purge." A third view is that the verb means "to ransom." Probably the second and third views are best since they go back to the Hebrew root rather than to the Arabic cognate. Both these interpretations are valid depending on the context. However, the idea of covering is also frequently present. [Note: See Rooker, p. 52, for further discussion.]

". . . one hears it being taught that sins in the Old Testament were never fully forgiven or atoned, but merely covered over as a temporary measure. But Scripture says that atonement was made and they were forgiven (Leviticus 4:26; Leviticus 4:31; Leviticus 4:35; Psalms 130:4; Psalms 32:1-2 . . .)." [Note: Ross, p. 93.]

Most commentators understand this sacrifice as the principal expiatory offering in ancient Israel. [Note: E.g., Hertz, p. 22; and C. F. Keil, Manual of Biblical Archaeology, 1:299.] Nevertheless references to this offering in the text consistently connect it with purification. Sin defiles people and, particularly, God’s sanctuary. Animal blood was the means of purification. The pollution of sin does not endanger God but human beings. Textual evidence points to the burnt offering as the principal atoning sacrifice in Israel. [Note: See Wenham, The Book . . ., pp. 93-95.]

The idea that sin pollutes and defiles seems very strange in the modern world. Notwithstanding Leviticus reveals that sins pollute the place where they take place (cf. Leviticus 18:24-30; Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

The relationship of Leviticus 5:1-13 to chapter 4 is a problem. I have suggested one solution above: these sin offerings deal with sins of omission rather than inadvertent sin. One scholar suggested another explanation.

"Modern critics tend to regard Leviticus 5:1-13 as the ’poor man’s’ offering, the option given to the offender of Leviticus 4:27-35 who cannot afford the prescribed flock animal. This interpretation, however, is beset with stylistic and contextual difficulties: . . . My own hypothesis is herewith submitted: The graduated hatta’t [sin offering] is a distinct sacrificial category. It is enjoined for failure or inability to cleanse impurity upon its occurrence. This ’the sin of which he is guilty’ (Leviticus 5:6; Leviticus 5:10; Leviticus 5:13) is not the contraction of impurity but its prolongation." [Note: Jacob Milgrom, "The Graduated Hatta’t of Leviticus 5:1-13," Journal of the American Oriental Society 103:1 (January-March 1983):249-250.]

This relationship continues to be the subject of some debate. Wenham summarized this section well.

"The purification [sin] offering dealt with the pollution caused by sin. If sin polluted the land, it defiled particularly the house where God dwelt. The seriousness of pollution depended on the seriousness of the sin, which in turn related to the status of the sinner. If a private citizen sinned, his action polluted the sanctuary only to a limited extent. Therefore the blood of the purification offering was only smeared on the horns of the altar of burnt sacrifice. If, however, the whole nation sinned or the holiest member of the nation, the high priest, sinned, this was more serious. The blood had to be taken inside the tabernacle and sprinkled on the veil and the altar of incense. Finally over the period of a year the sins of the nation could accumulate to such an extent that they polluted even the holy of holies, where God dwelt. If he was to continue to dwell among his people, this too had to be cleansed in the annual day of atonement ceremony (see Leviticus 16)." [Note: Wenham, The Book . . ., p. 96.]

Under the New Covenant the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses the believer from all sin (cf. Hebrews 9-10; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 John 1:7; Revelation 7:14). Thus this offering is now obsolete for the Christian. However sin in the believer’s life can grieve the indwelling Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). Furthermore the New Testament reminds us that judgment is still proportionate to responsibility (cf. Luke 12:48; James 3:1). For us confession is a prerequisite to cleansing for fellowship (1 John 1:9) even though Christ’s death has brought purification from sin’s defilement and condemnation.

"God will restore the sinner who appeals to him for forgiveness on the basis of the purifying blood of the sacrifice." [Note: Ross, p. 134.]

"Anyone who becomes aware of obligations left undone or impure contacts left unpurified must make confession and find forgiveness through God’s provision of atonement." [Note: Ibid., p. 144.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-4.html. 2012.
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