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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 4

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary


The Purification for Sin Offering (Leviticus 4:1 to Leviticus 5:13 ).

Chapter 4 The Purification for Sin Offering (chatta’ah).

Now we are introduced to the purification for sin and the guilt/trespass sacrifices. The form chatta’ah comes from a verbal stem meaning ‘to purify’. It deals with sin as a whole. The guilt/trespass offerings are also purification for sin offerings but deal with particular breaches of the covenant, and are connected with compensation, and putting things right. It may be that both these were a new innovation to Israel, or it may simply be that because of their nature the histories had not had cause to mention them. But the important element in them is that they concentrate on sin, its eradication and its need for forgiveness and purification. They face the question of sin head on, and deal with the question of specific sins.

The sacrifices are at different levels dependent on whose sin they deal with. So the major purification for sin offerings are those for the sins of the priests, who are representatives of ‘the congregation (church, assembly) of Israel’, and of the community as a whole, which of course therefore contains within it the priests. The priests are holy to God, and the whole community are to God ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6). Thus such sins are directly against God’s holiness and cause a breach of the covenant for the whole nation.

These sins were sins against the covenant. They might be ritual failures or moral failures (both being the same in their eyes, they breached the covenant). Carelessness with regard to either would bring them under God’s judgment. There must be no failure in observing God’s ritual requirements exactly as required, and the keeping of Yahweh’s moral commands was seen as an essential part of the ritual requirements. All of life was considered to be involved in God, and had to be lived out with God and His requirements in mind. The failure to observe the ritual correctly in mind here would be accidental or careless. To do such a thing deliberately would be presumptuous sin and would incur death.

There is, however, an important difference between purification for sin offerings and all other offerings (including guilt offerings), and that is in the application of the blood. Only in the case of the purification for sin offering is it applied to the horns of the altar, and this is said in Leviticus 8:15 to be in order to purify the altar, with the remainder cast at the foot of the altar, which in Leviticus 8:15 is said to sanctify it in order to make atonement for it.

In the case of the whole burnt offerings, the peace sacrifices and the guilt offerings the blood is ‘sprinkled round about the altar’. The general significance must be the same, but in the case of the purification for sin offering extra purification is required.

Verse 1

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

This is, as ever, the indication of the introduction of a new section, possibly communicated at a different time from the earlier one. But it confirms that the purification for sin offering was communicated by God to Moses on its own at a particular point in time, although then being brought within the general pattern of offerings. These were to be seen as the words of Yahweh (see Numbers 7:89). This section goes on to Leviticus 5:13.

Verse 2

‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying, If any one shall sin unwittingly, in any of the things which Yahweh has commanded not to be done, and shall do any one of them.’

Here we have a general introductory statement. It is a word to the children of Israel as a whole concerning the fact that ‘if anyone’, whether priest, ruler or commoner, become aware of any way in which they have done what Yahweh has commanded not to be done, or if they find that they have failed to fulfil His requirements, then the purification for sin offering comes into play. It applies both for the one and the many, individual sin or community sin. For the one is the part of the whole. The sin in mind is ‘unwitting sin’, sin caused by man’s weakness and frailty, not sin done boldly and with a high hand. It covered sins that sprang from the weakness of the flesh (compare Numbers 15:27-29).

Sins resulting from human weakness, and the failure due to it, can be forgiven in such a way, but open defiance and deliberate thwarting of God’s will, sins committed with a "high hand," cannot be dealt with through sacrifices. The latter included premeditated murder, the taking of a life which belonged to God (Exodus 21:12-14); idolatry, the setting aside of God for the worship of idols (Exodus 22:20, and especially in this context Deuteronomy 13:6-9; Deuteronomy 17:2-7); the taking in adultery of a man’s wife who had been united with him by God, thus breaking the God-made tie (Leviticus 20:10); and being deeply involved with the occult (Exodus 22:18). In all these sins God was openly set at naught. Such a sinner was to be "cut off from among his people" (Numbers 15:30-31). This also included those who refused to listen to the requirements of the Law as taught by the priests and rulers of the people when speaking officially from God’s Law, for they thus defied God whose Law it was and were to be put to death (compare Deuteronomy 17:12-13). So when David had committed adultery, which was a presumptuous sin, he could not just offer a sacrifice. Sacrifices were not available for that purpose. It was a direct sin against God and a far greater judgment resulted. All such sins were strictly punishable by death, and only direct dealings in penitence with God could divert such punishment.

The previous offerings have had in mind atonement, worship, adoration, thanksgiving and love. The purification for sin offering deals directly with the problem of specific sin and how it can be removed.

Interestingly this formula ‘if anyone ---’ occurs in ritualistic formula elsewhere, including those dating from 2nd millennium BC.

Verses 3-12

Sinful Failure By The Anointed Priest (Leviticus 4:3-12 ).

Here we are now faced with sinful failure by the anointed Priest himself. This was a grave matter indeed. Here was the one who, together with his sons had been set apart by God, and who represented the whole people before God and acted on their behalf. He was their mediator and representative. He was to be the perfect exemplar. Any failure on his part to fulfil properly the ritual requirements exactly as prescribed, and the ritual requirements included all the moral requirements, reflected therefore directly on the people. For how could they act for the people once they themselves had sinned? Purification was therefore immediately necessary.

The maintenance of the true ritual exactly as prescribed was especially vital, for the danger was always that they might by altering it stray into the ways of the nations and fall away from the truth that God had revealed. The temptation was all around them constantly. The maintenance of true morality (our distinction, not theirs) was also vital because God is also morally ‘holy’ (set apart as totally different in that way), and those who are unholy morally have therefore no standing before Him. And this was especially true of the Anointed Priest. As the one especially set apart to God the Anointed Priest had a special responsibility to be holy, both in carrying out the ritual, in his activities, and in his whole way of living. Exactness in ritual did matter. Purity of life did matter. These both prevented the straying from the truth which could follow a consideration of the ‘good ideas’ or the sin of others which would only lead into error.

The Anointed Priest was primarily the High Priest, (called ‘the Priest’) but the office also included those who acted under him, at this time the sons of Aaron. They had the huge responsibility of maintaining the purity of the faith of Israel. For being ‘anointed’ sets apart the one so anointed for God’s service. They henceforth stood as God’s man between man and his God. Anointing did not necessarily involve an outward impartation of God’s Spirit, although that did happen at times when the person was being chosen and set apart by God for a task where that power would be needed. It indicated rather that the person was ‘chosen and set apart’ permanently for a God-given task. Thus for the one appointed to act as men’s mediator before God to sin, was to invalidate his whole position and his whole efficacy. His position ceased to be tenable. And yet, alas, it did happen, and that was why, when it did, he must instantly set about obtaining atonement for himself. As the writer to the Hebrews pointed out, he had first to offer for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people (Hebrews 5:3; Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 9:7). Until Jesus came there was no perfect mediator. This then brings out in contrast the perfection of our own Mediator, Jesus Christ, to Whom is purity and glory for ever.

Leviticus 4:3

‘If the anointed priest shall sin so as to bring guilt on the people, then let him offer for his sin, which he has sinned, a young bull ox without blemish to Yahweh for a purification for sin-offering.’

So if the anointed priest became aware of any sin that he had committed, which would have brought guilt on the people because of whom he was, and especially in cases where the failure had been where he was acting as ‘The Priest’, he must immediately act in order for that sin to be neutralised, to be totally got rid of, so that his own and their holiness could be restored. He had sinned on their behalf as well as his own. Thus they have sinned in him. He was therefore called on to make the most valuable of sacrifices, the young bull ox; maturing, life producing, vital and powerful (by tradition it would be required to be three years old). And it is to be ‘perfect’, total and complete, without blemish. This was a reminder that it was being offered for someone who was blemished, and it therefore required one who was unblemished to die for him. It was the sacrifice of the unblemished for the blemished (compare 2 Corinthians 5:21). And it was to be brought to Yahweh Who alone could deal with his sin. The matter was between the Priest and Yahweh.

In this sacrifice, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, we have the shadow, the copy, which points forward to Christ, for He also was a growing, mature male, was without blemish and was offered to God as a sin offering for others (Hebrews 10:12; 2 Corinthians 5:21), and it is through Him alone that sin can be dealt with. But He died for sin not His own.

Leviticus 4:4

‘And he shall bring the bull ox to the door of the tent of meeting before Yahweh, and he shall lay his hand on the head of the bull ox, and kill the bull ox before Yahweh.’

In the same way as with the other offerings and sacrifices the bull ox is brought ‘to the door of the tent of meeting’, that is into the courtyard where the bronze altar was, in front of the outer curtains of the sanctuary behind which, separated only by the Holy Place, was the throne room of Yahweh. And there the priest was to lay his hand firmly on the bull ox, firmly identifying with it and making it his representative for the bearing and purification of his sin. And then he killed it before Yahweh, and its life flowed out in death, and so before Yahweh there was a death for his sin, the death of a perfect representative who died in his place, and in the place of the people. His sin was identified with the bull ox, just as he was identified with the bull ox, and the bull ox died for his sin. And that death neutralised the sin. It was the antidote to sin. The sin was fully punished and the barrier that had arisen between him and God was removed. It ‘made atonement’ and brought purification for the sin.

The wages of sin is death, he who sins shall die, and that was why a life had to be forfeit. But a death having taken place the priest could, by the grace of God, become as though he had never sinned. And the bull ox too was no longer tainted with sin for the price of sin was paid. Instead it became excessively ‘holy’ because of God’s activity through it and on it. It was now wholly ‘separated to God’ as His instrument of purification. His holy action on it had made it ‘holy’. By means of the necessary punishment of death sin had been dealt with. It was ‘forgiven’. And the result of God’s holy working through it was that the ox bull became holy. Its remains had therefore to be dealt with with the greatest possible care. It had been God’s instrument of mercy.

That the sacrifice becomes holy is declared clearly elsewhere (Leviticus 6:25-27; Leviticus 7:1; Leviticus 7:6; Leviticus 10:17), and is emphasised by the fact that when taken outside the camp it has to be buried ‘in a clean place’.

The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus too was offered as a purification for sin offering, and that indeed as the anointed High Priest He offered Himself, and that His blood too was poured out and was accepted for purification for sins (Hebrews 9:11-14; Hebrews 10:5-14; Hebrews 1:3). And he reminds us that He too was excessively holy (Hebrews 2:10; Hebrews 5:8-9; Hebrews 7:26; Hebrews 10:7; Hebrews 13:12), so holy that His death and offering up had to be ‘outside the camp’. Indeed the death of the bull ox had been but a shadow of this, and without this offering of Christ once-for-all the shadow would have been ineffective. The efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice was carried back into the blood that was offered before Yahweh (Romans 3:25).

Leviticus 4:5

‘And the anointed priest shall take of the blood of the bull ox, and bring it to the tent of meeting,’

Here we have the first major difference with this particular offering for purification for sin (together with the community offerings for purification of sin) from all the others. The blood of the slain bull, caught in a bowl, is to be brought into the tent of meeting. All else had been dealt with at the door of the tent of meeting, without entering through the curtain. But here he goes beyond the door of the tent of meeting right into the Holy Place itself, and there approaches the veil. Once there only the veil separates him from the Holy of Holies and the very covenant throne of God. To be able to enter here is evidence that the blood has become ‘very holy’ indeed. But in what does this holiness consist? It is in that the blood has been shed for sin, and has been accepted, so that it has become God’s instrument in making purification for sin. It has ‘totally covered’ the sin of the anointed priest, and the resulting defilement of the Holy Place, and neutralised it by the action of God in the imparting His holiness, thus making both once again holy, and the blood holy with the holiness of God. It has become a most precious thing.

Leviticus 4:6

‘And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before Yahweh, before the veil of the sanctuary.’

And this ‘blood made holy’ is now sprinkled by means of the priest’s finger seven times before Yahweh within the Holy Place of the tabernacle, before the veil, to demonstrate that all that has to do with the priest and the Holy Place has now again been made holy. The sinning priest had not only defiled the people but also the Holy Place. But that shed ‘blood made holy’ was the proof of holiness fully restored to the whole through the shedding of blood (Leviticus 17:11). It completed the cleansing. The covenant was restored. The Priest’s mediating work could go on.

There is also in this a recognition in this that the priest’s sin or the nation’s sin had defiled the Sanctuary. Thus the blood also purifies the Sanctuary.

“Seven times.” Seven was the ancient number of divine completeness and perfection. Compare how Naaman had to dip in the Jordan seven times to be cleansed of leprosy (2 Kings 5:10; 2 Kings 5:14). Throughout Leviticus the number will occur again and again, indicating the same idea. In early Sumer numbering to seven was as far as a man could count, using five fingers on a hand, and then the two extra numbers he could manage. Thus seven very early on became the number that represented everything that could be counted, and continued in all nations to indicate divine completeness. It became, and continued to be, the number of divine perfection. Beyond that man could not go. (That is until someone thought of using both hands, then ‘twelve’ (two eleph) became the limit of counting - two eleph means two more - and thirteen was thus seen as unlucky - but by then the significance of seven had been fixed. The number thirteen was not, however, seen as unlucky in Israel. Thirteen bull oxen could be offered on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles).

So the sevenfold sprinkling indicated the divine completeness of the purification, and the restoration of the covenant relationship, and was necessary before he could make this first approach to the altar of incense after becoming aware of sin.

Leviticus 4:7

‘And the priest shall put of the blood on the horns of the altar of sweet incense before Yahweh, which is in the tent of meeting; and all the blood of the bull ox shall he pour out at the base of the altar of ‘offering up’ (of the whole burnt offering) which is at the door of the tent of meeting.’

Then having sprinkled the blood with his finger seven times towards the veil as he approached, indicating that the sin that would have prevented his approach has been dealt with, he is able to apply some of the blood to the horns of the altar of incense before the veil, which is seen as uniquely ‘before Yahweh’. For directly behind the veil, with its two poles pushing the veil forward where they extended into the Holy Place (1 Kings 8:8 - probably on each side of the altar of incense), was the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh, where from an earthly point of view Yahweh was enthroned invisibly between the Cherubim. This was as close as the blood could be brought without going within the veil into the Holy of Holies itself. Indeed the altar was seen as in some way within the Holy of Holies, as being a kind of appendage (1 Kings 6:22; Hebrews 9:4) of the Holy of Holies, made available in the Holy Place for the priestly offering of incense, and for this type of application of blood.

“The horns on the altar” were upward projections at each corner. Comparative incense altars with similar projections have now been found elsewhere, for example at Megiddo, in Palestine. Their description as ‘horns’ suggests that they were probably intended to symbolise power, as the horns of a beast constantly represent its power throughout Scripture. The altar was seen as a place of power, and powerfully effective in what it achieved. And the blood was thus applied to its most powerfully effective part. Part of the reason was to purify this altar (compare Leviticus 8:15). But we are probably to see that all the power of God went into receiving that blood on God’s behalf, and it was made powerfully effective in purification in general. Having now become holy it has become a kind of incense to God, an act of worship on restoration of the covenant. It was holy blood, shed for sin but then made holy by God as he accepted the price that had been paid. Prayer could, as it were, now begin again, and it began with the blood. (We must not underestimate the devastating nature of the Priest’s sin).

The remainder of the blood was then taken out of the sanctuary and poured out at the base of the altar in the courtyard which was ‘at the door of the tent of meeting’ within the holy precincts of the tabernacle. This was to sanctify it and make atonement for it (Leviticus 8:15). So the whole of the blood which had been made very holy by being shed for sin was dealt with within the tabernacle precincts. And it was first applied for the purification of sin, and to make atonement, and then to purify the Holy Place and its contents, and then to give praise for that atonement, and then it was finally all given to God.

Leviticus 4:8-10

‘And all the fat of the bull ox of the sin-offering he shall take off from it; the fat that covers the innards, and all the fat that is on the innards, and the two kidneys, and the fat that is on them, which is by the loins, and the covering of fat on the liver, with the kidneys, shall he take away, as it is taken off from the ox of the sacrifice of peace-offerings: and the priest shall burn them on the altar of whole burnt-offering.’

All the fat of the bull ox, was then stripped from it, including the innards, and the fat that was on them, and the two kidneys and the liver, and all fat associated with them, and these were burnt up on the altar as an offering to Yahweh. The fat represented the very best of the offering, and the parts mentioned represented its vital being, its life and emotions and all that it essentially was, given by Yahweh in creation when He first gave them life and breath. These belonged to Yahweh and were passed back to Him, offered up in worship to Him. So even the sin offering has a worship aspect and recognises God’s rights as Creator. Indeed the blood having now been shed the worship could be offered truly.

Leviticus 4:11-12

‘And the skin of the bull ox, and all its flesh, with its head, and with its legs, and its inwards, and its dung, even the whole bull ox shall he carry forth without the camp to a clean place, where the ashes are poured out, and burn it on wood with fire. Where the ashes are poured out shall it be burnt.’

Then all that remained of the bull ox and its carcase, including its skin, was taken out to be burned in ‘a clean place’. This was very significant. It was far from just getting rid of the remains. Being burned ‘in a clean place’ indicated its extreme holiness, and that it was being handed over to God. Nothing that could defile would be taken to ‘a clean place’. So even its dung has been made most holy. Like all else connected with the sacrifice God’s power had transformed it. We can almost hear the words, ‘what God has cleansed do not call common’ (Acts 10:15). It is burned in the clean place where the very ashes from the altar were taken for disposal, outside the camp. Those ashes too were holy for they had received of the offerings and sacrifices that had been offered on the altar. (Compare the live coal from the altar and its purifying effect in Isaiah 6:6-7). Indeed they were too holy to remain in the camp outside the tabernacle. So nothing that was taken there could be seen as defiling. Thus it is not correct to suggest that they were taken outside the camp because they had become unholy, and were saturated with sin. They were taken out because they were too holy to be disposed of in the camp. The sin had been neutralised by its penalty having been exacted, and the offering had become possessed by God’s holiness as having been His instrument of salvation and as having purified the Holy Place.

The inference is that these parts of the bull ox had become so totally holy that they could not even be burned on the altar (as the whole burnt offering was). They were beyond being offered to God by men in any worshipping way. The altar was for offering to God men’s offerings. But these had been involved in God’s activity in the purification of sin and had so been made excessively holy. They therefore belonged to Him already. God’s holiness had been imparted to them. Man could not offer them.

So they no longer in any way represented man and his offerings. Man could no longer offer them up. They were already devoted to God. Therefore while they had to be removed from the earthly sphere and given to God as His, it was by being burned (despatched to God) outside the camp altogether, in a clean place, a place so clean that it could receive the ashes of the altar. They were too holy for the altar, they were too holy for the camp, and they were too holy for the priests to partake of. They could only be offered by burning in a clean place outside the camp, and not as an offering and sacrifice, because they were already His, but as already belonging to Him. They were already devoted to Yahweh.

This point is taken up by the writer to the Hebrews in Leviticus 13:10-13 when he stresses that Jesus offered up Himself outside the camp, in His case totally, because of His extreme holiness. Jerusalem was no longer holy enough for Him to be offered there, and God took Him without the camp to His own special altar, for Him to be offered there in holiness. Jerusalem meant it as a reproach. God by it indicated His extreme holiness. Jerusalem testified against itself. As a result He is able to make holy and to purify all Who come to God through Him, for he is their purification for sin offering.

“A clean place --- outside the camp.” Such is referred to again in Leviticus 6:11. It was clearly a place set apart for God’ use and was regularly needed for the depositing of holy ashes. How or why it was clean or made clean we are never told. (see also Leviticus 10:14 where it has a different meaning but with a similar intent of holy things being dealt with there). But they had met God in the wilderness and it was still to be seen as His possession. He was still the Creator of all things, and watched over those places where man and beast were not allowed to control and defile. The ashes would be safe there in God’s keeping. It was in contrast with ‘an unclean place’ (Leviticus 14:40-41; Leviticus 14:45). All these many details constantly bring out how accurately the narrative fits into the time of the wilderness. To suggest that someone later invented all these details is inadmissible.

It is noteworthy that there is no mention of atonement here. This is not because there was none but because it cannot be said that ‘the priest made atonement’ for himself. In this case the atonement was directly made by God. The Priest was merely a suppliant.

Verses 13-21

The Purification For Sin Offering For The Whole Congregation (Leviticus 4:13-21 ).

This second type of purification for sin offering is to occur when the whole congregation, the congregation as a nation, and thus the whole nation, has sinned. The ‘congregation’ was the gathering of Israel. This ‘gathering’ would take place especially at the regular feasts, but would also occur whenever they were called together. At these gatherings decisions would be made both about the past and the future. Judgments had to be given and future options determined. However, it was always possible that any decisions then made, and the courses that followed, might finally be discovered to be contrary to the covenant. They may by them have unintentionally ‘sinned’. This would include judgments made on certain disputed matters. And God’s anger, His antipathy against sin, would therefore have been aroused. It was then that this act of atonement had to come into play.

Leviticus 4:13

‘And if the whole congregation of Israel err, and the thing be hid from the eyes of the assembly, and they have done any of the things which Yahweh has commanded not to be done, and are guilty;’

The idea is that the ‘assembly’, those who represent the whole congregation, has become aware in some way that its decisions and actions have been contrary to Yahweh’s will. It had not been done deliberately, but they have come to recognise how wrong they had been. It has in mind decisions which publicly affect the whole people. They realise that they, or someone acting on behalf of the whole, have done what Yahweh commanded not to be done, and that they are all therefore guilty of breaking the covenant, and that they have done it as the nation as a whole. They recognise that, unless they act to restore it, the covenant has therefore been invalidated and has ceased to be effective. And they are all guilty as though they were one.

As the offering is later said to be the ‘sin offering for the assembly’ (Leviticus 4:21) this may suggest that ‘the assembly’ represents all the men of Israel, with ‘the congregation’ including the women and children. It may however just be that it means an assembly representing the whole people. Or it may be a synonym for the congregation of Israel. (In fact ‘the congregation’ itself sometimes mean all the mature men of Israel, and sometimes all the people, and sometimes a group representing all the people).

Leviticus 4:14-15

‘When the sin by which they have sinned is known, then the assembly shall offer a young bull ox for a sin-offering, and bring it before the tent of meeting. And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull ox before Yahweh; and the bull ox shall be killed before Yahweh.’

The procedure is slightly summarised and is no doubt to follow closely that for the Priest’s sins. Here it is ‘the elders of the congregation’, their main leaders as representatives of the whole assembly, who lay hands on the bull ox. The bull ox represents the whole congregation. One or two of their number will then slay the bull ‘before Yahweh’. The death is drawn to His attention, and it is made clear that they are following His demands. The blood will then be collected by the priest in a basin to be further dealt with.

The ‘elders of the congregation’ are heads of tribes and families, here the main heads of the tribes (compare Exodus 3:16; Exodus 3:18; Exodus 4:29). They were called elders because they were seen as old in wisdom, and usually were so in person, but not necessarily always. The tribal leaders would mainly be so because they were heads of prominent families. But particularly prominent younger men could sometimes be appointed as ‘elders’ as well. It was to these elders that Moses came when he first brought word of deliverance from God. See also Numbers 11:16-17 for the selection from among them of chosen leaders of the people to act in God’s name as His spokesmen. For the hierarchy see Joshua 7:17-18; the tribe, then the sub-tribe, then the wider family, then the family itself, then the individual. Each tribe would have its prince or chieftain, supported by a group of elders, and similarly the sub-tribe whose chief would be an elder in the main group, and himself supported by elders, and so on.

Leviticus 4:16-18

‘And the anointed priest shall bring of the blood of the bull ox to the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle it seven times before Yahweh, before the veil. And he shall put of the blood on the horns of the altar which is before Yahweh, that is in the tent of meeting; and all the blood shall he pour out at the base of the altar of whole burnt-offering, which is at the door of the tent of meeting.’

The same procedure is followed as for the Priest. The same gravity of offence has been committed which involves both the priest and the whole nation, for the priest was a part of the nation. The seriousness of the priest’s sin lay in that he was the God-chosen representative of the whole nation, here the sin has been the whole nation’s. In both cases therefore the whole covenant has been shattered. The blood is brought within the tent of meeting into the Holy Place. And this ‘blood made holy’ is now sprinkled by means of the priest’s finger seven times before Yahweh within the Holy Place of the tabernacle, before the veil, to demonstrate that all that has to do with the whole congregation has now again been made holy. Not only the people but also the Holy Place had been defiled, for among them had been the Priest and his sons. But that shed blood was the proof of holiness fully restored to the whole through the shedding of blood (Leviticus 17:11). It completed the cleansing. The covenant was restored. The Priest’s mediating work could go on. The people were still His people.

Leviticus 4:19-20

‘And all its fat shall he take off from it, and burn it on the altar. Thus shall he do with the bull ox; as he did with the bull ox of the sin-offering, so shall he do with this; and the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.’

Reference is here made back to the previous example. All is done the same. And the consequence is that atonement is made for them and they are as a nation forgiven. Atonement had not been mentioned in the case of the Priest, for he could not atone for himself, but it had been necessary and could be assumed in the light of this statement here. Atonement must always be made if men are to approach God. But here the Priest can ‘make atonement’ because he is not just acting for himself. He comes as the mediator for the nation.

So in this second example a detail is added which was not mentioned in the first and yet applied to it. We have seen before how in the second example a detail is brought in that was not given in the first example, but still applied (e.g. Leviticus 1:11). But as we have previously noted, the priest could not have been said to ‘make atonement’ for himself. That was something he could not do.

Note how the greatest detail is still given with regard to the application of the blood. This was of essential importance and sealed the restoration of the covenant.

Leviticus 4:21

‘And he shall carry forth the bull ox outside the camp, and burn it as he burned the first bull ox; it is the purification for sin offering for the assembly.’

The same treatment of the remains also follows. God’s action and holiness, in response to the death of their representative, has neutralised and atoned for the sin of a whole nation, resulting in the offering being suffused with His holiness. The offering has become excessively holy. It has been taken over by Him. It must therefore be ‘given to God’, to Whom it now belongs exclusively, in a clean place away from the camp, a place which is ‘holy’, and in this case too this would include the hide. It is too holy to belong to anyone but God. No one who was a part of the sin could have a part of it. (At other times the priest could receive the hide because he was holy, but not where he himself had been involved in the sin).

In the same way as the bull ox could atone for the sins of a whole nation, so in Hebrews are we made aware that Jesus’ sacrifice for Himself is sufficient for the sins, not only for a nation but for the whole world, if only they will repent and believe (see also 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:14; John 1:29; John 3:16; John 4:42; 1 Timothy 4:10). There is no limit to the redeeming power of God.

Verses 22-26

The Purification for Sin Offering For a Ruler of the People (Leviticus 4:22-26 ).

We now come a step down to a ruler of the people. The situation is now different. He does not represent the whole nation, nor, although appointed by God, is he God’s anointed mediator for the whole people. This is a sin of only a section of the people. It is therefore not a total rejection of the covenant. Thus the offering too is toned down and its remains disposed of differently, as with the peace sacrifices. It is necessary for atonement and the restoration of the unity of the nation, but not for the restoration of the covenant as a whole.

Leviticus 4:22-23

‘When a ruler sins, and does unwittingly any one of all the things which Yahweh his God has commanded not to be done, and is become guilty; if his sin, by which he has sinned, be made known to him, he shall bring for his oblation a goat, a male without blemish.’

The ruler’s sin may be personal, or it may have affected his sub-group. Either way it affects those over whom he is responsible. Thus he has brought guilt on himself and his sub-group. This time the offering is to be a he-goat. And it must be without blemish, for it is in the place of one who is blemished so that its death may be on his account. Its maleness reflects the importance of, and vitality of, the offering.

“If his sin be made known to him.” The rulers and elders are clearly responsible to account for each other. The idea is probably that his behaviour has come to the attention of the other rulers, and they approach him in order to deal with the matter for the sake of the whole, exerting peer pressure. It may, however, mean made known by God.

The question of what is meant by ‘a ruler’ cannot be definitely answered, although its general significance is clear. The term is general. In Exodus 16:22 the ‘rulers’ of the congregation came to Moses with a problem of the people. They thus appear as spokesmen of the whole, and possibly different from the elders. But their importance is undoubted. It may, however, refer to any prominent leader in a position of fairly wide authority. The point behind this is that having authority lays greater responsibility on the one who has it, for he is responsible for others as well as himself.

Leviticus 4:24

‘And he shall lay his hand on the head of the goat, and kill it in the place where they kill the whole burnt-offering before Yahweh. It is a sin-offering.’

The ruler is now publicly to lay his hand on the goat and kill it ‘in the place where they kill the whole burnt offering before Yahweh’. This means to the north side of the altar (Leviticus 1:11) and its mention only here may suggest that the two above may have been killed in a more prominent position. (Compare in Leviticus 1:0. It may indicate that all bull ox sacrifices were slain more prominently).

It is clear now that this sacrifice is of a lesser nature. The tension is no longer there, except for the person involved. It is a he-goat and it is slain where all whole burnt offerings are slain. The reason that it is not to be a sheep is possibly because he-goats are often used to depict rulers. They are ‘stately in their going’ (Proverbs 30:31). Compare ‘the he-goats before the flocks’ (Jeremiah 50:8); ‘the he-goats of the earth’ signifying its important men (Isaiah 14:9). Thus the he-goat adequately represents a ruler.

Leviticus 4:25

‘And the priest shall take of the blood of the sin-offering with his finger, and put it on the horns of the altar of whole burnt-offering; and its blood shall he pour out at the base of the altar of whole burnt-offering.’

The blood is applied to the horns of the altar of whole burnt offerings rather than within the Holy Place. The future of Israel is no longer seen as in doubt. Nevertheless the strength of God is called on, and the plea of the blood goes up to Him through the horns of the altar, and the altar is purified. The rest of the blood is then flung at the base of the altar to make atonement for it (Leviticus 8:15). It is all presented before God. It is the shedding of the blood which results in forgiveness of sins. It is the blood that makes the atonement for the whole person (Leviticus 17:11).

Leviticus 4:26

‘And all its fat shall he burn on the altar, as the fat of the sacrifice of peace-sacrifices; and the priest shall make atonement for him as concerning his sin, and he shall be forgiven.’

The fat of the sin offering is treated like the fat of the peace offerings, presumably along with all the inner organs. They belong to God. Nothing is said of the meat and the skin. These actually go to the priest. They are holy, but not most holy. For in Leviticus 6:26-29 we learn that all the priests may eat of the meat, but only in the tabernacle precincts because it is holy.

“And the priest shall make atonement for him as concerning his sin, and he shall be forgiven.” The result of the work of the priest, using God’s allotted means, results in atonement for the ruler. He is forgiven.

This offering brings out the responsibility of Christian leadership. For those who lead sin is more virulent, for they hurt not only themselves but those that they lead. But Christ having been made our purification for sin offering purification and atonement is available through Him, even for those who sin in leadership and bear more guilt.

Verses 27-35

The Purification for Sin Offering For The Common People (Leviticus 4:27-35 ).

This is of either a female goat or a female sheep. It is thus of lower rank than that of the ruler, which was male, but may be of either kind. By having the two dealt with separately we have five different types of purification for sin offerings described, the bull ox for the priest, the bull ox for the community, the he-goat for the ruler, the female goat for the commoner, or the female sheep for the commoner. This thus makes five types of offering, and five is the number of covenant. It may be no coincidence in that this offering deals with breaches of the covenant. Compare how the whole burnt offering and the peace offering were in threes (and how the writer groups two or three together as one or makes them separate as he wishes).

Leviticus 4:27

‘And if any one of the common people sin unwittingly, in doing any of the things which Yahweh has commanded not to be done, and be guilty;’

Finally we have the offering for any of the common people who sin ‘unwittingly’, and thus not in open rebellion against Yahweh. It is for those who sin against the ‘you shall not’ commands. They have sinned against God’s direct command. If they have done so they are guilty and must go through the atoning procedures.

Leviticus 4:28-30

‘If his sin, which he has sinned, be made known to him, then he shall bring for his oblation a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has sinned. And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin-offering, and kill the sin-offering in the place of whole burnt-offering. And the priest shall take of its blood with his finger, and put it on the horns of the altar of whole burnt-offering; and all its blood shall he pour out at the base of the altar.’

Exactly the same procedure occurs here as for the ruler, except that the offering is a lesser one, a female goat. But it is still to be without blemish. Only as such will it make a perfect representative and substitute. The commoner presses his hand on it, and slays it, and then some of its blood is put on the horns of the altar and the remainder at the foot of the altar. His sin results in death and is therefore neutralised by God acting in mercy, and his offering becomes holy. He is in process of being accepted by God and atoned for.

Leviticus 4:31

‘And all its fat shall he take away, as the fat is taken away from off the sacrifice of peace-sacrifices; and the priest shall burn it on the altar for a pleasing odour to Yahweh; and the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.’

The fat and all connected with it is then burnt on the altar and rises as ‘a pleasing odour to Yahweh’. We may probably assume that this is true of all the offerings of fat from the purification for sin offerings, although previously the emphasis has been on the need for forgiveness and atonement and it has not been specifically brought out. The priest has thus made atonement for him and he is forgiven.

(Some have suggested that this is burning as a pleasing odour to Yahweh is out of place, but you will note that in the next summary the conception of the ‘offering made by fire’ is brought in. It is therefore clear that the writer is bringing in different ‘secondary’ aspects to this offering as we go along, to remind us that they still apply. In the whole burnt offering all was a pleasing odour to Yahweh. Here it is only the offering of the fat and the innards ).

Again no mention is made of the skin or the meat. Attention is rather on dealing with the sin. But in Leviticus 6:26-29 we learn that all the priests may eat of the meat, (even those excluded from priestly service by blemishes (Leviticus 21:21), but only in the tabernacle precincts because it is holy.

Leviticus 4:32-34

‘And if he bring a lamb as his oblation for a sin-offering, he shall bring it a female without blemish. And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin-offering, and kill it for a sin-offering in the place where they kill the whole burnt-offering. And the priest shall take of the blood of the sin-offering with his finger, and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt-offering; and all its blood shall he pour out at the base of the altar:’

The procedure is exactly the same as for the female goat. This may appear redundant to us, but for the Israelite the fivefold description was fully meaningful. Without its fivefold nature it would not have had the same impact.

Leviticus 4:35

‘And all its fat thereof shall he take away, as the fat of the lamb is taken away from the sacrifice of peace-offerings; and the priest shall burn them on the altar, on the offerings of Yahweh made by fire; and the priest shall make atonement for him as touching his sin that he has sinned, and he shall be forgiven.’

In this end description there is an addition to what has gone before, the fat and the innards are ‘an offering made by fire’ to Yahweh. This is almost certainly intended to be applied to all the purification for sin offerings apart from the two where the burning was outside the camp in a clean place, and even then it applied to the fat. The fat and innards of all as offered up are both a pleasing odour to Yahweh (Leviticus 4:31) and are an offering made by fire. The writer has so written it that without the fivefold description, the picture would not have been complete. The whole is skilfully and cleverly composed, introducing all the elements in the offerings while keeping attention focused on the main one, the purification for sin.

These sacrifices for the common people, offered one by one, remind us of God’s interest and concern for each of us, however lowly, and that His full provision is there on our behalf when we come to Him in faith and trust.

So the great importance of properly dealing with sin has been brought out, and our need for purification and atonement, and the sacrifices are copies and shadows of the work of our Great High Priest Jesus, illustrating the work that He finally accomplished when He offered Himself up to God once-for-all for our sins as the perfect purification for sin offering, and the perfect atonement offering, sweeping up into His work all the offerings and sacrifices which had been offered from true hearts throughout all ages. Their effectiveness came from Him.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Leviticus 4". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/leviticus-4.html. 2013.
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