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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Leviticus 4



Having discussed the three traditional offerings, we now approach two which are the creation of positive statute the sin offering and the trespass offering. They are introduced by explaining their nature and stating the occasion on which they are to be resorted to, as if they were entirely unknown before. Sin burdening the conscience, or resting on the unconscious soul, is made prominent, and its turpitude is magnified by the very law which provides for its atonement. As the sun, pouring his beams into a dark room, reveals its filth and its need of cleansing, so the Sinaitic law disclosed to the eye of conscience the manifold spots and stains of sin hitherto unseen, and, by its high requirements, was the occasion of the commission of many sins. “The law entered that the offence might abound.” But in the gracious provision for the purgation of the conscience from a sense of guilt in the sin-expiating sacrifices, we find that “where sin abounded grace did much more abound.” Romans 5:20. See Introduction, (7.)


(1.) Ethical writers insist that the moral sense of mankind pronounces innocent the inadvertent doer of an act wrong in itself. They declare that there is a broad distinction between wrong and guilt, on the one hand, and right and innocence on the other, and that guilt always involves a knowledge of the wrong and an intention to commit it. Hence in the light of the moral philosophies filling our libraries and taught in our colleges a sin of inadvertence or ignorance needs no expiation. The punishment of such sins by human judicatories, it is asserted, would be an outrage against which every good man would cry out. Nevertheless, so great are the interests intrusted to men in certain positions that severe penalties are attached to carelessness, as in the handling of poisons by physicians and apothecaries, the involuntary sleep of a weary sentinel at his post, or in the case of the bridge-tender, who, through a misapprehension of the hour of the day, has the draw open when the express train arrives. These are inadvertent sins which men regard and punish as crimes. Now what the exigencies of human society require in a few cases, the perfect moral government of God demands in all cases satisfaction for involuntary sins. But there is this difference. God always provides an atonement for such sins, and never executes sentence till the atonement has been rejected. Where the expiation cannot be known and applied he forbears to inflict the penalty. The time of this ignorance God overlooked. Acts 17:30. Hence the law of God is more merciful than the law of man, which, in the cases specified, makes no provision for escaping the punishment of involuntary offences. The objection which some have raised against the Divine government for holding errors and inadvertencies as culpable and penal, falls to the ground when we find the first announcement of this fact accompanied by the institution of the sin offering.

(2.) Though a well-meant mistake does not defile the conscience and bring the soul into condemnation, it nevertheless demands a penitent confession and a presentation of the great Sin Offering unto a God of absolute holiness. The refusal to do this, since the sin offering is provided, involves positive guilt. Says John Wesley, “Not only sin, properly so called, that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law; but sin improperly so called, that is, an involuntary transgression of a Divine law, known or unknown, needs the atoning blood. I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality. Therefore sinless perfection is a phrase I never use, lest I should seem to contradict myself. I believe a person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions.” Hence Chas. Wesley sings,

“Every moment, Lord, I want

The merit of thy death.”

(3.) The Jewish teachers were thorough literalists, as is seen in their definition of the sin of ignorance: 1.) It must be involuntary. 2.) Against a prohibition. 3.) An outward act and not a word or a thought. 4.) The deed must be worthy of capital punishment when wilfully committed. We believe that this is taking too narrow a view of the broad field of inadvertent sins. The New Testament here illumines the Old. In Acts 3:17, St. Peter, after boldly charging the Jewish authorities with the denial of the Holy One and the Just, the liberation of a murderer, and the killing of the Prince of life, throws the mantle of charity over these flagrant and wilful sins by saying, “Brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.” Then after having brought their sins within the efficacy of the great sin offering, if they will avail themselves of the blood of sprinkling, he exhorts them to repent that their sins may be blotted out. Peter speaks in the same strain in his epistolary exhortation to the Church not to fashion themselves “according to the former lusts in your ignorance.” 1 Peter 1:14. St. Paul repeatedly palliates his wilful sin of violent persecution of the Church by the declaration that he did it ignorantly. 1 Timothy 1:13; Acts 26:9. Hence Archbishop Magee infers that the sin of ignorance “includes all such as were the consequence of human frailty and inconsideration, whether committed knowingly and wilfully, or otherwise. It stands opposed to sins committed with a high hand, (Numbers 15:22-31,) that is, deliberately and presumptuous-ly, for which no atonement was admitted. So that the efficacy of the atonement was extended to all sins which flowed from the infirmities and passions of human nature, and was withheld only from those which sprang from deliberate and audacious defiance of the Divine authority. “This view is also confirmed by the example given of particular sins which called for the atonement fraud, lying, rash swearing or perjury, and licentiousness.” This throws light upon the sin “for which there is no more sacrifice,” (Hebrews 10:26-29;) the sin unto death, (1 John 5:16;) the irremissible sin, (Mark 3:29;) and clearly identifies it with the sin committed “with a high hand” for which the “soul shall be utterly cut off.” The contrast between the two Testaments, which makes the Old the embodiment of unmitigated severity and the New the impersonation of mercy, is groundless. There is mercy in the dispensation of the law; there is in the dispensation of grace “the wrath of the Lamb” flashing out to consume incorrigible offenders.

(4.) The diversity in the victims appointed for sin offerings was evidently intended to mark the different degrees of offensiveness in the sin to be atoned, except the alternative conceded to poverty. Thus we have an ascending scale: a female kid, or pair of pigeons, a male kid, a young bullock, respectively, for a private person, a prince, a high priest, or the whole people, show that the heinousness of sin increases with the rank and number of the transgressors. “Begin at my sanctuary.” Ezekiel 9:6.

Verses 1-2


2. If a soul shall sin It is a noteworthy fact that throughout this entire description of sacrifices Jehovah makes provision not for bodies, nor for men, but for souls. He would thus early direct the attention of the Hebrews away from the visible form to the immaterial and spiritual person which it enshrines.

Through ignorance The Hebrew word b’shaggah in error occurs here for the first time in the Bible. In the Authorized Version it is translated by the word ignorance twelve times, by unawares four times, once by unwittingly, and twice by error. It occurs only in Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, and Ecclesiastes. Furst prefers to render it by the adverb inadvertently. Up to this time Jehovah had overlooked the sins of his people which arose from lack of knowledge and imperfection of judgment. But that every mouth may be stopped and all may be guilty before him, he pronounces sentence of condemnation upon them for their unconscious deviations from his law. There can be no high attainments in holiness until the cry is extorted, Who can understand his inadvertencies? Cleanse thou me from unknown errors. Psalms 19:12. He who is satisfied so long as his conscience does not condemn him, needs to be taught that the decisions of an approving conscience, involving, as they may, erroneous intellectual judgments, are not a safe ground of justification to him who has access to the written revelation of God’s will. Hence says St. Paul, (1 Corinthians 4:4,) as rendered by Alford, “For I am conscious to myself of no delinquency, but I am not hereby justified.” Compare Hebrews 5:2-3; Hebrews 9:7.

Against any… commandments The Hebrew is not against but from in deviation from. As the law is made up of prohibitions and precepts, it may be broken by doing a forbidden act, which is a sin of commission, and by failing to perform a required deed, which is called a sin of omission. In other words the law may be transgressed, or stepped over, and it may be swerved from. The sin of in-advertence is most frequently committed in the latter way, though there are also involuntary sins of commission. Such are distinctly referred to in the latter part of the verse.

Verse 3

SIN OF A PRIEST, Leviticus 4:3-12.

3. The priest The term priest in the original signifies a performer of the offices of worship. In the English it is derived from presbyter, referring more to the order than to the duties.

That is anointed The anointing at the consecration of the Aaronic priest symbolized his setting apart to a sacred office, and prefigured the inward unction of the Holy Ghost, which, after Jesus was glorified, should be poured upon all perfect believers in Christ, making them “kings and priests unto God.” Revelation 1:6. The original is the word messiah, adumbrating the only Priest who mediates between the believer and the Father in the Gospel dispensation. The high priest is here intended, because he had the anointing in a pre-eminent sense. Leviticus 16:32; note on Leviticus 6:22; Psalms 133:2. The anointing oil was composed of pure myrrh, sweet cinnamon, calamus, cassia, and olive oil, (Exodus 30:23,) emblematic of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. St. Chrysostom never opened his “golden mouth” for a more terse and truthful sentence than this: “The Law was the Gospel in anticipation; the Gospel is the Law in fulfilment.”

Do sin The radical notion of sin, in both the Hebrew and Greek mind, is that of missing the mark. The priest “taken from among men is compassed with infirmities,” and is so liable to miss the mark by any involuntary unsteadiness of aim that he is regarded as a presumptive sinner, (Leviticus 8:14,) and provision is made for the expiation of his offences before he can acceptably officiate at the altar in behalf of others, who, like himself, are unwittingly “out of the way.”

According to the sin of the people Rather, to the fault of the people, so that they incur guilt. If the high priest sins, the propitiation which he attempts to make is null and void, and the people are left in a state of guilt exposed to the penalty of the law. Hence provision is made to secure an atonement for the atoner. At no point does the superiority of our great High Priest to the frail and sinning head of the Levitical hierarchy shine forth with greater brightness. He is not obliged to present an offering first for himself and then for us. “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

Without blemish See note on Leviticus 1:3.

Sin offering The Hebrew chattath signifies sin, sinner, sacrifice for sin, repentance, or punishment. This explains 2 Corinthians 5:21. The idea of rendering satisfaction for the transgression of the law lies on the very surface of the sin offering. The blood of the bullock is the life. The life of the animal must be substituted for the forfeited life of the sinner. See Introduction, (6.)

Verse 4

4. Shall lay his hand… and kill Since the priest is also the offerer these acts must be performed by him. For the significance of the laying on of the hand, see Leviticus 1:4. From later Jewish authorities we learn that there was added the following confession of sin, and prayer that the victim might be accepted as its expiation: “I have sinned, I have done iniquity, I have trespassed, and done thus and thus; and do return by repentance before thee, and with this I make atonement.” This confession, if it was not a part of the original ritual, was a pardonable addition; the proper we may say necessary expression of the penitent soul.

Verse 6

6. Dip his finger in the blood Some explain the shedding of blood in sacrifice by the theory that evil rests in that which is material, and that blood is the representation of that evil principle in matter. Hence these modern Gnostics see in the shedding of blood the putting away of moral evil. In addition to other objections to this view, is the command to the priest to come into immediate contact with the blood which would have ceremonially defiled him, if it was the representation of all impurity.

Sprinkle… seven times This number represented perfection. The origin of the symbolism of seven has been much discussed. It is reasonable to suppose that the first idea associated with seven would be that of religious periodicity arising from the sabbath, and that the notion of the completeness of a religious act arose from this. We certainly cannot agree with Bahr’s fanciful division of seven into its component elements, three and four, the first of which=Divinity, and the second=Humanity, whence Seven =Divinity+Humanity=the God-man. The more we have of such exegesis of the Holy Scriptures, the more will sceptics be confirmed in unbelief, and thoughtful believers be perplexed.

The sanctuary The most holy place or the holy of holies. Behind the vail the visible presence of Jehovah was enthroned above the ark of the covenant and between the outspread wings of the cherubim. The nearest that the ordinary priest could come to this throne of Jehovah was to the vail. There he might sprinkle the blood to make propitiation for sin. Within the vail only the high priest could go, one day in the year, to sprinkle the mercyseat. Leviticus 16:14.

Verse 7

7. Blood… horns of the altar These horns are not supposed to have been made of horn, but to have been projections from the four corners covered with the metal with which the altar was overlaid. Josephus describes the altars in use in his day as having these projections in the shape of horns. Others are of the opinion that the horns of the original altars were perpendicular cones rising from each corner of the altar to half its height. There is much discussion respecting their purpose. They could not, in the case of the altar of incense, have been for binding the victim before killing it, (Psalms 118:27,) because no victim was ever burned on this altar. The horn is with the Hebrews a favourite symbol of power. Its presence on every altar may have been to suggest the glory of Jehovah’s omnipotence. Previous to the appointment of the six cities of refuge, the altar was the asylum for the accidental manslayer. Exodus 21:14. The refugee was accustomed to lay hold of the horns of the altar. 1 Kings 1:50. The horns were to be smeared with blood, perhaps to set forth the great truth that the blood of Christ is the only inviolable refuge, and that the penitent sinner can lay hold of the protecting power of God only as he lays hold of sacrificial blood. See Introduction, (6.)

Altar of sweet incense This, being covered with gold, was called the golden altar, to distinguish it from the brazen altar of burnt offering. Exodus 38:30; Exodus 39:38. The Hebrew name for altar, signifying “the killing-place,” as applied to the altar of incense is not strictly appropriate. It is not here used in its etymological sense. For a description, see notes on Exodus 30:1-10.

Before the Lord This altar was situated in the holy place. In apparent contradiction to this, the writer to the Hebrews (Hebrews 9:4) enumerates it among the objects which were within the second vail, that is, in the holy of holies. In 1 Kings 6:21-22, it is said to belong to “the oracle,” or most holy place. The best explanation is that suggested by Bleek and adopted by Tholuck, namely, that the author of the epistle “treats the holy of holies, irrespective of the vail, as symbolical of the heavenly sanctuary, and had also a motive to include in it the altar of incense, whose offerings of incense are the symbol of the prayers of the saints. See note on Hebrews 9:4.

Pour all the blood… bottom of the altar In the temple there was a duct by which the blood was conveyed to the brook Kedron. There was doubtless some such way of disposing of the blood in the tabernacle, of which the temple was only an enlarged copy.

Verse 8

8. All the fat Suet. See notes on Leviticus 3:3; Leviticus 3:17.

Verse 9

9. The two kidneys… caul See note on Leviticus 3:4.

Verse 11

11. The skin This, in the whole burnt offering, was the perquisite of the priest. See note on Leviticus 7:8. In the sin offering for a priest or the congregation it was to be burned. But in the sin offering for a prince or a private person it is left doubtful.

Verse 12

12. The whole bullock shall he carry forth Bishop Colenso finds a physical impossibility here, and in his estimation a conclusive proof that Leviticus is “unhistorical,” a bungling fabrication of a later age. But the Hebrew does not require the priest personally to carry forth the bullock, but “to cause it to go forth,” by the agency of others, probably the Levites.

Without the camp The reason for this requirement is not recorded. Says Fairbairn, “It is true that all impure things were carried without the camp, but it does not follow that every thing carried out of the camp was impure.” A clean place in which it was to be burned implies that it is most holy. But the usual treatment of the most holy things, namely, eating by the priests could not be resorted to, because it was a sin offering for a priest. The only other way in which Jehovah signified his acceptance was by receiving the sweet odour when consumed by fire. But if burned on the altar there would be nothing to distinguish it from the burnt offering. Hence, though most holy, it was borne without the camp and consumed in a clean place, yet where carrion and other impurities were found near at hand. The holy Son of God, the great Sin Offering, suffered between two malefactors, himself separate from sinners. “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate,” (Hebrews 13:12,) after “the Lord had laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Isaiah 53:6.

Where the ashes are poured out At a little distance from Jerusalem are several large mounds of ashes, one of them forty feet high, which some conjecture may be as old as the age of the temple, having been built up by the ashes carried out thither from the altar of sacrifice. Professor Liebig has proved them to be composed largely of animal elements.

And burn him “The word ‘burn,’ here, is different from that which is used to denote turning into odour or perfume on the altar. It signifies to destroy by fire; whereas the other means to incend or consume as incense.” There is something very peculiar and exceptional about the treatment of the sin offering for the people and for the high priest, their representative; it was most holy, and yet was committed not to the slow altar-fires to sweeten the sky with its odour, but to the devouring flames in a place surrounded by impurities. How unique and mysterious the sufferings of Christ when forsaken by the Father!

Verse 13

SIN OF THE CONGREGATION, Leviticus 4:13-21.

13. Whole congregation… sin It is not to be supposed that so great a multitude should each be guilty of the same inadvertent sin, except it be some defect in worship or some deviation from the letter of the law arising out of their peculiar circumstances, as in 1 Samuel 14:32-35. It is this presumptive sin of the whole congregation of Christian worshippers which renders it eminently appropriate for the Lord’s Prayer, with its petition for forgiveness of debts, to be repeated in every assembly. The sin of the whole congregation was to be expiated in the same way with the sin of the priest, except that the elders, as their representatives, laid their hands upon the victim.

Verse 20

20. Make… atonement for them The radical significance of this term is to cover the sinner from the holiness of God lest he be consumed because of his sin. The term atonement in the Old Testament corresponds not to the Greek of which atonement is the translation in Romans 5:11, καταλλαγην , reconciliation, or a state of harmonized variance, irrespective of the means, but to propitiation, ιλαστηριον , (Romans 3:25,) and ιλασμος . 1Jn 2:2 ; 1 John 4:10. See note on Leviticus 1:4.

It shall be forgiven For the nature of the Old Testament forgiveness, see Introduction, (7.)

Verse 22

SIN OF A PRINCE, Leviticus 4:22-26.

22. A ruler This term signifies any high political officer, especially the heads of the tribes, or phylarchs. The rabbins generally understand that under the monarchy it referred only to the king. The ritual for a prince is like that for the priest and for the congregation, except that the victim was a kid of the goats, and that the fat was burned as was that of the peace offering. Instead of being burnt without the camp, the flesh was to be eaten by the priest. Leviticus 6:26.

Verses 27-35

SIN OF A PRIVATE PERSON, Leviticus 4:27-35.

The only difference between the method of expiating the sin of a private person and that of a ruler is, that the offering of the former being a female kid is supposed to be inferior to that of the ruler.

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Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Leviticus 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.