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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Leviticus 4



Verse 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. 1 John 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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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Leviticus 4:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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