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Leviticus 4 Study Notes

4:1-2 Sins committed unintentionally (Hb shegagah) are inadvertent transgressions committed through ignorance or neglect, not premeditated, defiant sins. Although all sins are serious, requiring the cost of a substitutionary death, the sins and impurities were atoned for by the sin offering. Compare 5:1-5a for examples of unplanned sins.

4:3 Anointed priest refers to the high priest (6:22; 21:10; Ex 29:7). As the representative of the people before God, his sin—perhaps some inadvertent error in carrying out prescribed rituals—would also impact the purity of the people. A young, unblemished bull refers to its pristine, vital youth, but the Hebrew phrase may also mean a bull taken from the herd—a domesticated specimen. The traditional translation sin offering is better understood as “purification offering” since it involved the ritual removal of impurities and provided forgiveness (Jacob Milgrom). The Hebrew noun (chatta’th) is related to the verb meaning “to purify,” that is, “to decontaminate” (chitte’; e.g., Ezk 43:19-23). The sin offering also dealt with the offerer’s sin (Lv 4:20; 5:13).

The instructions for the sin offering (4:1-5:13) consisted of two parts: the general instructions (4:1-35) and the appendix naming special circumstances (5:1-13). The sin offering addressed the consequences of sin, which always rendered the sanctuary and its furnishings unclean and impaired the relationship between the worshiper and God. This made it unacceptable for the worshiper to access the sanctuary and receive God’s forgiveness. The sin offering removed the corrupting effects of sin, which permitted the remorseful sinner not only to receive forgiveness but to have the assurance of acceptance with God. For this reason, the ritual included the application of blood to the sanctuary furnishings, not to the person (4:5-7,16-18,25,30,34).

The importance of the sin offering is validated by its role in the everyday lives of individuals and its use at special times in the community, such as at the ordination of Aaron to the priesthood (chap. 8) and significant annual festivals (Passover, Ex 12:11-27; Day of Atonement, Lv 16:3; Shelters, Nm 29:16).

The sin offering varied according to the progressive degrees of responsibility: the high priest (Lv 4:3-12), the congregation collectively (vv. 13-21), the ruler (vv. 22-26), and the individual layperson (vv. 27-35). The underlying principle is that although all sin is contaminating, the sins of leadership (priest, king) and the congregation have greater impact than those of the individual transgressor. The variation in the cost of the sacrifice and the placement of blood on the sanctuary furnishings reflected this same principle. The reason was the infiltration of sin and impurities inside the tent. Thus, the more profound the impact of the sin, the farther into the tent the blood was applied, that is, the closer to the presence of the Lord as symbolized by the ark. In all cases, however, the remaining blood was poured at the base of the altar in the courtyard, symbolizing that the life of the victim belonged to God (vv. 7,18,25,30,34; 5:9). Another distinction was that for the priest’s and the congregation’s sins, the animal’s carcass must be butchered into parts and burned (4:8-12,19-21), while for the leader and individual, a portion of the offering was assigned to the priest, who could eat it as a sign of divine acceptance of the worshiper (5:13; 6:26).

4:4 Lay his hand indicates an identification of the person with the sacrificial animal that served as his substitute (see note at 1:4).

4:5 This was the only offering that required the high priest to bring the blood into the tent of meeting.

4:6 Seven indicates the thoroughness of the purging; this number occurs also in the accounts of the ordination rite (8:11), purification of lepers (14:7), the Day of Atonement (16:14,19), and the ceremony of the red heifer (Nm 19:4). On before the Lord, see note at 1:5. The curtain (Hb paroketh) separated the holy place from the most holy place inside the tent canopy (Ex 26:33). The sin offering on the Day of Atonement had the sprinkling inside the curtain before the mercy seat, whereas here the priest could go no farther than in front of the curtain. It may be that the curtain represented the whole sanctuary (16:16), guaranteeing that the entire tabernacle was thus purged. Another possibility is that the curtain represented the mercy seat (Hb kapporeth) of the ark, which the priest could not approach except on the annual Day of Atonement.

4:7 The priest is to apply (Hb natan) the blood by smearing rather than sprinkling (Hb nazah) it; the altar of fragrant incense refers to the golden altar before the dividing curtain inside the tent canopy. Aaron lit this each morning and evening (Ex 30:7-8). Only priests could offer the incense (2Ch 26:18). The word “incense (Hb qetoreth) is related to the Hebrew word that means “to produce smoke by burning up” (qatar). The altar symbolized intercessory prayer (Ps 141:2; Rv 5:8; 8:3-4). Thus by decontaminating this altar, the prayers of the priest and people could be received by the Lord. The fragrance refers to a unique blend of spices that made a special perfume used in the tabernacle (Ex 30:34-38). Compare its distinctive use on the Day of Atonement (Lv 16:12).

The four horns, one protruding from each of the altar’s four corners (Ex 30:1-6; 38:2), conveyed the power of a formidable animal (Dt 33:17) and thus the efficacy (strength, e.g., 1Sm 2:10; Am 3:14) of the altar’s purpose. The disposal of the remaining blood at the base of the (courtyard’s) altar, around which a trench probably ran (1Kg 18:32), occurred only for the sin offering of the five offerings detailed in Lv 1-7 and also during the special ordination rites of Aaron’s priesthood (9:9; Ex 29:12). The blood, as the symbol of life, belonged solely to God and could not be used for any other purpose.

4:8-12 For the burning of the fat, compare the fellowship offering (3:3-4,9,16-17). The precise instructions for the bull’s parts were necessary since the meat of a sin offering taken from the flock could be eaten by the priest (6:26). Any sin offering whose blood was taken into the tent (6:30), such as prescribed for the priest and the congregation (4:5,16; 16:24), could not be eaten. A distinguishing feature of the sin offering was that the bull’s remaining parts were taken to a ceremonially clean place outside the camp (also Day of Atonement, 16:27) where they were burned. But the burnt offering required the burning of the whole animal on the altar (except the hide). The disposal site for the bull’s remaining parts had to be ritually clean, unpolluted by unclean persons or defiled by human refuse (13:46; Nm 5:3; Dt 23:10,13). The phrase ash heap occurs only here, describing the place where the remaining parts were burned (6:11-12; Jr 31:40; Ezk 43:21).

4:13-14 The priest who carried out the offering on his own behalf (16:11) now did so for the congregation. The word errs (Hb shegag) refers to unintended transgressions (cp. v. 2). This sort of sin escaped notice (Hb ‘alam), hidden at the time of the trespass, but was perceived later. The priest’s sin imposing “guilt” on the congregation (v. 3) may indicate that the congregation’s guilt was related to the error committed by the priest, which the assembly obeyed.

4:15 Before the Lord is equivalent to “before the tent of meeting” (v. 14; cp. v. 4). The passage does not specify who slaughtered the sin offering, although the priest did so on the Day of Atonement (16:15).

4:16-19 The procedure is the same as for the high priest.

4:20-21 This is the first occurrence in Leviticus of the word forgiven (Hb salach; cp. vv. 26,31,35; 5:10,13,16,18; 6:7; 19:22); the Hebrew passive form of the verb implies that it is God alone who can forgive sin.

4:22-23 A leader (Hb nasi’) was a ruler over a tribe (Gn 25:16; Ex 34:31). The expression the Lord his God is often used of a significant leader (Moses, Ex 32:11; king, Dt 17:18-19; priest and Levite, Dt 18:6-7).

4:24 The burnt offering was slaughtered north of the altar (see note at 1:10-13). The declaration that it is a sin offering was a reminder that this rite should not be confused with the burnt offering.

4:25 The blood remained outside the tent and was applied to the courtyard’s altar of burnt offering for its purgation (Ex 29:38-42; on the altar’s construction, see Ex 27:1-8). On horns of the altar, see note at v. 7.

4:26 The phrase he will be forgiven only occurs with the sin offering and the restitution offering.

4:27-35 The individual was permitted to offer a female goat or female sheep.

4:27 Common people renders (lit) “people of the land,” meaning anyone who was not the high priest or an official.

4:31 Divine acceptance shown by the catchphrase pleasing aroma occurs only here in chap. 4, and it is assumed for the previous procedures for the sin offering (see note at 1:9).

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