LEVITICUS 4:1– 6:7, The Sin-Offering and the Trespass Offering

Fall Conference, Silver Lake College, Manitowoc, WI, October 14-15, 2017

by Floyd Brand

Sacrifice stood at the center of Old Testament worship, chiefly but not exclusively animal sacrifice. The first recorded acts of worship were sacrifices, the offering of Cain and the offering of Abel. From several directions one gets the impression that the animal was burned whole on the altar: particularly the pictures of Abel’s sacrifice in works of art, especially in books of Bible history; and then the record of Noah’s sacrificing of every clean animal and of every clean bird after the Flood; and then the altars of the patriarchs, as well as of the sacrifice of Isaac. Whatever the details of sacrificial ritual were in those early times, this whole burnt offering in any case stands as the fundamental act and the highest form of worship.

The liturgy committed to Israel through Moses is much more complex. The opening chapters of Leviticus distinguish five main types of sacrifice: the whole burnt offering, the peace offering, the grain offering, and the sin and trespass offerings. Each has its own ritual and its special emphasis on this or that facet of divine saving truth. These opening chapters spell out the ritual, while leaving it, to some extent, to the pious Israelite to figure out for himself the significance of the details. In every detail of the divinely ordained liturgy, God is teaching his people about his wondrous salvation, that their worship might not be a mere ex opere operato performance (precise ritual without understanding or emotion on the part of the worshiper); rather, worship in spirit and in truth, in heart to heart communion between the two persons, the Creator and the creature, the Redeemer and the redeemed, at the same time between the Father in heaven and his children on earth all together, notably but not exclusively the Twelve Tribes.

For the fullest and clearest understanding as well as the richest appreciation of the sacrifices of Israelite worship, it helps to hold in view all the types of offering at once, noting the features common to all and the features unique to each type. First an overview of the things the worshiper presented to his God. Chapter one presents the burnt offering, otherwise called the whole burnt offering; in the original, Olah, that which goes up, goes up in smoke namely as the manner of giving it to God. The burnt offering could be a bullock, a ram, a male goat, a turtledove, or a young pigeon. In the ritual of Leviticus 1, the priest butchered the victim and reverently arranged the parts of the animal on the altar upon the wood. The grain offering could be flour, bread, flatbread, or whole kernel grain, always with oil and frankincense added, always with salt and always without leaven or honey. The peace offering could be male or female, from the herd or from the flock. The sin offering could be bullock or kid or two turtledoves or young pigeons, or in case of extreme poverty, a small amount of flour, but without oil or incense. The trespass offering had to be a ram.

The animal sacrifices were obviously always clean animals. The Israelite was reminded at every meal that he with all his people were set apart from the unclean nations, to belong to the living God and to be becoming like the living God, renewed in his image: sanctification. What the Israelite was not allowed to eat, he was certainly not allowed to offer to God. But there were animals and birds as well which he could eat but could not offer as sacrifice: deer, antelope, quail, to name a few. The Israelite was offering to God the fruit of the labor of his hands. This is the one feature common to all five types of sacrifice, including the grain offering. Whether his gift came from the flock or from the field, the worshiper was giving to God a gift from that which he had acquired with the toil of his hands and the sweat of his brow; of that in which he had invested his time and energy and intelligence and attention and devotion. He was giving of himself in other words. But it was not with the idea that once he had given a fraction of his endeavor to God, the rest belonged to no one but himself. The gift represented the worshiper’s consecration to God of his entire self, his entire being, his entire life, all that he was and all that was his, every cell of his body, every moment of his time, every motion within his soul. It expressed his will to serve the Lord his God with all his heart and all his soul and all his strength and all his mind. Again, this is the one thought common to all types of sacrifice.

The animal sacrifices, the bleeding sacrifices, and these only, present the concept of expiation. The victim dies, and it dies from the loss of blood. The victim dies in place of the worshiper, in order to cancel his guilt. God accepts the death as a sacrifice. The worshiper deserved to die, but the animal died in his place. Thus the worshiper was eligible for the whole blessing of God in all its aspects, temporal and eternal. God explains this in chapter 17. The explanation follows the strict commandment that the Israelite must not eat blood in any form. The stranger in their midst must also avoid eating blood. The penalty was severe: “I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.” In other words, whatever penalty may have been carried out by the authorities, that person is excommunicated, condemned by God, outside the company of heaven. Then God explains: For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. With respect to biology, certainly fitting; but this is theology co-opting physiology. The words “I have given” make clear that this statement is sacramental. It is not the working of physiology but the word of God that makes the blood of the sacrifice acceptable to God as expiation. This word of God, Lev. 17:11, embraces all forms of bleeding, animal sacrifice. Still, the concept of expiation is more prominent in some forms of offering than others, notably the sin offering and the trespass offering. The concept is always there; whether it is always the foremost concern is another question.

But then, there is the grain offering, called the meat offering in the KJV, using the word “meat” in the older sense of food in general. There is here no shedding of blood, of course, no death of a victim, no substituting an animal for a person, nothing vicarious. Hence this sacrifice does not express or represent expiation. To be noted is that this offering could be brought as an independent offering in its own right, or as an adjunct to bloody sacrifices. That leaves consecration or sanctification in the narrow sense as the one aspect common to all sacrifice; indeed, it is the purpose of all worship as well as the fruit of all true worship. It is “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name,” expressed in gift and ritual. The purpose and fruit of expiation is consecration, exactly as Luther put it: “My Lord . . . has redeemed me, has purchased and won me from all sins, from death and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death that I might be his own, and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

The Lord spoke to Moses from the tabernacle, giving him the ritual for burnt, grain, and peace offerings in chapters one through three. Chapter four begins, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,” introducing the sin-offering; and chapter five, verse fourteen, reads the same, thus indicating a new feature of the liturgy. If a soul sins unintentionally, by mistake, inadvertently, against any of the commandments of the Lord about things not to be done, and does one of them, and then the type of victim to be brought as sin-offering. This depended on who committed the sin. If it was the priest, the offering had to be a young bullock, a male without blemish. If the whole congregation of Israel sinned inadvertently and afterward recognized that they had done something against any one of the commandments of the Lord, the offering was again to be a young bullock. That it be without blemish is by now understood. If it was a ruler who sinned, the sacrifice had to be a kid of the goats, male without blemish; and if it were one of the common people, he was to bring a goat, a female without blemish, otherwise a lamb, again a female without blemish. For some sins at least, defined in chapter five, the offering was to be a female lamb or goat. If the person could not afford this, he could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons; and if he could not afford even that, then a measure of fine flour, two or three quarts. The value of the offering was to correspond to the seriousness of the sin, and this hinged on the position of the sinner in the congregation of Israel. The priest was mediator, and if he were disqualified, the whole congregation had to experience the curse of his sin. The priest was mediator, and the ministry of the priesthood was the life-line between the Lord and his people. If he were disqualified, the channel for the grace of God to his people would be blocked. Thus the sin of a priest was the most damaging, and so in this case the most valuable of all animals that could be sacrificed had to be offered, a bull. It was the same when the whole congregation had gone astray. The sin of a ruler likewise did harm to the whole congregation, though not as severe; then a goat would qualify as sin-offering. A common person would also bring a goat, but a female, less valued. The differences in the value of the sacrifice brought out the relative responsibilities of priest, prince, and common person for the spiritual health of the Lord’s congregation.

The worshiper was to bring his sacrifice to the door of the tabernacle, and later, the temple. He presented his offering at the sanctuary where God had chosen to meet with his people. The sinner did not come up with a plan to provide a substitute for himself, and then God had to go along and accept it. God himself took the initiative, revealing that he would accept a substitute for the sinner, and setting forth the ritual for sacrifice acceptable to him. The wages of sin is death, eternal death, and there is no way around it. But God does not desire the death of the sinner, so he takes the initiative and himself provides for sacrificial, vicarious expiation. Here the expiation of sin is the sole purpose for this sacrifice. The wages of sin is death, and the sacrifice must suffer the penalty which the sinner deserved. Therefore a sacrifice where expiation plays any part must be a living thing, something in which there is the breath of life, which can thus give up its life and die. And it must be without sin of its own. If any sinful creature could expiate his own guilt, sacrifice would be unnecessary. But this does not work. Therefore God appointed certain clean animals, farm animals to be sure, for sacrifice. For these creatures were without sin. They were not in rebellion against their maker. But right here it becomes clear that the Old Testament sacrifices were merely symbolical. Animals are not capable of sin or righteousness, and so they cannot be the moral equivalent of creatures who are thus capable. Then, they can only suffer bodily, physical, temporal death. The full measure of the penalty of sin is eternal death, enduring forever the wrath of God in body and soul. The animals slain as sacrifice did not endure the real death.

The worshiper was to lay his hands on the head of the animal. This act has long been understood as the worshiper placing his sin and guilt upon the victim, who then had to die for this sin and guilt. This may be true enough, but likely not truth enough. This act was not a gentle pat. Actually the worshiper was to press down hard upon the head of the victim, not simply transferring his sin but imposing his whole sinful self, his identity; upon the victim, thus appointing the victim as his substitute, now responsible for bearing his guilt and punishment. Accordingly, when it comes to the actual effective sacrifice, the death of Christ, St. Paul writes, “We are buried with him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” The believer is so closely identified with his Lord in the death of his Lord. Thus in this part of the ritual, pressing down on the head of the victim expressed the intent and the confidence that in the eyes of God the death of the victim counts as the death of the worshiper himself.

Next the worshiper was to slay the animal, by slashing its throat, so that the blood poured out. At that point the priest stepped in and caught the blood or much of it in a basin. He was to take some of it into the tabernacle, dip his finger into the blood, and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord in front of the veil, the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. He was to smear some of the blood upon the horns of the altar of incense, and then dash the rest of the blood against the side of the altar of burnt offering, outside in front of the tabernacle. This ritual is more elaborate than the whole burnt offering or the peace offering; there the blood was simply dashed against the sides of the altar of burnt offering. There expiation is essential to the sacrifice, but not the only aspect of it. There is there more to it than expiation; with the sin offering, expiation is all there is to it. The ritual here gives added force to the words, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls.” Here, not one altar but both altars, and before the veil besides. Again and again, when the offering is by an individual worshiper, the directions for the entire ritual conclude, “And the priest shall make atonement for him, for him for his sin, for him for the sin which he has committed, and it shall be forgiven him.” The word translated “atonement” is Capporeth, covering. It is the word used for the mercy seat which formed the lid of the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies. The idea is that God does not see the sin; but not the idea that the sin and guilt are still there, only covered up so that God does not see it. Sin and guilt are rendered totally ineffective and powerless to stir the wrath of God, or to require that the worshiper be punished. The power of sin to damn is vitiated, its claim nullified. Sin and guilt are clean gone. This is the covering, the expiation.

The priest was then to remove all the fat, and notably the masses of fat from within the abdomen of the victim, even the kidneys together with the fat upon them and the long lobe of the liver, and burn them upon the altar of burnt offering. The fat was the part of the animal most prized, and as the best part it was given to the Lord by burning it on the altar. The rest of the animal, skin, flesh, head, legs, internal organs, contents of the digestive tract, was taken to a clean place outside the camp, where the ashes from all the offerings at the altar of burnt offering were deposited, and burned there. Still, this was not merely disposing of the carcass. This burning also was offering to God. If a poor man brought his two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one was to be a sin offering and the second a burnt offering. The priest was to wring the neck of the bird, not a dry wringing as we think of it, but tearing the neck open without completely severing it. Two aspects of the blood ritual were combined, sprinkling some of the blood against the side of the altar and dashing the rest against the base of the altar.

With the whole burnt offering, the entire carcass of the victim was burned on the altar. With the peace offering only the fat portions were burned on the altar. With sin and trespass offering, the same. But here the rest of the carcass was not burned on the altar. It was taken to a clean place outside the camp, the place where the accumulated ashes from the altar of burnt offering were deposited, and burned there. This part of the sacrifice was holy to the Lord; in one view, too holy for the priests to eat, as with the wave breast and heave shoulder of the peace offering, or for the worshiper and his family to eat, as with the peace offering also. But where consecration and sanctification are the blessing of the expiation of the burnt offering, and peace with God, and reconciliation, communion with God and his people, the unio mystica, is the fruit of the expiation effected by the peace offering, here with the sin offering and the trespass offering, the focus is on expiation only. In terms of prayer, one petition is made and answered: Forgive us our trespasses!

The trespass offering was prescribed for individuals. It had to be a ram without blemish, its value to be appraised by the priest. A decrepit old animal of little value would not do; it had to be more or less in its prime. The notable difference between sin offering and trespass or guilt offering was that the latter involved restitution, because the sin involved robbing or defrauding. The first instance mentioned is sin against the holy things of the Lord. Whatever loss the ecclesiastical treasury had suffered was to be repaid plus one fifth the value of the original loss. Then, if one had defrauded his neighbor, he was to restore what he had gained in wrongful manner plus one fifth. Here Zacchaeus’ appreciation for divine forgiveness stands out in bold relief: “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

With the sharpened and heightened awareness of sinfulness and sin available in the New Testament, the category and the specific sins to be expiated by these sacrifices seems puzzling. First, they were sins committed inadvertently, unintentionally, by mistake. Sometimes it is worded sin through ignorance, other times, if the sin be hidden at the time, or he did not know it. Sometimes the person has acted against one of the commandments; sometimes he failed to do what he ought, and sometimes it was a condition he found himself in, for one, uncleanness contracted in any way whatever. The reader’s first reaction might be, there are many sins worse than these, what about them? What about the sins which the person was aware of at the time? For one, it lies with God alone to say what is sin. The slightest sin in the eyes of the sinner is offense against the Eternal Majesty, and its weight and measure and seriousness and consequences are determined by just that. Some sins may do less damage to other people; sometimes one sins “with a high hand,” in conscious defiance, and other times he sins just like that, before he has time to think what he is doing. The ritual speaks of sins done inadvertently, sins of ignorance. Sins of ignorance are still intolerable to God and must be expiated if they are to be forgiven. To take the measure of sin and guilt, it is not enough to look at the effects, the damage done, including the spiritual damage as well as the temporal. Sin and guilt are measured by the person offended, the one against whom the sin is committed, the one whose commandment is broken and whose will is disobeyed.

The impudence of the Old Adam snarls, Why should God be so touchy about that apple in the Garden of Eden? But in the day that Adam ate of it, sin entered the world and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. Further, the state of uncleanness may be unavoidable or accidental or unconscious, as in, I didn’t know that was a grave when I walked over that ground. Again, the leper did not intentionally contract the disease, but if he recovered he was required to bring his sin offering. God was teaching his people that they are vulnerable and liable to all kinds of distress because they are sinners; otherwise such things would not happen to them. Consider that a child is vulnerable to sickness, injury, and death, because he is a sinner from the moment his existence begins. If he were not by nature sinful and unclean, he could not suffer or die. If God were to visit or to allow suffering and death to befall an innocent child, he would be a most nasty and unjust person. The hatefulness of sin is a hard lesson. God was teaching his Israel this lesson through the liturgy as well as through life on earth as they experienced it. But all this goes only a little way toward answering the question.

The sinners in need of sin offerings are listed in descending order in chapter five: priest, all Israel, ruler, common man. Clear already that the sin to be expiated is not merely a matter between the individual and his God. This was the Old Testament, where church and state were one. A sin against God brought guilt upon the whole congregation, even that of a common person, e. g. Achan. Each Israelite bore a responsibility for all Israel and for all other Israelites, and each sin was a disruption of the covenant between God and Israel, among other things. Some of the serious sins the modern reader has in mind were capital crimes in Israel: not only murder, but adultery and breaking the Sabbath. The sentence was often expressed in the words, “that soul shall be cut off from his people.” To what extent the thoughtful Israelite understood that capital punishment in Israel extended to eternal excommunication, God knows. One might note that the Pentateuch does not sort the divine commandments into moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law. It would not be possible to take three different highlighters and color-code the commandments accordingly. Every law was a moral law, given by God, arising from his mind, heart, and character; the transgression of any law would be punished and the obedience to any law rewarded. What may well pertain here is that the sins for which one might bring a sin or trespass offering were not those for which one would be cut off from his people; not sins which could be punished judicially, because they were unconscious, unintentional: sins of ignorance. But God was teaching his people that all sin is hateful, yes, intolerable to him.

With regard to the sins for which sacrifice may be offered, some have found explanation in this, that eternal life, eternal death, the resurrection and the last judgment were not as clearly defined for the people of Moses’ time as they are in the New Testament; that they were well aware of divine retribution and reward in this life, hardly or not at all aware of the eternal. Through the centuries there was to be sure an increase in understanding on the part of the devout. The patriarchs would hardly have composed a full length dogmatics text. But one can hardly call the early Hebrews ignorant, certainly the thoughtful among them. Job, knowing that he had not forsaken God as his comforters asserted, knowing that God must acknowledge Job as his child because God is just, knowing that his sickness is terminal and his vindication is not forthcoming in this life — he figured out that there must be a resurrection.

A completely satisfactory answer to our questions regarding the sins for which sacrifice could be offered, or not, may still be out there. Chapters to come will bring more answers and raise more questions.

All in all, an animal could not really take the place of a human being and become his substitute and endure his punishment. The manifold repetition of sacrifices also testified to the fact that the whole ritual was only symbolic. Sacrifice was symbolic. It was prophetic. Sacrifice was only a promise. But what a promise! There would be a Sacrifice, and a High Priest, and his blood and death would effect the total expiation of all the sin and all the guilt of all the guilty sinners ever. This sacrifice of Christ was ever present to the eyes and the heart of the eternal God, and in view of that he accepted the sacrifices of Israel. Even the fact that God provided the gifts which the worshipers brought in sacrifice, from their daily bread so to speak, pointed to God providing the true sacrifice, which the sinner could never do. Leviticus is prologue; the death of Christ on the cross the real thing; for epilogue, the Epistle to the Hebrews.