The “Sin” Offering is a Purification Offering
Welcome to Chapter 4 of Leviticus. I’ve chosen water images for this post’s stained glass artwork. Water is the universal solvent in science, and it is the universal cleanser in daily life. Since today’s post is all about keeping things clean, I thought water would be an appropriate theme.
In most of your Bibles, chapter 4 has a heading of Sin Offering. My Bible does, too, and sin is usually an accurate translation of the Hebrew word underneath it. Be that as it may, “sin offering” is so misleading and inadequate that I will be using a different name for it. I’ll be using the title that most Leviticus scholars use, which is the Purification Offering, and that title is a much better label for what’s actually going on with the offering.
Before we go too much further, I want to take a moment to do our memory recap of the previous offerings we’ve studied and then add the information for the purification offering to the list. Today’s post will be very long, even for my standards, so don’t neglect to start out by remembering what we’ve already covered. It’s tedious, but in the long-term, you’ll be glad to have these meanings saved up as stored treasure.
The Burnt Offering (Cover)
Purpose: to cover the offerer’s unholiness and make him acceptable in God’s presence
Message: Lord, I want to spend some time with you, in your presence, and I pray that you will find me acceptable.
The Grain Offering (Remember)
Purpose: to remember the covenant made between God and his people Israel
Message: Lord, I remember your promises to us and our promises to you. I take our covenant relationship seriously.
The Peace Offering (Fellowship)
Purpose: to eat a covenant meal in fellowship with God
Message: Lord, I enjoy being in your presence, and I enjoy the peaceful fellowship between us. Thank you for being our God and making us your people.
The Purification Offering (Decontamination)
Purpose: to remove unholy/unclean corruption from sacred space
Message: Lord, I recognize that my unholiness has contaminated the holy space that you so graciously inhabit to dwell among us. I pray that this offering will cleanse the corruption from the Tabernacle and atone for the offense.
You’re Gonna Have to Change Your Mindset
A lot of you have probably been told in the past that you should look for Jesus in every verse of Leviticus “to help you get through it,” and I’m going to ask you to put that notion aside. I’m asking you to do this because Jesus is not present in every verse of Leviticus, and reading it that way will lead you into the weeds. As a whole, Leviticus points to Jesus with a flashing neon sign, and many of the images in Leviticus are blatant and obvious figures of Messiah. Nevertheless, if you spend your energy searching for Jesus in this study, you will never learn to see the context that our original audience lived in. You won’t miss Jesus when he shows up in this text; I promise, but you will miss or misinterpret important parts of Leviticus if you’re constantly trying to make everything fit a New Testament worldview.
The Israelites of Leviticus did not have Christ. They had no Messiah, and they had no notion of Messiah. They were not thinking of Jesus, and they were not looking for him. In the Tabernacle system, the people knew one thing: Almighty God was now miraculously living in their midst, and for the first time since the Garden of Eden, mankind had the privilege and the means to stand once more in his holy presence.
For the Israelites of Leviticus, there was no concept of “once saved, always saved.” There was no concept of guaranteed salvation or guaranteed forgiveness. For some sins, there wasn’t enough animal blood in all the world to cover them, and the wages of sin is death. These people simply did not have the frame of reference on eternity that Christians enjoy.
So many people read Leviticus and say, “The one thing I learned from Leviticus is gratitude because our way is so much better.” If I press in on that statement, I almost always discover that what they mean is: our way is better because we no longer have to slaughter an animal and go through the manual labor of cutting it to pieces and burning it on an altar. We no longer have to follow the 600+ rules of the Law. The people who say this about Leviticus are almost always thinking of the work Israelites had to do in their practice of religion. That misses the point entirely. Our system is not better because we don’t have to do all of that work…
Our system is better because we have Jesus.
We have eternal forgiveness. We are eternally clean. Jesus’ blood has already been spilled, and no other blood need ever be spilled again for our acceptance. There is no veil between us and the Father. We can approach our Father whenever we want to, and it costs us nothing because the price has been paid. God lives inside of us all the time. Every meal we eat is eaten in his presence. Our lives on this earth are now spent in constant contact with our God from the moment we believe. No more barriers. No more atonement. Jesus did it all.
“Jesus paid it all.
All to him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain.
He washed it white as snow.”
When you read Leviticus, you must set aside what you know of Christ in order to see what they saw. Make sense? Jesus is in Leviticus, and I know that he is because I met him there. Here in chapter 4, however, you’re going to have to do the hard work of looking at a world that you don’t recognize through ancient eyes that did not know about Jesus. Take a moment to pray for help in that regard. Lord, open our eyes to understand your Scriptures.
Open your Bible and Read Leviticus, Chapter 4
As usual, the exercise is to read the entire chapter from start to finish. No highlighting or notes until the verse-by-verse sections. Just take the whole chapter in one piece. Chapter 4 is too long for me to copy/paste into the blog post as I did for chapters 1-3, so you’re on the honor system! If you don’t have a physical Bible with you for the initial reading, click here to read the chapter on Bible Gateway (you can select any translation you like from the drop-down menu).
Verse 1: A Reminder that God is the Source
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses”
Leviticus 4:1, CSB
For the first time since chapter 1, verse 1, we are being reminded that God is the one speaking. God called out in chapter 1, and he gave Moses the first three offerings in a rhythmic and repetitive block. Here at the start of chapter 4, the text takes noticeable pause, and we start back at the beginning. “The Lord spoke to Moses.” This is a new section with a different tone, and God is still the one speaking.
Verse 2: What On Earth is “Unintentional Sin?”
2 “Tell the Israelites: When someone sins unintentionally against any of the Lord’s commands and does anything prohibited by them—”
Leviticus 4:2, CSB
When Christians define sin, we think of unholy thoughts, corrupt habits, or defiant acts that violate God’s moral laws. Sin is never an accident that just happens to us. It is something that we do, think, or allow ourselves to indulge. We might not plan it, and we might be sorry the very moment we commit the sin, but there is heart and will behind our sins. They are unrighteous violations that we commit out of uncontrolled habit, undisciplined minds, uncharitable hearts, or intentional defiance. As Christians, we have the Law written on our hearts and the Holy Spirit within us. Sin doesn’t just swoop down out of nowhere without our consent. It doesn’t just happen outside of our control. We commit sin. Make sense?
So, then, what is Leviticus 4:2 talking about with this “unintentional sin?” Humor me with the following scenario. It tracks for me, so I hope it will track for you, as well:
The Bank’s Pen
Illustrating the Difference Between Forgiven & Atoned
When we sign something with the bank’s pen and then absent-mindedly carry the pen out of the bank with us, have we stolen that pen? Have we committed the sin of theft? Don’t get into the weeds about whether or not we legally stole the pen because that isn’t the question. The question is, did we commit a sin when we unknowingly walked out of that bank with the pen?
Many of us–if not most of us–would say, “no.” Our heart did not commit the sin of theft. Our mind did not commit the sin of theft. Nothing in our will chose thievery in this scenario. We didn’t even know we were taking the pen when we took it. How can it be a sin if no part of us willingly or knowingly broke a command or committed an immoral act?
If this is true, and we don’t think of accidentally taking the bank’s pen as a sin, why then do we feel guilty when we later see that pen amongst our belongings and realize what we’ve done? We feel guilty because we have done something wrong–however unintentional–and we feel a consequent need to atone.
The need to atone in this scenario comes out of our knowledge that we have done damage to the bank by taking their pen. We might not think of it in those terms. Banks buy pens by the case, after all, and literally no one at the bank will even notice the missing pen or care about it if they do. Again, that isn’t the point. We see the pen, realize what we’ve done, and we feel bad about it. We feel bad because we have taken–however innocently–something that belongs to the bank. We have injured the bank, and that injury will remain until we atone for it.
How do you atone for something? Well, in this case, you would start by taking the pen back, giving it to a bank employee, and saying something like, “I am so sorry. I took this pen by accident, but it belongs to you, so I am now returning it.”
That is all that would be expected in most cases, but returning the pen and expressing remorse doesn’t actually erase what happened. The bank still had to go for hours or days without their pen. Until you recognized your error and returned the pen, the bank was actively incurring a constantly-compounding injury from you, whether anyone noticed it or not. Every moment that the bank’s pen was missing, value was being lost. Injury was being done.
Someone out there could probably do the math and calculate the fraction of a penny’s worth of value that the missing pen cost the bank. However small, there is a number there–a number that represents the monetary damage done by your removal of bank property. In any “unintentional sin” like this scenario with the pen, there is damage done, and that damage must be addressed fully in order for atonement to be complete.
You’ve returned the pen. You’ve expressed remorse. You have been totally forgiven by the bank’s representative and probably praised for your honesty. Still, that fraction of a penny’s worth of value in damage remains…unless you pay it. That payment would be necessary to fully atone–to make complete restitution to the injured bank.
This is the kind of unintentional sin we’re dealing with in Chapter 4, and that residual damage the unintentional sin caused is what the Purification Offering helps to atone for.
Do you see the picture we’re painting here? We’re looking at damage that must be atoned for even though no conscious sin was committed. Let’s keep going and get some clarity on the specific kinds of damage we’re dealing with in Leviticus and what the consequences of that damage might be.
Verse 3: When a Priest “Sins”
3 “If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he is to present to the Lord a young, unblemished bull as a sin offering for the sin he has committed.”
-Leviticus 4:3, CSB, emphasis added.
Quickly note that in previous chapters, the instructions were organized around what type of animal was being brought to sacrifice. Here in chapter 4, that form has shifted, and we are now being given instructions organized around who the sinner is.
This is not about his rank or status. As we go along, you’ll see that the offering is performed differently for different stations of people based solely on how much of the sacred space their sin might have touched.
Remember that I said we should call this the purification offering, not a sin offering. That’s because the point of all this is to expiate–to purge/clean/repair–that residual damage left by the unintentional sin. To do that, each person must give this purification offering in a way that cleanses the damage from every part of sacred space he might have come into contact with.
In this first section of the offering, we’re being shown what the anointed priest–the man with access to every part of sacred space in the Tabernacle–must do to atone for the unintentional damage.
Verses 4-7: Blood Manipulation Rite
4 He is to bring the bull to the entrance to the tent of meeting before the Lord, lay his hand on the bull’s head, and slaughter it before the Lord. 5 The anointed priest will then take some of the bull’s blood and bring it into the tent of meeting. 6 The priest is to dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of it seven times before the Lord in front of the curtain of the sanctuary. 7 The priest is to apply some of the blood to the horns of the altar of fragrant incense that is before the Lord in the tent of meeting. He must pour out the rest of the bull’s blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
-Leviticus 4:4-7, CSB
Note that we’re talking about a bull. This is, for any offering, the most expensive animal that can be sacrificed. A male cow is an exorbitant expense, and in this passage, we’re dealing with an offense committed by a priest in such a way that it cast guilt on the entire community. It’s very serious. The ritual begins much like the burnt offering, with the offerer himself placing a hand on the animal’s head before slaughtering it. From there, however, it becomes very different.
The priest collects the blood of the bull and begins at the entrance to sacred space. He walks in with the blood, purifying each part of the Tabernacle that his unintentional offense might have damaged. First, he purifies the “curtain of the sanctuary.” This is the “veil” that tore when Christ died–the barrier between the unholy outside world and the holy of holies where God’s presence descends and the Ark of the Covenant resides. The blood is applied seven times (completion) over that opening. It is in the deepest and most holy/set apart area of the Tabernacle. None but the High Priest ever go inside it, and even he only enters once per year.
Next, the priest applies blood to purify the altar of incense which stands near the sanctuary curtain, just outside of it. Finally, he applies the rest of the blood to purify the altar of burnt offering near the entrance. This altar is the part of sacred space that all of the people have regular contact with.
So what is he doing here? Scholars call this act of taking blood and using it to accomplish a spiritual end blood manipulation. The priest is forming an act of expiation with this blood manipulation. He is attempting to remove any corruption of unholiness that his offense may have caused in God’s sacred space–the Tabernacle.
What does the priest think he’s doing? What is the blood manipulation about? What are we, as 21st century Christians under a New Covenant supposed to take away from this?
The priest is removing (expiating) the residual damage caused by his offense. His offense has done damage just like taking the pen caused damage. It’s the kind of damage that cannot be repaid by simply returning the pen or apologizing. That lost value we caused by taking the pen? That is the kind of damage he’s addressing. That is what he’s atoning for. He is making sure that full repayment is made, that all of the damage is repaired.
This isn’t about sin as we know it. It isn’t about punishing unrighteousness. This isn’t about righteousness or punishment at all.
This is about repairing damage to sacred space.
Do you remember in the Yeast and Honey post when I compared sacred space to a surgical theatre? I said that Leviticus was greatly concerned with preserving sacred space from the threat of contagion. Unholiness is the contagion, and the purification offering is the the means used to purge the contagion. This offering is a response to the threat of contamination in sacred space.
Why did they think this was necessary? Why did God want them to be all hand sanitizer and double gloves obsessed with contagion in the Tabernacle?
Because…God is holy. God is the source of life, and he will not coexist in shared space with death. Sin brings death, and sin is a contagion that spreads. Start bringing the symbols together with me, okay? The picture will get quite clear, and that’s why I started this whole project by giving you some basic symbols beforehand. They’re very important.
The bull has vicariously atoned with his life for the priest’s offense. The blood of the bull is the bull’s life. “The life of the creature is in the blood.” (Lev. 17:11). That life was given to atone, so the blood–which is life–is used to cover the death our priest’s unintentional sin may have brought in to sacred space.
The priest did something wrong. It was an accident, but wrong was done, and that wrong has contaminated–or might have contaminated sacred space. If the Tabernacle gets contaminated by unholiness, God might remove his presence from it. That is the threat. Adam and Eve could not stay in the Garden once they were corrupted by sin and death. They could not remain with God. God has given Israel the Tabernacle as a means of returning to edenic (like Eden) relationship. God’s presence abides there, but He is Holy. The Tabernacle must also remain holy.
When something threatens that holiness, the purification offering is deployed to decontaminate sacred space. That is what this whole thing is about.
Verses 8-10: What About the Pleasing Aroma?
8 He is to remove all the fat from the bull of the sin offering: the fat surrounding the entrails, all the fat that is on the entrails, 9 and the two kidneys with the fat on them at the loins. He will also remove the fatty lobe of the liver with the kidneys, 10 just as the fat is removed from the ox of the fellowship sacrifice. The priest is to burn them on the altar of burnt offering.
-Leviticus 4:8-10, CSB
As with the Fellowship Offering, we see the fat and offal–the choicest parts–burned on the altar for God. This section will be repeated three more times in Chapter 4, and only after the series is completed, in verse 31, do we see the pleasing aroma mentioned. Because this offering contains a portion burned on the altar of burnt offering, it is a pleasing aroma sacrifice.
Verses 11-12: The Ash Heap
11 But the hide of the bull and all its flesh, with its head and legs, and its entrails and waste— 12 all the rest of the bull—he must bring to a ceremonially clean place outside the camp to the ash heap, and must burn it on a wood fire. It is to be burned at the ash heap.
-Leviticus 4:11-12, CSB
This is our first mention of the ash heap. This is not the same thing as the pile of unused pieces discarded “on the east side of the altar.” It’s not a trash pile. It’s a ceremonially clean (holy) area outside of the camp that is dedicated to making ashes from burnt things that are set apart.
We’re not going to deal with the ash heap in depth this time. We’ll come back to it in another chapter, but for now, just make note of this introduction to the ash heap so you can remember what it is the next time we see it.
Verses 13-21: When the Entire Community “Errs”
13 “Now if the whole community of Israel errs, and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly, so that they violate any of the Lord’s commands and incur guilt by doing what is prohibited, 14 then the assembly must present a young bull as a sin offering. They are to bring it before the tent of meeting when the sin they have committed in regard to the command becomes known. 15 The elders of the community are to lay their hands on the bull’s head before the Lord and it is to be slaughtered before the Lord. 16 The anointed priest will bring some of the bull’s blood into the tent of meeting. 17 The priest is to dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord in front of the curtain. 18 He is to apply some of the blood to the horns of the altar that is before the Lord in the tent of meeting. He will pour out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 19 He is to remove all the fat from it and burn it on the altar. 20 He is to offer this bull just as he did with the bull in the sin offering; he will offer it the same way. So the priest will make atonement on their behalf, and they will be forgiven. 21 Then he will bring the bull outside the camp and burn it just as he burned the first bull. It is the sin offering for the assembly.
-Leviticus 13-21, CSB, emphasis added
Okay, so now we’re dealing with the whole community. With so many people involved in the error, all of sacred space is threatened, just like when the priest (whose duties take him to every part of the Tabernacle) unintentionally sinned. The same areas are touched with blood to expiate the contamination and make sure that every part is dealt with. The remains of the bull are taken to the ash heap just like before.
A key difference in this passage is that all of the elders come to perform the hand-laying gesture for this offering. The entire community is asking that the animal be accepted for this offering, so representatives of the entire community participate in offering up the bull. Each tribe elder places a hand on the animal on behalf of his entire tribe.
Another difference I’ve noted is that this passage uses “err” instead of “sin.” In verse 3, the priest sins. In verse 13, the community errs. I know nothing about Hebrew and rely on Bible software and word studies to parse these things out, but the Hebrew words underneath sins and errs are different. They have different root words (lemma), as well. In verse 14, we go back to calling the error a “sin,” and throughout the chapter, we’re reminded that all of these sins are unintentional.
This reinforces that the transgressions we’re being shown are errors, mistakes, or accidents. The sins in view are daily situations of innocent error, normal exposure to ritually unclean items or body functions, and the like. Nobody is being forgiven for moral failure with this offering. Rather, sacred space is being protected and decontaminated. The “sinner” in question is also cleansed of contamination by this process and rendered, once again, harmless to the integrity of the Tabernacle.
We’re Almost Home, So Hang In There
Verses 22-35: Leaders & Regular Citizens
22 “When a leader sins and unintentionally violates any of the commands of the Lord his God by doing what is prohibited, and incurs guilt, 23 or someone informs him about the sin he has committed, he is to bring an unblemished male goat as his offering. 24 He is to lay his hand on the head of the goat and slaughter it at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered before the Lord. It is a sin offering. 25 Then the priest is to take some of the blood from the sin offering with his finger and apply it to the horns of the altar of burnt offering. The rest of its blood he is to pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering. 26 He must burn all its fat on the altar, like the fat of the fellowship sacrifice. In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf for that person’s sin, and he will be forgiven.
27 “Now if any of the common people sins unintentionally by violating one of the Lord’s commands, does what is prohibited, and incurs guilt, 28 or if someone informs him about the sin he has committed, then he is to bring an unblemished female goat as his offering for the sin that he has committed. 29 He is to lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place of the burnt offering. 30 Then the priest is to take some of its blood with his finger and apply it to the horns of the altar of burnt offering. He is to pour out the rest of its blood at the base of the altar. 31 He is to remove all its fat just as the fat is removed from the fellowship sacrifice. The priest is to burn it on the altar as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf, and he will be forgiven.
32 “Or if the offering that he brings as a sin offering is a lamb, he is to bring an unblemished female. 33 He is to lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it as a sin offering at the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered. 34 Then the priest is to take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and apply it to the horns of the altar of burnt offering. He is to pour out the rest of its blood at the base of the altar. 35 He is to remove all its fat just as the fat of the lamb is removed from the fellowship sacrifice. The priest will burn it on the altar along with the fire offerings to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf for the sin he has committed, and he will be forgiven.
Leviticus 4:22-35, CBS, emphasis added
This section is more repetition, but it’s interesting to me because we see the continuation of decreasing seriousness…a decreasing level of threat with each new category.
With the priest and the community as a whole (vv 3-21), only unblemished young bulls would suffice. Sins at that level of the hierarchy affect the entire Tabernacle, and every member of the community is tainted by the corruption. A big sacrifice is needed, and a lot of blood is needed for the rites. The sanctuary veil, the incense altar, and the altar of burnt offering must be cleansed.
When we get to verse 22, we’re dealing with the accidental sin of a tribal elder or a sin from within his tribe that he is informed about. This doesn’t affect the entire community, and it doesn’t affect the entirety of the Tabernacle. The threat is smaller and much more contained. For this offering, a male goat will do, and only the altar of burnt offering needs to be cleansed by the blood because that is the only part of the Tabernacle that the leader and his tribe interact with.
In verse 27, we start the section applying to an individual. In this case, the person is not responsible for the care of a whole tribe. It’s just a regular citizen going about life in community. For these offenses, a female goat will suffice to cleanse the altar of burnt offering, and if the person keeps sheep instead of goats, a female lamb is acceptable, as well.
Finally, at the conclusion of this section, we see the notation reminding us that purification offerings, like the others, are a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
So What Do I Take From This?
We’re seeing a much different picture of what sin is and what forgiveness is about in this offering, and we cannot filter that through the New Testament work of Christ Jesus if we want to understand what we’re seeing.
Jesus is better than these offerings. His work accomplished more, and his work is permanent. Jesus is superior in every way. His expiation purges everything, not just accidents and whoopsies. The purification offering cannot cover actual sins and moral failings. It could only protect the Tabernacle from routine and unavoidable daily profanity (like touching a carcass, giving birth, or dealing with mold growth in your home). If you committed a moral offense like lashing out in anger or envying your neighbor’s nice house? You were toast, man. This offering cannot help you with that. It never could, and it never did.
These people needed Jesus, but they didn’t have him. Is this making sense?
Here’s what you can take from Chapter 4 of Leviticus as a Christian layman for application in your daily faith life:
God is holy. As Christians, we don’t spend enough time in awe of God’s holiness. We don’t spend our days impressed with a full understanding of how much higher he is than we are. We know that God is holy. We know that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. Still. We’re spoiled and deprived at the same time.
Where is your AWE in the presence of Almighty God?
Like the Israelites of Leviticus, we can know that God is awesome, omnipotent, and holy, but knowing that does not affect our access to Him. For the Israelites, it did. In tangible ways that affected their daily lives, God’s holiness kept them away. To approach God was dangerous. They desired him as much as we do, but they had to be a whole lot more careful. He lives with us, inside of us, 24/7…and it costs us nothing. We have nothing to fear. We have nothing but peace in God’s presence.
As Christians, we have immediate and unfettered access to our Father in Heaven, and that means that we are rarely–if ever–confronted with a true picture of God’s awesome and dangerous power.
Corruption cannot exist in his presence. Sin and death cannot exist in his presence. The blood of Jesus covered our sin and death so that we can once again approach God. There is no veil between us. Ancient Israel would have given anything for that privilege.
Studying the purification offering reminds us of this truth. It forces us to look at a vision of God that we are never forced to confront. Jesus paid it all. Jesus covered it all. Jesus removed the veil. He is all the expiation and all the atonement we will ever need. God sent himself as the perfect sacrifice. That’s how much he loves us, and that’s how much he wants to be with us all the time.
But don’t forget who He is. Just look at what is necessary for us to stand in God’s presence. That’s what this offering can do for you as a Christian today. Look at who God is. Look at what you are. Now, look at the mercy of Christ’s work on the Cross.
Our system is better…because we’ve got Jesus.