Leviticus, Chapter 5 & 6:1-7 – The Guilt Offering

Guilt Offering Stained Glass Chartre
This beautiful photograph comes from Lawrence OP, & you can find the original upload here. His work is shared here under the Creative Commons license. The stained glass hangs in Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France.  It depicts a spice vendor conducting a sale, & he is using scales like the ones a priest would use to establish the “temple shekel.”


Welcome back to Leviticus.  Today, we’re going to go through Chapter 5 and the first seven verses of Chapter 6 to learn about the Guilt Offering.  Most English translations of the Bible use the title, Guilt Offering, but some call it the Trespass Offering or the Reparation Offering.  All three translations paint an adequate picture of what we’re dealing with, so I’m sticking with “guilt” offering just to minimize confusion.  The guilt offering is about restitution for a debt of guilt or a trespass.

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 6.54.27 PM
from Merriam-Webster


Chapter 5 begins with more information about the Purification/Sin Offering, and this has some overlap with the introduction of the Guilt Offering.  To keep the mental chaos at bay, I’ll be going through Chapter 5 in two separate sections.

Start by Updating your Memory Information with the New Offering
Purpose & Message

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.

The Guilt Offering (Restitution)
Purpose: to repay debts caused by sin against a neighbor or the community
Message: Lord, I am guilty of sinning against you and my fellow man, and my debt must be paid. I pray that this offering will make full restitution to restore my relationships with both you and my neighbor.

Guilt Offering Oriental Turtle Doves
This beautiful photo was taken by Dharmveer Suthar from New Delhi, India. He is a birdwatcher and a marvelous avian wildlife photographer.  You can view more of his work at BirdWatching and on his Facebook page.

This is a photograph of Oriental Turtle-Doves.  They are found throughout “the Orient,” which includes the Near East.  Aren’t they beautiful?  They are rather small birds, and they were very inexpensive.  This was an animal that the very poor could usually afford, and you will see turtledoves mentioned many times as an offered sacrifice in the Bible.  When Mary was at the end of her ceremonial impurity after childbirth, she and Joseph presented Jesus at the Temple for his circumcision and to make Mary’s purification offering (Luke 2:22-24).  All women would make a purification offering after childbirth (don’t worry; we’ll talk about it when we get to that chapter), and Mary, mother of Jesus, was no different.

More on the Purification Offering

**If you did not read the Chapter 4 post on the purification offering, you need to do that, first.  You will be totally lost in these first two passages without that context.**

Open Your Bible & Read Leviticus 5:1-13 as a single passage.  No stopping or notes or highlights, yet.  Just read the entire passage.

The discussion of the purification offering continues in the first 13 verses of Leviticus 5, and it picks up right where chapter 4 left off.  We’re going to start with verses 1-6, which give a clearer picture of the kinds of unintentional sin that would require a purification offering.  After that, we’ll move to verses 7-13, which demonstrate God’s provision for the poor to participate as full members of the covenant.

Verses 1-6: “Cases Requiring a Purification Offering”

“When someone sins in any of these ways:

If he has seen, heard, or known about something he has witnessed, and did not respond to a public call to testify, he will bear his iniquity.

Or if someone touches anything unclean—a carcass of an unclean wild animal, or unclean livestock, or an unclean swarming creature—without being aware of it, he is unclean and incurs guilt.

Or if he touches human uncleanness—any uncleanness by which one can become defiled—without being aware of it, but later recognizes it, he incurs guilt.

Or if someone swears rashly to do what is good or evil—concerning anything a person may speak rashly in an oath—without being aware of it, but later recognizes it, he incurs guilt in such an instance.

If someone incurs guilt in one of these cases, he is to confess he has committed that sin. He must bring his penalty for guilt for the sin he has committed to the Lord: a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin.
-Leviticus 5:1-6, CSB, emphasis added is mine

Notice the “sin” we’re talking about here.  First on the list is failing to testify after a public summons.  Remember, these are classified as unintentional sins, so this cannot be a defiant refusal to do the right thing.  It is the result of something unavoidable or accidental.  Maybe he was away from the camp when the call came and was prevented by absence.  Maybe he forgot (or never realized) that he had relevant information.  Maybe he failed to show up for testimony because he was sick or because he didn’t hear the call to testify.  Maybe he was simply afraid of the consequences.  However the failure happened, he later realized his error, and this passage is telling him what to do about it.

Here in verse 1, we see an important phrase that will get repeated a little further down.  He will bear his iniquity.  Keep it in mind, and we’ll circle back to it in verse 17.

In verses 2 and 3, we are dealing with people touching unclean things.  Unclean things are unholy things, and when we touch them, we are defiled by their unholiness.  These are words that we use for really ugly things in the 21st century.  They’re actually really rare words, and they only get broken out for the worst of the worst.  DefiledUnclean.  These are seriously harsh condemnations to us, and they have a ton of baggage attached to them.

In the context of Leviticus, these words are matter-of-fact. They are not insults, and no one is being condemned by them.  There is no moral failure, no character weakness, and no lessening of value being implied by their use in these verses.  Remember that this is about contamination of sacred space.  It is not about assigning fault or shame.

Accidentally or unavoidably touching unclean animals; touching unclean excretions of the human body; or touching other people who had touched any of these unclean things (contagion, remember?) would render you unclean.  When you are unclean, you must be cleansed of the uncleanness.  By touching these things, you have committed the kind of unintentional sin that will cause you to corrupt sacred space, so the uncleanness must be dealt with in the purification offering so that you no longer pose a threat of contagion.

You’re not at fault, but you’re ceremonially unclean, and you’re contagious–a threat to sacred space.  It’s a problem, and the offering will fix the problem.

The last unintentional sin on the list is about hasty or rash vows/oaths.  In the book of Judges, there are two examples of the horrifying consequences of refusing to back down from a rashly-made vow.  I covered those in the First Reading of Judges series, and you can read the relevant stories in Judges 11-12 and Judges 21.

Leviticus will deal extensively with vows in a later chapter, but in chapter 5 we’re seeing what needs to happen if someone makes a vow s(he) later recognizes as hasty, rash, or sinful.  This is a vow that seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out, upon reflection, to be an error.  To keep it would be dishonorable and/or sinful, and a purification offering is the means given to fulfill the vow without keeping it. It provides a remedy for the guilt of breaking a hasty vow and the guilt for having made it in the first place.

The unintentional sinner in each of these cases is to confess what s(he) has done and then bring a purification offering for individuals, as outlined in chapter 4.  By doing this, the residual damage (remember the bank’s pen) caused by their error is removed, and the individual is made clean (safe for sacred space).

Verses 7-13: Provision for Participation of the Poor

7 “But if he cannot afford an animal from the flock, then he may bring to the Lord two turtledoves or two young pigeons as penalty for guilt for his sin—one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offeringHe is to bring them to the priest, who will first present the one for the sin offering. He is to twist its head at the back of the neck without severing it. Then he will sprinkle some of the blood of the sin offering on the side of the altar, while the rest of the blood is to be drained out at the base of the altar; it is a sin offering10 He will prepare the second bird as a burnt offering according to the regulation. In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf for the sin he has committed, and he will be forgiven.

11 “But if he cannot afford two turtledoves or two young pigeons, he may bring two quarts of fine flour as an offering for his sin. He must not put olive oil or frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering. 12 He is to bring it to the priest, who will take a handful from it as its memorial portion and burn it on the altar along with the fire offerings to the Lord; it is a sin offering13 In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf concerning the sin he has committed in any of these cases, and he will be forgiven. The rest will belong to the priest, like the grain offering.”
Leviticus 5:7-13, CSB, emphasis added is mine

That Mary and Joseph offered turtledoves for her purification offering in Luke 2 says a lot about their socioeconomic status.  The option to offer turtledoves or even flour in the manner of a grain offering reinforces the idea that God does not regard earthly wealth or earthly success amongst his children.  He did not value the offerings of the rich over the offerings of the poor.  He did not play favorites.

Because the burnt offering is a prerequisite for visiting the Tabernacle in any of its functions, the poor are able to bring two birds to serve as both the burnt and the purification offering.  If the offerer cannot afford even to purchase two birds, the option of flour is available.  No expensive oil or frankincense is required because everyone must be able to give a purification offering…and this offering is not about sending up fine oil and incense like the grain offering.  It is about atonement.  The priests send up the memorial portion of the flour (which we talked about in the Grain Offering), and the priests are gifted with the remainder for their own food.

This beautiful glass depicting scales of justice over the Bible comes from the Sacred Heart Cathedral in St. Albert, Saskatchewan.  It is part of the vast collection of stained glass art found at the Institute for Stained Glass in Canada website.


The Guilt Offering

Now, it’s time to move into the instructions for the Guilt Offering, and the text of verse 14 begins with the phrase that always marks a place where we should pause.  It signals a change in topic or a change in the tone for the instruction that follows:

“The Lord Spoke to Moses”

When you see this phrase throughout Leviticus, it is a marker for you that we’re changing the subject or changing the tone.  Something new is coming.  We’re leaving behind what we were just talking about and transitioning into a different line of discussion.  Keep an eye out for it because it shows up a lot in Chapters 5-7.

Read Leviticus 5:14-6:7 as a single passage.  No stopping or notes or highlights, yet.  Just read the entire passage.

Verses 14-16: Sin in Regard to the Lord’s “Holy Things”

14 Then the Lord spoke to Moses15 “If someone offends by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, he must bring his penalty for guilt to the Lord: an unblemished ram from the flock (based on your assessment of its value in silver shekels, according to the sanctuary shekel) as a guilt offering. 16 He is to make restitution for his sin regarding any holy thing, adding a fifth of its value to it, and give it to the priest. Then the priest will make atonement on his behalf with the ram of the guilt offering, and he will be forgiven.
-Leviticus 5:14-16, CSB, emphasis added is mine

Okay, so there’s a lot of new stuff going on in these two little verses, but that’s a good thing because the meaning in all of it is very clear.  Let’s begin by noting that verse 14 is separated from verses 1-13 by “then the Lord spoke to Moses.”  Every time you see it, mark it.

Keep in mind that in these verses, we’re now talking about the Guilt Offering, and we’re no longer talking about the Purification Offering.  Still, however, we’re only talking about unintentional offense.

Verse 15 describes an error made with regard to the Lord’s “holy things.”  The Hebrew underneath holy things is a word (qodse) used for consecrated, sacred, or holy items.  Commentaries say this refers to things attached to the place of worship–the Tabernacle or Temple. What we’re most likely looking at there is an offering to deal with accidental breakage or defilement of Tabernacle property.  Did you get dirt on the tent?  Did you touch something or take something from the Tabernacle that you shouldn’t have (like the bank’s pen)?  Did you trip or get thrown off balance by the animal you brought to slaughter and end up knocking something over?  This is the kind of thing that came to my mind.  You’ve gone into the church and accidentally broken something or messed up something, and now it has to be replaced.  You have to give a guilt offering and pay with something monetary to make up for its lost value.

The guilt offering must be a male sheep (ram), and the priests will have to assess the value of the animal next to the value of your offense.  Anything you owe over and above the ram must be paid plus 20%.  This value is to be measured according to the “sanctuary shekel.”  So, let’s talk about shekels for a sec.

We Interrupt This Program to Bring You a Discussion About Ancient Money

This is a coined shekel from 66 AD.  It is on display at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and the photograph is theirs. The left image is inscribed with the year and “Shekel of Israel.”  The image on the right is the reverse side of the coin.  It reads, “Jerusalem is holy.”

We often think of shekels as coins, like the one pictured above.  In today’s (March 2020) global economy, the Israeli shekel is worth 28¢ to the US dollar/25¢ to the euro.  That value is determined by modern markets, but in the Ancient Near East, the value of money (and everything else) was determined by standardized weights.  In Genesis, Abraham pays for his burial lands with 400 shekels worth of silver.  He didn’t give the Hittite man 400 coins; he weighed out 400 shekels worth of silver items to trade.

Before the shekel became a shekel, it was a measure of actual weight, not a currency.  Honest weights and measures for doing business are sternly and consistently repeated in the Old Testament, and many of the rules for weighing and measuring pre-date coins and money as we think of them.  When you see the “shekel of the sanctuary” in Leviticus, it means the weight the sanctuary’s scale–the trusted standard–reckoned as a shekel.

In case you were wondering, it’s very difficult to reckon exactly how much a biblical shekel weighed in modern terms, but we can come close.  A half-shekel coin from the 2nd century AD was discovered, and it weighs a little under 7 grams.  Josephus said that a half-shekel was equivalent to 2 Greek drachmae, which each weighed a little over 4 grams.  So…somewhere between 6.75 and 9 grams for a half-shekel in the Apostolic generation means the shekel probably weighed–if we pick a spot in the middle–somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 grams (roughly 0.5 ounce).

If you want to feel the approximate weight of a biblical shekel in your hand, try using your own country’s coinage.  Here are some I looked up for you.  They’re not all exact, but they’re close enough:

2 x Israeli ₪10 coins OR 3 x ₪2 coins
(I don’t have many readers from Israel, but I wanted to know how many 2020 Israeli shekels it would take to weigh 1 biblical shekel)

3 x U.S. 5¢ coins

3 x UK 20p coins

1 x AUS50¢ coin

2 x EUR€1 coins


The New Shekel
Israel, like most modern countries, uses paper notes more often than coinage.  These are bank notes in various denominations for the Israeli New Shekel (₪) in circulation today.


Okay…enough with the shekels, but wasn’t that fun?  Back to the text we go…

Verses 17-19: Things That Have Been Prohibited

17 “If someone sins and without knowing it violates any of the Lord’s commands concerning anything prohibited, he is guilty, and he will bear his iniquity18 He must bring an unblemished ram from the flock according to your assessment of its value as a guilt offering to the priest. Then the priest will make atonement on his behalf for the error he has committed unintentionally, and he will be forgiven. 19 It is a guilt offering; he is indeed guilty before the Lord.”
-Leviticus 5:17-19, CSB, emphasis added is mine

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 6.32.47 PMThis passage doesn’t contain any new information except that this time, we’re dealing with people unintentionally doing something that has been prohibited.  Maybe a husband and wife were intimate during her menses without knowing it (that was a big no-no).  Maybe they roasted up some insects (common and encouraged food), but one of the forbidden insects got eaten by mistake.  Maybe somebody counted days incorrectly and touched things or people while still in a state of ceremonial impurity.  I mean, there are a lot of prohibitions, and accidentally messing one up was likely a very common occurrence.  Some of these things, if done defiantly, had terrible punishments–even death.  You can’t go around executing people for honest accidents, so the guilt offering is there to cover it.

The other thing of note here is the phrase: and he will bear his iniquity.  This appeared in 5:1, and it appears again in 5:17.  According to my bible search, this phrase only appears 6 times, and all of them happen in Leviticus.  This notion of “bearing iniquity” is unique to Leviticus, and whenever phrases get repeated, we should look them up.

Two of my more modern commentaries (NICOT & Milgrom) suggest the phrase means that even if the sinner didn’t realize he was sinning at the time, his iniquity–his guilt–would be made plain to him at some point.  He would come to “feel guilty” after carrying the sin around for a while and find himself wishing to do the right thing.  In this way, the sinner bears the iniquity of his crime until it presses him to come forward and be unburdened.

In Leviticus, a sinner is said to “carry his or her iniquity” for the following reasons:

  • failing to testify (5:1)
  • unintentionally doing something prohibited by the Law (5:17)
  • eating meat from a fellowship sacrifice on the wrong day (7:18 & 19:8)
  • failing to bathe and launder his clothing after eating an animal found dead from natural causes (17:16)
  • marrying a sister or brother, whether the relationship is full, half, or step (20:19)

This list is confusing for two reasons:

First, it’s confusing because none of these 5 items on the list are serious crimes.  That last one looks really awful to us because sibling incest has been one of the most serious taboos in our culture for a very, very long time.  Keep in mind, however, that it wasn’t taboo in the Ancient Near East.  Abraham & Sarah were half-siblings.  This kind of half-sibling incest was incredibly common.  With that in mind, look at the list again.  It makes no apparent sense why a unique phrase would be used to single these sins out from all the others.  The guilt offering is about restitution for sins that affect other people and/or their property.  So why failing to testify but not murder or kidnapping or greed?

Second, the list is confusing because item number 2 is really vague.  Most of the regulations in Leviticus are prohibitions.  Sure, so far we’ve spent a lot of time in the offerings and learning what we are supposed to do, but the majority of the rest is about stuff we’re not supposed to do.  Given that, wouldn’t just about every accidental sin an Israelite commits mean he’s going to bear his iniquity?

Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe a sinner is going to bear his iniquity any time he does something he shouldn’t have.  Maybe this is the Leviticus version of having the Law “written on our hearts.”  That seems like a leap to me, but it does fit, more or less.

I’m not ashamed to admit to you that I don’t have this one all figured out.  I don’t feel at all confident that I understand it fully.  I do know, however, that the phrase is important.  I also know that the phrase has some kind of particular meaning in the context of Leviticus since it appears nowhere else in the Old Testament.  My only comfort on this issue is that scholars and commentators don’t seem to have it figured out, either.

The best I can make out, this phrase, “to bear iniquity,” means that when we sin, our conscience will tell us that we have done so.  Our guilt will push us to confess and unburden ourselves by making it right with a guilt offering.  Why did the author(s) believe these particular sins should be singled out in this way?  Well, I’m not certain, but my best guess for now is that these particular crimes are sins that a guilt offering can atone for.  Other sins have their own penalties and cannot be atoned for by paying interest and killing a ram at the Tabernacle.

This analysis isn’t perfect; there is something I’m missing here.  Be that as it may, I promised to give you everything I have on Leviticus.  Now and again, “everything I’ve got” will include a few questions.

Chapter 6:1-7 – Sins About Money & Property
We’re no longer in unintentional territory.  We’ve started a new section with chapter 6, and these are crimes that even New Covenant Christians will recognize as sin.

The Lord spoke to Moses“When someone sins and offends the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in regard to a deposit, a security, or a robbery; or defrauds his neighbor; or finds something lost and lies about it; or swears falsely about any of the sinful things a person may do— once he has sinned and acknowledged his guilt—he must return what he stole or defrauded, or the deposit entrusted to him, or the lost item he found, or anything else about which he swore falsely. He will make full restitution for it and add a fifth of its value to it. He is to pay it to its owner on the day he acknowledges his guilt. Then he is to bring his guilt offering to the Lord: an unblemished ram from the flock according to your assessment of its value as a guilt offering to the priest. In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf before the Lord, and he will be forgiven for anything he may have done to incur guilt.”
-Leviticus 6:1-7, CSB, emphasis added

Note that “the Lord spoke to Moses” in verse 1.  Our transition to new content has been signaled, and we find that we’re now dealing with sins that directly offend the Lord.  This passage is all about sins dealing with money.  Deception, fraud, and keeping found items instead of returning them to the rightful owner.  The only sin listed in this passage that isn’t directly about money is false testimony.  Those who fail to testify (5:1) bear their iniquity, but those who outright lie in a testimony…don’t?  See why I’m not sure about all of that?

Anyway, what we’re seeing here is a repetition of the guilt offering procedure.  Full restitution plus 20% interest for any residual damage (the bank’s pen again) must be paid on the very day a sinner confesses what he has done.  No mention is made here about what the sinner will have to do if he doesn’t have enough money, but there is a glaring and obvious truth about that.

The most common way a person could pay off debt in the Ancient Near East would be to sell himself into slavery.  Israel handled slavery and debtors much differently than the nations around them.  Anywhere else in the world at that time, a debtor who could not pay would either sell his children or his wife/wives to the man he owed money to.  If he had no family to sell, he would sell himself.  We’ll spend a lot of time looking at slavery laws later in Leviticus.

In addition to monetary atonement to the person he trespassed against, the sinner must go and make a guilt offering for atonement to God.  After full restitution has been made to both God and man, the sinner is forgiven and once again restored to his place in the community.

Leviticus Atonement
This painting is entitled, “Leviticus: Our Atonement.” The artist is Mindy Oaten.  View this and others of her paintings at her beautiful website.

Okay, guys, you made it through the guilt offering.  Thanks for sticking with me.  I hope this has been helpful to you.  We will finish out the regulations and instructions for offerings in the next post (which will cover the rest of chapter 6 and all of chapter 7).

See you next time.

3 thoughts on “Leviticus, Chapter 5 & 6:1-7 – The Guilt Offering

  1. I have always been taught that “iniquities” are NOT DOING what we know we should…compared to sins which is DOING what we know we should not. That seems to make sense in these passages.

  2. This is genius. I have never been taught that at all. See, now Imma do a long word study and it will be fun, and glorious. I think you just saved the day. !!!

  3. I kind of assumed bearing iniquities just meant that even with the sacrifice and it being an unintentional act, the natural consequences of the act will still be born. For example eating the consecrated meat on the wrong day could mean getting food poisoning—not to be viewed as punishment from God directly per se especially if it’s been atoned for, but the iniquity of the act that is still born. Maybe it’s not listed that way for other types of sins like the lying or keeping stolen goods/not returning goods, since it could be assumed or more obvious to the reader that of course they can’t escape the consequences and responsibility of those actions. So it would make the sacrifice more about being right with the Lord, apart from absolving all following natural results (like getting sick from something unclean) especially in an age where such things were seen as direct judgement from God (think Job’s friends assuming he was being punished for some kind of sin when he had sores/leprosy). Or at least that’s my thoughts on it.

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