Guilt and Sin Offerings in the Old Testament

J. Davila-Ashcraft

I will endeavor to shed some light on two basic questions:

1. What makes a sin a sin? 
2. Are there different types of sin? 

As I explore this subject matter my goal is to answer both, to explore Unintentional Sin, Sins of Ignorance, and High Handed Sin, and to provide a more comprehensive view of these two specific offerings found in Leviticus 4 and 5.

I. What Makes A Sin A Sin? 

a. A careful reading of Leviticus 4 – 6:7 demonstrates that what makes a sin a sin is God's decretive will in stating a thing is a sin. In referencing God's commands as these verses do repeatedly (Lev. 4:2, 4:13, 4:22, 4:27, 4:15, 4:17) this is the only logical conclusion. It also becomes clear that sin need not be an intentional violation of the commands of God, but also encompasses unintentional violations of the commands of Yahweh. What are unintentional sins? These are sins of ignorance; things one does that violate the commands of Yahweh without knowledge of their sinful nature. (Leviticus 5:17). This demonstrates that there are indeed different types of sin. 

b. Not all unintentional sins are sins of ignorance. Leviticus 5:4 mentions “if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath”, which appears to imply an impulsive act that violates the commands of Yahweh. If we extend that principle to other areas of sin it is very possible that someone could commit an act of sin impulsively, without premeditation to do so, but still understanding their guilt and the fact that the action (or lack thereof) was sinful. 

c. Some might argue that one is not guilty of an unintentional sin; that due to ignorance a material violation may have occurred, but not a spiritual one. However, this view ignores the repeated statements of Leviticus 4- 5:13. We find scripture states that we are indeed guilty. For example, when the Israelites sin unintentionally they are “bringing guilt on the people” (Lev. 4:3), when the Israelites sin as a people unintentionally and “realize their guilt” (Lev. 4:13), when a leader sins and “realizes his guilt” (Lev. 4:22), if any member of the community sins “when they realize their guilt” (Lev.4:27). There are numerous references to guilt associated with unintentional sin in these verses, so the logical conclusion is we are guilty of unintentional sins and sins of ignorance.

II. Offerings for Guilt and Sin 
The Guilt and Sin Offerings are distinct from the other offerings of Leviticus in two primary ways:

a. Unlike other offerings (specifically the Peace Offering and Meal Offering), the Guilt and Sin Offerings were not a sweet savor to God because disobedience was symbolically represented in them. Interestingly, post 2nd Temple Judaism sees in the grace of the Sin offering a type of paraclete. 1 

b. Sin and Guilt Offerings were burned outside the camp. This is symbolic of the fact that God detests sin and all sin separates us from Yahweh.

c. These offerings imply that atonement is necessary even for sins of ignorance, since these sins required flesh and blood sacrifices. Leviticus 4:3,4 explains the person bringing the sacrificial animal to the priest must “lay his hand upon its head”. This is a sort of passing on of that sin and its guilt to the animal in a wholly symbolic sense. Add to this the clear statements of Leviticus 5:10 and Leviticus 5:13 and the obvious conclusion is that atonement is necessary even for sins of ignorance.

III.High Handed Sin 

a. A “high handed” sin is an intentional sin committed in knowing defiance of the commands of Yahweh. (Numbers 15:30) 

b. Unlike unintentional sins, both of a personal and national nature, which have sacrifices for atonement, high handed sins had no such sacrifice, nor any hope of atonement. They simply carried a judgment that they be “cut off” since “their guilt remains on them.” (Numbers 15:31)

IV. Conclusion          
The Sin Offering of Leviticus 4 is essentially a covering of one's inherited depravity, while the Guilt Offering of Leviticus 5 was intended to atone for sinful acts arising from that inherited depravity. 

 1 The sin-offering is like the paraclete before God; it intercedes for man and is followed by another offering, a "thank offering for the pardon obtained" (Sifra, Meora', iii. 3; Tos. Parah i. 1 -Jewish Dictionary

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