Before beginning to examine the sacrifices themselves, it will be useful for us to see a list of sins for which there is no sacrifice in the Old Testament: the “resolution” of these sins is through the death of the offender. Again Allen P. Ross helps us in his book Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Baker Academic, 2002):
Against the first commandment: sacrifice to or worship of other gods (Leviticus 20:3; Deuteronomy 17:2-7), witchcraft (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:6), false prophecy (Deuteronomy 13:5; 18:20).
Against the third commandment: blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14, 16, 23).
Against the fourth commandment: working on the Sabbath day (Exodus 31:14).
Against the fifth commandment: injuring or cursing one’s father or mother (Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9), being stiff-necked or rebellious against the voice of one’s parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
Against the sixth commandment: murder (Leviticus 24:17, 21).
Against the seventh commandment: adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22); rape (Deuteronomy 22:25); fornication (Deuteronomy 22:21); incest (Leviticus 20:11, 14).
Against the eighth commandment: kidnapping (Exodus 21:16).
Against the ninth commandment: testifying falsely against someone in any of the cases described above (Deuteronomy 19:16, 19, 21).
Once again, any of these intentional sins against the Ten Commandments cannot be forgiven by the sacrifices that we are going to read about today (Ross, Holiness, 130). They must result in the death of the sinner, or as in the case of David in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, he must be forgiven by declaration of God Himself (2 Samuel 12:13).
Remember, too, that the burnt offering of Leviticus 1, the most basic sacrifice of the Israelite system, is offered for the atonement of sin. So when we begin Leviticus 4, we are reading about sacrifices for certain types of sins. First we read, “If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done” (Leviticus 4:2). Notice that these are not premeditated sins; the sinner committed them unintentionally. But notice, too, that even though the sin was committed unintentionally, it still incurs guilt before God.
The sin offerings in Leviticus 4 are similar to the burnt offering of Leviticus 1: the offender must identify an appropriate animal, with no defect; the sinner must lay a hand on the victim; the shedding of the blood of the victim plays a central role. But some important differences stand out, too:
1. In the case of a sin of the anointed priest, the blood must be brought into the tabernacle to sprinkle the veil seven times and anoint the horns of the incense altar with it, then the remainder is poured out at the base of the bronze altar (Leviticus 4:5-7).
2. Instead of burning the entire animal as in the burnt offering, only the fat and some internal organs are burnt, just like the peace offering (Leviticus 4:8-10).
3. All the rest is taken out of the tabernacle to be burned in an ash heap in a ceremonially clean place (Leviticus 4:11-12). The priest doesn’t keep the hide of the animal as in the burnt offering; he will not receive any benefit from having sinned! Sin and its contamination must be carried far from the holy place of God.
Notice too that there are some differences if the sinner is the congregation of Israel (Leviticus 4:13), a leader in Israel (Leviticus 4:22) or a person with no authority to govern (Leviticus 4:27):
1. If the sin is committed by the congregation of Israel, the elders put their hands on the head of the sacrificial bull (Leviticus 4:15).
2. If a leader sins, he brings a male goat instead of a bull, and the priest puts the blood on the horns of the bronze altar; it is not taken into the tabernacle (Leviticus 4:23, 25).
3. If a person without authority to govern sins, he can bring a female goat or female sheep without blemish (Leviticus 4:28, 32); the blood is put on the bronze altar also, not taken into the tabernacle (Leviticus 4:30, 34).
These sacrifices teach us a lot about the impact of sin, about the contamination or impurity that it brings. First, notice that a main concern about these sins is the contamination of the tabernacle. When the people sin, the tabernacle itself becomes impure; it must be purified with blood on the horns of its altars. Second, as the sinner has greater rank and authority, his sins contaminate the sanctuary more. The relationship of the entire people with Yahweh can be put at risk because of the sins of its leaders. Therefore the sacrifice for sin must be effective enough to purify even the holiest places from the contamination of sin.
Third, what a blessing it is to have Yahweh, the forgiving God, as Lord! Although unintentional sins greatly contaminate the people, by the blood of the sacrifice poured out, Yahweh tells us: “They shall be forgiven… he shall be forgiven… he shall be forgiven… he shall be forgiven” (Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35). Sin and its contamination are taken away from the place of relationship with Yahweh, to such a degree that the psalmist can celebrate, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). Glory be to God!
Some additional notes: Notice that the sacrifices described in Leviticus 5 and 6:1-7 specify and extend these sacrifices for sin:
Leviticus 5:1-4 clarifies four cases in which a sinner must present a sacrifice for sin in agreement with what we read in Leviticus 4.
Notice that Leviticus 5:5 requires the confession of sin in these four cases along with the sacrifice.
Leviticus 5:7-13 explains how to do the sin offerings in the midst of poverty.
Leviticus 5:14-16 explains compensation that is added to the sacrifice in the form of silver shekels when there is an unintentional sin regarding the holy things of Yahweh.
Leviticus 5:17-19 applies this even in situations of ignorance of the holy things.
Leviticus 6:1-7 describes the sacrifices and the compensation that will be given for sins of theft, false witness or carelessness regarding another’s possessions, cases like we saw in Exodus 22:1-15.