Notes (NET Translation)
4:1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses:
This heading marks a transition from the voluntary sacrifices of Lev. 1-3 to the mandatory sacrifices that follow.
2 “Tell the Israelites, ‘When a person sins by straying unintentionally from any of the Lord’s commandments which must not be violated, and violates any one of them –
The sin (purification) offering (hattat) cleansed or purged unintentional sins. “Inadvertent wrongdoing may result from two causes: negligence or ignorance. Either the offender knows the law but involuntarily violates it or he acts knowingly but is unaware he did wrong” (Milgrom 1991, p. 228). Wenham notes that Lev. 15:31 and 16:19 suggest that both the Israelites and the sanctuary are purified or cleansed by this offering. At least some sins pollute or defile the sinner, the land, or the sanctuary (Lev. 18:27-28; 20:3; Num. 19:13, 20; 35:34-35). While ancient pagan cultures believed demons were the source of defilement, the ancient Israelites believed ethical violations were the source of defilement (Milgrom 1991, p. 231). The offenses that require the sin offering are not specified, although Lev. 5:1-4 seems to provide some examples. According to the rabbis, offenses punishable by karet, the cutting off of the offender from the community, are the offenses that demand the sin offering when committed unintentionally (Levine 1989, p. 18). A purification offering could also be offered in cases where sin did not occur, such as physical impurity (Milgrom 1991, p. 253).
3 “‘If the high priest sins so that the people are guilty, on account of the sin he has committed he must present a flawless young bull to the Lord for a sin offering.
The high priest represented the people before God so when he sinned he became unworthy of representing the nation before God. Perhaps the people are then guilty because the high priest in such a state cannot intercede on their behalf. In the Yom Kippur ritual the high priest had to atone for his own sins and those of his family before atoning for the community’s sins (Lev. 16). The Sifra defines the “young bull” (ben bakar) as a three-year-old bull (Levine 1989, p. 20).
4 He must bring the bull to the entrance of the Meeting Tent before the Lord, lay his hand on the head of the bull, and slaughter the bull before the Lord.
See the comments on Leviticus 1:4 for the meaning of the laying on of hands.
5 Then that high priest must take some of the blood of the bull and bring it to the Meeting Tent.
6 The priest must dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of it seven times before the Lord toward the front of the veil-canopy of the sanctuary.
According to the rabbis, the index finger was dipped in the blood (Sipra, Hobah par. 3:8; b. Zebah. 53a). The number seven connotes completeness. This veil-canopy is the curtain acting as a door into the holy of holies (sanctuary). Rabbinic tradition holds that the blood was sprinkled toward the veil-canopy but did not touch it (b. Yoma 57a [bar.]; y. Yoma 5:4).
7 The priest must put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense that is before the Lord in the Meeting Tent, and all the rest of the bull’s blood he must pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the Meeting Tent.
The altar of fragrant incense was inside the Meeting Tent (Ex. 30:1-10, 34-38; 37:25-28), while the altar of burnt offering was outside the Meeting Tent in the courtyard. Only the sins of the high priest and the congregation as a whole required blood to be placed on the altar of incense.
8 “‘Then he must take up all the fat from the sin offering bull: the fat covering the entrails and all the fat surrounding the entrails, 9 the two kidneys with the fat on their sinews, and the protruding lobe on the liver (which he is to remove along with the kidneys) 10 – just as it is taken from the ox of the peace offering sacrifice – and the priest must offer them up in smoke on the altar of burnt offering.
See the comments on Leviticus 3:3-4, 16, 17 for information about the removal of fat.
11 But the hide of the bull, all its flesh along with its head and its legs, its entrails, and its dung – 12 all the rest of the bull – he must bring outside the camp to a ceremonially clean place, to the fatty ash pile, and he must burn it on a wood fire; it must be burned on the fatty ash pile.
Nothing of this offering is to benefit humans. This practice prevents the high priest from profiting from his own sins. The Hebrew term peresh (“dung”) refers to the undigested contents of the stomach (Levine 1989, p. 22). Apparently there was an ash pile outside the camp, just as there was one near the altar of burnt offering (Lev. 1:16).
13 “‘If the whole congregation of Israel strays unintentionally and the matter is not noticed by the assembly, and they violate one of the Lord’s commandments, which must not be violated, so they become guilty, 14 the assembly must present a young bull for a sin offering when the sin they have committed becomes known. They must bring it before the Meeting Tent, 15 the elders of the congregation must lay their hands on the head of the bull before the Lord, and someone must slaughter the bull before the Lord.
The exact situation envisaged in these verses is not clear. The covenant with Gibeon (Josh. 9) might be an example of a sin by the congregation because the congregation did not ask God for direction. Milgrom makes the intriguing observation that vv. 3-21 may describe one ritual. The sin of the high priest leads the congregation into sin. The high priest must then make a sacrifice for his sins before making a sacrifice for the sins of the congregation. This may also explain why forgiveness is mentioned in v. 20 but not earlier.
16 Then the high priest must bring some of the blood of the bull to the Meeting Tent, 17 and that priest must dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the Lord toward the front of the veil-canopy.
18 He must put some of the blood on the horns of the altar which is before the Lord in the Meeting Tent, and all the rest of the blood he must pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the Meeting Tent.
19 “‘Then the priest must take all its fat and offer the fat up in smoke on the altar.
20 He must do with the rest of the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; this is what he must do with it. So the priest will make atonement on their behalf and they will be forgiven.
The priests participate in the sins of the congregation and therefore no one receives any of the animal’s parts. How exactly expiation is achieved is not expressly stated in the sacrificial regulations. The passive tense in “they will be forgiven” indicates that God is the one who does the forgiving. It is not a purely mechanical process brought about by the ritual.
21 He must bring the rest of the bull outside the camp and burn it just as he burned the first bull – it is the sin offering of the assembly.
22 “‘Whenever a leader, by straying unintentionally, sins and violates one of the commandments of the Lord his God which must not be violated, and he pleads guilty, 23 or his sin that he committed is made known to him, he must bring a flawless male goat as his offering.
A nasi (“leader”) is a secular leader. The term refers to leaders in general and not a specific office (e.g., king). His sin offering was basically the same as that of any other Israelite except more expensive. The goat was identified as a yearling by the rabbis (Levine 1989, p. 24).
24 He must lay his hand on the head of the male goat and slaughter it in the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered before the Lord – it is a sin offering.
25 Then the priest must take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and he must pour out the rest of its blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering.
The sin of the leader might be seen as less serious or less polluting than the sin of the high priest and of the community because, in the case of the leader, the blood is dabbed on the altar of burnt offering, not the altar of fragrant incense.
26 Then the priest must offer all of its fat up in smoke on the altar like the fat of the peace offering sacrifice. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin and he will be forgiven.
The rest of the animal is eaten by the priests (Lev. 6:19).
27 “‘If an ordinary individual sins by straying unintentionally when he violates one of the Lord’s commandments which must not be violated, and he pleads guilty 28 or his sin that he committed is made known to him, he must bring a flawless female goat as his offering for the sin that he committed.
The ordinary Israelite followed the same procedure as the leader except he could choose to offer a female goat or a female sheep instead of a male goat.
The question needs to be asked: Why is the female, the more valuable animal, required of the commoner, whereas the male, of less worth, is required of the chieftain? The answer may be that a commoner, particularly a poor one, is likely to keep only female animals, which provide sustenance, and only if he could afford it would he retain a single male for breeding. The chieftain, by contrast, could well afford to keep several males in his flock. (Milgrom 1991, p. 252)
29 He must lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter the sin offering in the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered.
30 Then the priest must take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and he must pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar.
31 Then he must remove all of its fat (just as fat was removed from the peace offering sacrifice) and the priest must offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the Lord. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf and he will be forgiven.
32 “‘But if he brings a sheep as his offering, for a sin offering, he must bring a flawless female.
33 He must lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it for a sin offering in the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered.
34 Then the priest must take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and he must pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar.
35 Then the one who brought the offering must remove all its fat (just as the fat of the sheep is removed from the peace offering sacrifice) and the priest must offer them up in smoke on the altar on top of the other gifts of the Lord. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed and he will be forgiven.
5:1 “‘When a person sins in that he hears a public curse against one who fails to testify and he is a witness (he either saw or knew what had happened) and he does not make it known, then he will bear his punishment for iniquity.
Lev. 5:1-13 describes another kind of sin (purification) offering, known as the graduated purification offering (because the specific offering is graduated according to the economic means of the offerer). Note that 5:1 builds off the introduction in 4:2 (“When a person”) instead of being a continuation of 4:27-35. The graduated purification offering, unlike the sin offering described in ch. 4, specifies that confession is necessary. The phrase “one of these things” in 5:5 refers back to 5:1-4, not to ch. 4.
Lev. 5:1 envisions a proclamation asking anyone with information in a case to come forward and testify. The curse was pronounced on any witness who failed to fulfill this duty.
The issue in this case is the well-being of the community. In ancient Israel, a close-knit society without a police force, the security of the community depended on each citizen’s informing the leaders of any wrongdoing or clandestine activity. Failure to report any aberrant activity would endanger the community’s safety and solidarity. Whoever sins in this way must bear the responsibility of his iniquity, “bear his iniquity.” This phrase means that the guilty party is liable for such a failure, and that one’s failure places him under the curse contained in the public oath. (Hartley 1998, p. 68)
According to Milgrom, the Hebrew wording always implies that the punishment will be meted out by God (Milgrom 1991, p. 295; Tg. Ps.-J.; m. Sanh. 4:5; t. Sebu. 3:1, 4; Philo, Laws 2.26).
2 Or when there is a person who touches anything ceremonially unclean, whether the carcass of an unclean wild animal, or the carcass of an unclean domesticated animal, or the carcass of an unclean creeping thing, even if he did not realize it, but he himself has become unclean and is guilty; 3 or when he touches human uncleanness with regard to anything by which he can become unclean, even if he did not realize it, but he himself has later come to know it and is guilty;
Becoming unclean was an ordinary occurrence that carried no guilt. The guilt results in this case because the person did not purify himself within the specified time limit (Lev. 11:28, 31-40).
4 or when a person swears an oath, speaking thoughtlessly with his lips, whether to do evil or to do good, with regard to anything which the individual might speak thoughtlessly in an oath, even if he did not realize it, but he himself has later come to know it and is guilty with regard to one of these oaths –
This case seems to involve a rash or impulsive oath of any kind. Whether the person fulfills his oath is not mentioned. Thus, the point is that oaths should only be undertaken after careful reflection.
5 when an individual becomes guilty with regard to one of these things he must confess how he has sinned,
Note that a confession must accompany the sacrifice offered for committing one of the infractions in 5:1-4. According to the rabbis, every case of forgiveness and atonement required confession (m. Yoma 8:8; b. Sebu 13a; t. Yoma 8:9). “The rabbis declared: ‘Great is repentance, which converts intentional sins into unintentional ones’ (b. Yoma 86b)” (Rooker and Cole 2000, loc. 3066-3067). The sins of 5:1-4 were intentional but, by confession/repentance, they were cleansed by the sacrifice for unintentional sins.
6 and he must bring his penalty for guilt to the Lord for his sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, whether a female sheep or a female goat, for a sin offering. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin.
7 “‘If he cannot afford an animal from the flock, he must bring his penalty for guilt for his sin that he has committed, two turtledoves or two young pigeons, to the Lord, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering.
One bird is for a sin offering and one bird is for a burnt offering. Ibn Ezra “explains this distribution as a way of compensating for the fatty portions of the sacrificial animals, which would have been burned on the altar as God’s share had the full hattat been offered. By burning one of the birds to ashes, the share offered to God was at least increased” (Levine 1989, p. 29).
8 He must bring them to the priest and present first the one that is for a sin offering. The priest must pinch its head at the nape of its neck, but must not sever the head from the body.
The sin offering was offered first to expiate sin. Then the burnt offering could be given because the offerer was in good standing with God. It constituted his first act of worship after forgiveness.
9 Then he must sprinkle some of the blood of the sin offering on the wall of the altar, and the remainder of the blood must be squeezed out at the base of the altar – it is a sin offering.
10 The second bird he must make a burnt offering according to the standard regulation. So the priest will make atonement on behalf of this person for his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven.
The “standard regulation” is given in Leviticus 1:14-17.
11 “‘If he cannot afford two turtledoves or two young pigeons, he must bring as his offering for his sin which he has committed a tenth of an ephah of choice wheat flour for a sin offering. He must not place olive oil on it and he must not put frankincense on it, because it is a sin offering.
The olive oil and frankincense used in a grain offering were associated with joy. They are inappropriate for a sin offering.
12 He must bring it to the priest and the priest must scoop out from it a handful as its memorial portion and offer it up in smoke on the altar on top of the other gifts of the Lord – it is a sin offering.
The memorial portion of the grain offering is explained in Leviticus 2:2. In this case it may act like the fat of the animal.
13 So the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed by doing one of these things, and he will be forgiven. The remainder of the offering will belong to the priest like the grain offering.'”
Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992.
Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000.
Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.