“If a soul should sin involuntarily before the Lord against any of the Lord’s ordinances, … he shall offer to the Lord for the sin he committed a young bull without blemish from the oxen as a sin offering.” (OSB)
As we explored last week, the Voluntary offerings enumerated in Lev 1-3 are positive, free expressions of worship and thanks to God, which set the Old Covenant sacrificial system on a fundamentally different footing than the pagan worship Israel is supposed to avoid. Israel is to relate to her God, the one true God who created and fills all things (3 Kgdm 8:25ff; Acts 7:48ff; 17:29), as loving Father and Redeemer, not as a petty, fickle, temperamental, and vengeful “force” in creation who must be placated and manipulated, much less fed, by sacrificial offerings.
With the Mandatory offerings in Lev 4-5, we see another side of the matter. In the “necessity” of these sacrifices, God is instructing His people about the true nature of the human problem, so as to point ultimately to Christ as the Archetype and Substance of the Law’s “shadow of the good things to come” (Heb 10:1).
Our understanding of the “Sin” and “Guilt/Restitution” offerings (Lev 4-5) must be governed by the crucial expression, “sin involuntarily.” The kind of “sin” that the Sin Offering addresses is not willful violation of God’s commandments, what is termed in Num 15:30-31, “sin with a high hand,” or a “hand of arrogance” (OSB). An Israelite does not covet, commit adultery, lie, and murder, and then go to the Temple to offer a Sin Offering to “make things right.” Righteous David knew this, which is why he says after his sin with Bathsheba, If You desired sacrifice, I would give it; [but] You will not be pleased with whole burnt offerings: A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, A broken and humble heart God will not despise (Ps 50:18-19).
What “sin” does the Sin Offering address then? In short, the Sin Offering brings about purification from the defilement that is caused by 1) inadvertent offenses against God’s “holy things” (e.g., making mistakes in the rituals, or worshipping in an unworthy state) and 2) the various “states” or “conditions” outlined in Lev 11-15—all of which relate to the forces of death at work in our bodies—which make one “unholy” and thus unfit to enter (fully) into God’s presence, and which “pollute” God’s holy place which sits in the middle of the camp. God gives the blood of the Sin Offering sacrifice to Israel (Lev 17:11) as a purifying agent—it is “ritual detergent” for God’s holy things, cleansing (“making atonement for, propitiating”) God’s dwelling so that God can remain among His people (cf. Heb 9:22).
So, when the Israelite comes to offer a Sin Offering, to “make atonement” by the mediation of the priest, he is coming not to assuage the wrath of an angry God; the problem is much more objective and concrete than that: How can we who are corrupt and dying have fellowship with God Who is perfect Life & Holiness? The Israelite comes to sacrifice, then, because he is aware of his own frailty and impurity, that “death is at work in his members” (Rom 7:5; 2 Cor 4:12), and that these have caused him, whether in word, or deed, or thought, to err in his service to God. He is seeking his own purification, and the purification of the Holy Altar and the Tabernacle as a whole, with which he wants to once again be united in full communion.
Again, as Righteous David knew, in order for Israel’s ongoing sacrifices to be worthy of God, Israel must be continually returning, in spirit and truth, to their founding Paschal sacrifice, their baptism in the Red Sea, and their covenant dedication (Exod 24), as the ground and source of their life of transforming repentance before God. It is with this Repentance & Confession that Christ’s once-for-all Sin Offering becomes continually effective for us (2 Cor 5:18-21), with Christ, as “our Advocate with the Father,” being “Himself the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 Jn 2:1-2).
~ By Reader Justin Gohl