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Leviticus 4:1-12 meaning

Sin offerings in the case of an anointed priest committing a sin.

In Leviticus 4:1-12, we encounter a detailed set of instructions given to Moses concerning the sin offering for unintentional sins committed by an anointed priest (v. 3). These laws highlight the gravity of sin and the holiness required by God, even for sins committed unwittingly.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying (v. 1) signifies direct divine communication, emphasizing the seriousness of the instructions. The LORD’s (Yahweh’s) conversation with Moses occurs at the Tent of Meeting, a sacred space where God’s divine presence would dwell among the Israelites during their journey through the wilderness post-exodus from Egypt.

Yahweh begins in verse 2 with an introduction that addresses every person, but will quickly pivot in verse 3 to address only an anointed priest, and cover the rest of the people from the leaders to the common people later in the chapter.

The LORD then says, "Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them" (v. 2). This underscores the universality of sin, acknowledging that even inadvertent actions can breach God’s law. It conveys that ignorance does not absolve responsibility. It also emphasizes that for unintentional sin, the LORD provides a path to restore fellowship.

Contrasting this is the instructions for intentional sins. The book of Numbers says that sin offerings were for unintentional sins and did not cover intentional, defiant sins (Numbers 15:29-30). Intentional sins had a separate set of requirements.

For some intentional sins like extortion or robbery, a guilt offering was required along with an act of restitution by the guilty party toward the offended (Leviticus 6:1-7). Thus the offender was required not only to confess their guilt to God, but also to make right the harm they had done to the person they harmed. Thus, for intentional sins, fellowship was to be restored with God as well as their fellow man.

Intentional sins such as breaking the sabbath laws, witchcraft, incest, adultery, murder, or blaspheming the name of Yahweh required the death penalty (Exodus 35:2, Exodus 21:12). These intentional sins recognized that such belligerence against the LORD would act as a poison and pollute the entire nation.

The pagan ways of exploitation and self-indulgence would lead to curses upon the nation (Deuteronomy 28:15-68) and stood in stark contrast to the love-your-neighbor ethic God commanded that would lead to blessings (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Therefore, the elimination of these negative influences protected the nation from falling into disarray and collapse.

Other intentional sins required the guilty person to be “cut off.” Jewish tradition interprets being cut off (Hebrew “kareth”) to mean a death or separation that is enacted by God rather than a human court (Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:6). This tradition says that being “cut off from among their people” could happen in two ways.

The first way this was traditionally understood was that the guilty party would experience divine judgment in this life, by way of an early physical death, or dying without offspring. As an example, Genesis 9:11uses “kareth” to describe those who died from God’s judgment in the flood of Noah. The New Testament contains a similar thought, when Paul tells the believers at Corinth that many have become ill or even died prematurely because they took communion with God in an “unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).

A second way of traditional Jewish understanding speaks of an adverse impact in the next life. It draws upon verses like Genesis 25:8, which says that Abraham died and was “gathered unto his people.” This led to the interpretation that intentional sin would create a separation or death in the afterlife, being cut off from fellowship with one’s people in the next age. The implication of Abraham being “gathered unto his people” infers that there are relatives in the next life, so the thought was that perhaps someone could be cut off from fellowship with their people in the next life if they broke fellowship by exploiting others in this life.

This general concept might have support from the New Testament parable of the unrighteous steward, where Jesus stated that part of the great reward for service to those who cannot repay in this life will be their repayment in the next (Luke 16:9). But this chapter does not deal with intentional sins. It focuses on If a person sins unintentionally (v. 1).

This first sin offering focuses on the priests, who hold a spiritual and sacred role, “If the anointed priest sins so as to bring guilt on the people, then let him offer to the LORD a bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed” (v. 3).

The sin of the anointed priest has ramifications for the entire community, hence the need for a significant offering—a bull without defect. A bull would be an expensive sacrifice. It would symbolize perfection and the seriousness of atoning for sin. Rashi, an 11th century rabbinic commentator, says,

“When the high-priest sins this is the guilt of the people (i.e. it results in the people remaining under a load of guilt), because they are dependent on him to effect atonement for them and to pray on their behalf, and now he himself has become degenerate and can thus not expiate for them, wherefore they remain under guilt.”

This underscores the serious nature of the sin of a leader. So the passage begins with the leader dealing with his sin: He shall bring the bull to the doorway of the tent of meeting before the LORD, and he shall lay his hand on the head of the bull and slay the bull before the LORD (v. 4).

This laying on of hands is a symbolic act of transferring the sin from the priest to the animal, indicating substitution and identification with the sin being atoned for. In this case, the sin is transferred to the bull being sacrificed.

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would perform the most anticipated sin offering of the year. In this case, lots were casts upon two goats, one lot for “Azazel” (sometimes translated “scapegoat”) and the other lot for “Yahweh.” The goat upon which the lot fell for Azazel was released into the wilderness after the high priest would lay his hand on the head of the goat and confess all the sins of the people over it.

Then the goat upon which the lot for Yahweh fell would be slain as a special sin offering for the sins of the whole nation of Israel (Leviticus 16:8-9). It would be the blood of this special sin offering that was brought inside the veil of the tabernacle and sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:15). This was a foreshadowing of Christ going inside the veil as the perfect offering for sin, and not with the blood of goats but with His own blood (Hebrew 9:24-25).

To learn more about how the two goats on the Day of Atonement foreshadow the work of Jesus on the cross, see our article: “Ransom and Redemption: Jesus and Barabbas as Day of Atonement Symbols.

Then the anointed priest is to take some of the blood of the bull and bring it to the tent of meeting (v. 5). The tent of meeting refers to the tabernacle that stood in the middle of the Israelite encampment. Blood in Levitical law is the source of life and therefore the means of making atonement. This action signifies that life is given in exchange for sin. This foreshadows Jesus giving His life as an atonement for the sin of the world (Romans 5:21).

Instructions continue regarding application of the blood: and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil of the sanctuary (v. 6).

The number seven often represents completeness or perfection in biblical literature, and the act of sprinkling blood before the LORD is a ritual of purification for the holy place. The blood represents atonement, foreshadowing the atonement of Jesus who died once for all, for the sins of the entire world (Matthew 26:28, Romans 3:25, Ephesians 1:7).

The passage continues speaking of the obligation for a priest who has sinned: The priest shall also put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense which is before the LORD in the tent of meeting; and all the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the doorway of the tent of meeting (v. 7).

The altar is the central place of worship, and the application of blood sanctifies it, making it a place where the Israelites can offer their gifts to God. The horns of the altar are on each corner and signify power. The blood being on the horns might foreshadow the power of the blood of Jesus for the remission of sins (Colossians 1:14). The fragrant incense might represent the prayer of confession, as incense often represents the prayers of God’s people (Revelation 8:3).

The remaining blood was poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the doorway of the tent of meeting. The crimson color would have been visible to God and to all who entered the Tabernacle since the altar was directly in front of its doorway. Similarly in Exodus 12, when the Israelites were commanded to place the blood of the Passover lamb on the lintels and doorposts of their homes, the crimson color was visible to God as He passed over them (Exodus 12:13).

Still continuing with the sin offering of the priest: He shall remove from it all the fat of the bull of the sin offering: the fat that covers the entrails, and all the fat which is on the entrails, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, which is on the loins, and the lobe of the liver, which he shall remove with the kidneys (vs. 8-9). The fat and organs specified were offered to God, while the rest was retained to be burnt outside the camp.

Then, the priest is to offer them up in smoke on the altar of burnt offering (v. 10). Burning the fat and organs on the altar represents the transformation of the sin offering into a pleasing aroma ascending to God, a symbolic visual of divine acceptance of the offering. The term burnt offering in Hebrew is “oleh” which means “to ascend.” As the offerors watched their gifts become smoke and ascend to the sky, it would have provided them with a physically visible representation of a spiritual truth.

The Hebrew word translated kidneys is elsewhere in scripture translated as “mind” (Psalm 16:7) and “inmost being” (Proverbs 23:16). Perhaps here the image is of the first and greatest commandment, which is to give over our entire lives, including our hearts and minds in complete obedience to God (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Matthew 22:36-37).

Fat is often used as a picture of abundance and prosperity (Genesis 45:18). Perhaps the offering of the fat is a recognition that God is the only true source of our blessings and prosperity. The picture could be one of offering back to God thanksgiving for our lives and blessings, by burning them and having the aroma ascend to Him.

In the New Testament, we are told that our prayers ascend to God’s throne room as a sweet incense to Him (Revelation 8:3-4). As we speak to God in confession, supplication, and thanksgiving, we understand that our words ascend directly to God.

But the hide of the bull and all its flesh with its head and its legs and its entrails and its refuse, that is, all the rest of the bull, he is to bring out to a clean place outside the camp where the ashes are poured out, and burn it on wood with fire; where the ashes are poured out it shall be burned (vs. 11-12).

This instruction ensures complete disposal of the sin symbol, removing the impurity from the community and preventing defilement of the sacred space. When the Israelites were living in tents in the wilderness, the term outside the camp was a literal one. Once the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the phrase became interpreted as “outside the city” of Jerusalem.

In Jesus’ day, this clean place was located on the Mount of Olives and was where they burned the red heifer for the ashes to create the purifying water (Numbers 19:9), and was believed to be near the place where Jesus ascended to heaven after He rose from the dead.

Unlike peace offerings where the edible portions of the animal were enjoyed as a meal between God, the priests, and the offerors, several offerings, including this one, were wholly consumed by fire outside the camp. The bull and the goat of the sin offering on The Day of Atonement were wholly consumed outside the camp (Leviticus 16:27). The red heifer sacrifice described in Numbers 19 was also wholly consumed outside the camp and was needed to make the water to purify the Tabernacle prior to its use as God’s dwelling place. The Pauline author of Hebrews makes a direct link between these types of sacrifices and the sacrifice of Jesus laying down His life on our behalf,

“For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”
(Hebrews 13:11-13)

The direct instruction to “go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach” is to all believers. When we become believers in Jesus, we should expect to share in His sufferings and reproaches from the world (Romans 8:17, 2 Timothy 1:8, 1 Peter 4:13). Some people who embark to follow Jesus become discouraged when they experience these sufferings and reproaches (Matthew 13:21). We are exhorted to have the attitude that Jesus had, which was thinking of a transcendent cause, the promised reward in heaven for patiently enduring suffering (Philippians 2:8-9).

The passage of Leviticus 4:1-12 explains the sin offering as it pertains to an anointed priest. The actions performed by the anointed priest not only seek to restore the relationship between the Israelites and God when sin has occurred, but also maintain the sanctity of the communal life and the tabernacle area. These rites took place in the wilderness, where the Israelites lived in a nomadic state before entering the Promised Land. The specific location of these events is not provided, but it would be within the Israelite camp where the Tabernacle, the predecessor of the Temple, was situated.

The anointed priest here is part of the Levitical priesthood established after the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, during the second millennium BC. The ritualistic slaughter and offering are conducted in a manner that carefully adheres to divine instruction, reflecting the ancient Israelite understanding that rituals and obedience were central to maintaining God's presence and favor.

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