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Leviticus 4:13-21 meaning

Sin offerings in the case of the whole community committing a sin.

In Leviticus 4:13-21, we read of the communal responsibility for sin and the process of atonement for corporate transgression in ancient Israel. When the whole congregation of Israel errs, a specific protocol is followed to make amends for the unintentional communal sin, emphasizing the collective nature of holiness and sin.

The following statement acknowledges the possibility of corporate sin going unnoticed "Now if the whole congregation of Israel commits error and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly, and they commit any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, and they become guilty" (v. 13). This reflects an understanding that guiltiness affects the community as a whole, not just an individual.

The recognition and confession of sin are pivotal first steps in the process of atonement: "when the sin which they have committed becomes known, then the assembly shall offer a bull of the herd for a sin offering and bring it before the tent of meeting" (v. 14). The offering of a bull, a significant and valuable animal, signifies the magnitude of communal sin and the importance of the congregation's repentance.

Since this is atoning for communal sin, the presence of all the community’s leaders, the elders, is required. "Then the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the LORD, and the bull shall be slain before the LORD" (v. 15).

The elders, representing the people, perform the act of laying hands on the bull, symbolizing the transfer of the community's identity and sin to the animal, signifying collective responsibility and identification with the sin. There were 70 elders appointed in Israel (Numbers 11:16, Ezekiel 8:11), so it must have taken some time for all of them to lay their hands on the bull.

The subsequent act of sprinkling blood before the LORD signifies purification and sanctification, aimed at restoring the fellowship between the people and God: "Then the anointed priest is to bring some of the blood of the bull to the tent of meeting; and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil" (v.16-17).

Jewish tradition interprets in front of the veil to mean on the floor in front of the veil and not on the veil itself, but that if any landed on the veil it would not invalidate the ceremony. Thus it seems that it required the community’s leaders to repent in order for the sin of the community to be atoned. This might be why in the New Testament it is inferred that the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by Israel’s leaders was imputed as rejection by the nation as a whole.

Next, the priest would put some of the blood on the horns of the altar (altar of incense) which is before the LORD in the tent of meeting; and all the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the doorway of the tent of meeting" (v. 18).

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 act of placing blood on the horns of the altar of incense signifies consecration and the making of atonement. In the Bible, blood is often a symbol of life, thus it represents the life of the creature being offered to God to which the offeror symbolically places their identity. The altar of incense, which is before the LORD in the tent of meeting, was a place where the incense representing the prayers of the people was regularly burned. By applying the blood on the horns of the altar, the priest symbolically brought the people's need for atonement before God.

Pouring out the rest of the blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering emphasizes the totality of the sacrifice. The altar of burnt offering was where the Israelites presented sacrifices to God, and it stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting, possibly signifying that one must pass through the means of atonement to enter into God's presence (Hebrews 9:3, 10:20).

This verse can be seen as pointing to the need for atonement and the seriousness with which sin must be treated. It is ultimately pointing towards Jesus' sacrificial death, where Christ is the ultimate high priest who entered the true holy place in heaven, offering not the blood of animals, but His own blood once for all (Hebrews 9:12).

The practices described in Leviticus are historical and part of the Old Testament covenant, which was fulfilled in the New Testament through Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection. The ritual laws given to the Israelites are not practiced by Christians today, but they provide deep insight into the nature of sin, the holiness of God, and the need for redemption. But even in Old Testament times, scripture asserted that there are things more important than sacrifices, specifically obedience to God (1 Samuel 15:22, Micah 6:6-8):

“For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,
And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
(Hosea 6:6)

"He shall remove all its fat from it and offer it up in smoke on the altar" (v. 19). Animal fat was used in many different ways in ancient times, from food flavoring to cosmetics, candles, and soaps. 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.

"He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven" (v. 20). This verse reinforces the ritual pattern for sin offerings and the purpose behind them—atonement and forgiveness from God, in this case for the whole community. This bull will be treated the same way as with the first offering described in this chapter, for the sin of the priest (Leviticus 4:11-12)

"Then he is to bring out the bull to a place outside the camp and burn it as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly" (v. 21). The removal of the remains outside the camp and their complete consumption by fire reflects the complete removal of sin from the midst of the people, thereby eliminating its defiling effect. This instruction ensures complete incineration of the sin offering, removing the impurity from the community and preventing defilement of the sacred space. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, the phrase “outside the camp” was literal. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the phrase became interpreted as “outside the city.” In Jesus’ day, this place was believed to be located on the Mount of Olives and was a clean place where they burned the red heifer for the ashes to create the purifying water for sin (Numbers 19:9). If the place of the offering outside the camp was on the Mount of Olives, it likely was near the place where Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9-11).

This passage provides a detailed description of the sin offering for the entire community of Israel, not just for an individual or leader. The instructions given are for a situation where the community has unknowingly sinned but seeks to make atonement once the sin is realized.

Atonement means being reconciled to God. The process is carried out at the tent of meeting, which in the wilderness period was the focal point of Israel’s worship and the unique place where God’s presence dwelled among His people. Later, the tent of meeting would be a semi-permanent structure known as the Temple at Jerusalem. God’s presence also dwelt there, until it was removed due to Israel’s sin (1 Kings 8:10-11, Ezekiel 10:18-19).

The sin offering ritual served to cleanse the community from defilement caused by sin and to reconcile their fellowship with God. The meticulous details highlight the importance of communal harmony, holiness, and fellowship in the eyes of God, where individual responsibility is nested within corporate accountability.

This kind of self-governing society is emphasized throughout scripture as one that leads to harmony and righteousness. It also shows the grace and provision of God for His people's restoration to Him, even when the whole congregation falls into error.

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