Leviticus 4:13-15

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Delivered 17 March 2018


Sins of Ignorance

13 And if a whole company of Israel goes astray and the matter be concealed from the eyes of the congregation, and they have done any of the things which ADONAI said not to be done, and are guilty; 14 when the sin that they have sinned is known, then the congregation shall offer a young bull of the herd for a sin offering and bring it before the tent of meeting. 15 And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before ADONAI, and the bull shall be slain before ADONAI." (Lev 4:13-15 mine)


Our passage is found in Parashah Vayikra [Lev 1:15:26], which contains instructions for five sacrificial offerings by individual Israelites: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering. Our text concerns the sin offering, particularly in relation to an offence committed by a group of Israelites.

The passage begins with the word "if." God did not mean that He expected the entire nation or a tribe or a clan to commit a sin together. It means that even if an error was committed by a group of people then a sin offering was still required. The sin could not be excused merely because a high number of people were involved.

Two Hebrew words occur here, first eidah and then qahal, both of which can mean congregation. However, in this context neither term refers to the entire nation. When I first considered this passage I wondered how could any group of Israelites break one of God's laws and later call it a mistake? Of course, with over 600 commands in the Torah, it's a lot to keep track of. Something is bound to slip.

Just to be clear, a sin is a violation of a specific law of God given to Israel and recorded in Scripture [Rom 3:20; 4:15; 7:7]. A sin may be unintentional or intentional. Unintentional simply means done without planning ahead, often acting without thinking, but it might also mean acting in ignorance. A sin may be doing something prohibited, or failing to do something that is required. This passage involves the first type. It's important to note that in the Torah a sin offering only provided atonement for unintentional sin [Lev 4:2; Heb 9:7].

But, was it really possible for the Israelites to break a command of God in ignorance? The laws had been publicly announced, so how could lack of knowledge be possible? Did God purposely given vague commandments so they could say, "I didn't know what He meant?" I don't think the generation of Moses could claim ignorance. However, later generations might claim that reason, as the Scripture says, "My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge" [Hos 4:6]. I suggest that ignorance of God's law is not just lack of knowledge of a law's existence, but in some cases failing to understand its application. In the time of Yeshua the Pharisees claimed that the people were accursed because they did not know Torah [John 7:49]. Well, whose fault was that? The Pharisees were in charge of the synagogues.

The situation as described in the Leviticus passage seems to be a group, perhaps the leaders of the nation going astray, but the fault is hidden from the congregation and not immediately brought to light. The Sages applied this passage to an erroneous decision of the Sanhedrin declaring a prohibited matter as permissible and the community acting on their instruction [so Rashi; Horayoth 3a; 7a-b]. Of course, that application was entirely hypothetical. How could the best legal minds of the nation ever go wrong?

However, the Judean ruling authorities did make one colossal error in regard to Yeshua. When Yeshua was illegally arrested and tried during Passover, they charged him with blasphemy, deemed him worthy of death and turned him over to the Roman authorities for crucifixion. But, for this error Yeshua became their sin offering. When Yeshua was on the execution stake he prayed "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing" [Luke 23:34]. In his second sermon in Jerusalem Kfa told the people " I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did" [Acts 3:17]. Later Sha'ul wrote to the congregation in Corinth, "none of the rulers of this age understood, for if they had understood they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" [1Cor 2:8 mine].

Yeshua's death accomplished immediate atonement for his unlawful execution, but even greater his death eliminated the need for future sin offerings [Heb 7:27; 10:12; 1Pet 3:18]. Under the Old Covenant there was no atonement for capital crimes, but under the New Covenant the blood of Yeshua is sufficient to atone for all sins, regardless of intent [Acts 13:39; Heb 9:15; 1Jn 1:7].

So, what should we take away from this passage? First, Scripture is the only plumbline for evaluating our behavior, not tradition or custom. Second, sin cannot be hidden indefinitely. As the Torah says, "your sin will find you out" [Num 32:23]. Third, we won't learn to live biblically by watching a TV show. No, you actually have to read the Bible to learn about the life that is pleasing to God [Col 1:9-10]. And, as Jim Adler has so often pointed out pleasing God means a life of love. Fourth, and most importantly, pleasing the Lord begins with having a relationship with Yeshua through the Holy Spirit. Head knowledge is no substitute for heart knowledge.

Barukh Hashem

Copyright 2018 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.