Leviticus 4

The Word Made Fresh

1The LORD said, “Moses, tell the people that whenever someone inadvertently breaks any of my rules and does something wrong, follow these guidelines:

3“If a priest breaks the rules, the people are also guilty. The priest must bring a bull without any blemish as an offering for the mistake he has made. 4He must bring the bull to me at the entrance to the meeting tent and put his hand on its head and slaughter the bull in my presence. 5Then he must take some of the blood into the meeting tent, 6dip his finger in it, and sprinkle it toward the sanctuary curtain seven times. 7Then he must dabble some of the blood on the horns of the incense altar in the meeting tent. The rest of the blood he must pour out at the base of the altar of sacrifice near the tent’s entrance. 9Then he shall remove the fat from the carcass, 9the kidneys and the lobe of the liver, and the fat around them between the hips 10in the same way as described before. These parts of the bull the priest will burn up on the altar for burnt offerings. 11The bull’s hide and muscles, head and legs, and entrails with its feces – 12all the rest of the animal – he must take outside the camp to the pile of ashes and start a fire of wood there on which to burn up the remains.

13“If the whole community makes a mistake unintentionally and no one notices it at the time, they are guilty of breaking my law. 14Once the mistake is known, they must come together to the meeting tent and present a bull for their atonement. 15The elders will place their hands on the bull’s head and slaughter it in the LORD’s presence. 16The priest will bring some of the blood into the meeting tent 17where he will sprinkle it seven times with his finger toward the sanctuary curtain before the LORD. 18He should mark the horns of the incense altar with the blood but pour the rest of the blood at the base of the altar of sacrifice outside the tent’s entrance. 19Then he must remove the fat from the carcass and burn it on the altar, 20and do exactly the same with this bull as was described for the other bull. This is how the priest will atone for the people and I will forgive them. 21Then the priest must take the bull’s remains and burn them outside the camp as described for the other bull. This is an offering for all the people to cleanse them of their sin.

22“If a leader of the people mistakenly breaks any of the rules the LORD God has made and does something wrong, he is guilty of sin. 23Once the mistake is brought to his attention he must bring a male goat, without any blemish, as his offering. 24He must place his hand on the goat’s head and slaughter it in the same place the other animal sacrifices are slaughtered. It will serve to erase the mistake he has made. 25The priest will then take some of the blood and smear it on the horns of the altar for burnt offerings, and pour the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. 26All the animal’s fat will be burned on the altar just as with the other sacrifices. This is how the priest will remove sin from the leader of the people.

27“If any of the people mistakenly disobeys one of my commands and does something against my law, they are guilty of sin. 28Once they are made aware of their mistake they must bring as an offering a female goat without any blemishes, 29place their hand on the goat’s head and it will be slaughtered as were the other sacrifices. 30The priest will smear some of the blood on the horns of the altar with his finger and pour the rest of the blood at the base of the altar. 31Then he will remove all the fat, just as with the other sacrifices, and burn it on the altar. It will be a pleasant smell for the LORD. This is how the priest will reconcile the one who brings the offering, and they will be forgiven.

32“If you offer a sheep in order to be forgiven, it must be a perfect female. 33Place your hand on its head and slaughter it where the other sacrifices are slaughtered. 34The priest will take some of the blood and mark the horns of the altar, then pour the rest at the altar’s base. 35Then the priest must remove the animal’s fat the same as with the other sacrifices and burn it on the altar along with any other offerings, and you will be forgiven for your mistakes.”

Commentary

1-2: This next section (4:1-5:13) covers the so-called “sin offerings,” which are made for the purpose of atoning for unintentional sins. Intentional sins are not atoned for by sacrifices, but by punishment.

3-12: If a priest commits an unintentional sin – that is, unintentionally does what is not supposed to be done (no specific examples are given) – he must bring an unblemished bull ox to the entrance of the tabernacle, place his hand on its head, and slaughter it (by slitting its throat). He is to collect the blood in a bowl and carry it into the tent where some of it is sprinkled seven times on the ground in front of the curtain hiding the most holy place, some is dabbled on the horns of the little incense altar, and the rest of it brought back outside and poured at the base of the large altar of burnt offerings. The bull is butchered, and all the fatty parts are removed and burned on the altar. The rest of the animal is carried outside the camp and burned on a wood fire at the ash heap – the camp’s garbage dump. In other words, the choice parts are offered to God while the defiled or common parts are removed from the camp, thus representing the removal of the effects of the priest’s sin from the people.

13-21: If the congregation errs unintentionally (again no example is given) the same procedure is followed except that the elders place their hands on the bull ox as it is slaughtered, and a priest carries out the blood ritual and the sacrifice on the altar and the removal of the remainder of the carcass.

22-26: This paragraph covers the sin offering of a ruler. “Ruler” is not defined, and we are left to wonder to whom, aside from Moses, this may refer. The sin offering is different in this case. As soon as the sin is discovered the ruler brings a male goat to the altar and lays his hands on its head while it is slaughtered. The blood is not taken into the tent, but a priest smears some of it on the horns of the altar of burnt offerings and pours the rest on the ground. The fatty portions of the goat are burned on the altar, but no mention is made of carrying the rest of the carcass outside the camp. Perhaps the omission is intentional, expecting that if a ruler sins the ruler can be forgiven but the effects of the sin are never completely removed from the people.

27-31: If an ordinary citizen commits an unintentional breach of the Law, the same process is followed as with the ruler except that the animal to be sacrificed in this case is a female goat.

32-35: Alternatively, in the case of a common citizen, a female sheep may be brought rather than a female goat.

Takeaway

Again, we have to ask ourselves what these ancient and rather bloody practices have to do with us. The answer, at least partly, is that 1) we bring our offerings out of gratitude to God for blessing us and 2) we bring our sacrifices out of a sense of repentance for some wrong we have committed.