22 “But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, 24 then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. 25 And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. 26 And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.
27 “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”
32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:22-36 ESV
The people of Israel were guilty of having committed the sin of rebellion. They had purposefully rejected His command to enter the land of Canaan, because they doubted His ability to give them victory over its current occupants. According to the assessment of the ten spies, the pagan nations that populated the promised land were too powerful and the odds of failure were insurmountable. There was no way a rag-tag militia comprised of former slaves, shepherds, and farmers were going to defeat the well-armed and highly-trained armies of the Canaanites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. So, they had decided to disobey God’s will, dismiss His appointed leaders, and return to Egypt.
But rather than reining down judgment and wiping them off the face of the earth, God sentenced them to a lifetime of meaningless wandering in the wilderness – until the last of that generation had died off. They would pay for their sin by experiencing a permanent ban from entering the land of promise or ever enjoying the promise of God’s rest.
Their sin had been deliberate and premeditated. They had intentionally rejected God’s will and would have to suffer the consequences. But in verses 22-26, God graciously made provision for unintentional sin. He knew there would be occasions when His children sinned “by mistake.” In other words, they would accidentally or unintentionally violate His commands without knowing they had done so. And God made provision for those inevitable occasions.
God provided Moses with a hypothetical, “what-if” scenario that was designed to eliminate the guilt that came from inadvertently violating His commands. He made a provision for man’s built-in propensity for committing sin. And this special dispensation was to be a long-standing and applicable to every successive generation.
“And suppose your descendants in the future fail to do everything the Lord has commanded through Moses. If the mistake was made unintentionally, and the community was unaware of it, the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Numbers 15:23-24 NLT
The kind of sacrifices referred to in these verses were meant to cover sins of commission as well as omission. Whether the guilty party simply forgot to keep a command (omission) or unknowingly violated a command (commission), as long as they had done so by mistake, they could receive forgiveness. But it was to be a community-wide affair. Once they discovered the presence of sin in the camp, the entire nation was to take a part in making atonement for the offense.
“…the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It must be offered along with its prescribed grain offering and liquid offering and with one male goat for a sin offering.” – Numbers 15:24 NLT
Sin is sin, and its impact is universal. No one sins alone. The nature of sin is that it is highly contagious and infectious. It can spread like yeast in a lump of dough or like cancer cells in the human body. And it doesn’t matter whether the sin was committed intentionally or not. Any violation of God’s law requires confession and restitution. The sin must be atoned for and that atonement required a sacrifice.
And God knew that anyone was capable of committing unintentional sin, including the high priest.
“If the high priest sins, bringing guilt upon the entire community, he must give a sin offering for the sin he has committed.” – Leviticus 4:3 NLT
And the price for his atonement was an unblemished young bull. And if the entire community happened to commit corporate sin without realizing it, they were also required a young bull. If one of the nation’s leaders committed an unintentional sin, he was required to offer an unblemished goat as payment. And in all three cases the blood of the sacrificed animal was to be placed on the horns of the altar within the tabernacle. The Leviticus passage makes it clear that even sins committed by mistake would render the individual, leader, or community as guilty before God. And, unless atonement was made, that guilt would lead to condemnation.
Yet, when the sin was exposed, the guilt was admitted, and the proper sacrifice was made, the individual could expect to receive the forgiveness of God.
“With it the priest will purify the whole community of Israel, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven.” – Numbers 15:25 NLT
But what about those who knowingly and deliberately violated one of God’s commands? What hope did they have of receiving God’s forgiveness?
“But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community.” – Numbers 15:30 NLT
The language suggests that this individual has boldly and unapologetically chosen to disobey the revealed will of God. There is no sense of remorse or regret. No confession is forthcoming and no repentance is displayed. Even when the sin is exposed, this individual persists in justifying and continuing his rebellions ways – with impunity. And the result is drastic: “they must be cut off from the community.”
This is not suggesting their dismissal from the camp or some kind of public ostracization. No, this is a reference to death. The guilty party is to be cut off by virtue of their public execution. What God seems to have in mind here are sins that are committed against Him. This would include the worship of false gods, the fabricating of idols, taking His name in vain, or failing to honor the Sabbath. These violations would incur God’s wrath and demand the death of the perpetrator.
The book of Leviticus indicates that willful sins committed against another individual were to be treated differently. While all violations of God’s laws are ultimately sins against Him, He made special provisions for sins committed against a neighbor.
“Suppose one of you sins against your associate and is unfaithful to the Lord. Suppose you cheat in a deal involving a security deposit, or you steal or commit fraud, or you find lost property and lie about it, or you lie while swearing to tell the truth, or you commit any other such sin. If you have sinned in any of these ways, you are guilty.” – Leviticus 6:2-4 NLT
Repentance and restitution were required. Amends must be made. But not only that, a guilt offering was demanded to restore the sinner’s relationship with God.
“As a guilt offering to the Lord, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process, the priest will purify you before the Lord, making you right with him, and you will be forgiven for any of these sins you have committed.” – Leviticus 6:6-7 NLT
And, as if to give a concrete example of a non-repentant and brazenly defiant sin against God, Moses includes the story of a Sabbath breaker. The man was discovered collecting firewood on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the fourth commandment. Evidently, he knew exactly what he was doing and was defiant in doing so. And the penalty for his blatant display of disobedience was death.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:35-36 NLT
Mistakes were inevitable and unavoidable. Everyone would sin at some point. They important distinction was whether that sin was intentional or not. Secondly, it was important to differentiate between horizontal and vertical sin. A sin committed against a brother could be atoned for and forgiven. But any willful and unrepentant violation of one of the first four commandments would bring down the full wrath of God. Mistakes would happen and were redeemable through God’s grace. But brazen sins against God were unforgivable and deserving of His righteous indignation and full justice.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.