1 “If anyone sins in that he hears a public adjuration to testify, and though he is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter, yet does not speak, he shall bear his iniquity; 2 or if anyone touches an unclean thing, whether a carcass of an unclean wild animal or a carcass of unclean livestock or a carcass of unclean swarming things, and it is hidden from him and he has become unclean, and he realizes his guilt; 3 or if he touches human uncleanness, of whatever sort the uncleanness may be with which one becomes unclean, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and realizes his guilt; 4 or if anyone utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good, any sort of rash oath that people swear, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and he realizes his guilt in any of these; 5 when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed, 6 he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.
7 “But if he cannot afford a lamb, then he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation for the sin that he has committed two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. 8 He shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first the one for the sin offering. He shall wring its head from its neck but shall not sever it completely, 9 and he shall sprinkle some of the blood of the sin offering on the side of the altar, while the rest of the blood shall be drained out at the base of the altar; it is a sin offering. 10 Then he shall offer the second for a burnt offering according to the rule. And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven.
11 “But if he cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, then he shall bring as his offering for the sin that he has committed a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering. He shall put no oil on it and shall put no frankincense on it, for it is a sin offering. 12 And he shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take a handful of it as its memorial portion and burn this on the altar, on the Lord’s food offerings; it is a sin offering. 13 Thus the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed in any one of these things, and he shall be forgiven. And the remainder shall be for the priest, as in the grain offering.” – Leviticus 5:1-13 ESV
Sin can take a variety of forms. There are sins that can be committed out of ignorance or by accident. But these unintentional sins are no less egregious in the eyes of God. So, when a sinner became aware of his indiscretion, he was expected to offer the appropriate sacrifice to make atonement and restore his relationship with Yahweh.
There are sins of omission, in which an individual fails to do what God has commanded. The apostle James explains this kind of sin when he writes, “it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17 NLT). There are also sins of commission, in which an individual willingly and knowingly violates one of God’s commands. As Leviticus has made clear, sins of commission can be either intentional or unintentional, and they do not necessarily require forethought. In other words, sins can be committed without any premeditation or prior planning. They can be inadvertent and spontaneous but are sins nonetheless.
The opening verses of chapter 5 present yet another category of sins that required sacrifice. The first entailed an individual who was witness to another individual making an oath but failed to disclose what he knew. The context seems to be that of a trial or an attempt to resolve a dispute between two individuals. An oath had been made but remained unfulfilled. The offending party had denied ever having made the oath in an attempt to keep from having to fulfill it. If someone was witness to the oath and failed to speak up, he was covering up the truth. His silence condemned him as a liar. He knew the truth but was refusing to make it known. This not only made him complicit in the other person’s sin but also made him guilty of being a false witness. His silence condemns him. This is a perfect illustration of what James was talking about.
Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do, yet fails to do it, is guilty of sin. – James 4:17 BSB
The second sin in this section of Leviticus deals with cases of ceremonial uncleanness. One involved touching “something that is ceremonially unclean, such as the carcass of an unclean animal” (Leviticus 5:2 NLT). Coming into contact with the body of a dead animal would render the individual unclean and make them a threat to the spiritual well-being of the entire community. The other sin entailed coming into contact with another human being who had been deemed unclean. This could be through direct contact with that individual or by inadvertent contact with anything they had touched.
Chapter 11 of Leviticus provides further details concerning ceremonial uncleanness. God provided His people with clear instructions regarding contact with certain types of animals and creatures. He warned them against allowing themselves to be made impure or defiled in any way because they were to be holy.
“For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44-45 ESV
Contact with anything defiled or unclean rendered the individual unclean until evening. During that time, a ritual purification process was required. The sin offering was in cases where the guilty party had failed to follow the proper cleansing procedure. He remained defiled and unholy and unfit to reside among the people of Israel. He posed a threat to the community by spreading his impurity to all those around him.
The third case involved anyone who made “a foolish vow of any kind, whether its purpose is for good or for bad” (Leviticus 5:4 NLT). This sin entailed the making of a promise and the failure to keep it. In God’s eyes, it was the same thing as lying, and it required atonement.
In all of these cases, God adds the condition of awareness. As soon as the individual became aware of his sin, he was expected to take action.
“…when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed, he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering.” – Leviticus 5:5-6 ESV
Conviction was to be followed by confession and contrition. A sacrifice was to be offered as atonement for the sin committed. And God provided a range of acceptable sacrifices, in order to accommodate both the wealthy and the poor. There would be no excuse for failing to atone for sin. The guilty party could bring a female goat or sheep or, if economically challenged, they could bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons. Or in the case of someone who was destitute, they could offer two quarts of choice flour as their sacrifice. God made it possible for any and all to receive atonement for their sin, regardless of their financial status.
“Through this process, the priest will purify those who are guilty of any of these sins, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven.” – Leviticus 5:13 NLT
Sin separated the individual from God. But it also created a barrier between the sinner and the rest of the faith community. The sinner’s presence among God’s people rendered him a liability because he endangered their ongoing relationship with Yahweh. God expected His people to be holy. Any sin within their midst rendered them unholy and unacceptable to Him. That is why He called them to remain set apart and consecrated for His use.
“I am the Lord your God. You must consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. So do not defile yourselves…” – Leviticus 11:44 NLT
Defilement was inevitable though because sin was unavoidable. That is why God provided the sacrificial system as a means of atoning for sin and receiving forgiveness. Their wrong decisions could be dealt with through obedience to God’s commands. By offering the proper sacrifice, they could be restored to a right relationship with God. Repentance, confession, and atonement purified the sinner and preserved the holiness of God’s people.
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.